10:41 PM PST on Monday, December 21, 2009

By DAVID DANELSKI
The Press-Enterprise

Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation Monday that would create two national monuments and protect more than a million acres of public land in eastern San Bernardino County and northwest of Palm Springs.

The bill also would enlarge existing parks and designate permanent off-road vehicle play areas.

The proposed legislation represents an apparent compromise Feinstein reached in private talks with alternative-energy developers and preservationists over the past few months.

The bill could help define which public land in Southern California will be preserved for wildlife, open space and recreation and which will be used for wind and solar projects to help cut the nation’s reliance on oil and gas.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2010 builds on Feinstein’s successful effort in the 1990s to create the Mojave National Preserve and heighten protection of millions of acres. The new bill would expand the preserve and Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

“A deer could start in Mexico and be able to make it to Northern California in a protected wildlife corridor,” said Elden Hughes, a Joshua Tree resident and Sierra Club member. “This is a giant step forward.”

Feinstein, a California Democrat, has said she hopes the bill passes in 2010. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which would have to approve the measure before it could go before the full Senate.

The biggest component is the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument encompassing dry lakes, mountain ranges and other terrain on both sides of Interstate 40 south of Mojave National Preserve.

It also would create the 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument from the desert north of Palm Springs to San Gorgonio Peak. It would include Big Morongo and Whitewater canyons and nature preserves in Pipes Canyon and along Mission Creek on the eastern flanks of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Conservancy Pleased

The larger monument would take in 266,000 acres of former railroad land acquired by The Wildlands Conservancy in the late 1990s with private donations and deeded to the federal government with intent that it would be preserved for conservation.

The group has been worried because the BLM accepted applications for energy development on some of the land, said David Myers, executive director the Oak Glen-based conservancy.

Applications for 130 wind and solar developments are pending on public land in the California desert, making the push for additional protection more urgent for preservation groups.

As the legislation was being prepared, three companies agreed to drop plans for energy projects on or near Broadwell Dry Lake, a scenic valley north of Interstate 40 between the Cady and Bristol mountains, Myers said. The valley is included in the proposed monument, which also would take in most of Route 66 between Barstow and Needles.

“We are extremely pleased with Senator Feinstein and her staff in the way they brought so many different interests together,” Myers said.

The federal Bureau of Land Management would oversee the desert monument, which would continue to allow recreational uses such as hunting, exploring on roads and trails, camping, horseback riding and rock hounding, according to Feinstein’s office. National monuments generally have fewer visitor restrictions than national parks.

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