January 27, 2011

Water worries: The drying of the West

The Colorado River and the civilisation it waters are in crisis

Lake Mead's "bathtub ring" at Hoover Dam.
The Economist

STANDING on the Hoover Dam and looking upstream at Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, the visitor notices a wide, white band ringing the cliffs. Nicknamed “the bathtub ring”, this discolouration comes from minerals that were once deposited on the volcanic rock by the Colorado River and have become visible as its level has dropped. It is one sign of a water crisis that threatens America’s south-west.

Other reminders abound. Farther upstream there are dry docks, jutting out ominously into desert, where boats were once moored. In one finger of Lake Mead buildings that were abandoned in the 1930s, as the water of the newly dammed river rose and submerged them, have eerily begun reappearing, like a ghost town.

The main reason why Lake Mead, currently only 40% full, has been getting emptier is a decade-long drought. Whether this is a cyclical and normal event, or an early sign of climate change, is unclear. But even if the drought ends, most scientists think global warming will cause flows on the Colorado River to decrease by 10-30% in the next half century, says Douglas Kenney, the director of a water-policy programme at the University of Colorado Law School.

The other reason, says Mr Kenney, is the rapidly increasing demand for the river’s water. The Colorado provides much or most of the water for many cities and farms in seven states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California—before it peters out in the sands of Mexico.

In the northern states, its water supports cattle empires. In its southern stretch, especially in California’s Imperial County, the river irrigates deserts to produce America’s winter vegetables. And all along the way, aqueducts branch off to supply cities from Salt Lake City and Denver to Phoenix and Los Angeles. The metropolis closest to Lake Mead, Las Vegas, gets 90% of its water from this one source.

That is why Las Vegas is a canary in the mine shaft, as Pat Mulroy, the boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, puts it. The Las Vegas valley gets its water through two long channels drilled through the rock. The first taps the lake at 1,050 feet (320 metres) above sea level, the second at 1,000 feet. Lake Mead’s water level is now near its record low, at 1,086 feet. Within a few years it could leave Las Vegas’s first intake, or even both, dry.

The threat to Sin City is a good example of the four dimensions—physical, legal, political and cultural—of water in the West. For the physical, the standard response is to summon the engineers. Ms Mulroy already has them digging a third intake at 890 feet. Given the weight of the water on top, this is fiendishly difficult and will not be ready until 2014. Ms Mulroy also wants to pipe groundwater from the rural and wetter northern counties of Nevada to Las Vegas, but that has caused a vicious row.

Another response is to call in the lawyers. This was the preferred approach a century ago, in the era of the “water wars”. Starting with the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and continuing with statutes, a treaty with Mexico and case law until the 1960s, a truce was achieved. Called the Law of the River, the resulting regime determines who along the river has what right to how much water.

At least, it does in theory. The problem is that the law took shape after two decades of record water flows, which became the basis for allocation. As a result it apportions more water than there is in the river. For decades that did not matter, since there were so few people. Then the cattle, fruit and people using the river multiplied.

The law’s seniority rules theoretically mean that, for example, the taps to Las Vegas would be shut completely before a single lettuce-grower in California’s Imperial County lost a drop. This “idiocy of who gets cut first and second”, as Ms Mulroy calls it, gives rise to the political dimension. These days, co-operation has supplemented, if not wholly replaced, the old rivalries among agricultural and urban users, and among the seven states. Nevada and Arizona, for example, have a water-banking partnership, whereby Arizona stores excess water in its aquifers so that Nevada could use it in a pinch. In California, the water utility of Los Angeles has bought water rights from farmers in Imperial County. But arguments persist.

The final dimension is the culture of the West. Does every middle-class house really need a lawn in a desert? Ms Mulroy has already started paying Las Vegans to rip out their turf and opt for desert landscaping, which can be chic. Her own husband put up a fight but lost. So out went that lawn, too, just as the low-flow toilets and taps came in.

January 25, 2011

Feinstein reintroduces desert protection bill

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The Press-Enterprise

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday reintroduced legislation that would create two national monuments covering more than a million acres in the Mojave Desert.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2011 is similar to a desert bill the California Democrat introduced in late 2009, but this one is more focused on land conservation efforts.

