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Feds propose doubling size of protected areas off North Coast


Permanent protection from oil drilling off the Sonoma and southern Mendocino County coast appears imminent, anti-drilling advocates and local officials said Monday, as a federal agency unveiled a plan to expand two protected areas along the scenic shoreline.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a plan to more than double the size of two marine sanctuaries, extending their northern boundary from Bodega Bay more than 60 miles north to Point Arena.

Offshore oil or gas exploration, development and production would be prohibited throughout the expanded sanctuaries, a holy grail sought by environmentalists since the late 1970s.

"This particular victory for the ocean was 35 years in the making," said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran coastal protection advocate.

A marine sanctuary is "really the only tool we have that can protect this coast in perpetuity," said Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation.

The sanctuary expansion, first suggested by the federal agency in 2008, is still not a done deal and probably would not be implemented until the winter or spring of 2015.

But it doesn't require a vote by Congress, and Charter, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said he does not anticipate any reversal.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district covers most of the Sonoma coast, called Monday's announcement "truly marvelous."

Sanctuary rules allow recreational and commercial fishing, while the ban on energy development protects a coast that draws more than 1 million visitors a year, "spending the almighty dollar there," Carrillo said.

Former Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma warned that "anything can happen" on Capitol Hill, but took pride in the likely expansion.

"I have great faith that my legacy is intact," said Woolsey, who retired last year after 20 years in Congress.

For nearly half of her tenure, Woolsey waged an unsuccessful campaign to expand the sanctuaries through legislative action.

With Congress deadlocked, Woolsey said the White House had assured her it would handle the matter.

The latest proposal was unveiled by the Obama administration in late 2012. It enjoyed enthusiastic support from local residents at a public meeting at Bodega Bay's Grange Hall in January 2013, with Woolsey earning a hearty applause from the crowd.

The lone lament from environmentalists on Monday was that the proposed expansion stops just north of Point Arena, about 15 miles north of the Sonoma-Mendocino line.

In community meetings last year, Mendocino County residents said the sanctuaries should reach farther north, possibly as far as the Oregon border.

"We're looking for permanent protection for the entire (Mendocino) coast," Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said Monday.

The federal agency's proposal is "better than nothing," he said, adding that Mendocino will push for a greater expansion.

Rachel Binah of Little River, a veteran anti-drilling activist, noted that southerly currents would carry an oil spill north of Point Arena into the protected areas.

But the proposed expansion "is a big deal," she said.

The plan would add 2,771 square miles to the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones sanctuaries, which currently cover 1,808 square miles from south of the Farallon Islands to Bodega Bay.

Expanding the sanctuaries to Point Arena would encompass a "thriving marine ecosystem" that sustains whales, sharks, salmon, crabs and the largest seabird breeding colony in the contiguous United States at the Farallon Islands, NOAA said in a press release.

California's disdain for offshore oil development dates back to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, which still ranks as third largest after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills.

The state halted offshore oil leasing that year, and Congress implemented a leasing moratorium on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in 1982.

But the moratorium, which required annual reauthorization, lapsed in 2008, leaving the North Coast vulnerable to exploration of oil deposits off the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts.

Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, reiterated Monday that his group's members have "no interest" in tapping North Coast oil.

Public hearings on the proposed expansion and a draft environmental impact statement may be submitted through June 30.

Public hearings will be conducted by NOAA at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito on May 22, Point Arena City Hall June 16, Gualala Community Center June 17 and Bodega Bay Grange Hall June 18. All meetings are at 6 p.m.

Charter urged people to attend the hearings, saying they "are the place to close the deal" on coastal protection.

For more information, go to sanctuaryexpansion.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy. kovner@pressdemocrat.com.