The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

California Desert Miracle: The Fight for Desert Parks and Wilderness. By Frank Wheat. San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 1999. Photos, illustrations, maps, glossary, notes. xxix + 337. $14.95 paper.

Reviewed by Bob R. O’Brien, Professor of Geography, San Diego State University, author of Our National Parks and the Search for Sustainability (1999).

I dream of a library, some time in the future, filled with books which describe the histories of saving all the beautiful and interesting places in this country. As we enjoy these areas, whether it be the stupendous beauty of Yosemite Valley or a lovely mission in San Diego, we must remember that someone worked very hard to preserve them for us and generations to come. Prominent among these books would be that of Frank Wheat on the dramatic fight to save a very special place: the California desert.

This is the political history of an area the size of Scotland, from the first indications that something was wrong with the California desert and that it desperately needed a plan, to the signing of the Desert Bill in 1994, one of the most important conservation events of the century. He calls the event a miracle, and indeed the book reads like an exciting mystery, with the most unlikely and breathless ending you can imagine. Yet the miracle has a human face, as Mr. Wheat explains in his introduction:

“No such miracle would have been possible without the work of hundreds of volunteers who distinguished themselves in the long fight for the desert. Herein lies the truth behind most seeming miracles. A particular light shines on the work of several men and women named in the book’s chapter titles. None of them sought or gained material benefit. All kept the fires of their dedication aflame for years, demonstrating how effective individual Americans can be if determined to carry on and never quit the fight. Human courage takes more than one form. In moments of great physical danger, it may be aided by adrenaline the body produces under such conditions. No such wondrous substance supports the courage of those who see their efforts come to naught time and again and, though tempted to give in, find the courage to persist. This book honors that kind of courage” (p. xviii).

Wheat traces the evolution of the California Desert Act of 1994, from the conscience of a BLM director in 1967, who was appalled by the damage done by the Barstow to Vegas motorcycle race, and asked for money to study the desert, to the final last minute passage of the act in 1994. There are heroes aplenty in the story Wheat tells — BLM Director Russ Penny, Congressmen Bob Mathias, Richard Lehman, Mel Levine, and George Miller, and Senators Cranston and Feinstein. Most of the heroes, however, are people few of us have heard of, who studied the desert, drew the maps, garnered the support of newspapers, cities and counties, sat in on endless meetings and hearings on the bill, and in some cases almost dedicated their lives to saving the desert. There were plenty of villains too, with names and pictures in the book, and the fact that the bill passed during a very small window of time when it had both a supportive president and congress, deepens the feeling that this was a true miracle.

San Diego had an enormous stake in the Desert Act. Although much of the desert in San Diego County was protected by a state park, some of it was not, and all the desert in this act is within a few hours drive of San Diego. Members of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, such as Harriet Allen and Camille Morgan, made the passage of the desert act a part of their lives for many years, leading trips to the desert, gathering information, taking photographs and lobbying incessantly. Every time we drive in the new Mojave National Preserve, the expanded Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, or walk in the millions of acres of pristine wilderness in the California desert, we need to give heartfelt thanks to those who made it possible. We can also be thankful for this wonderful, one-of-a-kind history, that tells us where to direct those thanks.

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