Cranston Desert Bill Poses Classic Conservation Fight

Times Staff Writer

Sweating, his heart pounding at 148 beats a minute, U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) climbed to the rocky summit of Last Chance Peak and gazed at some of the highest and lowest spots in the nation.

On the western skyline the snow-capped Sierra Nevada pierced the sky; to the south, deep in the blue shadows between the Armogosa Mountains and the Panamints, he could see Badwater, a spring 282 feet below sea level.

The 72-year-old Cranston, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, scaled this 8,456-foot peak a week ago to get his first view of the desert landscape that one day will be a designated wilderness if he has his way.


Two days later, three military helicopters carried members of the House subcommittee on national parks and public lands on a tour of the vast area that Cranston would protect. Then on Wednesday, staffers from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee inspected the lands included in Senate Bill 7, Cranston’s California desert protection proposal.

Cranston’s measure would create three national parks and 82 wilderness areas in the 25-million-acre California Desert Conservation Area now administered by federal and state agencies. These areas are scattered across the southeastern corner of the state, from Inyo County south 240 miles to the Mexican border, and include some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the world.

Most of the 10.2 million acres affected by the bill are currently managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and are open to mining, ranching and off-road vehicle recreation. To create the new parks, Cranston would transfer several million acres of BLM land to the National Park Service, a move opposed by top BLM officials.

The legislation, drafted by the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, is kicking up a classic confrontation that pits environmentalists against miners, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and the Reagan Administration. The battle promises to test the political power on all sides and, in the process, determine the future of the vast, rugged California desert.

Proponents’ Viewpoint

Proponents of the bill say the BLM is industry-oriented and has opened the desert to overuse and exploitation by miners and off-road vehicles. The result, they say, has been the destruction of fragile desert ecosystems, historical areas and archeological sites.

“The bureau has failed to honor its mandate to protect potential wilderness areas,” said the Wilderness Society’s Patricia Schifferle. “They (BLM officials) have been practicing multiple abuse, not multiple use, letting miners bulldoze roads and work claims in Wilderness Study Areas.”


Opponents of the Cranston bill believe the legislation would make large parts of the desert inaccessible to everyone but a limited, hardy few who could back-pack into these arid lands on foot, carrying water with them. Potential mineral reserves, livestock grazing fees, even tourist dollars would be lost as a result, they said.

“Preservationism run amok,” is how the influential Pacific Legal Foundation’s James S. Burling described the Cranston bill in the California Mining Journal. The Sacramento-based foundation is a nonprofit, industry-oriented group of legal activists who believe Cranston’s bill is an example of what he called the environmentalists’ “relentless push” for more wilderness.

Weekend Playgrounds

The California Desert, only a few hours drive away for 15 million Southern Californians, has become a weekend playground for thousands of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, rock-hounds, photographers and other desert-lovers. BLM officials estimated recreational use at 16 million visitor days last year.

This is an area of old mines and strike-it-rich ghost towns like Skidoo and Ballarat. Perhaps a dozen modern mining operations still produce gold, borates, talc, other industrial minerals and rare earths. The BLM administers 12.5 million acres out here;, the park service and military control another 3 million acres each, and the state parks system has a few hundred thousand acres. The rest is privately owned.

Senate Bill 7 would transfer some desert lands from one federal agency to another or to the state. One section of the bill protects 82 tracts of BLM land by classifying them as wilderness areas, stopping all new mineral, oil and gas exploration and outlawing motorized travel on 4.5 million acres. Existing mining operations and valid claims could continue operation and existing access roads would be maintained by the bureau.

In a more complicated section, the bill would expand the boundaries of Death Valley National Monument by adding 1.3 million acres of land now administered by BLM, bringing the monument’s land total to 3.4 million acres. To the south, another quarter of a million acres of BLM land would be added to Joshua Tree National Monument, bringing the total of that park service-administered area to 795,000 acres.


Transfer of Control

Several thousand BLM acres would also be transferred to the state to increase the size of Red Rock Canyon State Park, north of Mojave.

