May 14, 2011

Government tramples on citizens as it seizes desert

The Press-Enterprise Opinion

For decades, the Sierra Club and environmental groups like it have successfully eliminated many uses they have perceived as inappropriate in the California desert by pushing for preservation in the halls of Congress. The advocacy and resulting congressional designations are arrogant and bad public policy.

Certainly, 50 years ago the desert needed new, science-based management to address burgeoning motorcycle use.

However, the cumulative effects of congressional designations, along with environmentalist-sponsored lawsuits and species listings under the Endangered Species Act, have decimated many desert uses, gutted the Bureau of Land Management's 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan and make a mockery of congressional mandates that the bureau wisely manage public lands for an array of uses and protection of natural resources.

Users of public lands were unfairly and unnecessarily hurt, livestock grazing and mining being the worst hit, and the economic values lost are sorely missed in these tough economic times.

And, to top it off, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced her California Desert Protection Act earlier this year ("Desert protections sought," Jan. 26). This leads me to wonder: How much protection is enough?

Perspective is needed to better appreciate this question. I offer the following analysis, which reviews 80 years of desert use history.

For this purpose, the area of the desert is the 1976 congressionally-designated California Desert Conservation Area, 25 million acres in size.

It is essentially the entire California desert excluding the Owens Valley.

By 1930, 25 percent of the desert had become private land, mostly towns and farms in the Antelope, Apple, Coachella, Mojave River, Palo Verde and Imperial valleys. The remaining 75 percent, mostly federal public lands, was little used and essentially had no management or use restrictions.

The Bureau of Land Management's did not even exist then. It did not come into existence until 1946.

By 1976, 25 percent of the desert was still private and 25 percent was now restricted to military use or designated as state and national park lands. This left 50 percent remaining for limited public use.

When Congress established the California Desert Conservation Area, it directed the Bureau of Land Management to develop a management plan for this remaining 50 percent.

After an exhaustive effort involving the public, as well as local, state, and federal agencies and science groups, the Bureau of Land Management completed the 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan, which placed this land into four management zones. These zones designated the degree to which the land could be used and the protections that would be required.

The most restrictive zone it designated as wilderness. Wilderness zones made development off-limits, and, with a few exceptions, basically limited use to foot traffic.

So out of the remaining 50 percent of land for public use, 2.1 million acres, or 8 percent, was set aside as wilderness. This left 42 percent for other uses.

The Bureau of Land Management began enacting its plan, though due to legal reasons, it had to get congressional backing for its designation of the wilderness zones.

But, believing the amount of proposed wilderness to be too small, and having disdain for science-based multiple-use management, environmental groups pushed for more restrictions, lobbying Congress to make more desert off-limits.

In 1994, Congress passed legislation, the California Desert Protection Act. In it, Congress drastically increased the amount of land in the wilderness-zone category.

When everything shook out, 25 percent was now designated as wilderness and 25 percent designated for other uses.

By 2007, the bureau was forced to make a set of amendments to the California Desert Conservation Area Plan due to expanded endangered-species listings and lawsuits.

Now, species-protection areas were placed within the remaining 25 percent still open to public use. These species-protection areas severely limited use, and, in essence, cut this remaining 25 percent in half to 12.5 percent.

Today, this 12.5 percent is under threat of further restrictions. The still-churning environmental groups are ironically not happy with recent solar and wind proposals for the desert and has urged more land be placed off-limits.

New Legislation

They are pinning their hopes on Feinstein's legislation, which would designate that 1 million more acres be named a national monument, 250,000 acres be placed in a wilderness zone and 74,000 acres be added to our state's national parks.

If this bill passes, the 12.5 percent of land open for limited public use would shrink to 10 percent.

As you can see, through the years, the bureau's original multiple-use management mandate in the desert has been emasculated by an environmental agenda and Congress, and yet the assault on our right to use our lands continues.

So, back to the introductory question: Will there ever be enough land preserved in the minds of environmental groups? Likely not.

As long as uses proposed are not to their liking, there will never be enough.

Richard Crowe, who is a resident of Beaumont, worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 33 years, 29 of them within the California Desert Conservation Area, dealing with a wide range of multiple-use management issues.