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."