WASHINGTON (AP) - A 440-square-mile sweep of rugged desert and mountains in Southern California would become the country's latest national monument to protect the land from development, under a House vote Tuesday.
The land in the proposed Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument forms the postcard backdrop for Palm Springs, Calif., rising from the desert floor to the 10,804-foot peak of Mount San Jacinto.
''The mountains themselves are really an extraodinary resource, in terms of their visual qualities and habitat for endangered species, including the peninsular bighorn sheep,'' said Bill Havert, executive director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, which pushed for the protection. ''It's a tremendous recreational resource for people who visit the Coachella Valley.''
Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., negotiated for more than a year with a local officials, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to protect the land as a monument, which is one step shy of a national park status. The administration supports the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.
''For years my family has enjoyed these scenic wonders and recreational opportunities that are abundant in this remarkable range,'' Bono said.
Local developers had voiced concern about the designation, for fear it would curb development around Palm Springs.
But Bono negotiated explicitly to prevent any impact to development outside the monument boundary and to allow planes approaching the Palm Springs airport to fly over the mountains. She said President Clinton could ignore such rules if he declared the land a monument himself.
''The best way our constituents can be heard on matters such as these is if Congress, not the administration, takes this action,'' she said.
Much of the land already is protected by federal or state government, but declaring it a monument would offer permanent protection for the land rather than the current administrative management that could change.
The monument would include the present Santa Rosa Mountains National Scenic Area, part of the San Bernardino National Forest, the state's San Jacinto Wilderness Area and part of the Indian reservation.
For the first time, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service would create a joint management plan for the area that spans land under both agencies, along with the tribe and a local advisory board. The plan would have to be developed within three years.
Because the mountain range features drastic changes in elevation, the proposed monument has five distinct climate zones, from desert to pine forest and arctic pine at the summit. Hiking and horseback trails cross the hills, offering spectacular views.
Besides general protections for land and wildlife, the bill aims to preserve Indian ceremonial lands and archeological sites. It would prohibit off-road vehicle use. Mining is typically banned at monuments, but grazing could continue under the bill.
Havert said the higher status as a monument could help the land get more federal spending for conservation and land purchases.
The House's voice vote supporting the legislation contrasted sharply with opposition to Clinton creating monuments administratively under the 1906 Antiquities Act. A week ago, the Senate considered abolishing the power, but the move was defeated on a vote of 50-49.
Clinton's creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in Utah three years ago was blasted as a federal ''land grab.'' Critics complained about a series of eight other monuments he created in the West this year, including one near the Grand Canyon and another to protect giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada.
''Although establishing a national monument, this bill has many private property protections that otherwise probably would not have been available if the president decided to proclaim this area a national monument in another of his administration's movements,'' said Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah and head of the Resources subcommittee on public lands.
The bill is H.R. 3676.
On the Net:
Bono's site is at http://www.house.gov/bono