Yellow Desert Sunflowers and Desert Sand Verbena colorize an area north of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Yellow Desert Sunflowers and Desert Sand Verbena colorize an area north of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo by Chris Stone

There is truly nothing like experiencing a desert oasis. My favorite such place in California is the Amargosa River, which flows intermittently for 185 miles from Nevada into eastern California. 

On my last visit to the Amargosa in the Mojave Desert, I sat on the riverbank in awe of its healthy, thriving wetlands in the middle of this arid landscape. Once you spend time in one of California’s three deserts, you realize how diverse they are. From rugged watercourses to rolling dunes and towering peaks — our deserts contain some of our state’s most unique natural treasures.

I’m grateful to Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from Rancho Cucamonga, who represents portions of Southern California’s Inland Empire, for championing the new Desert Conservation Program within the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board. Signed into law in September, this is a first-ever program aimed at providing state funding opportunities to help protect California’s deserts.

While the creation of the program is a critical first step, it now requires funding. Our state leaders should ensure full funding for this program so that we can provide much-needed investments in the communities, wildlife and landscapes of the California Desert region.

The state should fully fund the California Desert Conservation Program because it will help fulfill Gov. Gavin Newsom’s October 2020 executive order, which calls on the state to safeguard 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. This 30×30 effort is driven by scientific research suggesting that protecting public lands and other natural areas is one of the most effective strategies to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. 30×30 also urges agencies to conserve lands to increase access to the outdoors for underserved communities.

Despite its geographic size and importance, the California Desert region has not received dedicated state funding in the past. This is a huge missed opportunity given the region spans one-quarter of the state and is critical to our efforts to fight climate change. 

In fact, California desert lands store nearly 10% of the state’s total carbon emissions. Undisturbed vegetation throughout the desert sequesters large amounts of carbon and stores it in roots and soils, which helps reduce carbon in our atmosphere. By fully funding the California Desert Conservation Program, the state can preserve the desert’s incredible abilities to fight climate change and ensure the region can thrive into the future.

Investing in the California Desert Conservation Program will also help reach 30×30 because more resources would improve access to nature. The California Desert region’s stunning parks and public lands draw visitors from around the world. One-half of the state’s population lives within an hour’s drive of the California Desert region, but too many communities don’t have the resources to travel to and experience the wonders of this area. 

Furthermore, communities of color may not feel welcome or safe exploring the desert because staff and other visitors have historically been overwhelmingly white. Our leaders should dedicate additional funding for trail creation, bilingual signage and educational and outreach programs to help bring more diverse users to the desert.

Finally, funding the California Desert Conservation Program will help achieve 30×30’s conservation goals by protecting the largest still-intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. The California Desert region is incredibly biodiverse. In the Mojave Desert, there are approximately 210 species of plants that are found nowhere else on Earth. There are many iconic plants and animals that would benefit from increased conservation investments, including Joshua trees, threatened desert tortoises and Mohave ground squirrels, desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles. 

Thank you, Assemblymember Ramos, for leading the way to create the California Desert Conservation Program. I urge state leaders to meaningfully invest in this program to help achieve our 30×30 goals. Setting this ambitious and smart framework demonstrates that our state continues to be a leader in fighting climate change and ensuring access to nature for all. Fully funding the California Desert Conservation Program can help us get there.

Pamela Flick is the California program director with Defenders of Wildlife and is based in Sacramento. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.