Juniper Flats above Apple Valley deserves improved protection

 ·  Kate Hoit, Daily Press   ·   Link to Article

Like many veterans, I feel a great amount of patriotism when exploring public lands. Just as it is our duty to protect our country and its people, I and other veterans see it as our patriotic duty to safeguard special places like those in the California Desert. Our nation’s public lands are a key reflection of our country’s heritage — these lands belong to all Americans, as does the responsibility to protect them.

That’s why I encourage desert residents to join me in the fight to safeguard our California desert lands. It’ll take a united community to make sure our desert treasures are preserved for future generations, and it’s a responsibility we can’t take for granted.

Even “protected” places like our California Desert National Conservation Lands face ongoing threats from vandalism, as well as activities like overgrazing and irresponsible off-road recreation of designated routes. These activities threaten important natural and cultural resources, and endanger critical habitat for wildlife.

We can all do our part to help protect these values — you don’t have to be a park ranger or die-hard environmentalist. Anyone who enjoys and takes pride in the California desert can help advocate for better land management to keep these threats at bay.

I’m encouraged by how many veterans like myself are becoming leaders in the charge to protect public lands. I’m even more encouraged that it’s not JUST veterans — desert residents from all walks of life are stepping into this leadership as well. I love watching people learn what an important role they can play in preserving these places for future generations to experience.

I saw this in action during a recent hike with the Vet Voice Foundation, in which we journeyed with a group of hikers up to the Arrastre Canyon Waterfall. The waterfall is one of the many gems located within Juniper Flats, the lesser-known sister to Joshua Tree National Park near Apple Valley.

Some hikers were veterans, some were families of veterans, and some were simply community members looking to connect with the desert’s many gifts. Together we explored the extraordinary rock formations and deep water-filled canyons that make up the 50,000 acres of public land perched above Apple Valley and the Victor Valley.

As they looked out over the open vistas peppered with Joshua trees and pinyon pines, the hikers shared an expression I certainly recognize — one of awe, pride, and enthusiasm. It’s a look and a feeling that can only be understood by experiencing these places firsthand.

But the group also saw hillsides scarred with graffiti, and lush wetlands littered with trash. Such devastation, contrasted by such striking beauty, made clear that Juniper Flats remains threatened despite being protected as National Conservation Lands.

The group went home with a common commitment to do everything possible to protect places like Juniper Flats for future families to enjoy. I’m inspired and heartened to see groups like this becoming stewards for our local public lands. But we need more, and we need it to continue.

Though Juniper Flats is currently protected as part of the California Desert National Conservation Lands, we can’t take that for granted. It will take work — now and into the future — to make sure its values stay permanently protected.

Juniper Flats and other National Conservation Lands are both beloved and depended upon by High Desert communities. If this is as true for you as it is for me and my family, I invite you to join me in calling for improved protection and management of our California Desert National Conservation Lands. We can all be strong advocates and defenders of the desert, and that begins with using our voice.

Kate Hoit is the California State Director for the Vet Voice Foundation.