Gift to the Future

The enactment of the California Desert Protection Act as proposed by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) will require a major commitment by Congress to the need for the protection of American wildlands for the future. Congress must look into the 21st Century and recognize the intense developmental and recreational pressures that will threaten the desert. It was such bold vision that prompted the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and Yosemite in 1890. This is the sort of vision that the desert deserves now.

Back in 1872 Gen. George Custer still was four years from the Little Big Horn. In 1890 cattlemen and homesteaders were fighting a range war in Wyoming. No one imagined then the mobile nation of 250 million people with time and money to explore and enjoy America's remote wildlands. There was so much wild land then. Still, American leaders set aside Yellowstone and Yosemite for the enjoyment of not just future generations of Americans but future centuries of Americans.

The California desert is different, of course. Parks and wilderness areas evoke images of snowy peaks and sparkling waterfalls. But the desert is as special in its own way: a wonderland of varied geography, geology, climate, flora, fauna, history and culture. It is not one endless, hostile expanse of sand. The only common element that makes this 25-million-acre expanse "desert" is lack of rainfall.

The Cranston bill would enlarge Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments and elevate them to national-park status, create a new 1.5-million-acre Mojave National Park from Bureau of Land Management land east of Barstow, and designate 4.5 million acres of wilderness from land now managed by the bureau under the 1980 California Desert Plan.

Opposition comes from four-wheel-drive- and all-terrain-vehicle groups, ranchers, rockhounds and mining interests, but its primary cheerleader is the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior. The bureau, arguing that the desert is adequately protected now, says that the Cranston legislation would ban a variety of uses from the wilderness areas. It would. But millions of acres still would be available for all the exploitative activities allowed now, and existing roads would remain open. The bureau, which tries to administer 12 million acres of desert with just 22 rangers, does not want to yield so much territory to its Interior Department cousin, the more protection-oriented National Park Service.

Credit the bureau for trying to fulfill its multiple-use mission as it sees it, and as mandated by Congress in 1976. That mission may be, arguably, adequate for today, but probably not for the 1990s and certainly not for the 21st Century and beyond. Under the Bureau of Land Management, the desert will always be vulnerable to exploitation. In 1872 American leaders did not decide to save just Old Faithful for the public and to lease other geysers for geothermal steam development. In 1890 there was no thought of a hydro power plant at the base of Yosemite Falls or a sawmill at Wawona.

The Cranston bill would provide enhanced enjoyment of the desert by present visitors, and give it true lasting protection. Past Congresses and Presidents did not save Yellowstone and Yosemite just for the next 20 or 50 years, but as a gift for the ages.

There was so much wild land then. There is so little now. That fact makes this Congress' gift of the best of the desert to future Americans all the more imperative.

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