Conservation Legislation Compatible With Mining Activities in California Desert

The report, titled The California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015: Impacts on Mining and the Regional Economy, concludes that the legislation will have minimal impact on mining in the region and builds on the natural and cultural attractions that have been significant drivers of the regional economy for the past four decades.

“Our goal with this report is to inform the ongoing discussion around the conservation of public lands in the California Desert,” said John Shepard, Senior Director of Programs with the Sonoran Institute. “This region counts parks, wilderness, and recreational opportunities on public lands among its biggest assets and Senator Feinstein’s proposal to protect these lands has garnered significant community input. This new research will add to the important conversation about the future of the desert.”

The key findings of the report include the following:

  • Over the past four decades, the California Desert has experienced steady growth in population, employment, and personal income. This growth is significantly driven by businesses and demographic changes that benefit directly from preserving the desert
  • Since 1970, mining has played a small role in total private employment. In the last 25 years, mining has contributed no more than 0.25% of the region’s overall employment. Within the California Desert only 5 mining operations each employ more than 100 employees.
  • Current mining operations, existing mining claims and future mineral development in areas of high potential are all preserved and excluded from the conservation areas within the legislation.

The Role of Mining in the California Desert Economy

The California Desert region’s smaller cities and towns experienced significant population growth over the past four decades. San Bernardino County saw a 206% population increase between 1970 and 2013, the second highest among the seven desert counties. Other key indicators also demonstrate growth in the desert region’s economy; overall labor-related earnings increased by 132% between 1970 and 2013 and non-labor income increased by 287% in that same time period.

Despite the region’s growth over the past four decades, mining’s contribution to the desert economy has been modest, with jobs in this industry playing a small role in employment. In fact, the report’s authors found that, in the last 25 years, mining’s contributions to total private employment rarely exceeded 0.25% for the region.

In this same vein, mining’s contribution to labor-related income fluctuated between 0.3% and 1.0% with no defined trend between 1970 and 2013. These numbers are in stark contrast to the 132% increase in overall labor-related earnings during this time period.

“The desert region’s mining activity is influenced by many factors, including local, regional and global supply and demand,” said John Shepard, Senior Director of Programs with the Sonoran Institute. “Our research shows, however, that the availability of public lands for mineral exploration and mining has a much smaller influence on these industries.”

Mining’s contribution to San Bernardino County’s economy is also similarly modest and relatively unchanging. Between 1970 and 2013, mining comprised no more than 0.25% of total county employment and contributed no more than 0.5% to overall labor-related income. This was during a time period when the county’s labor related income increased by 559%.

Analysis shows that Conservation Legislation is Compatible with Mining Activities

To assess the impact of the CDCRA on current and future mining activities, the report’s researchers identified the location of historic mining activity, current mining operations, existing mining claims, and high mineral potential. Using GIS analysis, they looked at how these sites aligned with the CDCRA designation boundaries.

Their findings demonstrate that, as currently drafted, the CDCRA recognizes and protects existing mining claims and minimizes impacts on current mining operations. There are 1,176 active claims inside the proposed designation areas in San Bernardino County and the legislation honors these claims.

The legislation will also have few minimal impacts on future mining activities in the California desert due to the existence of extensive mining potential outside of the proposed boundaries and the bill’s preservation of existing valid mineral rights.

In San Bernardino County, for example, there are 8,803 active mining claims outside the proposed designation, as well as 3,001 instances of mineral occurrences and upwards of 600 square miles of high mineral potential areas – all outside of the areas proposed for protection.

What These Economic Trends Tell Us

Over the past four decades, the economy in the desert region evolved and grew. The service based sectors emerged – a phenomenon seen throughout the American West – offering a wider range of jobs, and shifting away from resource extraction and agricultural industries.

Researchers with the Sonoran Institute found that the California desert economy is now driven by amenity-based economic growth: growth in services and professional-related employment and income, growth in government-related employment and income, and growth in non-labor income. It is a phenomenon typically driven by the presence of natural and cultural attractions, such as public lands, and other community assets. This demonstrates that protected public lands are an important economic asset for the California desert region, both by attracting visitors and for the quality of life offered to local residents.

The Sonoran Institute found through this study that tourism and recreation remain one of the bright spots for the region’s economy, having rebounded to pre-recessional levels: total direct travel spending in the desert region reached $6.2 billion in 2013. The region’s public lands are a significant draw; the area welcomed over 3.2 million visitors to the three desert national parks in 2014 and almost 4.2 million visitors to areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management in 2013.

“Given these regional economic trends, we find that proposed protective designations represent the highest and best economic use of public lands,” added John Shepard, Senior Director of Programs with the Sonoran Institute. “Mining is overshadowed by other economic sectors and trends that benefit from preserving the California Desert’s natural, cultural, and other community benefits.”

About the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015

The CDCRA would create two new national monuments – the Mojave Trails National Monument and the Sand to Snow National Monument, encompassing 965,000 acres of public lands and 135,000 acres of public lands, respectively. Additionally, the legislation will designate Wilderness Areas in the Alabama Hill National Scenic Area, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and existing Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) areas as permanent OHV recreation areas. The CDCRA will also add existing public lands in the Castle Mountains to the Mojave National Preserve and other public lands to Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks.

The full report, a report summary, and a fact sheet with San Bernardino County specific data are available at:


About the Sonoran Institute

Founded in 1990, the Sonoran Institute’s mission is to connect people and communities with the natural resources that nourish and sustain them. We work at the nexus of commerce, community, and conservation to help people in the North American West build the communities they want to live in while preserving the values that brought them here. We envision a West where civil dialogue and collaboration are hallmarks of decision making, where people and wildlife live in harmony, and where clean water, air, and energy are assured. For more information visit: