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Sen. Wilson Is Man on the Spot : Environment Battle Shifts to Deserts of California

July 22, 1987|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pacific Coast, the northern redwoods and the Sierra Nevada have been California's most famous environmental battlegrounds, but Congress turned its attention Tuesday to the fate of a different region: the state's great deserts.

A Senate subcommittee opened hearings on an environmentalist-backed proposal to establish three national parks in the deserts east of Los Angeles and more than double the state's inventory of wilderness lands by setting aside 82 tracts from Death Valley to the Mexican border.

Political leaders quickly took sides, generally along partisan lines, in what was described as the beginning of an "epic struggle" over the future of this 25% of California's land mass. But a conspicuous exception was the man on the spot, reelection-minded Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.).

Wilson, the lead-off witness before the public lands subcommittee, asked for time to allow for compromises among conservationists, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, miners, hunters, the U.S. military, rock hounds, archeologists, ranchers and others who work or play in the desert. It is a tactic Wilson has employed in previous environmental battles during his one term in the Senate, and it has kept him on friendly terms with the California environmentalist leaders.

Wilson recalled marathon congressional negotiations in 1983 and 1984 in pursuit of "an acre-by-acre, almost tree-by-tree compromise" on legislation establishing new wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada. "I think we did a pretty good job. Most of those who witnessed the outcome judged it fair," he said.

But this time, Wilson faced additional pressure to prove his conservationist leanings. One would-be opponent for 1988, Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, also testified at Tuesday's hearing, fully supporting the proposal, without compromises.

"The sands of time are running out for the desert," McCarthy said. "I am carrying California's call to keep our delicate deserts free of further destruction."

Wilson was intentionally vague about how much time he believed would be needed to weigh all points of view and seek a compromise. Some skeptics believe that he may try to wait until after the 1988 election before taking a firm stand on desert preservation.

At Tuesday's hearing, however, he responded to these skeptics by saying: "We should not allow inordinate delay."

Cranston Favors Bill

The man behind the proposed California desert protection act is Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who signaled his willingness to join in applying pressure on Wilson.

"I'm not sure it would be wise from his point of view to try to modify the legislation much," Cranston said in an interview.

The senator recalled the 1983-84 negotiations with Wilson that resulted in a compromise expansion of Sierra Nevada wilderness that gave Cranston less wilderness acreage than he wanted.

"But I'm in a stronger position now," Cranston said. "Democrats are the majority party now (in the Senate), for one thing. And, back then, I was up for reelection; now Wilson is. And, since I'm prepared to wait until we have a new President, that reduces his leverage too."

The Administration is vigorously opposed to the legislation, and Cranston said he has no expectation of getting his desert bill signed by President Reagan.

But Cranston's pledge of patience did not hide the raw feelings between environmentalists and Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel. Cranston called Hodel "Mr. Environment Buster" and accused him, among other things, of encouraging "oil companies to rape the beauty and the resources of coasts on both sides of our continent."

That brought a sharp rebuke from Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. Wallop said he would not heed "usual senatorial courtesy" and accused Cranston of "bullying tactics" and "impugning the character of a good and decent public servant" in taking on Hodel, who was not present.

Wallop's angry tone brought gasps, then hisses, from the audience.

But, except for that flare of hot temper, Tuesday's hearing was more notable for all the colorful prose about the vast Mojave Desert.

Cranston testified about one of his fact-finding trips this way:

"We held lizards in our hands and saw nighttime skies of incredible beauty and the myriad stars of endless galaxies . . . looming, awesome sand structures . . . towering mountain ranges of rugged, stark and massive igneous rocks whose antiquity and structure bespoke of long-ago geological eons."

Other supporters of the desert legislation included Reps. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who is pushing the proposal in the House, and Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger). Additional support was voiced by Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude and some local officials from desert communities.

Opponents at the hearing included California Gov. George Deukmejian's resources secretary, Gordon K. Van Vleck, who called the bill "premature and excessive."

GOP Opposition

In addition, three Republican congressmen from the affected desert region lined up against the proposal, arguing that Cranston was ignoring 10 years of study and negotiations between the Bureau of Land Management and desert users.

These were Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland), Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado) and Al McCandless (R-Bermuda Dunes). Several local officials from desert-area communities also expressed opposition to Cranston's bill.

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