Political Notebook

House budget bill kills foothills easement program

California lawmakers used their power of the purse this year to kill an Obama administration plan for conserving the state’s sprawling foothills.

Capping several years of study and controversy, and facing a funding cutoff, the administration threw in the towel on the proposed California Foothills Legacy Area. The surrender is locked in as part of the $1 trillion omnibus funding bill now set for Senate approval.

The bill includes, among a number of other California provisions, language noting that the Fish and Wildlife Service advised lawmakers on Dec. 3 that no further work would proceed on the plan to preserve some of the state’s foothills.

The proposed program would have purchased conservation easements on 200,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, primarily within Merced, Mariposa, Stanislaus, and Tulare counties. The proposal prompted alarm among private property owners and ranchers, which the Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to allay.

Justin Oldfield, vice president for government relations of the Sacramento-based California Cattlemen’s Association, said Friday that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision was “a victory” for ranchers.

Spread across 1,603 pages, plus more than 1,000 pages of accompanying report language, the omnibus package funds most of the federal government for the next nine months. It’s a grab bag for California.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, noted Friday that the omnibus “ensures no additional federal dollars for California High Speed Rail.”

It does include $22 million for construction of two new buildings at Fresno’s Army Reserve Center and about $39 million for new fuel and other facilities at Lemoore Naval Air Station. The Obama administration had requested the funds.

In addition to dollars, the omnibus package offers rhetorical support for California’s drought-ravaged farmers, advising the Interior Department to “use all of the flexibility and tools available to mitigate the impacts of this drought.”

Lawmakers also used the omnibus to rhetorically encourage “a strategy of providing a combination of additional storage, improved conveyance, and increased efficiencies in the uses of water both for agriculture and potable purposes.”

The omnibus does not, however, include the 20-plus pages of explicit California water language negotiated primarily by House Republicans and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The behind-the-scenes effort to include the language, and its absence, prompted finger-pointing by California lawmakers from both parties that foreshadows more fighting next Congress.

Democratic Rep. Jim Costa called the omission from the omnibus a disappointment. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes blamed Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for intransigence, and Boxer blamed the Republicans for shutting out Northern California Democrats.