Debate over the future of California's "Land of Little Rain," as author and naturalist Mary Hunter Austin termed the desert, has generated a verbal torrent in Congress over the last seven years. Legislation to protect the state's unique but threatened desert resources has floundered each year. But this year, with the sponsorship of both of California's senators, it should pass. The first test comes this week when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote.
SB 21 would enhance protections for 4 million acres of the Mojave Desert by designating them as wilderness. Motorized vehicles and mining would not be permitted. In addition, two existing national monument areas, Joshua Tree and Death Valley, would grow larger and become national parks, providing stiffer protections for desert lands and wildlife.
The National Rifle Assn. and motorcycle groups oppose the legislation because it would forbid hunting and dirt-biking in the new national parks. Yet these are among the very activities that caused the severe degradation of California's desert and prompted calls for tougher federal protection. Moreover, the bill leaves 10 million acres of public lands surrounding the Mojave open to hunting.
The California Desert Protection Act has broad support. In addition to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has made its passage a top legislative priority.
Babbitt has been particularly articulate about charges that the bill would exacerbate the state's economic problems. "Everywhere in the United States, since the creation of the National Park Service, the presence of a park has been a direct, immediate, sustained and unyielding inducement to the creation of jobs," Babbitt said. "The magnetism and esprit draw people from all over the world. And it will here." We think he's right.