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Rockhounding in the California Desert
To collect or not to collect, that is the question.
May 7, 2016
by Lisbet Thoresen

National Monument
vs. industrialization of the desert

The biggest obstacle to amateur rockhounding on public lands used to be government agency administration and the protection designations exercised by Executive or Congressional authority.  In recent years, private enterprise has made it much more complicated.  California's deserts are becoming a mosaic of development filling the spaces around and in between public lands.  Where wildlands are not protected from commercial development in California, energy companies are staking claims, negotiating land swaps, and making public-private deals that enable them to build industrial scale projects and carve transmission corridors through the desert landscape.  These utility-scale projects will irrevocably change the natural landscape and impede access to ever dwindling islands of unspoiled land.  The detriments will redound to one and all, including but not limited to nature lovers and naturalists, desert fauna such as the Mojave (Agassiz's) desert tortoise, and recreational users such as mineral collectors.

For example, even as three new National Monuments were designated to protect large areas of California's deserts from development as recently as February, the Swedish wind power development company Eolus has re-filed an old application bought from another company to develop an area covering nearly 40,000 acres on the Nevada side of the California–Nevada border.  Eolus reportedly plans to erect 750-foot wind turbines at Crescent Peak. The turbines will be visible from parts of the Mojave National Preserve, Castle Peaks, Wee Thump Wilderness, Walking Box Ranch, and Spirit Mountain.  Naturally, those turbines will have to be connected to civilization, so the footprint of the completed project with its transmission corridors will spread like tentacles for many miles across the desert.  Eolus looks forward to start building in 2021.

On many levels, the National Monument designation is far preferable to commercial exploitation.  While the designation provides protection of fragile ecosystems and habitat from the destruction or depredations of development, conservation values are not supposed to preclude other non-destructive values.  Private enterprise, however, has little or no accountability to the public and rarely bows to public opinion, even when bad press is overwhelmingly negative.  Many rockhounds have had long experience with a lack of transparency, clarity or consistency in both the drafting and implementation of land use policies.  Likewise, they have a long memory of broken promises concerning land use amendments that were supposed to preserve rock collecting as a permissible activity.  For many people, bitter experiences make unattractive choices of both the National Monument designation and development – but these are the choices.

In practice, proponents who advocate their own interests are more likely to ensure the preservation of their values than groups that do not.  Therefore, it is incumbent on the rockhound community to be proactive and voice its concerns.  Most important will be to follow-up continuously during the whole drafting process through publication of the Final Management Plan.  Even though the prospects seem discouraging, dogged perseverance is better than the alternatives. 



Rock collecting areas located within large swaths of California's deserts are now part of three newly created National Monuments.  After a 10-year campaign led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), on February 12th of this year, President Obama made the designations official.  The new National Monuments encompass nearly 1.8 million acres: 1.) Mojave Trails National Monument (1.6 million acres), 2.) Sand To Snow National Monument (154,000 acres), and 3.) Castle Mountains National Monument (<21,000 acres).

For its scope, the designation for "Mojave Trails" is the most impactful to the rockhound community.  It encompasses the Cady Mountains, the Marble Mountain Fossil Bed, Bristol Mountains, Piute Valley and Cadiz Valley, Ship Mountains, Little Piute Mountains, and Sacramento Mountains, Afton Canyon, Lavic Siding, Chuckwalla Spring, Hummingbird Spring, Barrel Spring, Fenner Spring, Cadiz Dunes, Amboy Crater, and Pisgah Volcano lava flow.

