Washington: Parking Costs

Government ownership reduces every land-use decision to a power play.


When Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer won California's two Senate seats and Bill Clinton took the White House, the long, bitter struggle over the California desert was all but over. On April 13, the huge California Desert Protection Act cleared the Senate. Passage by the House is certain, leaving Republican opponents with little more to do than make fiery floor speeches and plead for minor changes. By the end of the year, the largest national parks and wilderness bill in the history of the continental United States will surely be law, encompassing some 9 million acres in the southeast quadrant of California.

A breathtaking 7.8 million acres, an area the size of Maryland, are designated as wilderness, the most stringent level of federal protection. Wilderness is land left in its primitive, natural state, with no roads and no vehicles. The bill's new wilderness designations alone, 6.4 million acres, are the size of eight Yosemites. The bill creates three new national parks, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and the East Mohave.

"This is promises made and promises kept," Feinstein declared. It is also a case study of how government ownership of land reduces every land-use decision to a political struggle. In this cutthroat game, political horse traders and Washington lobbyists divvy up the public real estate. Right now, the environmentalists are on top, and they want wilderness. Before them, it was the ranchers, who wanted and got cheap grazing land, and miners, who got bargain-basement mineral claims.

Feinstein had made the desert bill a top campaign plank, vowing to end an eight-year Republican blockade since its introduction in 1986 by former California Sen. Alan Cranston. Pete Wilson, then a senator, now California governor, had stymied the measure, as did his appointed successor, John Seymour, and the Bush White House.

Critics have ample grounds to call the measure a huge environmentalist land grab. The vast wilderness designations surely are too large; the acreage figures came straight from the Sierra Club, which decided it could trump a hard-fought compromise reached in 1980 after four years of negotiations among competing interests. The compromise called for 2.3 million acres of wilderness, which still would have established a record for the lower 48 states.

The desert bill carries incalculable costs in lost mineral wealth. Existing mines may remain, but further exploration is prohibited, closing forever one of the world's richest mineral lodes. The California desert's unique geology hosts large deposits of strategic minerals and rare earths vital to such advanced technologies as super magnets, lasers, superconductivity, special polymers, computers, and satellites.

Yet opponents did not help their cause by holding Barstow-to-Las-Vegas motorcycle races over tortoise habitat or arguing that hunting in national parks is an American birthright. The California desert is well worth preserving. It is a remarkable place of stark scenery, wild burros and wildflowers, volcanic geology, great dunes, Indian petroglyphs, homestead cabins, and the U.S. Cavalry's Ft. Paiute, which guarded the old Mohave Trail.

The vast bulk of the land is already owned by the federal government, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The argument was really over whether to allow "multiple uses" such as grazing and mining. Most of the private property inholdings belong to two entities: Catellus Development Corporation, a real-estate firm that owns 345,000 acres of old federal land grants made to Southern Pacific Railway, and the California State Lands Commission, which manages 260,000 acres for retired state teachers.

During Feinstein's performance on the Senate floor, where she illustrated various beauties of the California desert with large color photographs, she seemed at times as if she were selling cinder cones and barrel cactus like so much merchandise on the Home Shopping Network. ("Look at that peak," she marveled. "Look at that beautiful blossom.") Theatrics aside, Feinstein's shepherding of the desert bill established her as an adept legislator and a shrewd politician. She stripped away opponents one by one, deleting a ranch here, removing a road there. All existing mines were shielded. By the end, even the National Rifle Association was strangely mute on hunting in the East Mohave.

To her credit, Feinstein did not resort to the usual Boxeresque demagoguery of painting her opponents as environmental rapists. By the end, Rep. Al McAndless (R-Calif.) sounded positively inane arguing that curtailing dune buggies and motorcycles will wreck the livelihoods of desert dwellers who on weekends sell truckloads of soda pop to off-road-vehicle enthusiasts. In the swirl of lobbying building up to the vote, some mining company wizards sent their female employees traipsing through Washington in an unlikely grouping called Women for Mining (or something like that) to argue that mining provides females with wonderful non-traditional economic opportunities.

Lost in the special pleading are the real economic costs, such as the trade-off between a little less wilderness or a little more exploration for the rare earths that go into such pollution-reducing technologies as electric cars. The trade-off for three new national parks also includes less money for the 367 other national parks, as the bill's chief foe, Rep. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), has doggedly argued. Land acquisition costs for the bill were very roughly estimated at $100 million to $300 million, plus $7 million a year in operating costs.

Maintenance, let alone capital improvements, in the 80-million-acre National Park System is $6 billion behind schedule. Deriding the desert bill as the "National Park Degradation Act," Wallop said national parks are "the sexiest thing going" in Congress, particularly for someone who, like Feinstein, is up for re-election. Congress, Wallop charged, has a "tremendous appetite for parks but no stomach to pay for them."

As if to prove Wallop's point, Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) proceeded nonchalantly to tack onto the desert bill a New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Johnston, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and had jurisdiction over the bill, also threw in a passel of new federal programs for the Mississippi Delta, with special aid for everything from minority colleges to aquaculture to "small, emerging, minority and rural museums."

All this while the federal government, according to Wallop, still owes upwards of $5 billion to the owners of 336,000 acres of private property that have been designated as national parklands. "The backlog of authorized but unacquired lands is absolutely staggering," Wallop said. "There is no way in our lifetime that this service will be able to compensate those owners of private property, who through no fault of their own landed in the middle of a park." These landowners are trapped, unable to use their land, build on it, or sell it, but of course they must still pay taxes on it.

The most remarkable spectacle of all came with a surprise oration on fiscal prudence by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who usually seems bent on paving over his home state with federal pork. "We cannot expect everything to be protected and paid for 100 percent by the federal government," Byrd admonished. "We cannot adequately maintain the parks that we now have, nor buy the lands which the authorizing committees have told us to buy. Having three new beautiful national parks would be nice, but we in this chamber have to come to grips with the realities of the age in which we live. One does not go out and buy a Cadillac when one cannot make payments on the family Ford."

Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.