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.

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