WASHINGTON -- Ending eight years of deadlock, the Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation to protect a vast part of the California desert by creating three new national parks and 74 wilderness areas.
By a vote of 69 to 29, the Senate agreed to add almost 6.4 million acres to some 3 million California desert acres already under federal management to preserve unique wildlife and flowers, sites of ancient civilizations, the last intact dinosaur tracks in North America and awe-inspiring scenery that has changed little in thousands of years.
The measure would set aside the largest amount of land for parks since the Alaska lands bill was passed in 1980, protecting 104 million acres of wilderness. The California bill also would be the largest single package of park lands ever created in the lower 48 states -- the equivalent of three Yellowstone National Parks.
"This is promises made, promises kept," said a jubilant Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored the California Desert Protection Act. She referred to a 1992 campaign pledge to pass a desert bill, which had been stalled in the Senate.
Ms. Feinstein's bill, backed by a host of environmental organizations and pushed hard by the Clinton administration, now goes to the House, where supporters predicted swift approval. The House approved a similar bill two years ago.
"This is the largest remaining land-use issue in the United States, and we're close to resolution," said Rep. Richard Lehman, D-Calif. He and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, will steer the desert bill through the House.
Critics of the measure questioned the cost of the new parks and wilderness areas -- about $36 million over five years to manage the land, plus $100 million to $300 million to acquire additional tracts. Opponents also argued that the bill would place too many restrictions on mining companies, ranchers and recreational vehicle users, costing local jobs.
Ms. Feinstein and other bill supporters contended that the creation of the new parks not only will ensure the future of pristine desert for generations to come but will create jobs as visitors flock to the desert.
Under the Feinstein bill, about 3.75 million acres of federal land in sites all over the desert would become wilderness areas. The 2-million-acre Death Valley National Monument would be expanded by 1.2 million acres and the 1.6-million-acre Joshua Tree National Monument would be expanded by 245,000 acres. Both would be redesignated as national parks.
The measure also would create Mojave National Park, covering 1.2 million acres.
By contrast, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres and Grand Canyon National Park is about 1.8 million acres.
The House is expected to adopt most of the Senate bill's provisions.