Land deal links desert parks

  A California-based land trust has arranged to put almost 500,000 acres of mountaintop forests, sand dunes and volcanic cinder cones into public hands.

The $61.5 million deal now awaits a decision by Congress to release $36 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Yucaipa, Calif., will pay the remainder.

"If we don't buy now, the parcels will ultimately be sold off, and we may end up with as many as 700 landholders," says Shelton Douthit of the conservancy.

The group has already bought threatened lands in and between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve and preserved them for the public, but this is their largest acquisition yet.

The lands, owned by Catellus Development Corp., are important habitat for the desert tortoise as well as valuable for access to the parks. Catellus has agreed to sell the lands for $126 an acre; the lands will then be split between the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

* Juniper Davis
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