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Bill to protect desert backed by once-fierce foes

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 1, 2011

(05-01) Washington -- In 1994, a rookie lawmaker named Dianne Feinstein pushed through the largest national parks and wilderness bill ever - by a single vote on the last day before Republicans took control of Congress - protecting 8.5 million acres of the California desert against the wishes of many who lived there.

Seventeen years later, many of those who warned that the California Desert Protection Act would sacrifice their way of life to an environmentalist utopia have changed sides, becoming allies in Feinstein's quest to create one of the biggest environmental legacies in California history: a new bill to protect 1.165 million more acres ringing the national parks at Death Valley and Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

"Is it going to pass tomorrow anywhere?" Feinstein said. "No. Am I going to cease and desist? NO!"

When it comes to the desert, "She's just intense," said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association. "She's persistent. She's very formidable."

With Republicans again in control of the House, Feinstein's former foes now count on her to protect their off-road vehicle playgrounds and block efforts to build giant solar plants in the desert.

"There has been a 180-degree turnabout in perception and attitude," said Gerald Freeman, owner of the Nipton Hotel near the Mojave Preserve. Freeman said tourism and a national park "prestige factor" has replaced the view that "environmentalists have stolen our land."

Huge ecosystem

For environmentalists, the three giant national parks of the California desert offer a rare last chance to save an intact ecosystem on nature's grand scale.

By creating buffers and filling in critical wildlife corridors, the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 would link the three parks with the desert ecosystem rather than land parcels in mind, said David Lamfrom, desert program manager for the National Parks and Conservation Association.

The Mojave is under pressure. Rivaling the Sahara in solar intensity and tantalizingly close to Los Angeles, the Mojave is prime territory for solar plants that can cover as much as 8 square miles. The Marine Corps wants to add 262 square miles to its base at Twentynine Palms (San Bernardino County). More than 8 million people visited the desert last year.

Just north of Baker (San Bernardino County), the Dumont Dunes on a single weekend can attract as many as 40,000 off-road enthusiasts, said Susan Sorrells of Shoshone (Inyo County), whose family has lived in the desert for four generations.

"Without this legislation we could lose the scenic and ecological landscapes that make the desert unique," said Paul Spitler, associate director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society. "This is a unique part of world - not just of California and the nation - but of the world."

Last month, third-ranking House Republican Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield fired a warning shot, introducing legislation to roll back millions of acres of wilderness designations, using the same arguments of 1994 that public lands should be open to multiple uses, including logging, grazing, mining and presumably renewable energy.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands (San Bernardino County), who fought the 1994 act and gave the Mojave Preserve $1 to operate in 1995, "has repeatedly expressed his concern about expanding government control and ownership of desert lands," his spokesman Jim Specht said.

But two Republicans whose districts would be directly affected - Reps. Howard "Buck" McKeon and Mary Bono Mack - while neutral on Feinstein's bill, teamed with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to set aside new California wilderness in 2009. Another Southern California Republican, Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), this year proposed his own wilderness bill.

A battle-scarred Feinstein has changed tactics since inheriting the original desert legislation from the late Democrat Alan Cranston. She and her allies have spent years laboriously building consensus among rival desert users, staving off the range-war atmosphere of 1994.

Feinstein would give off-road vehicle users their first-ever congressionally protected playgrounds. She has convinced the Marine Corps to share the land it wants with off-roaders for 10 months of the year.

Some of Feinstein's fiercest former local foes now revile the prospect of solar projects allowed on "multiple use" land.

"We ought to put this solar stuff on rooftops before we fill up the public lands in the desert with these god-awful utility-scale contraptions," said Chuck Bell, a vocal opponent of the original parks act and president of the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association.

Ex-foes back Feinstein

Local GOP officials, who once protected strip mines, count on ecotourism to fill their tax coffers. Barstow, a San Bernardino County community that was once a hotbed of the anti-park insurgency, has endorsed Feinstein's bill along with more than 100 organizations and businesses, including city councils deep in GOP territory.

Joshua Tree "helps to fill hotels, it helps create transient occupancy taxes and it provides a real boost to the local economy," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry, a Republican.

Battle over solar sites

Feinstein's bill has staved off solar development in key parcels.

After filing applications to build on thousands of acres, solar companies have mostly withdrawn from the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, which would also protect an unblemished stretch of historic Route 66.

"It was devastating and difficult and obviously treacherous for the industry, and not the way you would hope to start a renaissance, but we're past it now," said Eddy of the Large-Scale Solar Association. "Any projects within the boundaries of her monument are considered too much of a risk right now to develop."

Wind developer Oak Creek Energy of Oakland last month pulled the plug on a five-year effort to build a wind farm in the Castle Mountain area that Feinstein wants to add to the Mojave Preserve.

"The primary reason was that we found this area was heavily desired by powerful interests," executive vice president Edward Duggan said in an e-mail.

Giant energy plan

The state and federal governments are trying to devise a giant plan to site solar plants, preferably on old farmland or other disturbed areas.

Eddy said that is easier said than done, and the state needs all the solar energy it can get - from roof tops to utility-scale facilities - to achieve its new 33 percent renewable fuel standard. Billions of dollars of investment are on the sidelines, waiting for regulatory certainty.

"If we delay too much, then there won't be an industry later," Eddy said. "We're really at that fragile point."

Applications by solar companies to develop property that was donated for conservation was the genesis for Feinstein's legislation. The Wildlands Conservancy had raised $45 million in private funds and taxpayers pitched in another $18 million to buy old railroad parcels and give them to the federal government. Feinstein drew the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument to protect those parcels.

Approach Senate first

She included a new Sand to Snow National Monument and painstakingly drew in new wilderness areas while releasing several wilderness study areas.

Feinstein's plan is to pass the bill in the Senate first, itself a giant task.

"There is huge support, and I think we have a unified community," she said. "If it passes the Senate, I believe the opportunity for the House increases dramatically, because I think people want it."

Her original 1994 act, "has been a terrific success," she said. "We have kept the desert desert for all time."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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