It may be cold comfort, but before everyone heaves a collective groan, take note that the constraints on permissible activities in National Monuments are not the same as in Wilderness Areas.  A National Monument designation calls for drafting a Management Plan with public input.  There is supposed to be a timeline for drafting a final Management Plan – within three years.  Unfortunately, it is not clear what is permissible in the interim period.  Confusion over what is permissible and what is not has prompted several clubs to cancel field trips.  CFMS published a position paper saying it is not sponsoring, leading, or participating in field trips to collecting areas within the new National Monuments until a final Management Plan has been published and becomes effective.(1) 

Mixed Signals

The proclamations do not explicitly articulate an exception for rockhounding, so, as written, they forbid "all unauthorized persons not to appropriate, injure, destroy, or remove any feature of the monument."  But depending upon whom one asks, one is apt to get nuanced responses to inquiries about an interim policy or a timeframe for the Management Plans.  In an article published in The Los Angeles Times on May 7th, Louis Sahagun queried Mike Ahrens at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Needles, who said: "We recognize that there is a problem for rock hunters with regard to the language in the proclamation.… I'm pushing for some kind of an interim action that would allow rock hunting to continue until a management plan is worked out."(2)  Let's hope so – especially if the final Management Plan is three (or more?) years away from being published.  (Note: there are no funds set aside to draft a Management Plan, so completion of a final Plan would not seem forthcoming any time soon). 

Sahagun interviewed Steve Duncan, a member of the Searchers Gem & Mineral Society (Anaheim, CA), for the LA Times article.  Mr. Duncan said that he had spoken with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was the guiding hand in the creation of the three new National Monuments: "Before President Obama designated the new monument, Sen. Feinstein told me personally that she would ensure that rock collecting would be allowed in them.…After the designation, when I asked her office why we'd been left out of the proclamation, they responded with a form letter."

For an article in the CFMS Newsletter, John Martin got either vaguely optimistic or non-committal comments about an interim policy from the people he interviewed.(3)   Pressing the issue, his takeaway was that one should call the relevant BLM office and ask before heading out on a field trip.  The difficulty in getting clarification on an interim policy and what exceptions might be included in the final Management Plans for the three new National Monuments, in part, may be related to what agency will administer each one – BLM or National Park Service or jointly.  It will not be the same for all three.  In the meantime, it appears that the prohibitions on collecting may be selectively enforced, with non-commercial collecting likely to be allowed as previously until a Management Plan is published.  Cold comfort, indeed.  That's the bad news.

So, what's the good news? Is there good news?

A qualified yes.  The public will have the opportunity to give input on the Management Plan – not so if the three new National Monuments had been designated Wilderness Areas instead.  If you don't think that is good news, consider the alternatives.  The motivation for hastening the National Monuments designations was to rout energy companies that have been busy gobbling up the desert – planning and developing large, intrusive renewable energy projects in and adjacent to wildlands.  To put new utilities into service, transmission power links have to be built to connect them to the power grid and enable delivery of energy to population centers many miles away.  Thus, the footprints of such projects on the desert floor and their profiles against the skyline are not confined to small or isolated areas of industrialized archipelagos, but instead, their contours are an intricate, sprawling mosaic whose adverse impacts will be pervasive throughout and across vast areas in Southern California.

In California, as elsewhere, rockhounds are confronting more fences, blocked access roads, and longer treks to collecting areas courtesy of private enterprise.  Rockhounds have learned that they cannot count on the BLM to advocate, much less protect their interests, either.  In recent decades, they encounter more and more barriers to access and restrictions on permissible activities on public lands.  As seen in the development of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), arguably the most sweeping land use amendment proposal in California during the last century, re-purposing the desert for economic values took precedence over conservation, cultural, and legacy values enshrined in BLM's mission to protect "the public good."  While BLM was not the only agency responsible for the DRECP, its role was less than transparent or proactive in inviting public participation or even scrutiny of the draft alternative Plans as they were developed.  Critics have been less charitable in their assessment.

Between a rock and a hard place

Private enterprise and public agency interests have had the practical effect of landing a one-two punch on recreational rockhounding.  Going forward, the implications for the rockhounding community are starkly clear, if, individually and collectively, we do not find our voices to counter the synergistically erosive dynamic that has been driving land use policy.

