Hotly contested legislation to protect the California desert ran into trouble Wednesday as Senate Republicans raised numerous objections that appeared to leave the bill’s fate in doubt.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) indicated Wednesday that his 20-member Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is evenly divided on the legislation, which has been tied up in committee since it was introduced in 1986.
The proposal, the largest public lands act considered by Congress within the continental United States in decades, was expected to gain easy approval following last year’s election of two Democratic senators in California and a Democratic President, all of whom support the bill.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said she remains hopeful. “I think we have the votes, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Feinstein said. “Clearly, it is a controversial bill. It’s been here for years. It’s a difficult bill to move ahead with.”
Feinstein said she was encouraged that a Republican-sponsored amendment to gut the bill by preventing the East Mojave National Scenic Area from becoming a national park failed in committee on a 10-10 vote.
The California Desert Protection Act would preserve 6.6 million acres in the state’s southeast corner by creating three national parks--Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Mojave--and 71 wilderness areas. The affected areas contain some of the most diverse and scenic terrain in the state, including tree-topped mountains, sweeping vistas, giant sand dunes, historic volcanoes and the world’s largest Joshua tree forest. It is also home to 760 species of wildlife, including bighorn sheep and the threatened desert tortoises.
Environmentalists argue that the area needs to be protected from further damage caused by mining, grazing and off-road vehicle use. The bill is opposed by Gov. Pete Wilson and the four Republican House members who represent the desert region. They contend that the legislation would cost jobs and is unnecessary because the desert is adequately protected by the Bureau of Land Management.
The outcome of the bill, which enjoys broad support in the House and probably would gain approval in the full Senate, appears to rest solely on the committee vote of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.). He indicated Wednesday that he would support the bill as long as several areas of concern are met.
Although Democrats enjoy an 11-9 advantage in the natural resources committee, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.) is expected to vote against the bill. Feinstein said she has no other Republican support on the committee. Without Hatfield’s approval, the measure would lose on a 10-10 vote.
One vocal critic, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), said he is pleasantly surprised that the desert bill has encountered so much resistance in recent weeks at the Senate committee level.
“I frankly thought that on a slam-dunk basis this bill would go out early this year,” said Lewis, who district includes the proposed Mojave National Park. “But because (Feinstein) decided to just take what (former Sen. Alan) Cranston had done and essentially run with it . . . she is in trouble.”
Environmentalists said the tight margin should come as no surprise. “The committee over the years has gotten to be a very unfriendly place for park and wilderness bills,” said Debbie Sease, political director for the Sierra Club. “We knew all along the bill would be close.”
The Senate committee passed several Republican-sponsored amendments Wednesday that sought to weaken the Feinstein bill. These changes included eliminating a special provision that allowed the Catellus Corp. to acquire surplus government property in exchange for its 355,000 acres of desert land. Republicans were critical of the “special deal” that enabled Catellus, a San Francisco company whose largest stockholder is the California Public Employee Retirement System, to obtain government property in other states that normally would bring revenues to the federal treasury.
The committee also stripped 242,480 acres of the scenic Lanfair Valley from the proposed Mojave National Park to accommodate property owners who faced condemnation proceedings.
The Lanfair Valley is regarded by environmentalists as one of the most pristine parcels of the East Mojave. It includes the historic Mojave Road, an Army post dating to the 1860s, Native American petroglyphs and crucial tortoise habitat.