A major land deal to preserve thousands of acres of Southern California desert land is in the works between a land conservation organization and the Catellus Corporation. Acquisition of the land is considered as significant for Southern California as the Headwaters Forest acquisition has been in Northern California. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein threw her support behind the proposal in mid-December. Feinstein, a longtime supporter of efforts to create two national parks and a national preserve in the desert in 1994, sits on the Senate's Interior Appropriation Subcommittee, and could be crucial to getting the $36 million in federal funds for the deal. Catellus, formerly the real estate division of Santa Fe Pacific Corp., owns thousands of acres of land in the desert including land inside the Mojave National Preserve. The Wilderness Conservancy, which is trying to broker the deal, had previously purchased 14,000 acres from Catellus inside the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park. Under the proposed deal, Catellus would sell 430,000 acres in the desert to Wilderness Conservancy, based in Yucaipa. The land would include 86,000 acres inside the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, 140,000 acres of desert habitat between Barstow and Needles and 206,000 acres in 19 federal wilderness areas in the desert. The land is home to the endangered desert tortoise. The conservancy also hopes to acquire another 45,000 acres of land from other sources for a total acquisition of 475,000 acres. The Catellus-owned land is scattered throughout some 4 million acres of federal land, according to David Myers, executive director of the Wilderness Conservancy. Much of the Catellus land consists of alternate sections given by the federal government to the railroads in the 19th Century as an incentive to build new track. If the land were developed with homes and fences, it would mar views and impact wildlife corridors in the surrounding federal land, he said. "Four million acres would be impacted by the purchase of 400,000 acres," he said. Catellus has sold some of its land in San Bernardino County to private landowners, and new landowners have erected gates and fences, which limit access to nearby public lands. "For sale" signs for Catellus property have been erected inside the Mojave National Preserve, Myers said. Under the deal, the Wilderness Conservancy also plans to buy the remaining 20,000 acres of private land inside Joshua Tree National Park from other small private landowners. The conservancy would donate land back to the national park, and would put up $11 million in cash for land acquisition from Catellus. The group is seeking $36 million from the federal government for the remaining costs for land acquisition. The money would come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Mojave National Scenic Area and Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks were created in 1994 when Congress approved the Desert Protection Act. The measure also created over 100 new wilderness areas. Myers planned to meet with Catellus's president in mid-December. The company has not committed to the deal. But one Catellus executive told the Los Angeles Times that "it's a pretty good offer." The Wilderness Conservancy is one of the west's largest land trusts, with title to 150,000 acres in Southern California. Contacts: David Myers, Wilderness Conservancy, (909) 797-8507.