1.8 Million Acres of California Desert

On February 12, 2016, President Barack Obama established three new national monuments in the California Desert: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails.

National Monuments

Map indicating the respective locations of the three new national monuments: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails relative to existing protected lands.

Together, these three national monuments encompass 1.8 million acres of California desert land, newly protected from development. This is a huge victory for deserts and desert enthusiasts (like myself!) and enhances the quality of existing protected lands by protecting the continuity important wildlife corridors.

Castle Mountain.jpg

In red: approximate boundaries of the new Castle Mountains National Monument. Source: biologicaldiversity.org

Castle Mountains National Monument effectively “plugs a hole” by protecting land surrounded on three sides by the existing Mojave National Preserve. Larger contiguous protected areas are critical for safe wildlife movement, and for preserving wildlife access to critical life resources (food, water, refuge from predators, and safe places to mate and raise young).

Mojave Trails

In dark green: location of the new Mojave Trails National Monument relative to existing protected lands.

Mojave Trails National Monument, similarly, “plugs” many holes in land adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and several protected Wilderness Areas. This expands the spatial extent of protected land and improves continuity among wild habitats.

Sand to Snow.jpg

In green: The new Sand to Snow National Monument.

Sand to Snow National Monument extends from the San Bernardino Mountains in the west across Morongo Valley, nearly all the way to Joshua Tree National Park. This newly protected land comprises many strikingly different habitats in close proximity – snow-capped mountains, aeolian sand dunes, riparian oases, and the ecologically magnificent transition between the high elevation Mojave and low elevation Colorado Deserts. This is my favorite of the 3 new national monuments, simply for the diversity of ecotones (the transition and blending region between two habitat types) contained within this single land area. It’s also pretty close to a field site I’ve used extensively in my dissertation research, the Oasis de Los Osos UC Natural Reserve (also an ecotone site!).

When this historic exciting announcement was delivered by the White House, it was accompanied by a beautiful “In Photos” article on whitehouse.gov, highlighting the stunning aethetics of these natural landscapes. I’m a little ashamed to admit that despite the enormous environmental victory represented in these pictures, my heart sank a bit when I scrolled to find the second picture of sand dunes dotted by an invasive plant, Salsola tragus, also known as Russian thistle.


The offending photograph of a site within Mojave Trails National Monument, from whitehouse.gov. Each yellow-y plant in the foreground of sand dune is an invasive Russian thistle plant (Salsola tragus).

Russian thistle, Salsola tragus, has been present in California’s desert a long, long time. Tumbleweeds blowing across a dusty landscape are an iconic symbol of the California desert, despite not actually being from here. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they make it into a high-profile desert photo-shoot. And their presence in these photos may actually serve a higher environmental good, inspiring feelings of environmental responsibility in the masses, and instigating greater resource allocation to invasive species control and management in sensitive habitats. Such that, perhaps, when these national monuments follow the Joshua Tree path to National Park-dom, invasive plants will be a less prominent blight on the vast landscape.

One can hope…

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