The Desert-Protection Debate as Big as California's Great Outdoors

David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside

A vast divide separates city and country, especially in the West, although here in California the gulf is shrinking. As cities grow up along the coast and in the valleys, they squeeze out the character of rural life, replacing it with city thinking, city scenes.

It used to be the other way around. Pioneers once migrated from the country to the city, bringing farmers' markets, parks--and a memory of the land. Cities now spill over into the countryside. So history is inverted and perspectives change. From a rural point of view, the country has always been a land to use, the way a horse would work a herd or a farmer till the fields. From the city point of view, with all its present urban ills, the country is positively virginal, to be respected and preserved from use and exploitation. The proposed California Desert Protection Act, sponsored by two Los Angeles Democrats, Sen. Alan Cranston and Rep. Mel Levine, reflects this urban point of view. Last-minute alternative legislation designed to stop the Desert Protection Act reflects the rural view of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) as well as other congressmen representing desert constituencies and industries.

From Santa Monica to San Bernardino circadian waves of smog wash back and forth from the ocean to the mountains, syncopated to the rhythm of commuters, crime and homelessness. And with all of this comes city life, breathing in exhaust and giving off a splendor of ideas and museums, movies, monuments and genius. Many make their living from the glory in the streets but dream of other places. Intellectuals, sportsmen and urban critics are sprinkled from one end of the basin to the other, seasoning weekend conversation with their own eternal visions of idyllic, unspoiled lands outside the city limits.

The same distance north from San Berdoo will take you to Red Mountain, where abandoned mines outnumber human beings. Squatters settled in some time ago, to find a place to live alone, away from the Hollywood sign and Venice Beach. Some fashioned shacks next to slag heaps, adding to accretions already on the ground, broken winches, abandoned cars. The desert is a refuge of rock and sand for those who would prefer to work out their existence by themselves. It can be a place to live, without authorities and busybodies interfering.

Federal legislation proposed by Cranston and Levine to regulate the desert appeals to sportsmen and literati living in the city. It worries those living in places like Red Mountain. The Desert-Protection Act would change the character of the California desert, sequestering large areas from indiscriminate pursuits. It would create a Mojave Desert national park between Barstow and Needles and expand upon existing monuments at Death Valley and Joshua Tree, turning them into full-sized parks. Additional spaces would be designated as wilderness from Nevada down to Mexico. Places like Old Woman and the Chuckwalla Mountains would fall under federal statutes, protection for tortoises, prehistoric creosote, cacti and assorted desert rats. The frontier won't ever be the same. Consequently, some congressmen object. They would like to use the desert as a playground and keep it motorized.

All manner of arguments have been raised against the Desert-Protection Act: it would adversely affect grazing lands, mining rights and military overflights, not to mention war games and Barstow-Las Vegas off-road races. Each objection has been specifically addressed in the Cranston-Levine legislation, with provisos, regulations and concessions setting aside abundant lands to serve these and other purposes, including recreational areas for off-road vehicles.

Objections will be aired again, at congressional hearings this month in Bishop and in Barstow. But objections are often smoke screens. Those who oppose the act have a different vision and their conflicting vision is the source of complaint.

Those who would protect the desert would protect it from ourselves, to leave land unspoiled for future generations to preserve, protecting land from people. Others see this legislation as an affront against freedom, taking away the last place left in California to roam free from supervision. Many of our nearly 30 million people still think of California the way they imagined it before settling here. But the trouble with out of the way places is that so many find their way there. And the trouble with frontiers is that they never wind up being what we first pictured them to be.

When the forests were cut down and all the buffalo were shot, when the plains were cropped and all the land was used, there was always someplace else to go--farther west. The Mojave Desert set Southern California off from those eastern states where every foot of land was measured, where county maps were grids and every head was counted, where sophisticated slickers had filched commerce from the farmers and later owned the land outright.

The spectacle of the great California desert greeted 19th-Century pioneers and 20th-Century Dust Bowl refugees as they came to work out an existence on land too dry to farm. In California the land at least was honest; it told you what it couldn't do. So they labored, irrigated and made the best of it. They made the desert bloom. And they left the rest alone, to set off their accomplishment and give others space to do their thing.

The old mule drivers of Baker and Trona may have struggled to make a living off the land, but those who now wander those territories reflect on the West from air-conditioned RVs complete with microwaves. Driving on macadam roads, travelers visualize the Pony Express and the way the West was won--an enduring and endearing legend, born of adventure and adversity. Once that legend seemed to fit our national character, and there are those who still want to see the desert that way today--a case of Death Valley Days deja vu .

Still others have a different vision of a legend dead and gone, and they fear that even a desert can be desolated and decimated, the way the plains and forests have been taken down.

Most Californians live in cities now, even those who wear western clothes for show. The minority who live out in the desert often have disdain for city folks. Some desert dwellers think of parks and wilderness designations as covert confiscations of the last frontier, the kind of scheme only environmentalists and nature freaks could dream up.

Desert dwellers want to keep the desert theirs. City people want to turn open spaces--where they don't live, and out of the way places they have not yet ruined--into wilderness zones and idyllic natural parks. As long as there are human beings, the land will be controlled by someone's interests or another's.

One type of land consumption uses up resources to satisfy current needs--current whims as well. A different kind would establish an aesthetic zone for postcard scenes, for biology and geology to do their thing independently of human beings. When times were hard, there wasn't time enough to appreciate the great outdoors, to think of the plants and animals being poisoned or eradicated. Now that times are better, the way we see land has changed. There is a beauty in the desert most didn't notice before and a newly acquired respect for living things or even rocks. In place of mule teams, tourists arrive--in droves.

If the Desert-Protection Act is made law, grazing will still continue on designated wilderness lands, though it will be gradually halted in the parks. Active mining will continue and valid claims acknowledged, wherever they might be.

In time, mining too will cease in protected zones. Off-road vehicles will still find land enough to roam, though there is something about an off-road biker wanting to be first to blaze a trail, and this will have to stop as well.

The vision will have changed of a frontier served up solely for human nature to enjoy and use. The Mojave Desert will become a regulated place, to be saved and supervised. Who could have imagined, a century ago, that settlers would one day see the California desert as a place to be revered and left alone?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World