The potential cost of legislation to protect the California desert came under attack Wednesday by Senate Republicans who contend that the government can ill afford to add more than 4 million acres of national parkland or acquire up to 345,000 acres of privately owned property.
The author of the desert bill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has made more than 50 revisions to address concerns raised by military, mining, grazing and off-road vehicle interests. After Wednesday’s hearing, Feinstein said she was encouraged that it appeared the Senate committee would approve the controversial legislation.
“I think we have the votes,” Feinstein said. “We will work together (to) try to iron out the problems and move it.” She told a group of environmental supporters: “Obviously, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
A vote on the California Desert Protection Act was delayed at least a week by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources pending further changes proposed by Democrats and Republicans.
The legislation would protect 6.6 million acres of desert terrain managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It would create three national parks--Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Mojave--and 71 wilderness areas that would prohibit off-road vehicle use and new mining claims.
Introduced in 1986, the desert bill has been stranded in committee because the original author, former Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, never reached a compromise with California Republican counterparts Pete Wilson and John Seymour. Now, with Democrats Feinstein and Barbara Boxer elected to the Senate, the legislation is expected to become law. The House passed a similar version two years ago.
On Wednesday, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) led a Republican assault on Feinstein’s proposal. He said the bill would add the equivalent of two Yellowstone parks without allocating money to pay for the cost of managing, maintaining, developing or purchasing lands.
“The appetite for private lands acquisition set forth in this proposal is staggering,” Wallop said. “Neither the Administration nor the Congress have shown an inclination to keep up with existing obligations, let alone fund this massive proposal.”
Wallop noted that Congress approves $80 million to $100 million each year to buy land for national parks, but the backlog of unacquired land runs in the billions of dollars.
Wallop and several Republican senators said they were particularly concerned about special provisions to compensate the Catellus Corp., which owns 345,000 acres of land affected by the bill. Catellus, a San Francisco company whose largest stockholder is the California Public Employee Retirement System, could swap its property for other government parcels. After 1998, any unexchanged land would be reimbursed in the form of credits to purchase excess or surplus federal property.
This arrangement would deny the government revenues it would otherwise collect through the sale of surplus property. It is unknown how much the Catellus desert property is worth; estimates range between $70 million and $180 million.
Feinstein predicted that the desert bill would be a boon for the California economy. She cited a National Park Service study that showed that a new Mojave National Park would produce $55 million to $100 million a year in revenue from visitors and generate up to 2,000 jobs.
The criticism by Senate Republicans represents a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, said Bob Hartman, vice president of the Southern California Sierra Club.
“The money on the table was the last thing for critics to talk about,” Hartman said. “I certainly did not hear them yelling about access to vehicular traffic, access to the military and other issues that they have brought up before.”