September 22, 2004

Celebrating the desert

Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of the
California Desert Protection Act

by Dianne Feinstein
National Parks

Ten years ago this October, Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act into law, preserving nearly nine million acres of stunning landscape for generations to come.

With the passage of this legislation, the largest parks and wilderness bill to affect the lower 48 states was enacted, redesignating and expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments as national parks and establishing Mojave National Preserve.

Protecting these beautiful lands stands as one of my proudest legislative accomplishments to this day.

The California desert is home to some of the last remaining dinosaur tracks, Native American petroglyphs, abundant spring wildflowers, and threatened species, including the bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise, an animal known to live for as many as 100 years.

Joshua Tree, encompassing parts of both the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, contains magnificent rock formations and forests that blanket the high country throughout the park. The abundant yellow creosote bushes of the eastern side of the park are mirrored by the rugged Joshua trees to the west.

The Death Valley landscape, marked by a diverse range of salt playas, alpine forests, and jagged rocks, is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on Earth. At one lookout point in the park, Dante's View, a visitor may look down into Badwater, the lowest place in the western hemisphere, and on a clear day look west to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states.

Mojave National Preserve, with its granite, limestone, and metamorphic rocks, has a remarkable geologic diversity, as well as the largest Joshua tree forest in the world. Many of the preserve's peaks are pink at the top, the result of a volcanic explosion more than 18 million years ago in Arizona that sent deposits flying through the air and flowing across the land to the Mojave Desert.

These lands are not only home to beautiful scenery, they are also sacred lands to Native American Tribes. Petroglyphs, archaeological sites, and medicinal plants may be found throughout these parks.

The California Desert Protection Act ensured that these lands would be preserved for years to come. In total, the act raised the protection level for nine million acres of parks and wilderness.

Since 2000, the wilderness area has been expanded even farther with the purchase of nearly 600,000 acres of land primarily in and around Mojave National Preserve. The transaction, the largest conservation acquisition of private lands in U.S. history, combined federal Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations with funding from the Wildlands Conservancy to buy discounted land owned by the Catellus Development Corporation.

This expansion protected 200,000 acres of critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, 150,000 acres for bighorn sheep, the largest cactus gardens in the world at Bigelow Cholla Gardens, and rights-of-way for 165 trails and access roads leading to 3.7 million additional acres of land used for hunting, hiking, and camping.

Visitors have taken advantage of these abundant recreation and research opportunities in the California desert. Last year, 2.8 million people traveled to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and Mojave National Preserve. In turn, these visitors provided an economic boost of approximately $100 million at nearby hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

Now, as we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, the preservation of our National Park System has never been more important. Population growth, especially in the western United States, is placing increased pressure on our public lands and the demand for recreation areas. That is why it was so critical that we acted ten years ago and why it is urgent that we continue to preserve our nation's natural treasures today.

Unfortunately, there is much evidence that our national parks are not receiving the funding or attention they deserve. A recent survey of 12 national parks by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees found that six parks had either reduced or planned to reduce visitor center hours or days of operation. The survey also found that 'all 12 parks had recently cut fulltime or seasonal staff" positions.

One of the parks surveyed, Death Valley, reduced its law enforcement positions from 23 several years ago to 15 at the time of the study. More than 600 miles of backcountry roads are inadequately secured, leaving natural resources, wildlife, and visitors less safe.

Meanwhile, the backlog of maintenance projects in our parks has grown to a range of $4 billion to $6.8 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. Throughout our park system, roads, bridges, and historic structures are falling into disrepair, trails and campgrounds are poorly maintained, and visitor centers are becoming outdated.

Additionally, a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency designated eight national parks, four of which are in California, as containing excessively high levels of ozone. It is alarming to know that the air at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks is harmful to one's health, especially since the problem of poor air quality in these regions was identified for action under the Clean Air Act in 1977.

Our national parks are America's treasures. They make the natural beauty of our nation accessible to all Americans and, indeed, visitors from around the world. We have a responsibility to preserve these places for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Enacting the California Desert Protection Act was an important step toward that end. Now, we must continue to work to ensure that the parks we have already established, and those we may yet protect, have the resources they need.

Defending the desert

In 1986, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to strengthen protection for sites in the California desert by placing them under the National Park Service. Subsequently, California elected Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who shared Cranston's vision. In January 1993, Sen. Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act, her first piece of legislation. A year and a half later, the legislation was signed into law by President Clinton. With Feinstein's leadership and the support of a variety of environmental groups including NPCA, Congress passed the landmark legislation, protecting nearly nine million acres of the California desert.

In the past ten years, NPCA has continued to protect these special places from a variety of threats. NPCA has been instrumental in blocking the world's largest landfill for a site outside of Joshua Tree and helped to stave off a development outside the park that would have included thousands of homes. NPCA helped to stop plans to mine an underground aquifer near Mojave National Preserve. NPCA is opposing county road claims in the desert parks and working for cleaner park air and better funding. NPCA recently established a field office in Joshua Tree, California, to build a strong local constituency for Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and Mojave National Preserve.

Please join us in celebrating the passage of this extraordinary legislation. We hope you enjoy the senator's reflections on the desert as well as the destination guide and calendar of events.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is in her second full term. She serves on several Senate committees, including Appropriations and Energy and Natural Resources.

COPYRIGHT 2004 National Parks and Conservation Association