U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar in Joshua Tree.

U.S. Rep. Aguilar and his sons at Joshua Tree from a few years ago.

It’s hard to forget the first time I looked up at the night sky in Joshua Tree National Park. I’d never seen so many stars. I was a student at the University of Redlands and had only just realized that one of the most stunning landscapes in the United States was right in our backyard. I always knew that one day, I’d bring my family back to that same park and that my own children would take in that same beauty I experienced all those years ago.

California’s natural beauty has always set our state apart. Our miles of serene coastline and sprawling mountain ranges allow us to enjoy diverse ecosystems and stunning natural beauty in virtually every part of the state. While many of our state’s beaches and peaks have become American icons, there is no landscape as uniquely Californian as our deserts, thanks to the California Desert Protection Act.

In October 1994, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act was signed into law. The monumental piece of legislation preserved millions of acres of California’s deserts as public lands, establishing Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. These designations allowed a generation of Californians to grow up with a unique appreciation for the desert and its natural beauty. From California’s iconic Joshua trees to threatened species like the California desert tortoise, the deserts of California are home to life found in few places on earth. By preserving their habitat, the Desert Protection Act has kept these species around to be observed and enjoyed by future generations.

In addition to conserving the habitats of California’s rare plants and animals, the act also has preserved the economies of California’s desert regions. The travel industry in California desert regions provides more than 73,000 jobs and produced an economic windfall of $7.8 billion in 2018 alone. These economic benefits are directly tied to the conservation of our deserts. By preserving these wild spaces, we pave the way for new commerce that benefits our state and communities like those in San Bernardino County.

After 25 years of the Desert Protection Act, we’ve been able to measure its positive effects on our community. By providing recreation and educational opportunities, preserving California’s natural beauty for our children and stimulating local economies, the act has proved to be a success time and time again. We cannot grow complacent. As climate change threatens the species that have made our wild spaces so unique, and as the Trump Administration continues to seek drastic budget cuts to conservation programs throughout the country, we must redouble our efforts to preserve the public lands that have become such a rich part of California’s identity.  

To honor and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Desert Protection Act, we must renew our commitment to the conservation of California’s desert landscapes and America’s open spaces. Find a hiking trail in Death Valley, go off-roading in the Mojave, spend a night under the stars in Joshua Tree. The best way to celebrate our public lands is to enjoy them.

U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and as a chief deputy whip in the House Democratic Caucus.