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National Monument Proposals for California Desert are Back

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Representative Raul Ruiz, seated on left, applauds as Senator Dianne Feinstein announces her intent to reintroduce a desert protection bill. | Photo: Chris Clarke

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is rebooting her effort to protect almost a million and a half acres of the California desert, she announced Thursday. At a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act held at the Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs, Feinstein made the formal announcement that she'll be reintroducing her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act into the newly Republican-controlled Congress.

The bill would create two new National Monuments in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, designate more than a quarter million acres of federal lands as wilderness areas, and add about 74,000 acres to the California desert's three national parks.

"This won't be easy. Congress does not pass bills today," said Senator Feinstein to a crowd of more than a hundred desert protection activists. "But it's long past time we finished the work we did in 1994. Together, we can do that."

Feinstein plans to introduce the bill in January.

The new bill, substantially similar to a version Feinstein introduced in December 2009, would designate the 942,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, as well as the 135,000-acre Sand To Snow National Monument connecting Joshua Tree NP and the San Bernardino National Forest near Palm Springs.

The bill would also designate almost 300,000 acres of wilderness on Bureau of Land Management lands, in Death Valley National Park, and in the San Bernardino National Forest; create a Special Management Agency at Vinagre Wash in Imperial County; declare almost 19,000 acres of the Alabama Hills in Inyo County as a National Scenic Area; and add a number of adjacent parcels of land to Death Valley National Park, the Mojave Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park. It would also designate 77 miles of desert streams such as the Whitewater River and Deep Creek as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

On the side of things that don't make desert preservationists as happy, the bill would also declare four parcels totaling 135,000 acres in San Bernardino County permanent off-highway vehicle recreation areas. It would release 126,000 acres designated as Wilderness Study Areas in the 1994 Desert Protection Act from the protection that status granted them, and open the areas -- in the Cady and Soda mountains -- to vehicular access. And the Mojave Trails National Monument would be chartered to allow the building of electrical transmission lines across its lands.

Given the fact that as of Tuesday both houses of Congress will be controlled by Republican leadership, such a sweeping measure to protect 1.5 million acres is unlikely to see smooth sailing on Capitol Hill. It's likely with that in mind that Feinstein floated a trial balloon in Monday's Los Angeles TImes suggesting that the Senator would seek an end run around Congress if Republican leadership proved recalcitrant over the next year, by asking the White House to designate the two National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, which was recently used to create the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Such a move would not require Congressional approval, but the move would also leave out a number of key provisions of the bill. The Antiquities Act cannot be used to designate National Scenic Areas such as the one proposed for the Alabama Hills, nor for Wild and Scenic Rivers designations,.

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