HISTORY OF THE CALIFORNIA DESERT CONSERVATION AREA
American Indians were the first humans in the California desert. In fact, native Mojaves, Chemehuevis, and Quechans lived there for thousands of years before European explorers set foot in North America, primarily inhabiting land along the Colorado River but making frequent long travels westward across the desert for food, minerals, and trade. These tribes’ sustainable land use continued until the mid-19th century, when the Unites States acquired their land. By 1868, with the colonial suppression of the Indian resistance, most of the California desert was claimed for livestock grazing, mining, towns, utility lines and roads, and military bases. Land use and natural resource extraction began to steadily increase — as did environmental damage and species endangerment.
In the early 20th century, canals were dug to bring water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley, transforming the land from unique desert habitat to a major agricultural area. The city of Los Angeles brought water south from the Owens River across the Mojave, draining wetlands and fragmenting habitat in the process. And these were just the first of many major water projects which supported the huge growth of southern California's population. In addition, between the world wars, major corporate mining operations took over from prospectors and scraped the desert for gold.
Before the World War II, the military heavily used parts of the California desert for tank training; the damage from tank tracks can still be seen today. After the war, the military returned to set up huge desert bases for each branch of the armed services. U.S. Army plans to expand Fort Irwin still comprise one of the major threats to the desert tortoise in the west Mojave.
In 1946, the Bureau of Land Management was formed and became responsible for management of huge swaths of land across the desert. The agency administered disposal policies such as the Small Tract Act of 1938, which — along with automobiles and air conditioning — facilitated the rise of cities like Palm Springs. The 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s saw a dramatic explosion of desert-town populations as well as off-road vehicle use.
In 1976, Congress designated the 25-million-acre region of desert stretching from the Mexican border north to Death Valley and the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains as the California Desert Conservation Area, entrusting some of the most scenic and biologically important areas in Imperial, San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Inyo, and Mono counties to the Bureau of Land Management to be forever protected. And in 1994, the California Desert Protection Act went several steps further to designate 3.5 million acres of the Conservation Area as wilderness, turn Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments into national parks, and establish the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.
Until 2000, many of these federal protections were ignored. The Bureau of Land Management and even the National Park Service continued to maintain the status quo of livestock grazing, mining, and road construction that had ruled the desert for a century. Thankfully, the Center’s 2000 lawsuit resulted in the expansive protection measures still in place in the Conservation Area. The Center continues its efforts to ensure that these protections are enforced and that new threats don’t destroy the natural beauty and biological integrity remaining in the California desert today.
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