Sand dunes, fossil falls, canyons, petroglyphs on rock walls, 90 mountain ranges, 65 wilderness areas, the Mojave River, remnants of historic desert warfare training camps, dry lakes popular with wind surfers: the California Desert National Conservation Area harbors far more diversity than most people expect.
The area's wildlife diversity is equally surprising. This huge expanse of land is home to the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, pupfish, and many more birds and reptiles that are adapted to surviving in harsh environments.
Native Mojaves, Chemehuevis, and Quechans lived in the California desert for thousands of years before European explorers set foot in North America. Their settlements were primarily along the Colorado River, but they made frequent trips westward across the desert for food and trade.
By 1868, the United States acquired the land and used most of the desert for livestock grazing, mining, and military bases. In the early 20th century, with the establishment of canals and easier means of water transportation, cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles developed in the region.
Recognized for its special values and proximity to many population centers of California, Congress designated the National Conservation Area on October 21, 1976. In 1994 the California Desert Protection Act designated 3.5 million acres of the California Desert as wilderness, redesignated Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monument as National Parks, and created the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve as a unit of the National Park system.
In recent years, the Center for Biological Diversity has sued the BLM, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on behalf of 24 endangered species in the Conservation Area which are suffering from mining, grazing, off-road vehicles, exotic species, and sprawl. A series of settlements helped protect millions of acres from these destructive practices. In 2001, the Center for Biological Diversity also won a designation of 844,897 acres of "critical habitat" for the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep. This stopped damaging road and trail projects from moving forward. Also as a result of these suits, cows and sheep have been removed from about 2.5 million acres of desert tortoise, southwestern willow flycatcher, and Least Bell's vireo habitat.
Yet, mining, grazing, and off-road vehicle use still occurs on much of the desert. Another problem is the efforts of San Bernardino County to create roads in the Mojave National Park and Preserve under the antiquated RS 2477 provision. Click here for more information on how RS 2477 is threatening lands in California Desert Conservation Area, and other wild places.