The earlier bill also sought to streamline approvals of alternative-energy projects.

Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday that she would work separately with other Western senators on energy legislation that would allow "quicker development of renewable energy projects on private and disturbed public land."

The new bill would:

Create the Mojave Trails and the Sand to Snow national monuments, protecting 941,000 acres and 134,000 acres of federal land, respectively. Mojave Trails would be mostly south of Interstate 40 and west of Needles; Sand to Snow would be north of Interstate 10 between Cabazon and Joshua Tree National Monument.

Add land to Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The additions would include the remote Castle Mountains near the preserve and a strip of land known as the Bowling Alley near Death Valley.

Protect nearly 76 miles of four waterways in and around Death Valley and the San Bernardino Mountains.

Designate new wilderness areas, including about 250,000 acres near Fort Irwin.

Designate four existing off-highway vehicle areas in the California desert as permanent.

"This bill protects the great wide spaces of the Mojave," said supporter David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Places like the Castle Mountains, the Bowling Alley and Sand to Snow are part of the beating heart of the Mojave Desert."

San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who represents much of Mojave Desert area, said he is concerned about bill's effect on the region's economic potential.

"Putting more land off limits for mining, for mine exploration and for development, I'm not sure that, in this economy, is what we need to be doing right now," he said.

January 22, 2011

Technology reviving mine

Molycorp winds up in position of power

Scott Honan, environmental manager for Molycorp Minerals, talks about the Molycorp rare earth mine near Interstate 15 in Mountain Pass. (LaFonzo Carter)

Wesley G. Hughes
Redlands Daily Facts

MOUNTAIN PASS - No one was on their way to Vegas 1.3 billion years ago when a large, high-quality deposit of rare earths formed here.
Molten rock was pushing up through the Earth's mantle in eastern San Bernardino County and leaving a sizable deposit of the metals just poking its nose through the planet's surface.

Uranium hunters stumbled across it around 1950 - rare earths are often found in the company of heavier radioactive metals - and eventually it came under the ownership of Molycorp, a Colorado mining company.

Today, according to Molycorp CEO Mark A. Smith, "potential buyers are beating down the door to get those rare earths," which Molycorp stopped mining in 2002 because of environmental problems - and China could do it cheaper, anyway, he said.

Things change. China has virtually cut the world off from its supply of rare earths.

The Asian nation has the world's largest deposits, but Mountain Pass is No. 2, experts say, and Molycorp is back in the race.

Why should we care?

Rare earth metals - or oxides - are vital commodities for a range of products, from smart phones to smart bombs.

And the company's Mountain Pass Mine promises to make lots of money for Molycorp.

It's potential customers can breathe a sigh of relief now that there is another source of the elements. They are so relieved they have pushed Molycorp from a 52-week low of $12.10 on the New York Stock Exchange to a Jan. 5 high of $62.10. It has moderated a bit since the high and closed at $42.99 on Friday, down $3.55 on the day.

Molycorp is tearing down its old plant and building a $500-million operation about 15 miles from the Nevada border to mine and process the ores.

The company celebrated earlier this month with a groundbreaking and barbecue for the board of directors, top management and employees at the site. They are calling it Project Phoenix, Smith said.

But not everyone is happy with the operation.

A national environmental group, Western Watersheds project, criticized Molycorp's 8.6-mile proposed gas pipeline, which it says traverses protected desert tortoise habitat.

Western Watersheds filed a complaint Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, seeking to halt the Ivanpah Solar Project, which it says got an inferior examination in its Environmental Impact Statement to help it meet a deadline. That deadline has been extended a year to Dec. 31, and Western Watersheds wants a proper EIS done, which it predicts will halt the power project being built by BrightSource Energy.

"We want it to go away," said Michael Connor, California director for Western Watersheds.

He was unfamiliar with Molycorp's core project, but the pipeline was mentioned in the complaint his group filed.

Still, the Mountain Pass project is gaining interest from potential customers, cut off from China's rare earths but interested in what's in Molycorp's huge open-pit mines.

"We are getting attention - a lot of attention," Smith said on the day of the barbecue.

