By Scott Armstrong, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …