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California and the West

Donors Help Complete Desert Land Purchase

Conservation: Group raises $15 million to aid in preservation of 405,000 acres in the Mojave. Showdown over military use is averted.


WASHINGTON — Private donors have come up with an additional $15 million to complete a massive land purchase of Southern California desert and avert, at least temporarily, a political showdown in Congress over an odd issue: the turtles versus the tanks.

In announcing completion of one of the largest purchases of private land in California history, Vice President Al Gore said Thursday that the $15 million raised by The Wildlands Conservancy and $5 million provided by the federal government will preserve an additional 180,605 acres of the Mojave Desert, stretching from Barstow to the Colorado River.

Altogether, the conservancy and the government have spent $45 million to buy 405,000 acres from Catellus Development Corp., a real estate offspring of the Southern Pacific railroad.

"This dramatically shows that people do care about preserving our great California desert," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has played a major role in the land purchase. She said she will seek congressional approval to provide $15 million from the new federal budget to purchase an additional 100,000 acres of privately owned desert land from other sellers.

The private contributions allow desert preservationists to complete their purchase of the former railroad land without having to go back before the Republican-controlled Congress and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

Lewis, who heads a House appropriations subcommittee and whose district includes much of the land at stake, has sought to tie the desert land purchase to expansion of the Ft. Irwin Army base.

Environmentalists are concerned that the Army is looking to expand the base's tank training grounds into a habitat for the desert tortoise.

The private donations do not end the turtle-versus-tank fight. But the donations do mean that the Catellus land purchase can be completed, regardless of the dispute. Defense and Interior Department officials are studying ways to resolve the controversy, including whether the tortoises can be moved.

Lewis on Thursday congratulated the conservancy for completing the land purchase without needing further government funds. But he also said that expanding Ft. Irwin will remain "a top priority in any further discussions of federal desert land."

David Myers, the conservancy's executive director, said the group, based in Oak Glen, Calif., received more than 100 donations, including $1 million from the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based preservation group. "We were just ecstatic about the generosity and love for the desert that was expressed in donations," he said. "We really never dreamed it possible to approach this point."

The purchase, to be completed within the next month, takes in scenic desert land that includes cinder cones and lava flows, flowing sand dunes, cactus gardens and desert tortoises.

"These stunning California desert lands are being preserved for future generations through a true public-private team effort that could serve as a model in other areas," said Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate who is courting California and environmental voters.

The land will be opened for recreational use.

President Clinton included $15 million in the new federal budget to complete the land purchase.

Since that money is no longer needed for the Catellus property purchase, Feinstein said, she will urge Congress to spend it on the additional 100,000 acres.

The House appropriations interior subcommittee, however, has recommended that no money be provided in the new budget for desert purchases.

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