Desert Protection Act Clears Senate : Environment: Legislation would preserve an additional 6.3 million acres and create three national parks in California. Backers predict swift passage in House.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Capping eight years of contentious debate, the Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday to preserve 6.3 million more acres of the California desert, an action that virtually assures the sweeping environmental measure of becoming law this year.

The California Desert Protection Act would create 74 wilderness areas and three new national parks, including the 1.2-million-acre Mojave National Park, and place vast portions of fragile desert ecosystems off limits to off-road vehicles, mining exploration and new livestock grazing.

"This is a great day for the National Park Service, a great day for the California desert and a great day for California," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "The action of the United States Senate today moves us substantially closer to filling one of the most obvious missing links in the landscape of America's national parks."

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, hailed the complex bill as "one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation" in the 103rd Congress.

The legislation now moves to the House, which approved a similar bill in 1991. Senate passage makes desert protection "our highest priority," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He predicted House approval "in a very swift fashion."

The desert bill would become the largest public lands act of its kind in the continental United States. It enjoys the strong support of the Clinton Administration.

Wednesday's 69-29 vote marked an impressive accomplishment for first-term Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who made desert protection her top legislative priority. She solicited 48 co-sponsors and succeeded in getting 16 Republicans to support the bill.

"This is promises made, promises kept," a beaming Feinstein told supporters at a festive news conference after the vote.

Proponents said the bill would create tourism opportunities while preserving diverse desert terrain, from 600-foot-high sand dunes to historic underground mining sites. Environmental leaders said passage of desert protection legislation this year would push the nation's wilderness system over 100 million acres during the 30th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act.

"There couldn't be a better time to protect California's one-of-a-kind resource," said Norbert J. Riedy, a policy analyst with the Wilderness Society in San Francisco. "The Mojave Desert is world known and now it will be preserved for generations."

Republican opponents, led by Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming and backed by California Gov. Pete Wilson and the four House members who represent the desert area, criticized the bill as a financial burden on the National Park Service and a hardship on the California economy that would reduce mining and ranching jobs. Wilson predicted the desert bill would "do more harm than good."

The California desert comprises 25 million acres, mostly tucked in the state's southeast corner. Environmentalists regard the territory as a national treasure with its 90 mountain ranges, more than 100,000 archeological sites, waterfalls, wetlands and 760 species of wildlife. The region is home to the oldest known living organism, an 11,700-year-old creosote ring.

Feinstein's bill covers 9 million acres in all, including existing Park Service land. It would expand the combined boundaries of Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments from 2.65 million acres to 4.2 million acres. Death Valley and Joshua Tree are already managed by the National Park Service but do not currently have national park status. The change is mostly cosmetic; visitors will notice little difference in the new parks.

The crown jewel of the legislation is the East Mojave National Scenic Area, which would become the Mojave National Park. Located east of Barstow, the Mojave consists of three distinct ecosystems: the Sonoran Desert, the high elevation Mojave Desert and the Great Basin Desert. The landforms include 16 mountain ranges, 6,000-foot peaks, cinder cones and the second-highest sand dunes in the country.

An amendment to prevent the Mojave from becoming a national park was defeated soundly, 62-35, on Tuesday. Under the Feinstein proposal, the East Mojave would be transferred from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service.

The desert legislation was first introduced in 1986 by Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, but was held up for six years in disputes with the state's successive Republican senators, first Wilson and then John Seymour. The stalemate was broken in 1992 with the election of Democrats Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both ardent supporters of desert protection.

At Cranston's request, Feinstein agreed to offer the legislation early last year and predicted it would sail through the Senate in a matter of months. But Feinstein met resistance from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was forced to make extensive modifications to meet concerns of her fellow senators.

As recently as Tuesday, Feinstein agreed to 10 new amendments, bringing to 60 the number of changes to the Cranston legislation. These include concessions to accommodate the military, law enforcement, utility companies, mining interests, cattle grazers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

While embracing the entire package, environmental groups said they will seek three major changes in the House version--reinstating the scenic, 290,000-acre Lanfair Valley to the proposed Mojave Park, limiting grazing rights to 25 years and placing some minor restrictions on military overflights.

The House sponsor, California Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-North Fork), said he needed to scrutinize the Feinstein bill before considering any changes.

Some Republicans were highly critical of the desert bill because it would add the acreage equivalent of two Yellowstone National Parks at a time when the National Park System is cutting back visitor center hours, unable to provide adequate housing for rangers and scheduled to lose 3,700 positions over the next five years.

"The only way to operate the proposed Mojave National Park is to take something away from existing parks," Wallop said.

Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Feinstein in November, issued a statement Wednesday saying that he will vote against the desert bill because of the economic impact and drain on other park budgets.

In a pointed attack on the cost of the legislation, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) noted that agencies within the Interior Department have a backlog of $6 billion in maintenance and repair needs.

"Having three new beautiful national parks will be nice. . . ," said Byrd, a Feinstein nemesis on the Appropriations Committee and the only Democrat who opposed the bill. "But we in this chamber have to come to grips with the realities in the age in which we live. One does not go out and buy a Cadillac when one cannot make payments on the family Ford."

Interior Secretary Babbitt said that a "historic opportunity" to protect the California desert should not be missed due to fiscal constraints. He added that Interior has the necessary fiscal and personnel resources to manage a new national park in the East Mojave.

"The bottom line is we can't afford not to have this park," Babbitt said.

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