A national monument that saves the last of the last

The monument that brought us the ‘super bloom’ also supports rural economies and threatened wildlife.

 

Chuck Graham is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. When he isn’t leading kayak tours at the Channel Islands National Park, he spends many days photographing the wilds of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.


Initially, it was the silence of the Carrizo Plain National Monument that drew me to it. It was during the spring of 2006, and every visit since then I’ve relished the silence while soaking up the last of California’s historic grasslands.

This 50-mile-long swath of “Old California” is nestled between the Caliente and Temblor mountain ranges in San Luis Obispo County, with outlying towns like Cuyama, Maricopa and Taft nearby. It makes no sense to me, but the Carrizo Plain is one of two dozen national monuments under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Trump. If they have their way, the Carrizo Plain could be opened to oil exploration and possibly cattle ranching.

Like many others concerned about preserving the last of our wild places, I felt the possible assault on the Carrizo Plain like a punch in the gut. And I knew I was not alone. “The Carrizo Plain is enjoyed and admired by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who come to explore this iconic landscape,” said Jeff Kuyper, the executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch. “The Carrizo is a boon to local economies and it would be tragic to lose this natural treasure.”

It’s a treasure because the Carrizo Plain once served as a vital convergence of Native American cultures. The Yokut and Chumash people gathered here among sandstone cathedrals overlooking the grasslands, and the rock art they created, some of the most elaborate in North America, deserves continued protection.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument in California encompasses a unique landscape worth protecting.

The Carrizo Plain is also one of the wildflower hot spots in California, and the spring of 2017 didn’t disappoint. There were 50 miles of flowers, with the grasslands and adjacent mountains cloaked in every color of blooms from plants with the wonderful names of tidy tips, tickseed coreopsis, owl’s clover, fiddleneck, hillside daisies, valley phacelia, blazing stars, desert candles and baby blue eyes.

Even when the Carrizo Plain doesn’t receive the seven inches of rain necessary for a glorious wildflower season, it is still a natural wonder to behold. Sunrise and sunset are particularly stunning as shadows creep across the grasslands, retreating into the open-book-shaped draws that feed the Carrizo Plain.

When a full bloom doesn’t occur, those seeds just wait to germinate another time. In the meantime, this monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 2001 and known as “California’s Serengeti,” can boast over 400 tule elk, one of the fastest-growing herds in the state. Small bands of pronghorn antelope also enjoy this wide-open landscape, which provides the kind of space they desperately need. North America’s fastest-running land mammal tops out at over 50 mph on a dead run, and it needs this kind of space to stretch its legs.

Of greater concern is the throng of endangered species found across the grasslands and mountain ranges. The Carrizo Plain is a safe haven for more endangered species than anywhere else in California. Arguably the most important of these critters is the endangered giant kangaroo rat. These nocturnal burrow-builders, which come equipped with huge feet, long tails and almond-shaped eyes, are vital to the food web. They are prey for an array of furry, feathered and scaled predators. Their burrowing systems also house badgers, and endangered San Joaquin kit foxes, antelope ground squirrels and blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

In fact, this one endangered species is so significant to the overall health of the Carrizo Plain that Bob Stafford, a wildlife biologist with the California Fish and Wildlife Department, said: “The giant kangaroo rat is basically the key species in the entire Carrizo web. As they go, so do a lot of the other endangered species.”

Hiking across these 206,000 acres of grasslands is the best way to experience the Carrizo Plain. There are not many trails in this monument, so hiking cross-country is the best way to see all that California’s Serengeti has to offer.

Of course, today’s Carrizo Plain National Monument is a mere postage stamp of what the landscape used to be, a remnant of the entire San Joaquin Valley that once teemed with wildlife. But shouldn’t this be an argument for saving the last of the last?

Note: A leaked report by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke contained recommendations for boundary and usage changes for some national monuments. Zinke recommended no changes to Carrizo Plain National Monument.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...