Both Death Valley and Joshua Tree would be upgraded to national park status if the bill passes. As monuments, these areas are open to mineral exploration and mining. National park status would end all prospecting, limiting mining to existing valid claims. There currently are 58 valid claims in Death Valley and three operating borax and talc mines. These operations could continue.

A new 1.5-million acre Mojave National Park would be created east of Barstow on BLM land. The three new parks would be operated by the park service in much the same way Death Valley is now run, with a wide range of visitor services available. All existing highways and roads would be maintained, including some rugged, four-wheel drive routes into remote areas.

Upset by the possible loss of so much land and stung by criticism of their multiple-use desert management policies, bureau officials claim the legislation would “create 8.8 million acres of instant wilderness” and would close these areas to all commercial and motorized vehicle uses, virtually “locking up” vast tracts of land and denying access to millions of users.

Not so, say the bill’s proponents. Only 7.5 million acres will be directly affected by the bill, although the total land area involved is 10.2 million acres. The 30,000 miles of paved and dirt roads would continue to provide access to these lands. Campgrounds, hotels and other visitor services would remain, according to proponents.

Agencies’ Positions

Both the BLM and the park service are agencies of the Interior Department. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, supporting the BLM’s multiple-use management plans, opposes the Cranston bill. The park service is quietly supporting creation of three new parks in a “resource assessment” report provided to Congress and leaked to the media.


All this fuss is over a chunk of desert as big as Kentucky, a remote land area that in places is as empty and silent as the moon. This rugged landscape was formed millions of years ago by volcanic action, rapidly rising and tilting mountain ranges and collapsing valleys. In the tortured canyons and rocky steeps, the striated layers of lava, granitic rock and compressed sediments trace the cataclysmic history of this spectacular area.

“These are fossil deserts, not recycling landscapes. What you see now was formed eons ago,” said Warren Hamilton, a senior geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The result is a desert ecology that supports 760 species of wildlife, nearly 100 of them endangered. In this fragile desert, the World War II tank tracks from Gen. George Patton’s training camps can still be clearly seen, he said.

According to Hamilton, off-road vehicles disturb the rocky soils and threaten unique life forms like the spade-footed toads that burrow deep in drying mud flats to avoid the sun, sleeping there until the rumble of the next thunderstorm awakens them. The storm’s promise of life-giving moisture causes the toads to dig their way to the surface ponds. Too often the roar of a dune buggy or motorcycle fools them into coming up into the dry, hot sun and they die, Hamilton said.

Role for War Vehicles

Once a remote, harsh land populated only by Paiute Indians, the California deserts were made easily accessible by the four-wheel drive Jeep that, after World War II, replaced burros and pack mules. Since then the evolution of these off-road vehicles has opened the deserts to millions of visitors.

The desert is so big that it was once felt there was room for everyone. But by the late 1960s that perception had changed. So many Southern Californians were roaring into the deserts with their off-road machines that environmentalists and BLM officials alike became concerned about the impact on the desert ecosystems. The bureau canceled the Barstow-to-Las Vegas cross-country motorcycle race after an environmental report revealed that the impact of 3,000 speeding off-road bikes was killing most of the desert wildlife along the 134-mile race course.

Reacting to this concern in 1976, Congress created the California Desert Conservation Area and directed the BLM to come up with a plan to manage its 12.1 million acres in a manner that protected the quality of the scientific, scenic, historical and ecological values. Congress also ordered the bureau to come up with a list of areas that should be preserved intact as wilderness.


After lengthy study, the bureau decided in 1982 that 46 areas covering 1.9 million acres were of wilderness quality and classified them Wilderness Study Areas. These areas were placed in “controlled,” or “C” zones. Mining is allowed in “C” zones only if it does not “impair” wilderness values, bureau officials explained. Off-road vehicle recreational use is forbidden.

Variety of Zonings

The remaining millions of acres under bureau control have been designated for multiple-use and zoned for limited, moderate or intensive resource development. All of these zones allow mineral, oil and gas exploration and development in varying degree and all but the intensive zones impose regulations on off-road vehicle activity. Pit stops along the route of the controversial Barstow-Las Vegas cross-country race, which was restarted in 1983, are in an intensive zone, and parts of the route pass through a “controlled” wilderness zone.

