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.
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.
Bounding along an ancient dry-lake bed, admonishing a visitor to ``take the lead so you can discover the desert for yourself,'' Mr. Burk, in Nike sneakers and knit shirt, stops near some desert holly and says: ``What we're trying to do is protect natural and cultural wonders and give people a chance to be at one with nature. What greater classroom can you have than a national park?''
Critics don't contest some of the desert's attributes but contend that many of them are already preserved in national monuments. The ones that aren't, they say, can be protected with less ambitious lines on the map. Some critics are willing to go along with upgrading Death Valley and Joshua Tree monuments to national-park status. The real fight is over the East Mojave.
A handful of active mining operations in the area still produce talc, borates, rare earth, and other minerals. The Feinstein proposal excludes larger operations - such as the Viceroy gold mine near the Nevada border - from park and wilderness boundaries. Other existing claims would be honored.
The problem for opponents is that new prospecting would be cut off, and they believe that untold riches may lie beneath the dusty lands. What few ranching operations now exist would be phased out over a 25-year period.
Critics produce studies showing that preservation would cost the region 20,000 jobs. Environmentalists produce their own tomes suggesting that only 3,500 jobs now exist in the area. They predict an economic bonanza in increased tourism.
Though most of the acreage to be preserved is already owned by the federal government, one large private parcel would have to be bought. Supporters say this could be painlessly done through a land swap, while critics contend that the deal could cost the equivalent of $1 billion. Less-expansive proposal
``We would be creating a very expensive park in the East Mojave at a time when our national-park money is very thin,'' says Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, a critic of the Feinstein proposal whose district includes desert lands. He is proposing a far-less-expansive measure that would create no new parks and set aside 2.3 million acres of wilderness.
Underlying all the numbers and enunciations is the broader question of stewardship. The California desert has become a weekend playground for thousands of dirt bikers, rock hounds, and other desert lovers.
They believe that this rugged and desolate expanse can be enjoyed and preserved without Washington intruding on their way of life. Environmentalists point to the crush of people as the very reason why the fragile terrain needs to be protected now.
For the moment, politics is on the side of preservation. For the first time, both California senators support desert protection; a Democrat is in the White House; and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has made it a top priority.
The battle won't be easy, though. The powerful National Rifle Association, among others, is expected to oppose any designations that don't allow hunting.
``This will be the final push,'' says preservation supporter Aaron Medlock, an attorney for the Fund for Animals. ``We will definitely get something this Congress.''