After working for two decades to protect California's desert wilderness, Sierra Club activists were overjoyed to see the California Desert Protection Act signed into law by President Clinton in October 1994. A little more than a year later, desert activists are working overtime once more -- only now they are fighting anti-desert forces determined to thwart implementation of the hard-won law.
"The good news is that millions of acres have been added to the federal wilderness system, signs are going up in the new Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, and off-road-vehicle use has ended in the new wilderness areas," said Jim Dodson, a veteran Club activist and desert champion. "The bad news is that the centerpiece of the Act -- the Mojave National Preserve -- still faces major obstacles."
GOP leaders have attempted to undermine the California Desert Protection Act by limiting Park Service spending on the new 1.4 million-acre Mojave National Preserve to a cynical $1 and transferring $599,999 and management responsibility for the preserve to the Bureau of Land Management. Activists say this could be disastrous for fragile Mojave lands, since the BLM has historically managed the desert not for its protection but to benefit extractive industries.
While valid existing claims can continue to be mined in the preserve, the Park Service requires more stringent environmental controls and mine reclamation than does the BLM. Desert activists say that's why foreign mining companies, which fought hard against the creation of the Mojave Preserve, are now lobbying for BLM management.
"For instance," said Club activist Elden Hughes, "a Swiss mining company wants to mine the whole east wall of Caruthers Canyon in the New York Mountains, right in the heart of the preserve and home to hundreds of plant species. Park Service management is the best possible protection against that plan."
The Mojave Preserve funding measure was included in the giant 1996 Interior appropriations bill drafted by GOP leaders in Congress last fall. An outpouring of public concern encouraged President Clinton in December to follow through on his promise to veto the bill. Since then, GOP leaders have refused to remove this and other anti-environmental measures from the bill; meanwhile, the president has vowed to veto it again unless these provisions are addressed.
In addition to transferring funds for Park Service management of the Mojave to the BLM, the Interior appropriations bill would increase logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and prohibit adding new species to the endangered species list or listing new critical habitat for those species. All the more reason, say Club leaders, for Americans to get involved and fight for the environmental protection that poll after poll shows they want.
"The fate of the Mojave Preserve is in Bill Clinton's hands," said Dodson. "He needs to hear from Americans that we support his efforts to retain Park Service management for the preserve."
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