Feinstein in the News

Originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun

The political landscape has changed, with Republicans now controlling both the House and Senate, but Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is again proposing legislation to conserve more of the California desert.

The bill Feinstein introduced Monday, which builds on similar efforts dating back to 2009, attempts to balance conservation with recreation and renewable energy development.

"This piece of legislation is the final chapter in a long effort to preserve one of the most magnificent landscapes in the United States," Feinstein said in a written statement.

Her proposal would create two new national monuments: the Sand to Snow National Monument would encompass 135,000 acres from the desert floor in Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, and the Mojave Trails National Monument would include 965,000 acres that were donated to the U.S. government.

Other conservation components of the proposal include designation of:

• 77 miles of waterways as Wild and Scenic Rivers, including the Whitewater River, which flows from the Mount San Gorgonio summit.

• An additional 39,000 acres to expand the Death Valley National Park; 4,500 acres to Joshua Tree National Park; and 22,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve.

• Six new Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas covering 250,000 acres.

• 18,610 acres of BLM land in Inyo County as the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area.

The legislation would designate as permanent five BLM Off-Highway Vehicle recreation areas to provide off-highway enthusiasts the same certainty as included in the conservation provisions.

The bill also features several provisions to promote renewable energy development, including one that requires the exchange of hundreds of thousands of acres of isolated state parcels surrounded by national parks and wilderness. This would provide the state with lands that could be used for renewable energy, recreation or conservation.

Several state, local and national conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy and the National Parks Conservation Association, support the Feinstein proposal.

"The (bill) provides the chance for Congress to achieve unparalleled success in protections for our diverse national parks and public lands that stand to have far-reaching economic and ecological benefits," said Seth Shteir, California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The NPCA said in addition to preserving public lands, the bill would boost the tourism economy and support jobs throughout the region. In 2013, the 2.9 million visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve generated about $168 million in visitor spending, which supported more than 2,000 local jobs.

About four dozen groups — ranging from environmentalists to off-road enthusiasts to Indian groups — are members of the Campaign for the California Desert, which supports Feinstein's bill.

Her proposal, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, would build on her 1994 legislation that established Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and protected more than 7.6 million acres of California desert wilderness.

The only co-sponsor so far is fellow California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. No companion legislation has been introduced in the House yet.

The real challenge will be whether this sort of large-scale conservation legislation can advance in a Congress where both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

In recent years, some conservatives have called for a halt to designating more lands as federal parks, monuments or wildlife areas.

President Barack Obama has angered them by using executive authority under the Antiquities Act to establish new national monuments.

But Feinstein thinks she has created the right balance of conservation, recreation and development for the bill to succeed.

"With so many competing uses for this land, it is essential that we come together to build consensus, and I am very grateful for all the groups and individuals who are working to do just that," she said.