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The Planet


When President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act into law on Halloween, the event crowned a legislative struggle that began in 1986, the year the Sierra Club persuaded California Sen. Alan Cranston to introduce the bill.

That the historic measure was finally passed by the gridlock-ridden 103rd Congress stands as a tribute to the doggedness and determination of Sierra Club activists, many of whom have been fighting for desert protection for nearly 20 years.

"Like the desert itself, this victory is nothing short of miraculous," said Judy Anderson, a longtime leader in the Sierra Club's desert campaign. "From the moment the bill was first introduced eight years ago to the waning moments of the 103rd Congress, we've been climbing uphill. Today the future looks immeasurably brighter."

"My most memorable visit to the desert will be my next one," agreed Elden Hughes, another longtime desert activist, "because now I know that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to experience it as I have -- from the vastness of a mountaintop to the spirituality of a shaman's cave."

Until 1992, when Cranston retired and California elected two new U.S. senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, passage of the Desert Act was stymied by the opposition of the state's junior senator, first Pete Wilson and later John Seymour. Feinstein, with Boxer's support, re-introduced the desert bill in the 103rd Congress. It was championed on the House side by California Reps. George Miller and Rick Lehman and Minnesota Rep. Bruce Vento.

Finally shepherded through both houses of Congress, the two versions of the bill were expected to be reconciled in conference committee. But Republican obstructionism blocked the legislation until the closing minutes of the congressional session, when Feinstein, with the help of Sierra Club activists, turned up the pressure to get the bill passed.

The Sierra Student Coalition, for example, sprang into action. SSC leaders Mark Fraioli and Peter Shurman turned a planned rally to block a theme park in Virginia -- made unnecessary by the Disney Corporation's retreat -- into an impromptu demonstration to end the gridlock on the desert. They generated letters and vivid murals urging Senate majority leader George Mitchell to keep the Senate in session.

Another student leader, Stephanie Jowers, rallied dormitory mates to make some 50 calls urging one critical Northeastern senator -- reported to be leaving town prior to the vote -- to stick around the capital. He did, and voted for passage.

"The California Desert Protection Act -- the largest parks and wilderness act ever for the lower 48 states -- would be a huge achievement in any Congress," said Carl Pope, the Club's executive director. "That we got it through the worst environmental Congress in a generation makes the victory that much sweeter."

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