Famous for its aridity, harsh conditions, and haunting landscapes, the Mojave Desert has lent an otherworldly backdrop to fiction from Star Trek to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In fact, it encompasses Death Valley, the hottest place in North America. But to the countless animals and plants that call this desert home, it’s far from a wasteland.
The Mojave encompasses approximately 25,000 square miles of California, southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and northwestern Arizona. Both topographically and biologically, it has a little bit of everything: singing sand dunes, Joshua tree forests, wildflower fields, and a multitude of species — including more than 10 kinds of scorpions, several tarantulas, the federally listed desert tortoise, and more than 200 endemic plants.
While the Mojave’s human population is sparse relative to other areas in the still-booming West, it’s becoming increasingly urbanized as big cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas spill out into the desert. With more people come highways, military bases, off-road vehicles, hunting, mining, grazing, and farming that destroy ecosystems and drain underground water reserves. The Mojave’s wildness is slipping away fast.
The Center’s efforts have had sweeping effects on the preservation of California’s portion of the Mojave since the beginning of the century. In 2001, we joined a coalition of groups to oppose the habitat-destroying expansion of the western Mojave’s Fort Irwin military base, and we continue to press for adequate mitigation for the impacts of the base expansion — as well as to monitor the military’s plans to translocate over 1,500 threatened desert tortoises from the base onto Bureau of Land Management-managed lands. In March 2000, we and our allies filed suit against the Bureau for failing to protect 24 endangered species within the California Desert Conservation Area, resulting in a 2001 landmark settlement in which the Bureau agreed to manage livestock grazing, mining, off-road vehicles, power lines, toxins, and exotic species to benefit the area’s native plants and wildlife and conserve the desert they call home. Over the past few years, the Bureau has sought to roll back those protections in new management plans, route designations, and grazing leases, and we and our allies have persisted in our work for California’s Mojave. In 2006, we filed suit challenging the West Mojave Plan and Northern and Eastern Colorado Plan, which continue to permit grazing in important riparian areas and critical habitat for the desert tortoise, as well as allowing excessive off-road vehicle use — even in desert tortoise critical habitat.
We’re also working to protect the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, which harbors about 100 imperiled species and is considered one of the nation’s most endangered parks. In 2002, we formally protested the Bureau of Land Management’s patenting of mining claims and millsites on the preserve, and we also petitioned for hunting regulations within the preserve to minimize harm to wildlife. In 2003, we and our allies challenged an illegal Bush administration off-road plan to open 1000 miles of new roads across 3.2 million acres of wildlife habitat, and in 2005, we blocked installation of artificial water systems in the Preserve that would have drawn nonnative species and dried up the area’s natural water sources. In fall 2007, we won the right to intervene in a lawsuit brought by San Bernardino County threatening to turn some of the preserve’s small rural roads into highways. Most recently, thanks to a lawsuit by the Center and allies, in fall 2009 a judge rejected the Bush-era West Mojave Plan, which favored off-road vehicle use over the protection of desert species and archeological sites.