Bringing Blue Sky to the California Desert Protection Debate
It was a public policy debate between parties with seemingly mutually exclusive aims—conservation and mining—that by the summer of 2015 threatened to impede a multi-year effort to protect the California desert region’s iconic resources. The two sides, supporters of California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 (CDCRA)and those perceiving a threat to their mineral rights and jobs in the area, appeared headed toward a pitched battle. From our seat on the sidelines, we sensed an opportunity to help build consensus by bringing hard facts to the emotionally charged discussion.
The California desert region covers approximately 20 million acres of southeastern California. While sparsely populated relative to other areas of the state, the region is becoming increasingly urbanized. Its vast and stunning public lands include three national parks (Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve), multiple wilderness areas, popular recreation opportunities, and a diversity of desert plants and wildlife and geological formations. The wildness and remoteness of the area are major tourism and recreation magnets, attracting over 3.2 million visitors to the three desert national parks in 2014, and almost 4.2 million visitors in 2013 to areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The military and Hollywood film makers also frequently make use of the vast undeveloped terrain. All these visitors create a significant economic impact: In 2013, total direct spending related to tourism and recreation in the desert region was $6.2 billion.
“The conversation surrounding the legislation was disconnected, with different parties discussing their own interests but not in a way that was centered in fact, history, or greater opportunity. The parties were relatively far apart, and it was really important for an independent, science-focused organization to come in, do research, provide facts and data, and make recommendations based on these facts. Sonoran Institute got involved to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
– David Lamfrom, Director of California Desert & Wildlife Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association
Entering the Fray
As interest in the region has grown, so have concerns about impacts on the desert’s pristine landscape and fragile resources. The CDCRA sought to address these concerns, building on a six-year public outreach effort to carefully balance conservation, recreation, and renewable energy development in the region. The legislation would protect up to 1.6 million acres of federal lands. The fact that some of the land included in the CDCRA overlaps areas of current or former mining activities sparked fears that the legislation would impinge on mining rights and harm the region’s overall economy.
Our report sought to tease out the validity of these concerns. Titled The California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015: Impacts on Mining and the Regional Economy, the report explored the economic contribution of mining in the California desert and assessed the impact of the proposed CDCRA on current and future mining activities in the region.
“The Sonoran Institute got involved to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says David Lamfrom, director of California Desert & Wildlife Programs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “The conversation surrounding the legislation was disconnected, with different parties discussing their own interests but not in a way that was centered in fact, history, or greater opportunity. The parties were relatively far apart, and it was really important for an independent, science-focused organization to come in, do research, provide facts and data, and make recommendations based on these facts.”
What We Learned
Our study found that the CDCRAwould 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.
Current mining operations were excluded from the bill, while existing mining claims within proposed conservation designations would be honored. Equally significant, numerous areas of high mineral potential identified by the federal government were still available for development.
Like much of the American West, the desert economy changed over the past four decades, shifting away from mining and agriculture toward service- and professional-based sectors. These trends, which the SonoranInstitute has researched and helped publicize, underscore the role protected public lands play in drawing visitors, entrepreneurs, retirees, and others to the California desert.
“Given these regional trends, we find that the legislation’s proposed protective designations represent the highest and best economic use of the region’s public lands,” says John Shepard, our senior director of programs. Upon the report’s release in October 2015, John traveled throughout the California desert region and to Washington, DC, to discuss its findings.
“The Sonoran Institute’s report was universally well received,” says Lamfrom.“People agreed that the research had real value and spoke to the fact that Senator Feinstein did in fact do a really thoughtful job of working closely with the mining community and representing their interests and protecting what matters to them. The people who were trying to move forward with an agenda that focused on mining really appreciated and respected that a conversation about their interests was occurring at the level of detail considered in the Institute’s report.
“When people take the time to discuss what matters to other people and have a conversation based on a shared set of facts, it creates a much more meaningful dialogue.”
In February 2016, President Obama designated three national monuments in the California desert, covering 1.8 million acres. Most of these lands had been included in the CDCRA.
We develop tools and information for communities to better understand what’s driving their local economies and for public land managers to assess the relative benefits of protecting or developing these lands. Increasingly, our work underscores that protecting public lands is important economic development strategy, and we are often called upon to assess the economic merits of various public lands proposals.