Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions: S. 32
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Congressional Record: 115th Congress
5 January 2017
By Mrs. FEINSTEIN: S. 32. A bill to provide for conservation, enhanced recreation opportunities, and development of renewable energy in the California Desert Conservation Area, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, today I am proud to introduce the Desert Protection and Recreation Act of 2017. This bill, a decade in the making, charts a commonsense path forward for the California desert. The goal is simple: to manage California's fragile desert resources in a sustainable and comprehensive manner. This bill provides something for everyone that appreciates the national treasure that is the California desert. That this bill provides something for everyone is a result of the painstaking effort to build consensus among the array of groups that use the desert, including: environmental groups; Federal, State, and local governments; the off-road community; cattle ranchers; mining interests; and energy companies and California's public utility companies. As I will further describe later, the bill preserves 230,000 acres of wilderness and another 44,000 acres of national park land, each unrivaled for their unique natural landscapes. The bill also safeguards 77 miles of free-flowing rivers and the abundant life and rich biodiversity these rivers and streams often support. Importantly, the bill provides certainty to off-road enthusiasts, establishing 142,000 acres of permanent off-highway recreation areas--a first for the Nation. I made a commitment to off-roaders to enact the entire bill, not just parts of the bill. I hope to fulfill that promise. The efforts to protect the desert are a long time coming. This effort first began with the original California Desert Protection Act, signed into law more than twenty years ago. Picking up where my predecessors left off, I introduced that bill only three months after I was sworn in as a senator. Through hard work and perseverance, we were able to pass that law on the last day of the 103rd Congress, and President Clinton signed the bill into law in October 1994. The original Desert Protection Act was a crowning achievement for desert conservation, establishing 69 new Wilderness areas, creating the Mojave National Preserve, and converting Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments into National Parks. All told, we were able to protect, or increase protections for, about 9.6 million acres. It continues to attract millions of tourists to southern California, which is a boon for the economy. It has ensured that these enduring landscapes will be preserved for future generations. Since we passed the 1994 desert conservation bill, we've tried to build on this legacy of conservation. After years of collaboration with an array of stakeholders, we introduced new legislation in 2009. The goal of that bill was simple: to help manage California's desert resources through a comprehensive approach that balanced conservation, recreation, energy production, among other needs. After years of work, including two hearings in the Senate, we reached a major milestone this past February, when President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert: Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails, and Sand to Snow. Those monuments, based on the legislation I had introduced, created one of the world's largest desert reserves, encompassing nearly 1.8 million acres of America's public lands. Those monuments connect vital wildlife corridors and habitats, preserve cultural resources, and establish an important buffer to the inevitable changes climate change will usher in for these fragile desert ecosystems. While the newly-designated desert monuments formed a cornerstone for future desert protection, our work is not complete. That is why I am introducing this legislation today. While I supported President Obama's decision to create three national monuments in the Mojave Desert, his authority under the Antiquities Act did not allow him to include the many other valuable provisions in the original legislation. Our intention has always been to balance the many uses of the desert through legislation, and that remains the case today. That is why I reintroduced that legislation immediately following the President's designation, and that is why I am introducing a bill again today: to make the rest of the provisions a reality. The legislation I am introducing today therefore includes all of the provisions the President was not able to enact through executive action under the Antiquities Act. These negotiated provisions--which represent our best attempt to achieve consensus among desert stakeholders--deserve to become law. That legislation includes many additional conservation areas and provides permanent protection for five Off-Highway Recreation Areas covering approximately 142,000 acres. Off-roaders were a vital part of the coalition we put together, and unfortunately those lands could not be designated under executive action. Off-roaders deserve certainty about their future use of the land, just as there is now certainty for conservation purposes. I gave them my word that I would fight for them, and I intend to do so again in this new Congress. This bill would also expand wilderness areas in the desert, by designating five additional wilderness areas that cover 230,000 acres of land near Fort Irwin. The bill would ensure clean and free-flowing rivers, through the designation of 77 miles of rivers as Wild and Scenic Rivers; add to our national parks, by expanding Death Valley National Park Wilderness by 39,000 acres and Joshua Tree National Park by 4,500 acres; expand National Scenic Areas, by adding 18,610 acres to the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area in Inyo County; and protect 81,000 acres of land in San Bernardino and Imperial County, and requires the Department of the Interior to protect petroglyphs and other cultural resources important to the surrounding tribes and communities. Lastly, the bill will facilitate renewable energy development in a way that protects delicate habitat. I want to highlight some of the key provisions of this legislation: By designating five new wilderness areas, this bill protects fragile desert ecosystems across 230,000 acres of wilderness near Fort Irwin. This includes 88,000 acres of Avawatz Mountains, 8,000-acre Great Falls Basin Wilderness, the 80,000-acre Soda Mountains Wilderness, and the 32,500-acre Death Valley Wilderness. The desert's sweeping desert vistas and rugged mountain terrain not only provide for a truly remarkable backcountry experience, but also provide vital refuge for everything from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua Trees and Native American artifacts. This bill is more than just wilderness, however. It also designates four new Wild and Scenic Rivers, totaling 77 miles in length. These beautiful waterways, carved through the heart of the arid desert, are Deep Creek and the Whitewater River in and near the San Bernardino National Forest, as well as the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley National Park. The bill also releases 126,000 acres of land from their existing wilderness study area designation in response to requests from local government and recreation users. This will allow the land to be made available for other purposes, including recreational off-highway vehicle use on designated routes. We must also take into account another use of the desert land: renewable energy. I believe that we can honor our commitment to conservation while fulfilling California's pledge to develop a clean energy portfolio. Balancing conservation, development and other uses is possible, we just need to come up with the right solutions. Thankfully, some of these compromises are already in place. By April 2009, solar and wind companies had proposed 28 projects to be included in the Mojave Trails National Monument, including sites on former Catellus lands intended for permanent conservation. I visited some of those sites at the time, including one particularly beautiful area known as the Broadwell Valley, where thousands of acres of pristine lands were proposed for development. Seeing it first hand, I quickly came to the conclusion that those lands were simply not the right place for renewable energy development. Since then, 26 of the 28 applications have been withdrawn. This is due in part to the state and federal governments' efforts to develop and finalize the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan--an ambitious effort to comprehensively manage renewable energy, conservation, and recreation on 22.5 million acres of California desert. By working with our state to develop this Plan, the federal government has shown it can be an effective partner in the State's efforts to combat climate change, all while protecting the magnificent, yet fragile, California desert landscape. The bill also makes use of about 370,000 acres of isolated, unusable parcels of State lands spread across the California desert. These small isolated parcels of State land in wilderness, national parks and monuments would be exchanged for Federal lands elsewhere that could potentially provide the State with viable sites for renewable energy development, off-highway vehicle recreation, or other commercial purposes. This blueprint will help identify pristine lands that warrant protection and direct energy projects elsewhere. This is a fair balancing of priorities, and I think it provides a clear path forward. I strongly urge my colleagues to take a good look at this legislation. I hope they understand that the many stakeholders involved have made their voices heard. As you can see, there are many diverse interests in California's desert lands, an it is not easy to bring them all into agreement. But after years of painstaking efforts, they have reached agreement on this bill. Desert conservation has never been a partisan issue. Over the years, legislators have come together across party lines to preserve this great piece of land. Given our past success, I am hopeful this Congress will take this legislation up and move it forward. Most importantly, I hope this body recognizes the simple fact that desert conservation has never been a partisan issue. Over the years, legislators have come together across party lines to preserve this great piece of land. It's the right thing to do.
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