EDITORIAL: Protection of public lands must keep pace with growth

California, including the Valley, has spectacular opportunities.

November 29, 2013 

This session of Congress is the first since World II that has failed to protect a single new acre of public land.

This year, however, bills supported by California lawmakers are getting action and a push from the Obama administration.

The House in July passed, by unanimous consent, a bill by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, to add the 1,660-acre Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands along the Mendocino coast to the islands, rocks, and reefs in the California Coastal National Monument.

But the companion bill has languished in the Senate, despite the support of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

So it is welcome that U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited California this month, highlighting the effort to expand the California Coastal National Monument.

Under the landmark Antiquities Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, presidents by proclamation can give enhanced protections to existing public lands owned by the federal government. They have used that authority to create new national monuments and enlarge existing ones.

As Huffman said, Jewell's visit "is basically sending a message that we're going to make it happen one way or another."

But in California, the coast should not be the only area for boosting the national status of existing public lands. The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys have spectacular public lands, too, yet open space and recreational opportunities have not kept pace with population growth from 5.7 million in 2000 to 7 million in 2010, and a projected 8.5 million by 2020.

To remedy that, the Point Arena-Stornetta effort should be paired with National Conservation Area status for the federal lands in the 100-mile stretch from Lake Berryessa in Napa County to 7,000-foot Snow Mountain in Colusa and Lake counties.

In the last Congress, a bill by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Sen. Boxer stalled. They reintroduced it this session (HR 1025/S 483). The House Subcommittee on Public Lands held a hearing in July, the Senate's subcommittee last week. But no votes have been scheduled.

As it has done with Point Arena-Stornetta, the Obama administration can motivate Congress to act by suggesting the possibility of national monument status.

The new Berryessa Peak Trail, inaugurated only in January, already is acquiring iconic status. Adventure sports magazine Wide World features "5 best ultra marathon training trails:" a volcano in Guatemala, the rugged Australian coastline, Richmond Park in London, mountains in Nepal and the Berryessa Peak Trail.

National Conservation Area status would enhance the place for the benefit of the public, bringing together the three federal landowners -- the Mendocino National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation -- to coordinate management of more than 300,000 acres of federal land. Giving the place a name -- Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area -- would signify a visible destination, not the current patchwork.

In a speech at the end of October, Jewell noted that "we cannot and will not hold our breath forever" if Congress fails to act on public lands bills. "We owe it to future generations to act," she said.

This area deserves national status, like many of the West's most spectacular landscapes.

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