THE California desert, a moonscape of rock and sun that has both enchanted and challenged man over the centuries, may soon be joining the pantheon of America's most protected land areas.
US Senate passage this week of a bill that would set aside a desert area the size of Vermont gives significant momentum to a decades-old drive by environmentalists to expand preservation of arid lands.
While opposition to the move from miners, hunters, and others remains - and will arise in the House - the largest arid-lands bill in US history now seems likely to pass this year.
``California's vast natural resources will be protected for generations to come,'' says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, the key sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, where it has been debated for seven years.
The bill approved Wednesday would set aside 6.3 million additional acres of desert as wilderness and federal parkland, prohibiting mining and other development across a large section of southeastern California.
That would include the creation of three new national parks. Two of them would be formed by expanding Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments and upgrading them to park status. The third, the new Mojave National Park, would be carved from nearly 1.2 million acres now under the jurisdiction of the US Bureau of Land Management. Another 3.6 million acres would be set aside as wilderness areas.
The bill represents the largest public-lands legislation since the Wilderness Act of 1964, which designated several million acres of land across the United States as protected wilderness areas. The California desert bill has been a top priority of environmentalists for years.
Supporters see it as essential to protecting what they consider the unique and sensitive resources of the desert from urban encroachment. Included in the acreage are 7,000-foot mountains, ancient volcanoes, prehistoric lake beds, Indian petroglyphs, and the world's largest Joshua-tree forest. There are sand dunes, elephant-hide badlands, bighorn sheep, limestone caverns, and desert tortoises.
``The Senate has come out strong and said the desert deserves a place among the crown jewels of our national heritage,'' says Marty Hayden of the Sierra Club.
Critics don't doubt the area's attributes but think less of it should be put off limits to hunters, miners, outdoor enthusiasts, and others. Some of their objections were smoothed over in a flurry of last-minute amendments to the Senate bill.
These included allowing grazing to continue in perpetuity in the parks and wilderness areas. A large area of private holdings, known as the Lanfair Valley, was deleted from the Mojave National Park, and boundaries were drawn to exclude several mining operations. Yet the moves don't appease all opponents.
``We support desert protection,'' says an aide to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, whose district includes the arid area and who will be a chief opponent of a Feinstein-like bill in the House. ``It is just a matter of degree.''
Creation of a new national park in the East Mojave will be the main choke point. Critics would rather see the area designated a national monument so hunting and other activities would be allowed. They argue that the National Park Service doesn't have enough money to maintain the parks it already has.
Though existing mining claims would be honored, opponents like California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) contend that the Feinstein bill will cost jobs by cutting off future prospecting. They worry about the cost of buying private parcels to be protected.
``When something becomes a national park, it becomes illegal to pick the flowers or rocks or do the things you normally would on public land,'' complains Jim Bagley, mayor pro tem of Twentynine Palms, Calif., a town in the desert. ``It's not like there is a shortage of established parks already.''
Preservation supporters counter that private parcels could be picked up in land swaps. More than 33,000 miles of roads will still be open to off-roaders. They predict an economic bonanza from tourism. Environmentalists even feel too many concessions were made in the Feinstein bill: They will push in the House to have the Lanfair parcels put back in and grazing prohibited.
``We feel like the Garden of Eden is being restored here in the California desert,'' says Peter Burk, a high school librarian who was one of the first to champion desert protection 18 years ago. ``But if we're going to do it, let's do it right.''
Many observers expect a preservation measure to emerge from Congress within the next few months. The Senate was considered the biggest obstacle and it approved the measure 69 to 29. The House passed a similar bill two years ago. Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, promises to make the new version a ``top priority.''
The idea has the backing of the White House and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Democrats know passage might be a plum for Feinstein, who faces reelection this year.