Think it can't be done?  Last year, a grassroots campaign contributed to stopping the $1-billion Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project in the High Mojave Desert.  It pitted local communities against Southern California Edison (SCE).  Many people thought it was a foregone conclusion that SCE would prevail, especially with the weight of BLM squarely aligned with the utility's bid.  However, in the spring of 2015, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) dealt the project a fatal blow.

A blueprint for success

How did it happen?  The communities in the Mojave Desert could not bring to bear size or affluence to leverage the outcome they sought.  Resources were limited, but they had grit and resolve in abundance.  They succeeded thanks to community organizers, volunteers, and local residents who distributed flyers, wrote letters to legislators and city councils, signed petitions, and showed up at public hearings.  Two attorneys lent their expertise pro bono to identify defects in the utility's petition, and they crafted legal briefs challenging it.  They also took aim at BLM's practices, reports, and filings point by point, deconstructing flawed arguments and procedures.

The grassroots "get out the vote" effort provided the force of numbers to show that they were serious.  Legal counsel prepared carefully constructed and compelling arguments which would require formal consideration and redress.

Rock on rockhounds

The rockhound community certainly has force of numbers and a passion for its values.  AFMS, CFMS and ALAA are doing their part.  Help them help you. Support AFMS, CFMS and ALAA and your local club by attending public meetings and writing letters.  Download a sample letter, copy/paste the content into a new document to edit it – be sure to personalize it.  (Look in your download folder after you click the link; the document will not open in a browser window.)

Based on input from the public (including rockhounds) and special interest groups (such as ALAA and gem-mineral clubs), the permissible and non-permissible activities will be spelled out in the Management Plan.  We have the chance – from the start – to give input on what goes into it.  Rockhounds need to ensure that crystal clear language provides an exception for rock collecting within the three new National Monuments.  BLM and the Forest Service will not be knocking on our doors to ask what our concerns are, so we have to tell them, and then make sure the final Plan reflects the input we gave.

According to both articles by John Martin and Louis Sahagun, funds are not available to produce a Management Plan.  It would be ill-advised for rockhounds to be lulled into taking no action.  Rockhounds need to show up at the many public meetings that will be scheduled between now and the end of the road for the Management Plan, whenever that date finally arrives.  And most important, our concerns must be written down and sent to the attention of the right agencies and individuals. 

Download a print-friendly PDF with details of the DAC Field Tour on May 20, the DAC meeting on May 21 and resources on writing letters concerning California National Monuments (#CalNatMonuments)




1.)  Short url: or:
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2.)  L. Sahagun. 7 May 2016. A lost gem? New Mojave Trails monument rules appear to bar rock hunting. The Los Angeles Times. Available online at: Accessed 7 May 2016.
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3.)  J. Martin. May 2016. The Rockhound Soapbox. CFMS Newsletter. Vol. LIII no. 5: 8–9.
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Cite this article: L. Thoresen. 7 May 2016. Rockhounding in the California Desert: To collect or not to collect, that is the question. San Diego Mineral & Gem Society, Inc. Available online at:
[Updated significantly from an article originally published on April 29.]

When you tweet this article, use the hashtag #CalNatMonuments. 


Attend the California Desert
District Advisory Council (DAC)
meeting in Barstow

Sat, May 21, 2016 8:00am – 5:00pm


Location: Hampton Inn

2710 Lenwood Road
Barstow, CA, 92311
Jackrabbit 2 Meeting Room


Be sure to double check
the meeting location & agenda
on the BLM website
shortly before the meeting date. (short url)

DAC Mtg Agenda


Agenda for the Saturday meeting will include updates by council members, the BLM California Desert District Manager, five Field Managers, and council subgroups. Focus topics for the meeting will include Route 66 Corridor Management Plan and renewable energy project updates.


Submit written comments
prior to the meeting

  • Bureau of Land Management
    External Affairs
    22835 Calle San Juan de Los Lagos
    Moreno Valley, CA 92553

  • Written comments also are accepted at the time of the meeting and, if copies are provided to the recorder, will be incorporated into the minutes.

Click here to download a sample letter. (Look for it in your downloads folder; it will not open in a browser window.)


