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Don't Water Down the Crucial Desert Bill : Care needed as measure vital to California hits home stretch

April 18, 1994

Californians can rejoice that the Senate has passed the California Desert Protection Act. But the eight-year battle is not over. The House now takes up its version, and opponents there are likely to try to water down the already much-compromised legislation.

Despite the compromises, the Senate bill is a modern landmark in public land use in the American West. These lands have been under mounting environmental pressure because of the vast population growth of cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The bill creates three new national parks and 74 wilderness areas. The most contentious part is a new 1.2-million-acre Mojave National Park, an ecologically sensitive region of towering sand dunes and desert fauna east of Barstow. The act would restrict dirt-biking and limit cattle grazing to current levels. It also elevates the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments to full-fledged national parks and expands them. In all, 6.3 million acres are affected, larger than Maryland and the biggest area outside Alaska under a single public land act.

First introduced by then-Sen. Alan Cranston, a Democrat, in 1986, the bill languished for years because of opposition from then-Sen. Pete Wilson and his designated successor, John Seymour, both Republicans, and Republican administrations. But with two California Democrats holding Senate seats, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and a sympathetic Democrat in the White House, the seemingly moribund bill came to life even in the face of opposition from some congressional Democrats.

Feinstein, the main backer, had to agree to three score or so changes to accommodate miners, ranchers, recreational-vehicle users, the military and other interests. Her main concession was agreeing to exclude the Lanfair Valley from the Mojave park. This is a 290,000-acre rectangular tract on the eastern side that a key opponent, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), insisted on exempting for economic reasons. Feinstein concluded that to fight the exclusion in the Senate could jeopardize the whole package, which passed Wednesday on a bipartisan vote of 69 to 29, but she said she hoped the House would restore Lanfair.

So now the desert saga moves to the House, which passed the Cranston bill in 1991 by a 2-1 margin. But that bill contained an obnoxious provision permitting hunting in the Mojave park, and Rep. Larry La Rocco (D-Ida.) plans to offer a similar amendment this time. Also there is the danger that the bill could be hobbled by amendments on public land issues not related directly to the California desert. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), Natural Resources Committee chairman, will have his hands full but promises swift action. It must be swift, for if the House fails by summer to take the bill to conference with the Senate, the package could collapse before the congressional session expires in the fall.

Nearsighted opponents like Gov. Wilson argue that the bill would hurt miners and ranchers and burden the already strapped park service. Those economic arguments have some validity, but the real issue is preserving the Southwest's natural heritage for posterity. More than 135 years ago, New York City decided to set aside a then-remote 843-acre tract of rocks, mud and farmers' shacks as a permanent retreat for urbanites. It is known today as Central Park, and who would deny that New York's 19th-Century leaders were visionaries? Much the same opportunity offers itself to 20th-Century California.

We must not miss it.

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