Little-Known National Monument is a Boon for California

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 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?

This essay was produced by High Country News. When Chuck Graham isn’t leading kayak tours at the Channel Islands National Park, he spends many days photographing the wilds of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photos by Pete Bender, Scrubhiker



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