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Land-Protection Debate Shifts to the Desert

Congressional battle looms over plan to preserve large tracts of arid California

By Scott ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1993


TO most folks, the California desert is an inhospitable place, a lunar landscape of rock and sun that is to be traversed as quickly as possible by car - with the air conditioner blowing like an arctic wind.

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Not to Peter Burk. The high school librarian and self-described environmental purist likes to wander amid the arid elements all he can, as he is on this day, standing in chest-high creosote bush off I-15. He looks out on a horizon rumpled by obsidian-black mountains, camel-colored sand dunes, and the tepee tops of ancient cinder cones.

``Most people drive by and think this is a wasteland,'' says the pepper-and-salt-bearded volunteer for the Sierra Club. ``It is an Eden.''

Just what attributes the desert does have, and how they should be preserved, is the subject of one of the biggest public-land battles of the 1990s - one expected to reach a defining phase this month.

Congress is expected to begin taking up the final version of legislation that would create three national parks and more than 4 million acres of wilderness - an area larger than the state of Connecticut - out of the California desert.

After more than 15 years of debate, environmentalists and other proponents now think that they have the votes to pass desert-protection legislation.

But they will be opposed, in what may be the climactic battle, by off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, miners, hunters, and others who believe that the land should not be, figuratively, set on a shelf and ogled - but used.

``While we will be preserving the land, we will be disallowing access to that land,'' says Mike Ahrens, field representative at the California Desert Coalition, a group that opposes the more sweeping preservation measures.

Much of the focus will be on a bill put forward by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. It would protect more than 7 million acres, about half of it located in three national parks created by upgrading the East Mojave National Scenic Area and the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments. The rest would be set aside for protection in wilderness areas.

A similar measure in the House, sponsored by Rep. Richard Lehman (D) of California, would preserve slightly more land but make the East Mojave a national monument instead of a national park.

The Feinstein proposal is expected to come up first, probably this month; it has become the main vehicle for environmentalists and other desert-protection supporters.

The stakes are huge. The legislation represents the largest arid-lands bill in United States history. Conservationists consider it to be the most important public-lands battle since the fight over Alaskan wilderness in the 1980s.

They point out that this is the only region in the world where three deserts come together. The terrain runs from the sage and scrub of the low desert to 7,000-foot mountains, where white fir and canyon oak survive. Varied landscapes

The area includes the world's largest Joshua-tree forest, the third-highest sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, limestone caverns, buttes, and elephant-hide badlands. Bighorn sheep, speckled rattlesnakes, and hairy scorpions inhabit the land. Harbored here, too, are several cultural sites: an old railroad depot, Indian petroglyphs, and Early American Army outposts.