Don't Gut Desert Protection Bill : House must reject handful of destructive amendments to historic bill

After an eight-year struggle, the U.S. Senate last month passed the historic Desert Protection Act, a measure that would set aside 3.6 million acres in California's rugged southeastern desert and turn the popular Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Eastern Mojave Desert national monuments into national parks. Now, as the House wraps up debate on a similar version of the bill, lawmakers are scheduled to consider a number of amendments that would eviscerate the measure.

One of the most odious provisions, backed by the National Rifle Assn. and offered up by Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Larry LaRocco (D-Ida.), would downgrade the 1.2-million-acre Eastern Mojave National Park to a national preserve to allow hunting there. The full House, like the Senate and the House Natural Resources Committee before it, would be wise to drive a stake through the heart of this unnecessary and damaging amendment. In fact, damage to the Desert Protection Act is just what the amendment sponsors intend. Lewis has called the bill "a wish list for a small band of well-funded and influential preservation groups with a narrow ideological agenda." He's right about the narrow agenda. But it's his own.

Lewis and LaRocco purport to defend the right to hunt. What they conveniently ignore is that nearly 10 million acres of public lands outside the parks already are available for hunting and other recreational activities. That doesn't even include a million more acres of state and private lands.

So the question is: Are 20 to 30 deer and five bighorn sheep--the game killed by hunters last year in the proposed Eastern Mojave park area--reason enough to deny the nation a pristine wilderness for posterity? Clearly, the answer is no.

Lawmakers should reject this amendment and the other amendments that would weaken the bill. Such provisions have more to do with protecting special interests than national interests. The House, led by members of the California delegation, should pass a desert bill that sticks to the spirit and language of the Senate version.

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