WASHINGTON - As Gold Rush emigrant Goldsborough Bruff struggled across Nevada's Black Rock Desert in 1849, he sketched a hardscrabble hill covered with sagebrush and crowned with a rock outcropping.
His drawings and diary chronicled travel along the Applegate Trail 150 years ago. And the rugged landscape - marked by wagon ruts and axle-grease drawings - remains nearly unchanged across a region the size of Delaware.
''We see almost exactly what the emigrants saw in those days,'' said Charles Dodd, who leads tours through the area as preservation officer with the Oregon-California Trails Association. ''We don't see civilization until noon of the fourth day'' of his tour.
To keep the landscape untarnished, retiring Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., proposed protecting 670,000 acres of the Black Rock Desert as a National Conservation Area. His legislation also would protect an unspecified amount of 11 adjoining wilderness areas, totaling as much as 1 million acres.
''The history of America's western migration is written literally in the sands of the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon area,'' Molly McUsic, counselor to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, told a Senate Energy and Resources subcommittee on public land during a hearing Wednesday.
''Future generations will thank us for preserving the historic and natural values of this incredible area.''
The Clinton administration supported the bill with changes to avoid calling the Calico Mountains "wilderness" if mining is allowed, and with minor changes involving grazing and water rights.
The bill covers land stretching 120 miles from near Lovelock - where the trail branched off the main California Trail - to Long Valley near Cedarville, Calif.
The bill would prohibit most mining, geothermal activities and creation of new roads across the land of sprawling desert playas, snowcapped mountains and sheer-walled canyons. Grazing, hunting and recreational activities could continue.
Bryan's legislation is the latest attempt to protect the land, which 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.
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 14th annual event drew a record 24,500 people last year.
Conservationists and history buffs embraced Bryan's proposal to protect a historic covered-wagon trail corridor and parts of nearly a dozen adjoining Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas.
The fear is that without greater protection, off-road vehicles will chew up the land and obliterate the historic emigrant trail.
''You get these big scars up the side of the hill,'' said Brian O'Donnell of the Wilderness Society. ''They just spider web in a lot of ways.''
But ranchers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and hunters oppose the plan, saying they fear they could lose access to the region.
All but one of Nevada's 17 counties also are opposed. John Milton III, a Humboldt County commissioner, complained that the conservation area is 48 miles wide in one spot where the trail is but a few feet across.
''We opponents to this bill support trail preservation and protection as well as wilderness designation for some specific areas, but not for random, idealistic, science-fiction reasons,'' said Stu Brown, a fourth-generation rancher representing the Nevada and California Cattlemen's Associations.
Bill number S2273.
On the Net: Black Rock Desert information at www.nv.blm.gov/Winnemucca/recreation.