Congress has approved funding for one of the final phases of a transaction that is conserving more than half a million acres of former railroad land in the Mojave Desert.
The $3.1-million federal appropriation last week will help the private Wildlands Conservancy buy 101,000 acres from Catellus Development Corp. That is on top of 405,000 acres previously acquired from Catellus with private and public money.
All the property is being turned over to the federal government, primarily to the Bureau of Land Management.
The overall deal protects a vast, checkerboard swath of the Mojave stretching east from Barstow to the state border.
Divided into 160-acre parcels, the land originally belonged to the federal government, which gave it to Southern Pacific Railroad to develop in the 1800s. The arid, remote property failed to attract settlers, leaving it part of an immense, empty landscape that defines southeastern California.
"Those sweeping vistas--they catch you and have a hold on you," said David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, which has been instrumental in the deal.
All told, the Southern California group raised $35 million in private funds to help buy about 505,000 acres of Catellus land. An additional $18.1 million came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, including the $3 million approved in last week's Interior Department appropriations bill.
Formed when the real estate arms of Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads merged in the 1980s, Catellus had more than 800,000 acres of desert parcels scattered across federal land.
After passage of the 1994 Desert Protection Act, the Department of Interior negotiated with the company to buy tracts, particularly those in and around the new Mojave National Preserve.
When those talks stalled in the mid-1990s, Catellus said it would put its land on the private market, stirring alarm in conservation circles that pristine desert habitat would be developed.
Subsequent efforts to find federal funding became entangled in the political fight over the Army's expansion of Fort Irwin in the Mojave. Federal lawmakers said they wouldn't release more money for the Catellus purchase until the Irwin dispute was settled.
The preservation efforts ultimately prevailed, Catellus Vice President John Bezzant said, "because of a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars."
The conservancy rustled up more private donations. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who fought bitterly over the desert protection act, came to an agreement over the Irwin expansion, which is moving through Congress. Catellus lowered its sales price, allowing the company to take what is expected to be $20 million in tax write-offs.
And Lewis, who in the past said he saw no need for the government to acquire more of the desert, last week voted for the appropriation.
"We applaud this purchase," said Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club's desert chapter. "For desert ecology to work it has to be in big chunks. And this is a big chunk."
The Wildlands Conservancy has an option to buy an additional 72,000 acres from Catellus, in Imperial County, although Myers said his organization needs to find new donors for the purchase.
"We pretty much broke our bank on this project," he said.