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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...