He expects the new plant to be operational by mid-2012.


Jim Sims, Molycorp's director of public affairs, and Scott Homan, the company's environmental manager, explained to visitors at the mine how environmental problems that played a role in halting production back in 2002 have been eliminated by new technology.

Before Molycorp halted production, the company piped liquid residue - mostly salt water - to evaporation ponds in Ivanpah Dry Lake - a scant 10 miles from Mountain Pass.

During a process of putting rinse water through the 8-inch plastic pipeline, pressure got too great. The pipe burst in several places. A buildup of radioactive material inside the pipe led to contamination of the aquifer under the dry lake.

That raised a public outcry that included concerns from county regulators and environmentalists and the shutdown.

During earlier operations, Molycorp had been the biggest user of hydrochloric acid west of the Mississippi River, Sims said. The acid was used to separate the rare earths from the ore. In order to stop the acid's action after separation, Molycorp neutralized it with sodium hydroxide and the product of the combination became salt water.

But by using electricity with chemistry, a process known as electrolysis, to treat the salt water, Molycorp found they could change it back into its original hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.

Voila! The chemicals could be re-used almost endlessly. No longer will 15 to 25 tanker trucks full of acid be arriving each day at Mountain Pass and no longer will the salt water be piped to Ivanpah Dry Lake for evaporation. Nor will it get the chance to build up radioactive scale inside the miles of drainpipe.

In addition, Molycorp will no longer buy the most expensive electric power Edison sells. It will generate its own. Another 8-inch pipeline is to be built to carry low-polluting natural gas, which will be used for power generation and to reduce the use of diesel at the mine.

For Molycorp, these moves have given immense benefits: The company has dramatically reduced its environmental impact and has led it to claim it has cut its costs to half those of the Chinese today. And Sims said that soon Chinese costs are likely to double because of environmental changes Chinese miners are being forced to make. More good news for Molycorp.


All that could be jeopardized by Western Watershed's complaint.

Molycorp said repeatedly that it had "crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's" and it had no more hoops or hurdles for the project.

That said, the company faces a hearing before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it was learned Friday. A Molycorp spokesman could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

And there's still environmental concerns over the tortoise and the pipeline.

When Connor - the California director of Western Watersheds - was told about some of Molycorp's efforts to be environmentally friendly,he said: "That doesn't help the tortoise."


County officials are excited about the project.

They are predicting it will have long-time benefits for the county through new jobs, for business and for property and sales taxes.

Most of the 700 construction jobs for the new plant will come from near and far. Most of the 300 permanent jobs will most likely be filled by Las Vegas residents, because it is closer to Mountain Pass than population centers in California.

But First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes Mountain Pass, called the project "great news. It's been a long time coming.

"I think we will put a lot of people to work. I just don't have the numbers. It's a major mining operation that will use a lot of trades and professions."

Mitzelfelt also predicted Molycorp will be buying supplies locally.

Sims, Molycorp's director of public affairs, confirmed that.

"Molycorp is trying as much as possible to buy equipment and supplies in San Bernardino County," he said.


Molycorp officials say that they don't know the full extent of the rare earth to be found at Mountain Pass. They won't know until they dig for it, they assert.

Since 1865, various minerals have been mined in the historic Clark Mining District, where Mountain Pass is located, according to the project's environmental review.

For 57 years, Molycorp and its predecessors have recovered bastnasite, which contains 14 rare earth elements.

Its initial use was as a concentrate called mischmetal, which was used as flints for cigarette lighters and in some metallurgical applications.

In the 1960s, the EIR continued, additional mineral recovery operations were added to allow separation and recovery of individual rare earth elements, including europium, a critical element for making color television.

At the time, Mountain Pass was the world's only commercial source of europium.

Subsequent rare earth elements were produced, and Molycorp plans to mine more, bringing to 10 of 14 rare earth elements that will be produced at what is now a 55-acre site, with plenty of room to expand.

The 55 acres is part of more than 2,000 owned by the company, which also has federal mining claims for the next 30 years on another 8,000 acres.

With a limited world supply of rare earths, Molycorp is in a good financial position, said Christopher Reed, chemistry professor at UC Riverside.

