The U.S. Senate’s passage of the massive Natural Resources Management Act last week is big news for the Inland Empire, but it will mean much more than a land exchange in the Santa Ana River Wash to improve environmental protections and expand mining.
Senate Bill 47, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, combines more than 100 pieces of legislation including the land-exchange bill co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican from Apple Valley, and Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from Redlands.
The exchange bill, introduced in the last congressional session as House Resolution 492, would swap 327 acres owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management for 310 acres owned by the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District. The BLM land between Highland and Redlands was withdrawn from development in 1909 by the Homestead Act, according to a press release issued last week by Cook. This property is next to land being mined by CEMEX and Robertson’s Ready Mix. The mining companies have rights to property owned by the conservation district, but it’s in the middle of undisturbed habitat, not next to the aggregate sites.
“The production of aggregate will support approximately $8.5 million in infrastructure projects and $36 million annually in payroll from this site alone,” Cook reports. “In exchange, BLM will acquire approximately 310 acres of conservation district land that will consolidate checkerboard parcels to enhance water storage and conservation while protecting critical habitats for threatened and endangered species.”
The effort to make the exchange began in 1993 when a Wash Committee was formed, according to background in the Federal Register. The House unanimously approved and the land exchange last year, but since the 116th Congress convened this January, it must go back for another vote before being sent to the president. It was re-introduced as HR 1067 on Feb. 7.
Mining is big business
According to the California Construction and Industrial Materials Association, mining is the state’s fifth-largest industry — larger than hospitality, agriculture, utilities or retail.
It supports more than 1 million jobs with an average salary of $76,500, according to the association’s 2018 report.
According to the California Geological Survey, aggregates production in California totaled 148.9 million tons in 2016, which represents an increase of 11.5 percent from 2009.
This tonnage of aggregate (rock, gravel and sand) production generates about 6 million truckloads.
The largest consumer of aggregates in California is public infrastructure, with 43 percent of the total demand.
Residential construction accounts for 34 percent of aggregates demand, while commercial construction makes up 17 percent of aggregates demand, the report said.
In a press release from Aguilar, Anthony Edwards, property manager for Robertson’s Ready Mix, said, “It is with great appreciation that we provide our support for the Santa Ana River Wash Plan Land Exchange Act. We thank the congressman for his hard work in representing our region.
“This bill will help us to expand our business, offer more jobs in the region and provide recreational space for residents to enjoy.”
Christie Jones, resource manager at CEMEX, said, “With so many stakeholders involved in the process, the Upper Santa Ana River Wash Plan reflects locally led collaboration at its best. We fully support the Land Exchange, and look forward to seeing it move forward and enacted into law.”
How Highland benefits
In addition to the economic benefits of mining, the city benefits because it has been taxing mining operations for two decades.
Voters approved the Business Tax on the Extraction and/or Processing of Rock, Sand and Gravel in November 1998.
The rate per ton is adjusted by the City Council each July. The current rate is $0.2094 per ton, just more than 2 cents, according to Community Development Director Larry Mainez.
“The city has been following the federal land exchange very closely and we are excited about the progress to date,” he said.
While the land exchange has been hailed as an example of bipartisan cooperation benefitting business and the environment, another bill under the massive Natural Resources Management Act co-sponsored by Cook and Aguilar balance expanded off-highway vehicle (OHV) areas with better protection for desert creatures.
The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, formerly called the California Off-road Recreation and Conservation Act, would expand six OHV recreation areas in the California desert: Johnson Valley, Spangler Hills, El Mirage, Rasor, Dumont Dunes and Stoddard Valley.
“This bill creates additional protections for OHV users and ensures that these areas cannot be closed administratively,” Cook said. “Creating the nation’s first system of off-highway vehicle recreation areas will also ensure that OHV activity is conducted in appropriate locations, protecting other parts of the desert.”
The established or expanded OHV areas would total approximately 200,580 acres. Combined with the nearly 100,000 acres that make up the existing Johnson Valley OHV Recreation Area, this bill will ensure that more than 300,000 acres are permanently open for OHV use in the California desert.
The bill would designate approximately 375,500 acres of wilderness in the California desert, while releasing approximately 124,000 acres of existing wilderness study areas in the Cady Mountains and Soda Mountains.
It also would add approximately 39,000 acres of land to the National Park System, adding more than 4,500 acres to the northern border of Joshua Tree. It would authorize the park to acquire the Joshua Tree Visitor Center near the main entrance.
Death Valley National Park would be expanded by approximately 35,000 acres.
The bill was re-introduced on Jan. 9 with a third sponsor, Rep. Juan Vargas, a Democrat from the Imperial Valley. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris introduced a companion bill.
It would establish the Vinagre Wash Special Management Area to protect 81,000 acres of public land in Imperial County, while preserving motorized recreation along designated routes.
The bill would designate or expand approximately 77 miles of wild, scenic and recreational rivers in the San Bernardino Mountains and near Death Valley.
It prohibits the development of renewable energy generation facilities on approximately 28,000 acres of BLM land near Juniper Flats and conveys 934 acres of BLM land to California to be included in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
It also directs the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate with the California State Lands Commission on land swaps involving state school lands within the California Desert Conservation Area and establishes a Desert Tortoise Conservation Center along the California-Nevada border.
“This historic legislation is the culmination of years of work by members of both parties in both chambers as well as countless groups and individuals on the ground,” Cook said. “When it becomes law, this will be the most comprehensive public lands legislation to pass Congress in over a decade.”
Cook also introduced the Helium Extraction Act, which was approved by the House in November and sent to the Senate.
“Helium is an essential element used in MRIs, air-to-missile guidance systems and semiconductors,” Cook said. “As such, a steady supply of helium is critical for the medical, defense and energy industries.”
The U.S. is the world’s largest supplier of helium, followed by Qatar, Algeria and Russia. Much of the American demand for helium has been satisfied by the Federal Helium Reserve. However, the facility is scheduled to close in September 2021.
“Given the vast political, economic and diplomatic uncertainty surrounding many the largest foreign suppliers of helium, it would be dangerous for America to become dependent on them,” Cook said.