Clinton may be asked to protect Nevada's Black Rock Desert

RENO, Nev. - President Clinton has extended national monument status to colorful, untouched lands in Utah, Arizona and California.

Now he might be asked to do the same for northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert, hailed as ''one of the great sights of Western America'' by a 1962 National Park Service report.

Conservationists say they will push for monument status for the remote region 120 miles north of Reno if legislation by Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., to protect it fails in Congress this year.

The starkly beautiful region, which features sprawling desert playas, multihued mountains and deep canyons, has changed little since pioneers crossed it during the California Gold Rush.

''We want to protect the area and we'll consider any other opportunity to protect it if the bill falls short,'' said Kevin Mack of the Nevada Wilderness Project, which backs Bryan's bill. ''We'll work with anyone else who wants to protect the area.''

But Mack stressed that his conservation group and others haven't given up the fight to have Bryan's bill passed.

''There's a limited amount of time left in the session and a hostile Congress and it'll be difficult,'' he said. ''But it's doable.''

John Estill, a leader in the fight against Bryan's legislation, said his coalition of ranchers, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts and hunters opposes monument status for the region.

''We're going to fight to the end,'' the rancher said. ''We're not surprised because we knew the environmentalists would do this. They have one agenda and it's to close off lands in the West.''

Various protection plans for the Black Rock Desert have been considered by the National Park Service and others for more than three decades.

Bryan's proposal would protect more than 600,000 acres of the region as a National Conservation Area and as much as an additional 1 million acres in 11 adjoining wilderness study areas.

Sen. Harry Reid, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said last month his fellow Nevada senator's plan has no chance of passing this year because of the limited time left in the session.

Bryan disagrees. He's pushing forward with the bill and has no plans to ask Clinton to designate the Black Rock Desert as a monument, his spokesman Dave Lemmon said.

''We haven't had any discussions with the administration nor do we intend to regarding possible designation of the Black Rock Desert as a national monument,'' Lemmon said.

''We wouldn't have introduced the legislation if our goal was to get a national monument. Passage of the bill is still a top priority'' for Bryan before he retires from office in January.

White House spokesman Elliot Diringer said he's unaware of any plans by Clinton or Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to review the area for monument status.

''The other monuments were designated at the recommendation of (Babbitt) and I'm not aware of anything else under consideration,'' he said.

Babbitt spokesman Tim Ahern offered a similar response.

''Nothing like that has been proposed,'' Ahern said.

''It's getting late in this administration. There's a whole process we go through before we do this. We don't do it just willy-nilly,'' he said.

''I'm not going to absolutely, flat rule it out. Things happen. But we don't have any plans at this time,'' Ahern said.

Clinton began his string of monument designations in 1996 with one of the biggest ever - the 1.7 million acres of Grand Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah.

In January, he designated three new national monuments, including the 1 million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, and expanded a fourth. He's also being asked to designate another half-dozen monuments across the West.

Like every president since 1906 - with the exception of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush - Clinton used the Antiquities Act to protect public land from activities such as mining and development.


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