SACRAMENTO — Mining, real estate, cattle and off-road vehicle interests launched a drive Tuesday to defeat environmentalist-backed federal legislation that would designate 8.8 million acres of California desert as national wilderness.
The drive is being led by arch conservative state Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora), who produced a 28-minute video narrated by old-time western movie star Roy Rogers that will be released nationally to attack the bill.
As he did with a video used last year to attack former California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, who was ultimately defeated, Richardson will reproduce and release the video cassettes to build up public opposition to the desert wilderness bill.
Rogers, the self-proclaimed "king of the cowboys" who starred in countless Saturday movie matinees, contends in the video that if the wilderness bill is enacted "our desert will be padlocked, not just for now, but forever."
The desert bill was drafted by U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and has the backing of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Planning and Conservation League and the Wilderness Society.
It would create new national parks in what now are the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments, enlarging both, and also would create a new East Mojave National Park. In all, the bill would create 8.8 million acres of "instant" wilderness and apply protection to 10.4 million of the 25 million acres of desert from Death Valley to the Mexican border.
A heated fight has developed over the bill, which is opposed by the Department of Interior, the Defense Department and other federal agencies.
Richardson hits most of the points being raised by critics in his video, arguing that the legislation would limit recreational opportunities, particularly by those who use motorcycles, dune buggies and other off-road vehicles, that it would hurt tourism and force some people who now live in the designated wilderness area to move from their homes.
Other points made in the video are that the Cranston bill would curtail and impose new and costly requirements on desert mining operations, and disrupt military training by banning low-level flights at Edwards Air Force Base and other military installations.
Proponents contend, on the other hand, that urbanization in Southern California is rapidly encroaching on environmentally sensitive desert land and cite a U.S. Geological Survey study showing that off-road vehicles have scarred a million acres of wilderness land over the last 20 years.
Bob Hattoy, the Southern California regional director of the Sierra Club, said Richardson's "whole campaign is based on half-truths and outrageous distortions. This bill does not close one road, it does not shut down one mine. There will be 17 designated areas, larger than the state of Rhode Island, for off-road vehicle drivers to roar around and play their macho games on."
Hattoy asserted that Richardson "is doing the dirty work for the forces that would sell off or destroy our public lands. We are trying to protect the California desert just as we did the redwoods, the Sierras, and the coast from irresponsible development."
Role for Senator's Son
The senator's son, Kim Cranston, heads a political action committee organized to muster support for the bill. The legislation was introduced about two years ago and is expected to get its first major legislative tests early next year.
The younger Cranston said, "We think the bill makes sense, given the amount of land that would still be open and the serious damage that is being caused now by off-road vehicles."
Richardson, who plans to leave the state Legislature after his current term expires next year, discounted his opposition during a Capitol news conference, claiming that "outside of the Sierra Club, you could put most of them in a big phone booth."
Richardson said he decided on producing another video because the one used in the campaign against Bird proved to be so successful. He said copies of the videos will be distributed to service organizations, trade groups, members of Congress and any others who will use it.
"More and more homes now have VCRs in them, so we have an opportunity to reach the public far more widely than we've ever been able to do before," he said.
Joining Richardson at the news conference were other opponents of the bill, including representatives of the California Chamber of Commerce, the Off-Road Vehicle Legislative Coalition, the California Cattlemen's Assn. and the National Inholders Assn., which represents landowners in places designated as wilderness areas.
Chuck Cushman, director of the inholders group, said he and other opponents of the Cranston bill who are organized under the name Pro-Desert Coalition will spend "whatever it takes" to defeat the bill.