“When the (BLM’s) desert plan was done in 1980 it wasn’t perfect. It was slanted too much to development, but we bought off on it because it was a beginning,” said the Sierra Club’s Jim Dodson. “Then the Reagan Administration came in (and) . . . the people running the bureau remained wedded to the old philosophy of getting the maximum return from the land.”

The Wilderness Society’s controversial report, “Failure in the Desert,” issued in November, alleges that the bureau has permitted more than 250 actions that have damaged Wilderness Study Areas. “BLM has allowed bulldozing, water impoundment, cyanide storage, ORV (off-road vehicle) travel, exploratory drilling and extensive excavation,” in these sensitive areas, as well as approving 171 oil and gas lease applications in potential wilderness areas.

The bureau reacted quickly to the report, charging, “The (Wilderness Society) authors have twisted the facts and provided incomplete or inaccurate information concerning the specific examples of alleged management problems. . . . The report completely ignores the many positive steps BLM has taken to protect the wilderness.”

The bureau does acknowledge that roads had been bulldozed into wilderness areas and mining claims developed, but officials told The Times that this all was done legally and without harming the wilderness values the bureau was protecting.


Plant at Remote Site

In one case, a miner was permitted to helicopter a bulldozer and mining equipment deep into the Inyo Mountains Wilderness Study Area. He diverted water from a nearby canyon and set up a modern cyanide leaching plant to extract gold from the ore processed at the Keynot mine over a century ago. The miner ultimately abandoned the effort, leaving behind 20 drums of cyanide and tons of rusting equipment.

The bureau spent $25,000 removing the cyanide drums, but defended the issuance of the permit. “We felt the helicopter mining wouldn’t impair wilderness characteristics of the mountain range. It was a small area and from the valley floor you couldn’t see the mine,” said BLM Desert District Ranger Gerald Hillier. The miner “wanted to build a (nine-mile road) into the mine, but we wouldn’t allow that,” he said.

BLM State Director Ed Hastey said in a telephone interview, “We have a desert plan that is serving us well.” Hastey is critical of the Cranston bill, calling it “unnecessary.” Policing 12 million acres with a staff of only 19 desert rangers has its problems, but Hastey said, “You could have four times that number (of rangers) and still have unauthorized use.”

The Cranston bill is galling to bureau officials and many of their desert supporters, including U.S. Borax Co. Vice President Eugene Smith, who says, the measure “is so unreasonable in scope it should not get any consideration at all. It’s like asking $300,000 for a $30,000 house . . . there is nothing to talk about.”

U.S. Borax supplies 60% of the world’s borate, operates a giant open pit mine at Boron, in Kern County, and has thousands of desert claims, including 4,000 acres it owns in Death Valley. The company fears its mining operations will be curtailed.

Supporters’ Argument

Cranston’s supporters say that no legitimate mining operations will be halted by the bill and all valid claims can be developed. Boundaries of the proposed park land additions and wilderness areas have been drawn to allow continued access and commercial development in these areas, they say.


Cranston acknowledges that he is no desert expert and relies heavily on environmentalists for information. He argues that the desert is a piece of the California environment that must be protected from exploitation and over-use, just as the coastal Redwoods and much of the Sierra Nevada have been protected by wilderness or park status.

“Our most enduring accomplishments relate to the environment, not to the economy or war or social problems. Those things are fleeting, but when you protect the seashore and the deserts, that is forever,” the senator said.

Cranston recognizes that opposition to the bill will be strong and that passage may take two years or more. But he said this effort “is very high” on his list of priorities.

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) is withholding comment on the bill, as is Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who chairs the important Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In the House, Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), chairman of the subcommittee on national parks and public lands, is also being cautious. After a whirlwind helicopter tour of the desert, Vento predicted “Congress will act” on this issue, but not until the “intense controversy” has cooled and both sides are willing to compromise.

In the meantime Cranston is drumming up interest in the bill by organizing a glitzy Committee for California Desert National Parks, chaired by his lawyer-son, Kim Cranston, and including such Hollywood personalities as actress Morgan Fairchild, producer-actress Shelley Duvall and song writer Billy Steinberg, all of whom trekked the deserts with the senator.