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Ensuring a Future for Desert’s Beauty : Congressional delegation and environmentalists should back bill shielding 4 million acres

In congressional legislation to be considered next month, California may get its best chance yet to preserve more than 4 million acres of spectacular desert and spare it from population sprawl.

The bill is fashioned after one introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) five years ago, a measure that failed because critics prevailed with claims that it sealed miners, ranchers and desert bikers out of too much land.

The compromise, by Reps. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger), would establish more than 4 million of the 25 million acres of federally owned desert land as national parks, wilderness areas or national monuments.

Fans of the sweeps of graceful dunes, splashes of pink wildflowers and glistening yellow sands that are part of the desert’s charm may want to hold out for more. But we think Congress and Californians should settle for the compromise, which would strengthen protections in all of the 4 million acres and leave only 250,000 acres in the original Cranston bill open to development.

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It is important to safeguard at least that much, for too many people see deserts as more than homes for tortoises, archeological and geological treasure chests and places for quiet hiking and camping; what they see is the perfect place to bury nuclear waste, dig for salts, build resorts or stage mock tank battles.

Too much of the desert, which is remarkably fragile and takes generations to recover from human abuse, already has been exploited on the premise that it is not good for much else.

Under the Levine-Lehman bill, the Death Valley and Joshua Tree areas, now designated as national monuments, would be expanded and become national parks.

The east Mojave Desert, which blends into the western edge of the Sonoran Desert, would be designated a national monument. Seventy-seven other desert areas, ranging up to 250,000 acres, would become wilderness areas.

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By any measure, that is a good chunk of the past to preserve for the future, a past that includes bighorn sheep and kangaroo rats as well as tortoises and other species threatened with extinction.

It has taken years to climb this far above the sparse proposals for desert protection of the 1970s. There is not likely to be a better offer soon. California should go for it.


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