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Troubled Journey for Desert Protection : Feinstein bill is advancing, but it's under an attack that could leave it enfeebled

March 06, 1994

The odyssey of the California Desert Protection Act through Congress threatens to become as long and torturous as the 19th-Century desert crossings of westbound pioneers.

The act would save special natural places from human-caused degradation. It would create the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states, enlarging both Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments and upgrading them to national park status. The legislation also is intended to create a 1.2-million-acre East Mojave National Park, bounded roughly by the Nevada border and Interstate Highways 15 and 40.

All told, California has about 25 million acres of desert terrain in the expanses between the Inyo Mountains and Imperial County. The pressures of economic development like mining and of recreational activities like hunting and dirt-biking have prompted concerned Californians to seek to preserve some of this gorgeous and primitive land for future generations. It is these same economic and recreational pressures that threaten to derail or significantly undercut the act's protections.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein admirably took up the desert cause immediately after she joined the Senate. She has demonstrated her willingness to compromise to defuse reasonable concerns by miners and others. Feinstein has also shown that she can hold the line when necessary, until now resisting pressure from the National Rifle Assn. and motorcycle groups, which have opposed the bill because it would bar hunting and off-road vehicles from some lands where these activities currently are permitted.

Under Feinstein's leadership, the desert bill has gone further than it has since it was introduced in 1986 by then-Sen. Alan Cranston. It passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last fall and, for the first time, will go to the Senate floor for debate, possibly this month or next.

But Feinstein's victory--and California's--could be significantly diminished if she continues to accept amendments that undercut the basic goals of the act. Last fall, to move the bill to the Senate floor, she agreed to exclude a 290,000-acre parcel from the proposed Mojave National Park. Removing this parcel, which contains historical sites, Native American petroglyphs and pristine habitat, would carve a big hole in the planned park and make it more difficult for the Park Service to effectively manage surrounding parklands.

Other amendments under discussion would downgrade some parcels from park status to that of national hunting preserve, permitting hunting along with tourism.

Feinstein must keep this bill on track, remembering that the fragile desert needs protection from the people who use it.

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