WASHINGTON - A 120-mile stretch of the Gold Rush trail across Nevada, flanked by snow-capped mountains and sprawling desert playa, will get federal protection against development as part of a congressional budget compromise approved Friday.
The bill by Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., to protect about 1.2 million acres in northwest Nevada was included in the budget that the House and Senate approved Friday and that President Clinton is expected to sign.
To keep the landscape untarnished, the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area bill would protect about 800,000 acres administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Conservation areas offer protection a notch below national monuments and parks.
''This is a huge victory for not only every Nevadan, but every American,'' Bryan said.
''This legislation will allow countless future generations to enjoy, study and marvel at this unique landscape, as well as maintaining an important part of our Western heritage - the emigrant experience.''
The bill also would designate 11 wilderness areas, some of which overlap the conservation area, to protect an additional 400,000 acres. The wilderness areas have been studied for 20 years without allowing new roads or mining, but the legislation would make that status permanent.
The bill would prohibit most mining, geothermal activities and new roads across the land. Grazing, hunting and recreational activities could continue on existing roads and trails.
''This is wonderful news,'' said Roger Scholl, a member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness in Reno. ''This action will grant lasting protection to the historic trail, the vast scenery, the amazing silence and the wide-open wilderness lands of the Black Rock for the benefit of all Nevadans.''
Supporters thanked Bryan and fellow Nevada Democrat Sen. Harry Reid for pushing the bill through to fruition.
The conservation area roughly fills the ''V'' formed by the Jackson Mountains and Route 34 in the northwestern corner of the state. The designation would protect the Applegate-Lassen Trail from near Rye Patch Reservoir along Interstate 80 to Vya, Nev., near the California border.
Wagon ruts and axle-grease drawings survive from that period. But conservationists fear that without greater protection, new mining could chew up the landscape and off-road vehicles could obliterate the trail that emigrants took to seek their fortune in the West.
''As the population in the West continues to soar, and our once remote places become more and more accessible to a greater number of people, we have got to take steps to ensure the protection of our natural and historical treasures,'' Bryan said, adding that the bill fits both categories.
Bryan, who is retiring this year, made the legislation his final act after efforts to protect the land began with a 1962 National Park Service report calling the area ''one of the great sights of Western America.'' Several efforts to create a historical landmark or conservation areas failed over the years.
''After 40 years of Nevadans working hard to protect the Black Rock Desert, I am ecstatic that there will finally be national recognition,'' said Susan Lynn, a longtime trail advocate in Reno.
Boosting tourism is another reason supporters cite for protecting the land. The area near Gerlach, Nev., already is famous as the location for the World Land Speed Record of 763 mph, which a British team reached in 1997.
Another highly publicized event that could continue is the annual Burning Man festival known for art, dancing, concerts and the traditional torching of a 50-foot-high wooden effigy of a man. The 15th annual event drew about 26,000 people last summer.
Ranchers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts opposed the plan, worrying about losing access to the region. All but one of Nevada's 17 counties opposed the bill at a Senate hearing. A rancher representing the Nevada and California Cattlemen's Associations agreed with trail preservation, but not with conservation for ''random, idealistic, science-fiction reasons.''
The original bill number was S2273.
On the Net:
The bill is at http://thomas.loc.gov
Black Rock Desert information is at www.nv.blm.gov/Winnemucca/recreation