Abrupt upheavals of earth skirting the Coachella Valley look imposing yet feel protective. Their jagged ridges and deeply carved canyons snatch sun- and moonlight to create chimerical shadows or simply bask in alpenglow.
From sea level to Mount San Jacinto’s 10,834-foot peak, this land envelops an astounding breadth of ecosystems. The mountains edging the desert communities can be appreciated from afar but only understood intimately by those who walk its paths.
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“You really can find true wilderness,” says Ashley Adams, manager of the 280,022-acre Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. “It is a much more rugged experience than Yosemite and Glacier [national parks for which she previously worked]. They are all beautiful with spectacular mountains. What is amazing about this area is that you are in the wilderness, but so much of it is accessible. Very few places have such a juxtaposition of urban interface with nature.”
This nexus, Adams adds, brings with it the challenge of protecting the land, with its abundance of flora and fauna, geological features, and Native American history.
In the Santa Rosa Mountains, Clara Burgess Trail looks toward the San Jacintos.
A hedgehog cactus in bloom. Previous spread: Chino Canyon in Palm Springs.
Parks and Monuments:
What’s the Difference?
National parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. … [U]nder present policies, national parks must be sufficiently large to yield to effective administration and broad use. The principal qualities considered in studying areas for park purposes are their inspirational, educational, and recreational values.
National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Ordinarily established by presidential proclamation under authority of Congress, occasionally these areas also are established by direct action of Congress. Size is unimportant in the
case of the national monuments.
Source: National Park Service
An Earthly Perspective
“We came from the water. We came from the trees. We came from the rocks. We came from the bushes. All of it formed who we are.” So declared late Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians chairman Richard Milanovich in the 2005 documentary Voices of the Monument. “You sense that your family has walked it before. Your family plucked from the ground food. They drank from the stream. For millennia, we’ve been doing this.”
“And the rock you pick up may be the rock your ancestors have picked up,” added then–vice chair Barbara Lyons.
Some 2,000 years ago, the Coachella Valley’s original inhabitants relied on the area’s diversity of vegetation for food, drink, clothing, shelter, fire, tools, and medicine. They used some plants for air purification and ceremonial purposes. They wove agave into artful basketry.
“We were the first field office to have a nation-to-nation agreement by which we could work directly with the tribe. …it was very collaborative and very expansive.”
— Danella George, former monument manager
The tribe’s Indian and Tahquitz canyons showcase the world’s largest natural oasis of desert fan palms and a 60-foot waterfall named for the legendary shaman whose silhouette is among dramatic mountainside shadows viewed from Palm Springs.
Farther east, in a more remote area of the national monument, lies the Martinez Mountain rockslide. A seismic event in the Holocene epoch brought boulders crashing down from some 6,300 to 160 feet in elevation — resulting in a debris field close to 5 miles long and averaging 3/4 of a mile wide. An abstract published by the Society for California Archaeology notes that the area was used for campsites, with evidence of a hearth and trails that would have been used by Cahuilla people.
The Indian Canyons in Palm Springs marks the meeting of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges. The 15-mile Palm Canyon Trail reaches to Highway 74, high above Palm Desert.
Sisters of Stature
Though her toes do not touch the Coachella Valley floor, San Gorgonio Mountain makes an impressive presence on the desert skyline. Her snow-white head at 11,503 feet presides over 154,000 acres designated as Sand to Snow National Monument.
BLM Interpretive Specialist Tracy Albrecht calls Sand to Snow “a sister figure” to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
As the name suggests, Sand to Snow covers a wide range of elevation and, also like its older sibling, encompasses U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acreage. But its monument status came in 2016 through a proclamation by President Obama.
“Legislative enactment comes with funds. I don’t have funding for a staff,” says manager Jihadda Govan, a Forest Service employee. She works with district forest rangers and gets management support from Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument staff.
“We are probably two years out from completing a [management] plan,” Govan says. “We are working with groups that manage lands within the monument boundaries, such as the Wildlands Conservancy, San Gorgonio Wilderness Association, and Friends of the Morongo Canyon Preserve. The SGWA assists us with trail patrol, keeping trails clear of debris, and educating visitors about safety and being stewards of the land.”
Both monuments are managed under a Service First agreement, which eases interagency sharing of resources. “Both monuments fall within our field office,” says Ashley Adams, a BLM employee and manager of the older monument. “[Sand to Snow] has a positive effect because it creates a ring of protected area around the Coachella Valley.”
Plants in the monument include burro bush, brittlebush, and Mojave indigo bush.
