THE DESERT SUN: Diverse Groups Work to Boost Access to Treasured Lands

By Jesse Villarreal and Jack Thompson for The Desert Sun

Earlier this year, Californians throughout the state’s desert region celebrated President Obama’s designation of the Sand to Snow, Castle Mountains and Mojave Trails national monuments. A diverse coalition including elected officials, veterans, Latinos, Native Americans, faith leaders, businesses, chambers of commerce, historians, biologists, and sportsmen came together in support of the effort and worked tirelessly to see it happen.

Yet, while the establishment of the monuments marks the successful conclusion of one effort, it also signifies the beginning of another.

Monument management planning is critical to its implementation and over a three-year period it will provide the structure to preserve ecological integrity, outline objects of interest, and provide recommendations for success. It also plays a critical role in ensuring equitable access.

Nearly half of the population in the California desert region is Latino and, as such, Latinos have an important voice in the protection of our public lands, as well as a significant role to play in encouraging stewardship of our outdoor and cultural heritage.

This is why The Wildlands Conservancy invited Latino community leaders from various faith organizations to tour the Whitewater Preserve, located within the Sand to Snow National Monument, at the end of October. The Wildlands Conservancy supports the mission of the managers of the new California desert national monuments to see the demographic and ethnic diversity of our country reflected in the visitors to our public lands and that those lands are welcoming and inclusive to all people.

There are challenges for diverse access into Sand to Snow National Monument, especially in Whitewater Canyon, a key access point into the monument from the Coachella Valley.

Because of a lack of management resources, the majority of Whitewater Canyon most accessible by road is closed to the public in the summer due to fire restrictions.  Thus, during the fire closures, The Wildlands Conservancy’s Whitewater Preserve provides the only managed public access in Whitewater Canyon. But with limited parking, thousands of families are turned away.  The Wildlands Conservancy made it clear that inclusive access is their goal, but they cannot do it alone.

On October 29, The Wildlands Conservancy discussed these issues with Latino faith leaders to build trust and encourage a community based appeal to elected officials to fund the resources necessary to allow safe summertime access to the Whitewater River inside the Sand to Snow National Monument.

This process is a two way street. While it is undoubtedly important that public lands managers emphasize inclusion, it’s also important for community leaders to educate and activate our communities to push for improved access.

Together we’ll work to ensure that public lands, which are important to all of us, will be protected for the generations to come after us.

Email Jack Thompson, regional director at The Wildlands Conservancy, at [email protected].

Email Pastor Villarreal of Templo la Hermosa Church in Coachella at [email protected].

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