The marketplace - whether its for oil, gold or rare earth elements - is full of cut-throat players, Reed said.

As for Molycorp, he said, "Time is on their side. In the longrun, they really can't fail."

January 15, 2011

Unfettered vistas restored in remote valley

This is one of the massive pits left behind after years of gold mining at the Hart mining area. Those pits will remain amid other reclamation efforts. Several new uses for the land have been suggested.

The Press-Enterprise

As road graders moved earth for a huge solar power array in northeastern San Bernardino County, the reverse occurred in a remote, nameless desert valley about 30 miles way.

There, utility crews removed the 18 miles of power lines, leaving the lush stretch of the Mojave Desert more like it was in 1900, before gold was discovered in the hills.

Finishing the job in early January, the crew used a crane to hoist 5,000-pound bundles of wire onto a flatbed truck bound for a Las Vegas scrap yard. They also hauled away piles of creosote-soaked utility poles. The work is part of a reclamation effort by Castle Mountain Venture, which is cleaning up after a decade of open-pit mining.

Returning land to a wilder state bucks the trend in Southern California's deserts, where energy developers are in a rush to tap the vast spaces and ample sunshine and wind to help meet the nation's clean energy needs. If all the pending applications were approved, wind and solar projects would cover as much as 880 square miles of public land.

Yet the valley's fate is far from clear.

Conservationists and at least one legislator want it added to the Mojave National Preserve, which surrounds it. An energy developer wants to buy the former mining land to conserve as wildlife habitat -- compensating for habitat destruction elsewhere. And a wind energy company wants to build wind turbines there and erect new power poles along the same route where workers just finished taking the old ones down.

David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, has been monitoring the power line removal with great interest.

Earlier this month, after the poles were down, he drove the 140 miles from his home in Barstow to the no-name valley.

Pivoting full circle, he saw only grassland, Joshua trees, hills, mountain ranges and sky -- no buildings, fences, wires or pavement. Inspiring, he said.

"This is one of the few places left where you can see as far as 25 miles without seeing the hand of man," he said.

The 18 miles of electrical lines had paralleled a dirt road for 20 years, carrying power to the open-pit mine in the Castle Mountains near the Nevada border. Gold was discovered there in 1907.

The modern-day mine produced 1.34 million ounces of gold and about 400,000 ounces of silver in about 12 years, according to the mine manager. The digging stopped in 2001.

In addition to removing the utility poles and wires, Castle Mountain Venture also has shaped the spent ore into contours that mimic the landscape and re-established native plants. The huge open pits will remain.

Coveted Land

Lamfrom wants to see the whole area -- the 7,600 acres owned or claimed by Castle Mountain Venture and more than 21,000 acres of public land surrounding it -- added to the Mojave National Preserve.

Adding the land to the preserve is one of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legislative goals. A bill introduced last year by the California Democrat to create two desert monuments included provisions to add the Castle Mountains area to the preserve. She said she plans to reintroduce the proposals this year.

When Congress created the preserve in 1994, the area was excluded because of active mining operations.

A boost to preservation efforts could come from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Co., which is building a 5.6-square-mile solar energy project in the Ivanpah Valley off Interstate 15 near Primm, Nev. Construction is under way for the first array of mirrors that will focus sunlight on a tower, where steam will generate electricity.

The energy company wants to buy 7,600 acres from Castle Mountain Venture to make up for desert tortoise habitat lost to the Ivanpah development. The first phase of the BrightSource project already has displaced 23 tortoises, a species threatened with extinction.

Such a deal would prohibit future mining, making the land an even stronger candidate for inclusion in the national preserve.

BrightSource's land-acquisition proposal is under review by the state energy commission, the BLM, California Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unanswered Questions

Complicating efforts to restore the valley to a wilder state are the pending wind development application and questions about whether tortoises actually would live in the area, as BrightSource envisions.

Oak Creek Energy Co., which has wind farms in the Tehachapi area, filed an application with the U.S. Bureau Land Management to develop wind turbines on thousands of acres of public land near the mine.

