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California Desert Protection Act Passes



CONSERVATIONISTS FETE DESERT ACT'S PASSAGE; MINERS CALL IT MAJOR BLOW
By DENIS WOLCOTT
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES - To opponents, passage of the California Desert Protection Act
represents a major blow to the mining industry, a giant "off-limits" sign to
off-road vehicle users and a new financial burden on the National Park Service.

But to supporters of the largest wilderness protection act for the lower 48
states, California now can reap the benefits of increased tourism dollars from
its two newest national parks and be assured some of the country's most diverse
lands will be preserved for generations.

"The bill is not shutting down the desert," said Jim Dodson of Lancaster, a
member of the California Desert Protection League, an umbrella organization for
desert environmental groups. Lancaster is about 56 miles north of downtown Los
Angeles.

The legislation covers nearly 8 million acres of California's 25 million-acre
desert, a diverse area with 90 mountain ranges, more than 100,000 archeological
sites, including preserved dinosaur tracks; wetlands, waterfalls, 760 species
of wildlife and a host of other animals, including bighorn sheep, cougars and
cattle.

It took almost eight years to pass the desert act. Following President Clinton's
expected signature to the bill, it should take only a few days or weeks for
federal park workers to erect new boundary signs, such as "Death Valley National
Park" or "Federal Wilderness Area."

At the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, the desert act's greatest
impact won't be larger boundaries but rather an improved public image, officials
said.

"When we think of a national park, we think of Yosemite or Yellowstone. But when
people come to a national monument, they come in here asking where the monument
is," said Art Webster, a naturalist and park ranger at Joshua Tree.

"They're looking for that lone Joshua tree or something resembling the
Washington Monument. It gets confusing," Webster said.

Being a national park, Webster says, will enhance Joshua Tree's international
attraction. Nearly 75 percent of its 1.25 million annual visitors are from other
countries.

Some things won't change under the bill, such as hunting in the Mojave National
Preserve - formerly known as the East Mojave National Scenic Area.

Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, bill sponsors agreed to
designate the Mojave a preserve rather than a national park, a status that would
have prohibited hunting.

The 1.5 million-acre Mojave preserve is the scene of California's annual hunting
curiosity. Auctions, sometimes reaching $61,000, are held for the rights to be
among the six to 12 hunters allowed to venture into the 6,900-foot-tall mountain
ranges in search of older bighorn rams.

But some impacts of the bill will take or be felt longer, officials said.

Bureau of Land Management park rangers believe some immediate effects could come
from a handful of dirt motorcyclists and off-road enthusiasts who will test the
new restrictions applied to 71 wilderness areas encompassing 3.75 million acres
between the Owens Valley and the Mexico border.

"Most of the larger, reputable off-highway groups won't be involved in any
illegal activity. But I'm sure a few renegades will test us," said Al Stein,
assistant manager for the BLM's Desert District office in Riverside.

The BLM will have jurisdiction over the wilderness plots. The National Park
Service, which already was operating Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national
monuments, will also assume control of the Mojave National Preserve from the
BLM.

Stein said federal officials will embark on an aggressive educational program,
visiting campsites and groups of off-road users to tell them about the new
restrictions and advise them from straying into protected areas. Hiking is OK,
but dirt bikes are not, he warns.

"We also plan aggressive law enforcement action," he said, adding that old
off-road trails not protected by the act will be blocked off.

"Wilderness management is pretty intensive. A lot will have to be done," Stein
said.

Federal wilderness designation offers perhaps the stingiest land-use
restrictions. No mechanized vehicles are allowed in wilderness areas. Any dirt
road or improved highway not specifically protected under the desert bill must
be wiped out so BLM workers can restore the land to a natural state. No new
trails can be cut.

However, the desert bill was unique from some previous wilderness legislation in
that it does not prohibit all mining.

And it is the mining provision that will cause some of the most noticeable
battles over the next few decades, according to environmentalists and mining
industry representatives.

Soon after the legislation was introduced by former Sen. Alan Cranston, mining
companies staked thousands of claims throughout the impacted areas. The act
recognizes all pre-existing valid mining claims.

But before digging can begin, mining companies must show there are abundant
deposits below the surface. Even if there are, mining companies will be
prohibited from using any mechanized equipment to extract ore.

"It's not very realistic for a large mining concern to conduct an operation
using pack mules," said Denise Jones, executive director of the California
Mining Association.