The 15-member council advises the Secretary of the Interior, through the BLM, on a variety of planning and management issues associated with public land management on BLM administered lands in the California desert. Public comment for items not on the agenda will be scheduled at the beginning of the meeting on Saturday morning.

Time for public comment is made available by the council chair during the presentation of various agenda items, and is scheduled at the end of the meeting for topics not on the agenda.

Members of the public interested in a particular agenda item or discussion should schedule their arrival accordingly.


For more information contact:

Stephen Razo
BLM California Desert District External Affairs
951-697-5217 or




Attend the DAC Meeting in Barstow
on May 21, 2016

A meeting of the California Desert District Advisory Council (DAC) in Barstow is scheduled to be held on Saturday, May 21st.  You can have your letter entered into the record when you arrive at the meeting or you can send it in ahead of time.  Don't put it off.  Do it now.  (See details in the adjacent box.)


Write a letter

Download a sample letter to Secretary Jewell
Download a sample letter to Senator Feinstein and CA BLM Director Jerome Perez (Copy/paste the content into a new document to edit it
– be sure to personalize it.
Look in your download folder after you click the link;
the document will not open in a browser window.

Letters written with constructive, specific comments will improve the odds that protection of rockhounding activities will be written into the Final Management Plan.  You can write one letter and carbon copy (cc) multiple recipients.  It's just a few extra stamps and envelopes or extra mouseclicks. l Your effort will have a bigger impact, if it reaches more people who are in a position to support your values.  Be sure to spell names correctly and get the titles in salutations right.  And be respectful.

Remember to point out to local representatives and BLM that rockhounds bring revenue to the businesses in the areas we visit – gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, souvenir and specialty shops, restaurants, hotels/motels, etc.  Representatives are pro-business and tend to support economic values ahead of other values.

– Who to send your letters to –

First and foremost, send a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Hard copy letters are best to send to representatives, some will not accept emails from outside their districts.

Be sure to send a copy of every piece of correspondence – e-mail and s-mail – to ALAA (, so the number of rockhounds in aggregate can be tabulated and tracked.  Downstream, it will be helpful to be able to substantiate that x-number of people care about this issue and wrote letters saying so.

  • The Honorable Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior
    Secretary of the Interior
    1849 C Street NW
    Washington, DC 20240
  • Send a copy to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
    880 Front Street, Suite 3296, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Send a copy to your local representatives. Look up your representative online at:
  • Representatives serving the San Diego area:
    • Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine)
      1611 N. Magnolia Ave., Ste 310, El Cajon, CA 92020
      – or –
      41000 Main St., Temecula, CA 92590
      – or –
      333 S. Juniper St., No. 110, Escondido, CA 92025
      Phone: 619-448-5201 (all local offices)
    • Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego)
      2700 Adams Avenue, Suite 102, San Diego, CA 92116
      Phone: 619-280-5353
    • Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista)
      1800 Thibodo Road, #310 Vista, CA 92081
      Phone: 760-599-5000
    • Congressman Scott Peters (R-San Diego)
      4350 Executive Drive, Suite 105, San Diego, 92122
      Phone: 858-455-5550
    • Congressman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) (Note! Rep. Vargas has supported utility-scale projects in the desert)
      333 F St., Suite A, Chula Vista, 91910
      Phone: 619-422-5963
  • Send a copy to: Bureau of Land Management, External Affairs
    22835 Calle San Juan de Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553
    contact: Stephen Razo at 951-697-5217 or
  • Send a copy to the Needles BLM Office:
    Michael Ahrens
    Acting Field Manager
    Bureau of Land Management
    Needles Field Office
    1303 S. Hwy 95
    Needles, CA 92363
  • Send a copy to American Lands Access Association (ALAA) so the total number of rockhounds and letters can be tracked!
    Send your letter as a Word doc or PDF attachment
    or cc your email messages to:
    -- OR --
    2010 West Ave. K #528, Lancaster, CA 93536-5229



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