By Tommy Hough
With Interstate 15 running through the middle of it, I knew my visit to Walker Canyon to see the superbloom wouldn't exactly be a wilderness experience. Like it or not, however, this is the year to go.
The bloom is like nothing you'll see outside the brief riot of color in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, or the vast wildflower blooms along the San Andreas Fault at Carrizo Plain National Monument in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. The intensity and volume of this year's bloom in Walker Canyon also rivals anything I've seen at the similarly spectacular, and more predictable, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve near Lancaster.
The problem is, Walker Canyon isn't designed to handle more than a few visitors at a time. And with a major Southern California freeway delivering motorists directly into the blooming hills that can be seen from 10 miles away as a red apparition floating along the horizon, the crush of tens of thousands of sightseers compelled to pull off at Lake Drive and get out, walk around, get in the way of other cars and take selfies is simply unavoidable.
Located just north of Lake Elsinore in the hills of the Temescal Mountains, Walker Canyon is managed by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, and is a designated county wildlife conservation area. It isn't managed as a park, because it's not a park. It's open space that has been so denuded by wildfires over the last 20 years due to its proximity to the freeway, and further damaged by excessive off-road vehicle use, that its value as an aesthetic outdoor destination are somehwat lacking – except during rare superblooms. Almost every other day of the year the Temescal Mountains and Walker Canyon are, at worst, dismissed as the "ugly, brown hills north of Lake Elsinore" one drives through on the way to destinations in the Inland Empire.
Curiously, the canyon's persistent fires and off-road vehicle abuse, aided by the presence of a major freeway and a wind tunnel effect into the Temescal Valley, make for ideal poppy-seeding conditions. While this isn't an endorsement of unnecessary wildfire or destructive recreation, California poppies love to grow in burned and disturbed areas, often capitalizing on fresh layers of soil revealed from the scorching effect of wildfires. The wind from traffic and nature also do a excellent job of blowing poppy seeds into all corners of the canyon, part of the larger reason why California motorists often find bright "explosions" of poppies next to major roads and freeways during the spring.
My first wildflower stop that day was Railroad Canyon in the city of Lake Elsinore, but when I arrived at Walker Canyon just to the north I was amazed at the traffic. The first thing that crossed my mind was the chaos of the 1969 Woodstock festival, and the miles upon miles of traffic chaos and cars jammed into clumsy parallel parking slots along the length of a few narrow, rural roads. The second thought that crossed my mind was this is what it would look like at places like Yosemite or the Redwoods if we didn't have management for our parks and special places. We have designated places or conservation so we don't stomp our resources to death, even out of love and attention.
The other major "bloom" sites in our end of the state have greater resources available to them because, by and large, they're parks with a heritage of managing hordes of visitors before they stomp to death the wildlife or wildflowers they've come to see. Carrizo Plain National Monument is probably the most primitive of these locales, in part because the area is so massive and there are so few nearby services. Walker Canyon has the opposite problem: it has a major freeway going down the middle of it and is five minutes away from an In-n-Out Burger.
I was heartened to see that Riverside County had done what they could to rope off swaths of the area, so visitors were kept to the trails and dirt roads, and the wildflowers could be plainly seen but not crushed. Drawing from their lessons from the 2017 bloom, the county has essentially funnelled visitors to three trailheads along Walker Canyon Rd. The heaviest use I saw was at the trailhead at the Lake Street exit off I-15, but heading south the crowds thinned out to less-dangerous levels, and I wound up parking my car by the gate at the end of the road.
The county had also posted dozens of quickly-made signs asking visitors to "stay off the flowers," and had good signage noting closed trails. While visitors and sightseers have largely obeyed, it was clear a few thousand more people would make things much more difficult to manage. I commended a ranger for the work his small staff had been able to do, but on my hike back I began to see dozens of people on ridges and closer to the trailhead already taking liberties and wandering off into the flowers themselves, no doubt crushing some of the thousands of painted ladies, butterfly chrysalises, and flowers themselves.
The next day, the entire area was shut down due to the volume of humanity descending on it, when visitors overwhelmed the rope barriers and any semblance of order, crushing many of the bloom areas in the process. While that's a sad bit of news, the ranger I'd spoken with the day before told me they expect the bloom to continue for another few weeks, in part due to the extraordinary rain we've received this winter, additional rain that was expected, and warming temperatures.
