Route 66 in the News

Alliance Proposes Establishing Route 66 National Monument

2009-03-15 20:05:25

Preservationists worried about military expansion and renewable energy development in the California desert are pitching a plan to create a vast national monument east of Twentynine Palms and protect 70 miles of historic Route 66.

The groups have been meeting with government leaders in recent weeks to enlist support for their far-reaching plan, which would:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled this week through an aide that she will craft legislation to protect the donated property.

Large-scale solar and wind energy projects are proposed on thousands of those acres.

The monument would encompass as much as 2.4 million acres in southeastern San Bernardino County, said Elden Hughes, a member of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee.

The region is defined by desert valleys, stark mountain ranges and forgotten towns along the old Route 66, a major east-west route until interstates replaced it.

The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, raised about $45 million to buy Mojave Desert land from the Catellus Development Corp., a former arm of the Santa Fe Railway.

By donating land and cash, the group helped the federal government acquire nearly 600,000 acres to add to public land in the desert.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls most of it.

Feinstein has not endorsed the Mother Road National Monument concept and other specific provisions sought by The Wildlands Conservancy, Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee and Route 66 preservationists, said Feinstein spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson.

However, the senator plans to ensure the former Catellus land is protected, Wilkinson said.

"Senator Feinstein expects to introduce new legislation to protect additional desert lands in California, which would include a monument designation for the former Catellus lands," Wilkinson said in an e-mail.

Feinstein's office is evaluating what other desert lands may be suitable for protection, Wilkinson wrote.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, said he is encouraged by Feinstein's interest.

"This legislation could keep the Mojave Desert, the largest desert in California, intact for perpetuity," he said.

The monument idea drew a cautious response from the county supervisor who represents the area.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said he is worried about haphazard energy development and supports Route 66 preservation efforts.

"The idea of protecting Route 66 tourism and history is something I totally support," Mitzelfelt said. "Whether this is the way to do it, I am not sure."

History And Nature

The Mother Road National Monument would be named after John Steinbeck's description of Route 66 in his 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," which portrayed 1930s Dust Bowl refugees entering California to seek farm labor jobs.

The monument would contain about 70 miles of the route from Needles through the desert outposts of Goffs, Essex, Amboy and Ludlow.

It would be a tribute to American workers, Myers said.

Jim Conkle, chairman of the Route 66 Alliance, said the monument could become a destination for tourists wanting to experience Route 66's heyday -- the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Crumbling buildings that housed midcentury gas stations, diners and motels could be renovated for those seeking retro kicks, he said.

Such an opportunity has been lost on other stretches of the route, where original roadside amenities have been torn down.

"We are trying to protect what's left," said Conkle, a retired AAA employee who lives in Phelan, west of the Cajon Pass. "We want people to get out and enjoy it."

The monument, however, would preserve much more than motoring history.

It also would take in a vast area between Twentynine Palms and the Colorado River, and the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

The designation would bring protection to patches of open desert surrounding 10 wilderness areas, created in the Desert Protection Act of 1994, said Hughes, of the Sierra Club. It would allow wildlife free movement.

Diverse Interests

The monument designation could block development in about a dozen areas where the BLM is processing applications for wind or solar projects at a time when the Obama administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are pushing for such projects to cut greenhouse gases and create jobs.

A new monument also could limit options for proposed expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The coalition of environmentalists and history buffs have been working hard to overcome such obstacles through negotiation.

"Right now we are going through vetting with user groups," Myers said. "There are a lot of moving pieces."

The proposal the groups are working on would preserve all existing uses on the affected federal lands and leave room for military expansion and solar and wind projects, he said.

Conkle said a key provision would keep the 189,000-acre Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area permanently open to off-roaders.

Hundreds of off-roaders crammed public meetings last fall after the Marine Corps announced an expansion plan that could take in Johnson Valley.

Hughes said the monument proposal would include military expansion into the Bristol Dry Lake area.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has plans for an 800-megawatt solar generation plant on 5,120 acres along Route 66 east of Amboy, a development Conkle said would spoil the view for motorists.

A monument designation could force the company to build elsewhere, he said.

Jonathan Marshall, a utility spokesman, said in an e-mail that alternative-energy projects "can be responsibly sited and developed in a manner that does not interfere with these conservation efforts."

~David Danelski, Press-Enterprise


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