March 15, 2008

Some desert areas left out of protection plan

Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun
Snow covers the San Jacinto mountains overlooking the valley's windmills. The mountains are in the area that would be protected.

Diana Marrero
Desert Sun Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Nearly 7 million acres of California desert would not receive federal protection under a proposal to protect 26 million acres of national monuments, historic trails and wilderness areas that dot the West.

The unprotected land constitutes about two-thirds of the 10.6 million-acre California Desert Conservation area, which runs from the Mexican border to Mono Lake up north.

Although the entire swath is now considered part of the National Landscape Conservation System, a large chunk would no longer receive that designation under the bill.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, has been a strong proponent of the bill, which would officially recognize as conservation lands millions of acres across the West, including the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains.

The mountains, considered national monuments, would still receive protection under the bill, but a large part of the California desert near the mountains would not because the lands don't have a "national" label.

The congressional designation for the system - it only has administrative approval now - would ensure a more constant source of funding for those lands, much like the national parks, conservation experts say.

"It's a matter of, 'Is the glass half empty or is it half full?'" said Bono Mack, a co-sponsor of the bill. "At this point in time, I want a bill that will move and that will pass and get signed by the president."

The move to take a large part of the California conservation area out of the system could be the result of opposition from utility companies, off-road vehicle drivers and mining interests, said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and director of the southwest office of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which advocates for federal employees.

"We're not sure why Congresswoman Bono is trying to pursue an anti-conservation position on a very important issue in her district," said Patterson, who argues the bill means the California conservation area will be denied any additional funding that goes to lands in the national system.

Bono Mack says she doesn't see the bill as "excluding land."

"We have taken boundaries and said these are our highest priorities," she said. "There is nothing deliberately excluding land in the future."

Feinstein pushing for larger area as part of the bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is speaking with Senate leaders about adding a large part of the California conservation area to the bill, spokesman Scott Gerber said.

"Sen. Feinstein is trying to make it crystal clear and leave no ambiguity the land in question should be included in the National Landscape Conservation System," he said. "We want to make sure these lands have the same protection as other conservation areas."

Among the areas not included in the bill is the Big Morongo Preserve.

The desert conservation area was created by Congress in 1976.

It became part of the national conservation system through administrative action by former President Bill Clinton during his last term in office. But they have not received the attention or funding they deserve, say advocates who are now pushing for Congress to set the designation.

Kevin Mack, a conservation system director for the Wilderness Society, says that although the group would love to see more lands included in the national system, they are satisfied the bill protects "the crown jewels" of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The lack of designation won't change the way the agency manages the land in the California conservation area, spokesman Tom Gorey said.

"The legislation isn't going to change that," he said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the bill sponsor and chairman of a natural resources subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue, said he has deferred to the California delegation on whether more of the California conservation areas should be included in the bill.

But he says he's happy with the overall measure.

"I'm very happy with it," he said. "It's a landmark piece of legislation."