WHY THE WILDERNESS ACT’S MESSAGE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
Note: This editorial was originally published in The Desert Sun in August 2022. “Reprinted” with permission of the author. While the focus is on projects in the Coachella Valley we feel that it will still be of interest to our readers.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 is a visionary nine-page federal law that overwhelmingly passed Congress, igniting the modern environmental movement. The Wilderness Act was poignant through its use of non-bureaucratic, poetic language when defining wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The word “untrammeled” gives life and passion to wilderness, helping one see and feel the other-worldliness of unrestrained land. Whether hiking in our desert or looking across the Valley’s expanse, one absorbs the intrinsic value of untrammeled land. The Wilderness Act’s concept and wording are more important than ever for Coachella Valley’s residents 58 years later.
Our elected officials and unelected bureaucrats are approving projects that cause the loss of pristine open desert and endanger natural resources: behemoth building projects that will significantly increase traffic and carbon emissions; inequitable redistribution of Valley water during historic drought conditions; and destruction of fragile open desert land, plant, and animal habitats.
Several projects serve as examples: Disney/Cotina's 1,900-unit housing and 24-acre lagoon project in Rancho Mirage; the 383-acre La Quinta Coral Mountain surf resort, with a 16.6-acre, 18million-gallon wave basin; the 18-acre DSRT surf in Palm Desert; the 200-acre SilverRock Resort in La Quinta, and a 3,000,000 square foot, multi-story Amazon warehouse in Desert Hot Springs, projected to employ 1,800 fulltime employees. These plans should never have left the drafting table, water being the critical and obvious red flag.
For instance, the SilverRock Resort and La Quinta surf park will use Colorado River water from the Coachella Canal that is dedicated to the Valley’s $1 billion agriculture industry. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Colorado River management will operate at a Tier 2 shortage level for the first time. Arizona’s allotment will be reduced by 21%; Nevada by8% and Mexico by 7%. California will follow when the river reaches Tier 2b stage. To illustrate, were California’s 4.4 million acre-feet of water reduced by 21%, like Arizona, the reduction would equal 924,000 acre-feet annually, reducing the Canal's river water distribution to the Valley.
It’s time to shine the spotlight on the Valley’s nine-city elected officials regarding water usage and open desert loss, critical issues for residents. They are approving these projects and the public will is ignored. Colorado River water should not be used for surf parks and resorts, nor should aquifer water be a fallback part of the matrix because of poor water distribution decisions. And, communities do not want to lose their beautiful open desert.
Officials pride themselves on community input; yet, if you’ve attended a public comment session, you will have noted officials shuffling papers, not listening, and staring blankly at the speaker. Elected officials must listen to their constituents since project decisions are frequently based on individual, often personal, agendas that do not reflect the community’s perspective.
As public policy scholar Dr. Deborah Stone maintains, “Politics and policy can happen only in communities…communities must be the starting point.” The Valley needs leaders who are committed to their constituents, who appreciate the value of untrammeled open desert, and who are brave enough to say “no” to projects posing existential threats to natural resources. As Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity succinctly said, “This is the desert. It’s time to grow up.”