Joan Taylor identifies herself as a 50-year activist with the Sierra Club and recalls in the 1960s witnessing a trespasser named Mike Dunn “bulldoze” a swath of the Santa Rosa Mountains by dragging tires behind his pickup. Dunn died before realizing his dream of a 45,000-acre development encompassing homes, hotels, a convention center, a shopping center, golf courses, and equestrian facilities.
In the early 2000s, plans to develop the hills above Rimrock Shopping Center resurfaced (albeit at a scaled-down
1,200 acres). That and luxury housing, a resort hotel, and golf course proposal for land partway up the road to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway led concerned citizens to form Friends of the Palm Springs Mountains.
The enthusiasm city officials expressed for development “spurred us all to action,” Taylor says. She and Buford Crites, both Friends of the Desert Mountains members, consulted Ed Hasty, then–Bureau of Land Management state director, before asking U.S. Rep. Mary Bono to sponsor a bill designating the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto ranges as a national monument.
“Mary Bono played a critical role in bringing people together, holding public hearings, and dispelling people’s fears,” Crites says.
“There were misconceptions that [monument status] might take away property rights,” Taylor says. “There was concern among developers, but we worked through the issues.”
“The key was to get consensus throughout the areas affected,” Bono says. “I spent three days on horseback with the U.S. Forest Service along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was important to see firsthand what we were talking about.
“That’s a lasting memory I have about the people in that district who were able to come together and find common ground,” she notes. “The secretary of the interior [Bruce Babbitt] said he would do an executive order through the Antiquities Act. I asked him to give us time to work it out. It was important that we did it the right way.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the bill in Congress’ upper chamber, and President Clinton signed the legislation on Oct. 24, 2000.
The Bear Creek Oasis Trail in the Santa Rosa Mountains can be reached from a trailhead at the southwest corner of La Quinta Cove.
Taylor also credits Jim Kenna, then BLM field manager, for his role in bringing the endeavor to fruition. “There had been efforts in the past to create a national park or monument that involved tribal lands,” she says. “But Jim went to the [Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians] and said, ‘We want to work with you.’ So there is seamless management of the monument with the tribe as a co-manager, one of the main players.”
Danella George, the monument’s first manager, notes that not only was the national monument the first to be jointly managed by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, but also, “We were the first field office to have a nation-to-nation agreement by which we could work directly with the tribe.”
George oversaw development of a comprehensive management plan. “It was very complex bringing all the stakeholders together,” she says. “We had public meetings where people could voice concerns, and we learned a lot from that. It was very collaborative and very expansive.”
Indeed, a 15-member advisory committee included representatives from local cities, Riverside County, California State Parks, the Agua Caliente tribe, San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, Building Industry Association, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, and conservation groups.
“We took [the plan] piece by piece as staff developed it,” says advisory committee member Bary Freet, a Cathedral City resident who previously worked for the National Park Service and BLM and was then Palm Springs fire chief. “We met four or five times over a year. Those meetings lasted at least four hours.”
“I spent three days on horseback with the forest service along the pacific crest trail. it was important to see firsthand what we were talking about.”
— Former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono
The endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep.
A view from Murray Peak reveals Dunn Road.
For Sheeps’ Sake
Since 1998, the year Peninsular bighorn sheep were listed as a federally endangered species, the public has been asked to voluntarily refrain from using Coachella Valley trails in the sheeps’ habitat during lambing season (signs being posted for restricted sections). An ill-timed media event in April 2006 had President George W. Bush riding a mountain bike, followed by an entourage of off-road vehicles, on the Clara Burgess Trail. Texas Monthly magazine noted the escapade in its 2007 Bum Steer Awards with the heading “The only things he voluntarily forgoes are bad news and good advice.”
Home, Home in the Range
Given the monument’s distinct geography and some 11,000 feet of elevation coverage, one can envision its numerous inhabitants: plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals — many of which are endemic and/or bear protected/sensitive status at federal and state levels.
Established 50 years ago as a University of California reserve, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center focuses on studying how plants and animals have changed in elevation gradients over time.
“Researchers developed the Deep Canyon Transect from the valley floor to high elevations,” says Chris Tracy, director of the center in the Santa Rosa hills south of Palm Desert. “National monument protection means people can use data collected in the 1960s and 1970s for comparison to what is happening with plants and animals now. The big advantage we have is that sites are still available to be sampled.”
Tracy points to more than 100 independent projects a year in all aspects of desert ecology, from bighorn sheep monitoring and research on desert tortoises to studies on the deposit of dust in the area.