Ed Duggan, the company's executive vice president, said wind energy can be developed there in conjunction with conservation efforts. The company would mostly use existing roads and other disturbed areas, he said.

If the various agencies approve BrightSource's plan to buy the former mining land, it might not benefit tortoises much, according to some observers.

"It's pretty poor habitat," said Mike Conner, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group that has followed efforts to bring large energy developments to the desert.

A wildlife survey of the mining area done last March found tortoise burrows but no live animals, and Juan Hernandez, a biologist retained by the mining partnership.

Replacement habitat should be of equal or better quality than the habitat destroyed, and the proposed replacement land just isn't as good for tortoises, Conner said.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kristin Berry, who has studied the animals since the 1970s, said tortoises are found only occasionally at elevations above 4,000 feet. The land BrightSource wants to buy ranges from 4,100 to 5,200 feet.

Hernandez said about 3,200 acres of the land under consideration has plants that tortoises eat, including desert dandelion, lotus and notched phacelia.

Mick Lynch, the mine manager, said tortoises were fenced out of the mining area about 20 years ago, but those fences have since been removed so the animals can return.

In addition, tortoises are expected to migrate to higher elevations as the globe warms, according to the land-buy proposal BrightSource submitted to the California Energy Commission and other agencies.

Bighorns At Play

Lamfrom and Hernandez said protecting the land around the mine would have conservation benefits beyond providing habitat for tortoises.

The area includes a rare ecosystem of native bunch grasses and a forest of full-sized Joshua trees.

Adding the area to the preserve could allow for reintroduction of antelope-like pronghorn, which are second only to the cheetah in running speed. The grazers are believed to have been hunted out by gold miners in the early 20th century.

The area also is a route for bighorn sheep making their way between the Piute and New York mountain ranges. Lynch said he often has seen bighorns running up and down the steep slopes of mine pits. "They are like kids at a playground," he said.

Lamfrom is hopeful that the deal will win approval and the land can become part of the Mojave National Preserve. "This could be the finest example of high desert grasslands in California," he said.

January 14, 2011

Renovated depot in Kingman opens this spring

February open house will mark end of decade in red tape limbo

Dusty footprints still spread across the floor of the newly-renovated Kingman Train Depot Thursday morning. The depot will be turned over to Amtrak in early spring, which will then add the finishing touches on its new waiting room there, including furniture. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

James Chilton
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - Renovation work on the historic Kingman Train Depot was completed late last year, but it may still be several months before Amtrak customers can expect to utilize the facility.

According to Kingman Public Works Projects Manager Kyle Taylor, the city is currently waiting for Amtrak to move into the structure, something he said isn't likely to happen until spring.

"The city doesn't have control over that, but I did speak to Amtrak (Wednesday) and they're looking to hopefully put some of their equipment in there in March or April," Taylor said. "It wouldn't be until after that that it would open up to Amtrak passengers."

The 103-year-old train depot had been in limbo for nearly a decade while the city wrangled with various governmental agencies to get the proper clearance for the project, which only got underway last summer. The rehabilitation, which was made possible through a $600,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation, has seen the construction of a new platform, new exterior and interior work, and the creation of a space that has been set aside for use as a railroad museum - an appropriate

move given the city's namesake Lewis Kingman, who performed survey work for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad.

"It's basically the eastern half of the building is the museum and the western half is Amtrak," Taylor said. "There's two rooms on Amtrak's side. One room is going to be just a waiting room and the other part is going to be Amtrak's staff area."

Taylor said the exact details of who will run the museum and what objects will be featured there have yet to be decided. Public Works has taken proposals from both the Whistle Stop Railroad Club - a group of railroad hobbyists and former career employees - and the Mohave Museum of History and Arts. A final proposal for the museum is likely to come before the City Council for approval in the coming months.

In the meantime, however, Taylor said the city does plan to host a ribbon-cutting and open house for the newly-renovated train depot sometime in February, when members of the public will finally be able to get a glimpse at contractor T.R. Orr's interior handiwork.

"It'll be on a Saturday, probably the second or third Saturday I think," Taylor said. "Toward the latter part of February."

