September 4, 2008

Senate should act to help protect the desert wilderness

About 191,000 acres of public land is at stake

The Desert Sun

The California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act strives to protect more than 40,000 acres in the Joshua Tree National Park, among other key wilderness areas.

Sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, the legislation passed in the U.S. House on June 9. Now, we want to ensure the Senate version of the law, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Rancho Mirage Democrat, makes its way through the Senate when Congress reconvenes after the Republican convention.

The Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests held a hearing on April 15, but has not taken further action on this important legislation that would designate as wilderness areas 191,000 acres of public land in the San Bernardino National Forest, Joshua Tree National Park and the Pinto Mountains.

It also designates several rivers as “wild, scenic or recreational.” They include Bautista Creek, Fuller Mill Creek, Canyon Creek and the North Fork San Jacinto River.

One option for the Senate is to vote the bill out of committee and pass it as a standalone bill. But given the short time remaining for Congress to act, that plan may prove to be a long shot.

Brian Geiger, spokesman for the Campaign for America's Wilderness, a conservation group, calls the legislation a “win-win for the community.” He says the legislation could be added to a package of public lands bills introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Bingaman is the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. By adding the wilderness bill to Bingaman's package, it could be voted on and passed in a more expedient manner.

The option certainly deserves consideration. This is a piece of legislation that we have supported since November. The measure adds restrictions for use of the land, including disallowing motor vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles in the wilderness areas. There are exceptions for emergency personnel in order to fight fires and control evasive insect species. We urge the Senate to act soon.

Bono Mack and Boxer's California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act is good, strong legislation that will protect our precious desert wilderness and it deserves speedy passage.