“To address climate change, we have to know what’s going on. That’s why our priority with the [2016 National Conservation Lands] Science Plan is to establish a modeling program of species and ecosystems in the monument,” Adams says of the 228-page document prepared by the University of California Riverside Center for Conservation Biology and funded by BLM’s National Conservation Lands Research Support Program. “If we have that record, we might be able to take steps. How can we reduce anthropogenic stress in changing conditions? We are trying to be proactive for the future to make adjustments to protect species that might be especially sensitive.”
Oldest: Devils Tower in Wyoming (Sept. 24, 1906)
Largest: Papahānaumokuākea Marine northwest of Hawaiian Islands (582,578 square miles)
Most well known: Statue of Liberty in New York
First co-managed with a Native American tribe: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains
Measuring 4.7 miles long and up to .85 miles wide, the Martinez Mountain rockslide reveals seismic activity dating back 12,000 years.
Friends of the Desert Mountains — the monument’s main source for land acquisition, volunteer work, grants, and donations — oversees numerous endeavors. Its Community Science Program studies plants and animals from east to west and low to high sites in order to determine “how plants and animals do across the range of the monument,” says Colin Barrows, conservation coordinator. “We started at the low east end of the valley the first week of January, going out every Wednesday, heading west and up as the season progressed. We identified plants across each trail of species we are interested in studying.”
With volunteers, the organization measures “sentinel” plants and then categorizes those within a 10-meter radius as seedlings, mature, or die-offs.
“This was our second full year, so we have 500 data points,” Barrows says. “It doesn’t look like creosote has been affected much, if at all, by climate change. But brittlebush seems to be affected quite a bit. We are seeing what appears to be a die-off in lower elevations. The farther west you go, a higher amount lives — and that tracks with temperature and rainfall. Once we have answered the question of why they’re moving, we could do restoration programs where we replant or move seeds.”
Cahuilla pictographs mark the trails that led from the mountains to the ancient lake.
An ongoing effort is mapping the locations of pinyon pines to develop a climate model “to see if they can survive a temperature rise over the next 100 years,” he says.
In partnership with the Forest Service and Southern California Mountain Foundation, Friends of the Desert Mountains also runs a Weed Warrior Program to remove invasive tamarisk, fountain grass, and Sahara mustard.
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As for fauna, Barrows says, “Our feeling is that some lizards, like chuckwalla, are on the same trajectory as brittlebush, becoming less prevalent in low and east parts of the valley and doing better in the west.”
A program in its infancy involves working with the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission to use trail cameras to monitor water sources, which taps into the habitat that supports bighorn sheep. The group also has placed cameras where desert tortoises may live and then sent researchers to gather blood samples.
BLM considers non-Native carvings as grafitti.
Jeff Lovich, a U.S. Geological Service research ecologist, believes the desert tortoise is native to the local mountains. “What’s been lacking is a systematic survey. I have DNA samples from Whitewater River and none were ‘ringers’ from the Mojave [Desert],” he says. “Over the last few years, I have realized there are more tortoises in Deep Canyon than I think anybody has imagined.”
In the Mojave, Lovich explains, most tortoises appear in elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, whereas Deep Canyon elevations range from 800 to 1,000 feet.
“The tortoise in the desert are in a habitat that’s not what they’ve been used to for their evolutionary history,” he says.
“We should identify places where they are and where they could be moved.”
The Fish Trap Archaeological Site in Thermal.
View of Smith Canyon from near the North Lykken trailhead.
Looking Out for the Future
In April 2017, President Trump ordered then–Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review presidentially designated national monuments created since 1996 (purportedly to boost mining, logging, drilling, and grazing activities). Created through legislation, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument remains safe from political whim.
“[The designation] has been a great vehicle for preserving viewsheds and open spaces,” Taylor says. “It has been a way for people to come together more than anything else politically.”
During her tenure as the first monument manager, George was concerned about a lack of awareness that “there’s a national monument in your back yard.” That’s why she hired Tracy Albrecht as interpretive specialist.
“My position isn’t normally found in a BLM office,” Albrecht says. “BLM takes a much stronger education outreach when we have these special units in national monuments.” Albrecht has created interpretive signage for the Cahuilla Tewanet scenic overlook in Mountain Center and a program called HIKE (Healthy Initiative for Kids in the Environment) serving local schoolchildren. “They learn skills in the classroom and apply them a week later in the field. It connects them to the environment intellectually, emotionally, and kinesthetically.”
Adams, the current monument manager, says, “The monument designation recognizes that this is a national treasure that we want to conserve and protect for generations to come — not only its scenic, biodiversity, and cultural history, but also recreation. This is a place for people to enjoy.”