Desert Bill Easily Passes Key Senate Committee Vote : Environment: Feinstein-backed legislation would preserve 6.6 million acres. Final approval is expected.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a significant victory that is expected to clear the way for final passage, a Senate committee on Tuesday approved the California Desert Protection Act and handed freshman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) her first major legislative accomplishment.

The decision of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, by a surprisingly wide 13-7 margin, sends the bill to the full Senate for the first time since it was introduced in 1986 by former Sen. Alan Cranston. In previous years, California Republican senators had succeeded in blocking the legislation, the largest public lands act of its kind in the continental United States.

The bill, which would preserve 6.6 million acres of desert in the state's southeast corner, could become law early next year. The measure now goes to the Senate floor, where it is expected to pass. The House approved a more sweeping measure in 1991, and the legislation is supported by the Clinton Administration.

"I'm delighted," said Feinstein, who had anticipated that the bill would pass in committee by only one vote. "We did try to make changes to see that the bill became less controversial and more acceptable. I think that made a difference."

Debbie Sease, legislative director for the Sierra Club and one of the chief boosters of the pro-environmental measure, said the bill passed its most difficult test with Tuesday's vote and predicted that it will become law. "I can think of no bigger hurdle than the Senate Energy Committee," she said.

The Desert Protection Act would create three national parks--Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Mojave--and 71 wilderness areas. These sites contain some of the most diverse and scenic terrain in California, including treetopped mountains, sweeping vistas, giant sand dunes, historic volcanoes and the world's largest Joshua tree forest. The region is also home to 760 species of wildlife, including bighorn sheep and the threatened desert tortoise.

Environmentalists argue that the area needs to be protected from further damage caused by mining, livestock grazing and off-road vehicles. The bill is strongly opposed by Gov. Pete Wilson and the four Republican House members who represent the desert region. They contend that the legislation would cost mining jobs and is unnecessary because the desert is adequately protected by the Bureau of Land Management.

Opponents pledged to continue fighting the bill.

"Sen. Feinstein won a battle today," Rep. Al McCandless (R-La Quinta) said. "But her bill still has a long and uncertain road to travel before coming home from the war."

Shortly after Feinstein was elected, she agreed to take over sponsorship of the bill from Cranston and made it her top legislative priority. With the elections of Feinstein and Barbara Boxer--two Democratic senators from California who supported the legislation--it was assumed the measure would pass easily. Feinstein predicted that it would take three months to get the bill through the Senate.

But Feinstein quickly encountered resistance. She made more than 50 changes to the Cranston bill to satisfy fellow senators and special interests. The changes included cutting more than 1 million acres of park and wilderness areas, making changes in 15 wilderness areas to accommodate off-road vehicle routes, excluding all active mining operations, providing for unlimited overflights by military aircraft and extending current cattle grazing operations from 10 to 25 years.

Feinstein was praised by fellow Democrats and at least one Republican on the Senate Energy Committee for her compromise efforts.

"Senator Feinstein has demonstrated a willingness to solve the problem instead of trumpeting the issue, which is more than her predecessor did," Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said.

After the vote, Feinstein said she expected all 11 Democrats on the committee except Richard C. Shelby of Alabama to vote for the bill and all nine Republicans except Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon to oppose. But it turned out that Shelby and Bennett, along with Hatfield, voted in favor of the measure.

To ensure Hatfield's vote, Feinstein said, she won a commitment from Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, that the House would not reinstate language taken out of the Senate version that would have allowed desert landowners to swap their property for out-of-state land. Hatfield had threatened to vote against the bill without such assurances.

"I talked to Mr. Miller and I said, 'Look, we wouldn't have a bill if we didn't make this (change).' It is very important. The integrity of this commitment must be kept," Feinstein said.

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