March 21, 2008

California desert omitted from conservation bill

New Scientist [UK]

A six-million-acre "glitch". That's what US Senator Diane Feinstein called a huge swathe of California desert left out of a major US conservation bill.

The bill, which was passed to the House of Representatives last week, aims to strengthen the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). This protects more than 850 parcels of federal land scattered across the American west from urban sprawl, and a thumbs-up from Congress would ensure this protection is permanent.

The bill has been hailed by politicians and conservation groups as analogous to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, which manages the US network of national parks and monuments.

But some watchdog groups are concerned by the exclusion of a New Hampshire-sized portion of the California Desert Conservation Area, which is covered by NLCS.

The reasons are unclear, says Jeffrey Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington DC. "As best we can tell, omitting the land would allow utilities to build power transmission lines and open it up to energy development," he says.

House bill sponsor Mary Bono Mack has a different story: she points out that wind farms, two military bases and an interstate highway already built on the land make it unsuitable for a single protection scheme.

Feinstein has vowed to include the area in the Senate's version of the bill.