California Desert Protection Act of 1994 - History

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 was passed by the U.S. Congress on October 8, 1994, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 31, 1994.  From the early attempts to build a California Desert Plan in the 1970s-1980s, to the first version of the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) introduced by Senator Alan Cranston in 1986, to new versions by Senator Cranston and then Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1987 to 1993, to the final victory by Senator Feinstein in 1994, the efforts of many to protect the California Desert has been an ongoing saga.

Excerpt from:

“California Desert Protection Act:
A Time for Desert Parks and Wilderness” (1996)

By Jay Watson and Paul Brink
International Journal of Wilderness, August 1996,

The crowning achievement of the 30th anniversary year of the United States Wilderness Act of 1964 was the spectacular triumph of seeing the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) signed into law by President Clinton on October 31, 1994. (Public Law 103-433)

After a decade of intensive public debate, this landmark measure had become the law of the land. Not since the 1964 act established and endowed the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) with 9.2 million acres of wilderness had a single bill added so much land to the system in the lower 48 states. All told, the CDPA designated over 7.6 million acres of wilderness. Its major features include:

  • Sixty-nine new wilderness areas encompassing 3,667,020 acres, of which 3,571,520 acres are Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness, and 95,500 acres are National Forest wilderness.
  • The addition of 1,300,000 acres of Death Valley National Monument and its redesignation as a national park. At 3,367,627 acres, it is the largest park in the lower 48 states, with 3,162,000 acres (95%) of the park being designated wilderness.
  • An increase in Joshua Tree National Monument by 234,000 acres and its redesignation as a national park. The 132,000 acres within the addition have become wilderness.
  • The establishment of a 1,419,800-acre Mojave National Preserve under the National Park Service. Within the preserve 695,000 acres are designated wilderness.
  • The designation of 9,000 acres of wilderness at two national wildlife refuges under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The CDPA also marked the beginning of a new era for the BLM in California. Before the CDPA became law, the BLM managed only five wilderness areas totaling 14,000 acres in the state. Because these were small and attached to larger wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service or Park Service, the BLM’s wilderness management role was minimal. Following enactment of the CDPA, the BLM became the manager of 69 new wilderness areas totaling nearly 3.6 million acres.

Now, nearly a quarter of BLM lands in California are included in the NWPS. Of the 13.8 million acres of federally designated wilderness in California, 25% are now managed by the BLM. From a national perspective, the CDPA more than doubled the number of wilderness areas managed by the BLM and increased the total BLM wilderness areas to nearly 70%. Only two other states have significant amounts of BLM wilderness: Arizona (1.4 million acres) and New Mexico (129,000) acres.

Through the passage of the CDPA, the U.S. Congress continued that proud tradition of wilderness by protecting a significant portion of California’s remaining wildlands. Perhaps the CDPA’s greatest gift is that it offers the American people an opportunity to completely rethink how they value arid landscapes.

Authors: Jay Watson is the California/Nevada Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. Paul Brink is the BLM State Wilderness Coordinator.

[Source: International Journal of Wilderness, Volume 2, Number 2, August 1996 (pages 14-17). To read the entire article, which includes more on the BLM’s transition to wilderness management and development of A California Wilderness Transition Policy and Guidance Document, go to:

 Jim Dodson’s behind-the-scenes story
“California Desert Protect Act turns 10” (2004)

On October 31, 1994, a small group of Californians gathered in the Oval Office as President Bill Clinton signed into law the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA), the largest land bill passed in that decade. It represented the culmination of years of effort by hundreds of people. Author Jim Dodson wrote this account in 2004, posted on the Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter website on January 1, 2005. Read more...

California Desert Protection Act of 1994 – The Act

One Hundred Third Congress of the United States of America … An Act to designate certain lands in the California Desert as wilderness, to establish the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, to establish the Mojave National Preserve, and for other purposes.  Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled…

Sections 1 and 2, and titles I through IX of this Act may be cited as the “California Desert Protection Act of 1994.”  Read the entire Act

For a good read…

California Desert Miracle: The Fight for Desert Parks and Wilderness
Book by Frank Wheat (1999) 
The story of how underpaid, under-funded volunteers fought to protect the last large area of wild land left in California, culminating in the enactment of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Published by Sunbelt Publications, Inc., San Diego, California.