Big desert's fate stirs hot debate in Golden State

The California desert -- all 25 million acres of it -- is a hot item in the Golden State these days. But the heat has nothing to do with the arid land's temperature. It comes from a debate over how much land to open for recreation, to set aside as wilderness preserves, and to open for activities such as mining, grazing, and energy development.

In 1976, Congress singled out the California desert as a conservation area. It directed the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to draw up a management plan for the desert by Sept. 30, 1980.

So, during the last three years, the BLM has tried to juggle the needs of recreationists and conservationist.

The former group says the desert is public land, so its use should not be restricted. The latter group argues that the federal government has a responsibility to protect what Congress called "an extremely fragile, easily scarred and slowly healed" ecosystem.

The wildlife that ranges the desert's mountains and parched flatlands is varied, and includes the California tortoise, the state reptile. Those species that already have disappeared include the jaguar, the grizzly bear, and the California condor.

In its efforts to coordinate the desert's uses, the BLM has drawn up three draft plans: a 'protection' plan, which is the most restrictive, conservation-oriented proposal; a 'balanced' plan, which is more evenly divided between protection and land use; and a' use' proposal, which swings more heavily toward recreational and development use of the desert.

But comments at a recent Los Angeles hearing, which BLM officials say are typical of those statewide, indicate that the federal government is having a hard time pleasing anybody.

The Sierra Club maintains that the protection plan is not tough enough and has submitted a more restrictive plan.

The National Outdoor Coalition, an umbrella organization of miners, and recreational groups, has submitted a plan that allows for even greater desert use.

But everyone seems to agree on one point; once a plan selected, it will be virtually unenforceable.

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