THE resurrected Desert Protection Act, originally conceived by Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California and the Sierra Club as an all-encompassing law to protect a vast area of the California desert, is again up for consideration in Congress. As presently written, one section of the act would effectively prohibit all travel, except by foot, throughout the desert. Major highways and certain designated unpaved roads would be exempt.
The act's intent is to protect the desert from vehicular traffic. Saline Valley - a huge, desolate basin, lies northwest of Death Valley and is affected by this act. Bound on the west by the majestic Inyo Mountains and surrounded by lesser ranges, this vast area can only be reached by a single dirt road.
Nearly 100 miles in length, the road winds over the juniper-covered hills from the south, drops down through scenic Grapevine Canyon, and enters the valley. Fifty miles farther on, after crossing this spectacularly beautiful basin, the road climbs again, this time through a forest of Pinon pines and fragrant sage before reaching the paved highway.
And right in the middle of this valley, nine miles from this dirt road by a barely driveable track, lies one of the most delightful oases in the Southwest, known simply as the "hot springs."
Paiute Indians were the first to visit these hot springs, as evidenced by the nearby petroglyphs. Then, with the advent of dependable vehicles in the 1940s, they became popular with nearby ranchers and early desert trekkers. By the 1960s their fame had spread throughout California, and today these springs are known even in Europe. There are a couple of dozen campsites, two outhouses, and the hot pools. No buildings, no parking lots, no concession stands, no officious administrators, nothing but the natur al desert.
PEOPLE who visit the hot springs, some of whom have been coming for 30 or 40 years, are an odd mix - recluses, retirees, poets, and artists; also, back-packers, upscale yuppies, German and French visitors - just a whole assortment of people. But this diverse group has one common denominator: They are environmentalists. Not armchair environmentalists, but dedicated environmentalists. And they strictly adhere to their cause at the hot springs. Woe unto the visitor who dares drop a gum wrapper, leave a soda
can lying about, or cut a shrub for firewood. Walk 100 feet from the springs, and the desert is as pristine as the day it was made.
And yet, because of the Desert Protection Act, this area could be lost forever. Oh sure, you could still hike in. If they still let you use the through-valley dirt road it's only an 18-mile round trip. That is if you survive the lack of water and 120-degree summer temperatures. Of course, this would eliminate the families, the older people, the younger people with limited time - just about everybody. Nor would Saline Valley be the only area affected. Countless other sites throughout the desert, technical ly open to foot travel, will be effectively closed.
There is no question that it is time to protect the desert. But the no-compromise authors of the Desert Protection Act insist that the only answer is to totally lock up the desert. That's not true, it's senseless overkill.
Let's rewrite this bill so that it allows the roads and areas that are now being used to remain in use. Let's also write it so that no new roads or developments are allowed. The bill should protect the desert but not punish those who want to visit it.
If the Desert Protection Act remains as written, the "real" environmentalists, the ones who live it and practice it, are going to be the losers. But the biggest losers, in addition to future generations, will be those who have learned their environmentalism from biased TV programs and the Sierra Club, and whose only experience in the desert is a weekend in Palm Springs. Why? Because they have never experienced the real desert, and now they'll never be able to.