Since my visit on the Ides of March I've seen even more impressive photos of Walker Canyon from the nearby Ortega Highway along the eastern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains, and as well as an aerial photo of taken by flight intructor David Werntz, who flies out of the El Monte Airport in the San Gabriel Valley. I've shared some of my Railroad Canyon and Walker Canyon photos as a slideshow below.
So while Anza-Borrego's bloom may be spectacularly short-lived and the Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain certainly worthy of a lengthier investment of time from San Diego, Walker Canyon and the Riverside County backcountry may be blooming for the forseeable future. Step lightly.
All photos © 2019 Tommy Hough
By Tommy Hough
The sweeping public lands bill signed into law by President Trump on Tuesday is the kind of idiot-proof bill of decades past, when Democrats and Republicans worked across the aisle to score wins for their home states and districts, and passed sensible, popular policy the public was in favor of.
The passage of the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a huge win for the environment, for wildlife, ecosystems, and American conservation – made possible by decades of work by thousands of tireless activists whose names may be never be known, but who worked year after year on local projects important to their communities. Given the anti-science, anti-environmental era we live in, this victory is a moment of sweet irony and an environmental milestone. It is worth savoring, and celebrating.
From 1954 to 1994, the practice of passing sensible, popular policy was largely the norm in Congress. There were stark exceptions, of course, but those four decades of responsible – progressive, even – effort has come to be seen as a kind of congressional Golden Age.
But since the nationalization of midterm elections by an activist GOP in 1994, enabled by the rise of right-wing media in the wake of President Reagan's clueless "let the market decide" abdication of the Fairness Doctrine on public airwaves in 1987, bipartisanship became a dirty word as a radicalized GOP sought to cement the conservative gains of the Reagan era into, as Karl Rove called it, a "permanent Republican majority."
In doing so, the GOP's flirtation with dog whistles and idiocracy led not only to the Trump administration, but the flight of reason and reality from one of the nation's two major political parties. In its careless wake, the GOP created an amped-up, anger-driven, straw man-fed, resentment-fueled "movement" that eschews science, evidence and responsible inquiry – and continues to cite snowballs in winter as proof our global Climate Crisis is a hoax.
Over the last 10 years, an evermore gerrymandered Congress became a place where Wilderness and National Park bills went to die, and where effective conservation policy of decades past like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the Wilderness Act have not just come under attack, but are being rolled back as fast as possible by the Trump administration, whose job as the executive branch is to enforce those laws passed by that earlier, Golden Age of idealized congressional wisdom and compromise.
A decade ago, when Democrats last controlled Congress and the White House, President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Despite that bill's uninspiring name, the legislation was a needed boost for conservation efforts in the wake of the Bush administration, and ultimately added two million acres of designated Wilderness nationwide – the gold standard of federal conservation protection – plus miles of newly-recognized National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
It was a big win, but environmentalists knew it would be the last decent public lands bill for some time. And like nails in a coffin, the Tea Party election of 2010 ensured it would be so. Since then, Wilderness and other public lands packages accumulated into a legislative backlog in Washington, as the GOP Congress dismissed conservation bills out of hand while looking for excuses to shut down the government.
Congress even allowed the popular and effective 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which utilizes offshore oil drilling revenue to fund everything from trail maintenance projects to grants for little leagues, to expire on its 50th anniversary in 2015. Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, shamelessly referred to the LWCF as a slush fund.
But by the summer of 2018, things began to change as the congressional GOP could no longer ignore the rising tide of the Blue Wave – like water racing out to sea ahead of a tsunami. As word from panicked district offices reached Washington that the Blue Wave was real, Congressman Bishop, recognizing his state's love and enjoyment of the outdoors, made peace with his Tea Party roots and began work with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva to craft an agreement on the Land and Water Conservation Fund that would become the backbone upon which the 2019 public lands bill was built.
The election of a Democratic House in November provided the needed sea change, and began to loosen up the conservation front in the Senate. Since the new year, some GOP politicians have even dared to address the Climate Crisis, and Senate Democrats who ordinarily may have looked elsewhere for actionable policy took the lead on introducing new public lands legislation. With some gentle nudges from the conservation movement, the backlog of bills found new sponsors and bipartisan eagerness, and things began to move forward. The public lands bill passed the Senate on Feb. 13, and the House on Feb. 26. President Trump signed it on Tuesday.
