California Desert Protection Act
The California Desert Protection Act was adopted in October 1994, a day after the scheduled adjournment of Congress, after having been in the legislative meat grinder for almost nine years since it was first introduced. On that day, supporters of the Act were able to overcome the last of four separate Senate filibusters against it without a single vote to spare. It was a genuine cliff-hanger and it seemed a miracle.
No miracle would have been possible without the arduous efforts throughout those years of an exceptional group of volunteers, most but by no means all of them, Californians. Their fellow citizens have them to thank for the largest National Park in the lower 48 states (Death Valley), a new National Park replacing and enlarging Joshua Tree National Monument, the magnificent New Mojave National Preserve and, finally, several million acres of protected wilderness in the California desert, some of the last remaining wild lands in the state.
Lawyer-historian Frank Wheat's book, "California Desert Miracle," celebrates the victory achieved by these volunteers and tells the stories of critical turning points in which a volunteer's actions made all the difference. Here is one such story. It begins in the year 1993 when the Desert Bill's next hurdle would be the Senate Energy Committee, the legislative body empowered to approve, change or totally reject it.
At the head of the Committee, with a Chairman's vast powers, was the senior Senator from Louisiana, J. Bennett Johnston. An avid hunter, he was not known to favor conservation causes and had expressed doubts about the bill. Its centerpiece was a Mojave National Park. Hunting would not be permitted in such a park. If the bill were to be amended to allow hunting, the National Park Service would fight it. Could anything be done?
Enter Stephanie Jowers, a high school student in a suburb of New Orleans. She'd never seen a desert. But she had founded an ecology club in her high school. The school administration had originally rejected her proposal. She took it to the local School Board. They reluctantly told her they would permit it if she could present them a petition with 1,000 signatures. That, they thought, would rid them of this young troublemaker. She got the signatures.
An officer of the recently formed Sierra Student Coalition, a sophomore at Brown University, was looking for someone to help the coalition in the deep South and found Stephanie through the suggestion of a trash recycling company in the area where she lived. He explained to her that passage of the Desert Bill was the Coalition's most important goal at that time. It had no one in Louisiana to lean on. Could she possibly help to gain the support of Senator Johnston? She decided to try. For several months she monopolized the phone in her home to reach fellow students in her school, in other nearby high schools and in colleges in Louisiana.
She traveled to meet with them. Learning that the Senator had a daughter, Mary Johnston, at Tulane University, she called her. She found that the Senator's daughter loved the John Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, a place not included in the country's register of National Parks since hunting was allowed. Mary Johnston was fearful of the guns of hunters during the hunting season and stayed away. Would she call her father and tell him so? She would.
Well before the Senate Committee was due to meet on the Desert Bill in September, 1993, Stephanie bundled together some 5,000 personally-signed postcards and letters addressed to Senator Johnston, each one urging his full support of the Desert Bill, and had them delivered to his office. He was astonished. He called Stephanie (whom he had never met nor even heard of) and expressed his amazement that so many of his young constituents (and future constituents) felt so strongly on the subject. He was won over.
During the highly contentious Committee debate that ensued, he told fellow senators that he "enjoyed the blood sports as much as any man." But, he said, there were lots of other places in the Mojave Desert to hunt and he was convinced the desert deserved a Mojave National Park with no hunting. Led by its chairman, the Committee approved the Desert Bill. It was very close: the expected amendment from the opposition to eliminate a Mojave National Park from the Bill failed by the narrowest of margins, a 10-10 vote.
Later, Senator Johnston successfully led a spirited fight for the Bill on the Senate floor, assisted by California's new Senator, Dianne Feinstein, the Bill's principal sponsor. Whether or not she had ever heard of it, the heroine of the story, Stephanie Jowers, exemplifies Goethe' s famous maxim: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
Without Stephanie's bold action, it is possible that the Desert Protection Act we have today might never have emerged from Congress.
In the House of Representatives some months later, the House Committee submitted a Desert Bill, including a Mojave National Monument without hunting. On the House floor, an amendment to allow hunting was adopted. The compromise between the House and Senate Bills gave us the Mojave National Preserve we have today, managed by the National Park Service National Park in all but name and the fact that hunting regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game would continue.
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