A Bright Spot in Congress for California’s Public Lands

  • Posted on 30 September 2019
  • By Jordan Giaconia

Photo by Bob Wick Superbloom at Carrizo Plain

As we face Trump-era environmental rollbacks and the growing climate crisis, a suite of new bills focused on protecting and restoring natural areas, safeguarding wild places, and creating new avenues to connect people to our public lands paints a brighter future for California's communities, lands, water, and wildlife. They also offer hope for similar progress across the country. 

California boasts the nation’s leading outdoor recreation economy and over 43 million acres of federal public lands. The state is defined by its mild weather, awe-inspiring natural beauty, and richly varied ecosystems. From the sandy beaches of the Pacific Coast to the windswept peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California's public lands encompass forests of giant redwoods, and sequoias, iconic Joshua trees, vast expanses of desert, fertile wetlands, and unique transition zones. But while many enjoy regular access to these special places, California also holds some of the most park poor communities in the country.  

As the state’s cities and urban areas grow, members of the California delegation--Senators Harris and Feinstein along with Representatives Carbajal, Chu, and Huffhman-- are pushing legislation to ensure not only that these lands are protected, but also that local communities have equitable access to the wide range of benefits they provide including outdoor recreation opportunities, clean water, and climate resiliency. Here are three of the most promising public lands bills in the region.

Central Coast Heritage Protection Act (S.1111/H.R. 2199) 

California’s central coast encompasses some of North America’s most diverse landscapes and remains a key source for clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, and economic stimulus for nearby communities. The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Carbajal and Senator Harris, would secure lasting protections for two of its key landscapes, the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain. 

The 1.75 million acre Los Padres National Forest is California’s second largest national forest stretching from western Los Angeles County all the way to the Big Sur Coast in Monterey. Its dense coastal redwood forests and semi-desert interior are home to 468 species of wildlife including iconic species like the California condor and southern steelhead.

The neighboring Carrizo Plains, also known as California’s “Serengeti”, boast one of the largest concentrations of endangered wildlife in California with thirteen different  species in the area including sandhill cranes, San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and many more. The region’s crown jewel, Soda Lake is the largest remaining natural alkali wetland in the state and its glistening bed of white salt and open grasslands can be seen for miles. In addition to its considerable ecological value, the Carizo Plain is culturally significant to more than a dozen tribes across central California who have lived, hunted, and traded in the area since time immemorial. Sadly oil and gas development now threatens the Central Coast. In August 2018,  the Bureau of Land Management announced that it was moving forward with a plan to offer new leases on 1.6 million acres of public land in the area--a plan the Sierra Club and partners are actively mobilizing against throughout the state.

The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would shield this special region from harmful development by designating 244,909 acres of wilderness, establishing two scenic areas totalling 34,882 acres, and protecting 159 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument. These protections will ensure that the outstanding ecological and cultural values of the Central Coast are preserved for generations to come rather than squandered for short term economic gain. 

San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act (S.1109/H.R. 2215)

The San Gabriel Mountains are nothing short of a community and ecological gem. Located just an hour's drive outside of downtown Los Angeles, the area serves as a critical wildlife corridor for southern California and is home to iconic species such as the Nelson’s bighorn sheep, California condors, along with more than 300 native species that can be found nowhere else in the world. Additionally Its watershed provides a third of L.A.’s drinking water. 

The San Gabriel Mountains provide of the few connections to nature and opportunities to recreate for Los Angeles County, one of the most park poor regions of the country. As a result  the area is under immense stress from overuse, vandalism, littering, and decreased water quality. This begs the question of how do we protect the ecology of this region from overuse while also creating opportunities for urban families, youth, veterans, and minorities to enjoy the outdoors?

San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act is the answer. The bill, crafted by Senator Harris and Representative Chu, would expand the boundaries of the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument by 109,403 acres to encompass the historic front range of the San Gabriel Mountains north of Pasadena and Altadena and establish a 51,107 acre National Recreation Area along the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers as well as the the Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor south of the monument. This would bring new resources and take a marked step toward diversifying access to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act (S.1110/H.R. 2250)

The forests of Northwest California contain some of the largest intact stands of old-growth oaks, conifers, and redwood forests in the state along with its only major undammed river, the Smith. Both local residents and visitors alike flock to the region to enjoy this majestic landscape. It was with their input, collected over the last five years, that led to the creation of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act. Introduced by Senator Harris and Representative Huffman, the bill would enhance and preserve California’s wilderness and public lands, expand economic and recreational opportunities with more than 261,000 acres of Wilderness, 379 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers, and critical habitat designations for endangered salmon and steelhead. The addition of a 730,000 acre special restoration area would also promote fire resilience while upholding key components of the Endangered Species Act. 

Learn how you can help get these bills to the House floor!

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