Now, don't be fooled. The bad old days of shrinking National Monument boundaries and warping the mission of agencies like the Department of the Interior and the EPA into destructive tools benefiting polluters by the Trump administration are still with us. But the package of public lands bills signed by the president is so thorough and so far-reaching it not only preserves 400,000 acres of federal public land in California in National Park additions and new Wilderness areas, it permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That, in of itself, is epochal good news in this age of environmental rollbacks.
But for our environmental advocates who brought these initiatives and bills over the finish line, whose hours of sacrifice and time away from families made this possible – they will be back at it tomorrow. Because preservation doesn't end with one success. We must play defense on one hand and continue to preserve the bounty of Redwoods, Sequoias, wild beaches, canyons, mountaintops, glaciers and grassland passed on to us from previous generations. And there is so much yet to preserve in our nation and elsewhere for ourselves, for others, and those who will come after us.
The Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is a worthy addition to America's conservation heritage. Now lace up your boots, grab a map, and explore our public lands.
Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 (Senate Bill 47)
What a prize this package is for conservation. In the Golden State alone, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act expands Death Valley National Park by 35,292 acres, and Joshua Tree National Park by 4,543 acres. The seldom-visited but must-be-experienced Mojave National Preserve receives a comparatively smaller addition of 25 acres, while 87,999 acres (!) will be added to Death Valley National Park to be managed as Wilderness by the National Park Service.
As my friend David Lamfrom, California desert and national wildlife director with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), explained on my Treehuggers International show at the time of the rollout of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2010, the preservation of our desert wilderness not only retains intact ecosystems, but ensures continuity of wildlife corridors and the "very best of what remains."
The act establishes five new Wilderness areas on BLM-managed public land, totaling 207,300 acres:
The act also expands five existing Wilderness areas on U.S. Forest Service and BLM-managed lands by a total of 81,011 acres, including the legendary high country of the San Bernardino Mountains in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, one of the original Wilderness areas established by the Wilderness Act of 1964:
Over 77 miles of newly-protected National Wild and Scenic Rivers are included in the newly-signed package, including Surprise Canyon Creek just west of Death Valley and Deep Creek in the high country of the San Bernardino Mountains:
In addition, the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act establishes the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in the Owens Valley. A popular camping destination and frequent filming location for Hollywood westerns and car commercials at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada, the Alabama Hills are made up of strangely-shaped, windblown rock formations, and are plainly seen from U.S. 395 just west of Lone Pine and Independence in Inyo County. The area has been in need of greater ecological protection and recreation management for decades.
Also established is the long-awaited Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which will most likely be located along the border of California and Nevada in the midst of desert tortoise habitat. The center will provide care to the long-living but threatened species, especially tortoises rescued or collected from development or renewable energy sites on federal land. The center will also support rehabilitation efforts and continued research on the tortoises' tragic condition of inheriting a virus during human contact that prevents them from safely returning to the wild.
Here in San Diego County, the bill transfers 934 acres of BLM-managed land to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, already the largest state park in California, to be managed as Wilderness under state guidelines.
Not only is the sanctity of wildlife corridors between large conservation areas like Wilderness or National Parks ensured with the passage of this public lands bill, but it also requires the BLM to assess the impacts of habitat fragmentation, and establish policies and procedures to ensure the preservation of wildlife corridors within two years.
It Doesn't End Here
Despite signing the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 into law, the 45th president is, of course, no friend of the environment. From undoing National Monuments to ending required fuel efficiency standards for cars to enabling polluters to dump poison and toxins into America's rivers and waterways, the Trump administration has a great deal to answer for in this life, and the next. The damage and utter subversion Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt let loose upon their respective agencies at the Interior Department and EPA at the behest of polluters and the resource extraction industry should be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by Congress.
And as if to provide a reminder his administration is the most virulently anti-conservation, anti-environmental in U.S. history, and as if to remind Americans that he cannot bear to sign desired and effective policy into law that literally brought together a historically divided Congress without some kind of pointlessly self-serving last word, Trump announced during the signing ceremony he had removed nearly all the money from the Natural Resources Management Act's most popular component – the restoration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Of course, Congress has the last say on that. So let your elected officials know the LWCF needs to be funded and utilized now.
Mojave National Preserve photo by Tommy Hough
Amargosa River photo by Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Kit fox and Soda Mountains Wilderness photo by David Lamfrom / National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.