It's 112 degrees in the shade in parts of the Mojave Desert these days. But the political heat is rising as folks from here to Washington fight over a plan to set aside 7.5 million acres as wilderness.
The battleground is a starkly beautiful land of brushy desert and craggy mountains, stretching from Death Valley to the Mexican border, from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and coast ranges to the sandy borders of Nevada and Arizona.The rugged 35,000-square-mile sweep is home to shy bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise and a few hard-working cattle ranchers. It has two existing national parks, rich lodes of gold and minerals and a sprinkling of fiercely independent communities.
Park proponents, led by Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, see the desert as a fragile treasure, already scarred beyond recovery in some spots by mine pits and recreational vehicles.
They would set aside a slice of varied desert terrain bigger than the state of Delaware as Mojave National Park.
And, they would designate as wilderness areas 80 spots deemed ecologically sensitive, biologically unique or just beautiful, including the South Algadones Dunes, the Orocopia Mountains, the Saline Valley, and the Mecca Hills.
Even opponents agree the desert deserves special reverence.
"It's not the dollar value," said cattleman Dave Fisher, sipping a beer at a barbecue thrown by ranchers worried the bill might drastically limit livestock grazing on federal land. "It's the greatness of a way of life. My God, look at that sky. Look across the top of them old pinon trees. This is God's country."
Leading the fight against the bill is U.S. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who toured the region last week.
Hodel believes Mojave National Park would unfairly exclude hunters, prospectors and explorers. He also backs a Bureau of Land Management recommendation to limit designated wilderness areas to 44, covering less than half the area envisioned by Cranston.
Government land outside park and wilderness should be open to multiple use, say Hodel and the BLM, meaning vehicles could traverse unmaintained roads and tracks, and selected mining and grazing would be allowed.
"I just don't think we have to choose between either preserving and protecting on the one hand and natural resources, transportation corridors and the rest on the other hand," Hodel said. "We can do both."