Feinstein in the News
By Ian James
Originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun
Sen. Dianne Feinstein relaunched a proposal to create two national monuments on more than 1 million acres across the California desert, saying her revised bill would set aside several areas for off-road vehicles and energy projects while preserving other areas as pristine wilderness.
Feinstein released a draft of the bill Thursday while visiting the Whitewater Preserve for a lunch celebrating the 20th anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act. That 1994 law, which Feinstein also introduced, turned Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks and created the Mojave National Preserve.
Her new bill, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument, stretching from near Joshua Tree National Park to Mt. San Gorgonio, as well as the Mojave Trails National Monument, between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve, including a historic stretch along scenic Route 66. Feinstein said she will introduce the bill at the start of the new Senate session in January.
"This desert bill has taken six years and two prior drafts to get where we are today," Feinstein told an audience of more than 200 people. "We are looking to save this great desert."
The Democratic senator's bill also would establish five new wilderness areas on 235,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands, while adding 39,000 acres to Death Valley National Park and 4,500 acres to Joshua Tree National Park.
The bill would designate four off-highway vehicle areas as permanent OHV recreation areas. Among other things, the legislation also would order the Department of the Interior to trade 370,000 acres of federal land for state land, allowing the state to use those areas for purposes including renewable energy projects.
The legislation is an updated version of a bill that Feinstein has been promoting since 2009. The new version includes modifications that were made in an effort to boost support among lawmakers.
"This is the final campaign, and it's not going to be easy. Bills don't pass today, and they take years, so I'm really going to need your help," Feinstein told the group, which included leaders of conservation groups as well as county and city officials from Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
"I need your phone calls. I need you coming back to Washington. I need you to be at the committee hearings," Feinstein said. "If we can work out bipartisan sponsorship in the House of Representatives, we have a good chance to get this bill passed, I hope, within the next two years."
Fellow Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz pledged to help in the House, as did Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who won a congressional seat this week.
"There's a lot of difficult things that we get accomplished, and I'm looking forward to making this one of them," Ruiz said. "This bill would definitely help us bring more tourism and more outdoor recreationalists to our desert to really enjoy our pristine environment."
It's not clear how the Republican swing in Congress might affect Feinstein's plans.
President Barack Obama has recently used his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish other national monuments, including the newly created San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Feinstein acknowledged that could be one approach as a "last-ditch effort" if necessary. But she said such a procedure would make possible only portions of what her bill would accomplish.
"The problem is you lose a lot that you could do in a bill that you can't do in a monument," Feinstein said. She said those measures that can only be accomplished with a bill would include the permanent off-road vehicle areas and the designation of about 6,500 acres near Joshua Tree National Park as an "area of critical environmental concern" to preserve about 1,700 petroglyphs, among other things.
Feinstein spoke under a tent among cottonwood trees at the Whitewater Preserve, which is managed by The Wildlands Conservancy.
While the audience gathered for the lunch, local musician Brian Woodyard played a Native American flute. A group of sixth-graders from Palm Vista Elementary in Twentynine Palms, who came to sing "This Land is Your Land," passed around binoculars to spot a bighorn sheep that appeared on a ridge.
After her speech, Feinstein cut a cake to mark the 20th anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, which she has called one of her proudest legislative accomplishments.
While recognizing those who helped, Feinstein paid tribute to the late Elden Hughes, who championed the bill as a leader of the Sierra Club. She recalled how Hughes and his wife, Patty, brought desert tortoises to Washington to rally support for the bill.
"There was Elden with two big desert tortoises," Feinstein said. "I think the tortoises and the Hughes family brought a few votes to us, so thank you."
Hughes' widow brought some tortoises on Thursday to show the senator.
David Scott, president of the Sierra Club, praised the proposal to establish new national monuments.
"We need to do a lot more," Scott said. "We love to see the maximum amount of protection that we can get for this fragile habitat here in the desert."
Having the status of national monuments would heighten the level of protection for areas that are home to a rich variety of plants and animals ranging from bobcats to desert spiny lizards.
"If Feinstein is able to champion that and is able to bring people over to her side and get that actually passed, it will be shining gem in her accomplishments," said Paula Taylor of Oak Glen, a supporter of The Wildlands Conservancy. "Sure, there are obstacles. But there are always ways to put these kinds of difficult things together. If anybody can do it, she can."