Monday, January 3, 2011

Senator Feinstein Vows to Continue Desert Conservation Efforts in 2011

Even though Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010 or S.2921) did not pass this year, her office plans to continue efforts to push the legislation through this year.  According to a Press-Enterprise article, the Senator concluded last year's Congressional session by stating "I have had a 20-year vested interest in the desert -- in seeing that it's protected and that what solar is there is appropriate for the area and does not destroy the flora, the fauna, the beauty...I am steadfast in that regard." If passed, the legislation would create two new national monuments, and set aside thousands of acres of additional wilderness areas.

The Senator's legislation (S.2921) was a welcome ray of hope in an otherwise grim outlook for desert conservation in 2010.  During the frenzy of final business in Congress, there was a possibility that CDPA 2010 would find its way into the now-doomed omnibus lands legislation or even into the budget, but the year closed with little to brag about for conservation advocates.  California's deserts are under siege by hundreds of applications for proposed energy facilities that could destroy over 500 square miles of pristine desert habitat.

The biggest hurdle for Feinstein's bill last year was a busy legislative calendar.  The Senate put conservation on the back burner as it addressed health care, immigration, taxation, etc.  The Desert Protection Act may not have an easy time this year, as a Republic-dominated House looks to set their own agenda and members of the Republican Party--such as Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma--have spoken up against the bill.  Most opponents fear that the legislation will lock up too much land from future development, including for solar energy.  Senator Feinstein's office, however, points out that the legislation would not affect any of the proposed solar energy study zones, and the BLM approved several massive solar energy facilities that would not be affected by the bill.

Thanks to those who heeded this blog's call to urge the Senator to take action on the legislation last year.  As the Press-Enterprise article notes, desert conservation is no easy task, and the last major desert protection legislation that passed in 1995 was years in the making.   We will continue to advocate for this legislation this year.

As a recap for those not familiar with the bill,  CDPA 2010 would balance conservation of natural areas and preservation of recreation opportunities by establishing:
  • Mojave Trails National Monument: 941,413 acres of Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66 and the southern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve.  Many of the valleys in this area were proposed for industrial development, and could still be vulnerable to destructive uses if the legislation does not pass.
  • Sand to Snow National Monument:  133,524 acres of habitat connecting desert habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park and wilderness in the high country of San Bernardino National Forest.
  • Additional or expanded wilderness: 346,108 acres of new wilderness areas or additional acreage for existing wilderness areas.  Much of the new or added wilderness would be in the northern Mojave Desert. The western Mojave and northern Colorado Desert region (part of the Sonoran Desert) would not see many new protections.
  • Recreation areas: The bill would legislatively designate five off-highway vehicle (OHV) use areas, all in the Mojave Desert.  As a compromise for designating land within proposed monuments or wilderness areas as off-limits to OHV, the legislation would secure off-road enthusiasts' access to several large parcels of land.

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