January 2, 2011

Feinstein vows to pass new Desert Protection Act

The Press-Enterprise

WASHINGTON - Sixteen years ago, the clock was ticking on landmark legislation to protect millions of acres of Inland Southern California's mountains, rivers, washes and rugged desert land.

One minute remained on a 15-minute vote for the bill more than a decade in the making. It was the last day of the October session in the U.S. Senate, and Democrats, unbeknownst to them, were facing a Republican takeover that would have made passage of the bill all but impossible.

Just then, Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, of Illinois, delayed by a faulty garage-door opener, burst into the chamber and cast the deciding vote on the bill championed by freshman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sealing the creation of the Mojave National Preserve, and the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.

No such luck this time around.

Feinstein, D-Calif., late last year once again introduced legislation to preserve vast swathes of Southern California desert. But efforts to pass the Desert Monument Protection Act of 2010 before Republicans claim control of the House and add to their numbers in the Senate next month fell short, doomed by a flurry of other national business.

Yet Feinstein, who spent more than a year building support from area off-roaders, solar energy and environmental groups before introducing the bill, said she is undeterred by the prospect of a tougher political landscape in the next Congress.

"I have had a 20-year vested interest in the desert -- in seeing that it's protected and that what solar is there is appropriate for the area and does not destroy the flora, the fauna, the beauty," Feinstein said this month before the Senate adjourned for the year. "I am relentless in that regard."


In total, the legislation would bar development on more than a million acres in San Bernardino County's High Desert and northwest of Palm Springs. The largest component is the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, encompassing dry lakes, mountain ranges and other terrain on both sides of Interstate 40, south of the Mojave National Preserve.

It also would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument stretching across 134,000 acres from San Gorgonio Peak to the desert above Palm Springs.

The larger monument would incorporate 266,000 acres of former railroad land that was deeded by an Oak Glen environmental group to the federal government in the 1990s for preservation. The Wildlands Conservancy acquired the land through private donations and turned it over to the federal government with the understanding that it would be protected from development.

The group was outraged to learn in recent years that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had begun accepting applications on that land from solar energy firms, who saw the land as perfect for alternative power plants. The conservancy's concerns provided the initial impetus for the bill.

Feinstein and her staff, over many months, built a coalition of support for the bill from recreation groups, the energy industry, off-roaders, local governments, the military and others with competing interests in the desert.


The bill would designate permanent off-road vehicle play areas to ensure continued recreation options. It also would require federal agencies to identify zones within their jurisdiction where renewable energy production is in the public good. Those firms whose applications were accepted and would be displaced by the monument would get first crack at developing projects in those areas.

The bill won support from the Obama administration and received a mostly warm reception during a hearing in May before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But concerns remain, particularly among some Republicans who oppose limits on development and adding to the government's land management responsibilities. The 1994 desert bill, for example, got support from only 12 of the 42 Republicans then in the Senate.

At least one Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, opposes the bill on those grounds, his spokesman said soon after it was introduced.

Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis, who represents portions of the High Desert that would be impacted by the bill, has not taken a public position. But Lewis, R-Redlands, has raised concerns about locking up areas that have been used for mining, energy development and military training exercises.

Feinstein considered attaching the bill to a huge end-of-year spending package to fund federal government operations. That might have lessened opposition since her proposal would have reflected a small part of legislation seen as essential to keep the government running.

But faced with expiring Bush-era tax cuts, ratification of a major nuclear arms treaty and the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, Congress opted to pass a stopgap resolution to keep current funding levels. Feinstein had to shelve the idea and shift focus to re-introduction of the bill in the next Congress.


Few lawmakers are better suited to collect support across party lines than Feinstein. Now in her fourth term, Feinstein has forged important relationships with her Republican colleagues and has gained a reputation as a moderate on many issues.

But she's also unyielding in her pursuit of wilderness protections, said Elden Hughes, a longtime desert environmentalist who was closely involved with both the 1994 bill and the current legislation. If the earlier bill is any indication, she will have to be.

Sixteen years passed from the time then-Rep. George Brown, D-San Bernardino, introduced the first version of that bill to the day 16 years ago, when Feinstein saw her version approved.

"She's an absolute fighter," Hughes said. "She will hang in there."