House approves bill giving California half million acres of new wilderness

February 26, 2021

More than 1 million acres of public land in California and other Western states will be preserved as undeveloped wilderness if long-stalled legislation that’s back in play under the Biden administration can make it through Congress.

The ambitious bill, which combines eight previously introduced conservation initiatives, would provide pandemic-weary Californians with more redwood forests to explore in the north state, a 400-mile scenic trail to hike along the Central Coast and expanded national recreation areas to visit in Southern California.

“It’s historic,” said Laura Navar, an outreach manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which promotes the protection of parks and natural lands. “We are all, especially in these times, looking to connect with these spaces.”

The House passed the Democrat-sponsored bill on Friday, and President Biden has said he supports the package. The prospects remain less certain in the Senate, where Democrats hold the thinnest of majorities and Republicans have expressed concern about restrictions on oil drilling and other commercial activities. Past efforts to advance the initiatives, some of which date back decades, often faltered amid Republican opposition.

The land proposed for new protections is managed by the federal government and, for the most part, would not affect private property.

The legislation calls for safeguarding about 3 million acres, with roughly 1.3 million designated as “wilderness,” the most restrictive classification for federal land. In this tier, road-building, logging and energy exploration are all prohibited. The bill also calls for more than 1,000 miles of rivers to be designated as wild and scenic, similarly barring development.

In Northern California, under proposals put forth by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, more than 300,000 acres would receive protection, mostly in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. About 262,000 acres of that would be classified as wilderness.

The popular Trinity Alps Wilderness would be expanded under the new bill, and eight new wilderness areas would be established, including the Chinquapin Wilderness in Trinity County. This 26,890-acre area contains the largest groves of unprotected ancient forest in California.

The legislation also calls for studying the possibility of establishing a Bigfoot National Recreation Trail. The path would run 360 miles from the Mendocino National Forest through the Klamath Mountains to Redwood National Park, briefly crossing the state line into Oregon.

New visitor centers, providing recreation advice and history information to the public, also would be authorized for Weaverville (Trinity County) and Crescent City (Del Norte County).

“The fact that we’re having a vote on this so early in this Congress shows the importance of public lands,” Huffman said at a media event over Zoom on Thursday.

He called the outdoors a “way of life” for Northern Californians.

The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act does not allocate new funding. But the designations that come with it open the door for Congress to start sending money.

California Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, and Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, also contributed proposals to the legislative package.

The authors outlined many benefits of their measures, from providing green space near urban areas to protecting wildlife to sequestering heat-trapping carbon pollution.

In Central California, about 288,000 acres of wilderness area would be established in the Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Los Padres National Forest under the bill. The 400-mile Condor Trial, which runs through the Los Padres National Forest from Los Angeles County to just south of Monterey County, would receive official trail designation.

In Southern California, the 191,000-acre Rim of the Valley Corridor would be added to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would grow by 109,000 acres.

The legislation would make similar conservation moves in Washington, Colorado and Arizona, including heading off a bid to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon and drill for oil and gas in Colorado’s Thompson Divide.

By:  Kurtis Alexander
Source: San Francisco Chronicle