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First public forum Thursday on expanding North Coast ocean sanctuaries

Plans to expand two ocean sanctuaries and put all of Sonoma County's coast and a third of Mendocino's off limits to oil drilling are set to get their first public airing today in Bodega Bay.

Federal officials are scheduled to hold a 6 p.m. hearing at the town's Grange Hall to discuss the proposed expansion of the protected ocean areas, announced by the Obama administration and congressional representatives last month.

Under the proposal, the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries would take in an additional 2,770 square miles, including more than 60 miles of coast from Bodega Bay to Point Arena, in southern Mendocino County.

The two protected areas currently span about 1,800 square miles, stretching more than 50 miles off the coast in some spots from San Francisco Bay to Bodega Bay. The sanctuaries allow fishing, but restrict other activities, including energy development, seafloor disturbance and discharges by ocean liners.

Today's hearing, the first of three on the North Coast, will unveil the proposal and allow public comment on the expansion. The other two meetings are planned next month for Mendocino County, in Point Arena on Feb. 12 and in Gualala on Feb. 13. Written comments will be accepted through March 1.

"Our main goal is to get everyone sitting down at the table and make sure we're hearing what their concerns are and what their suggestions are," said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

At least one additional round of public comment is envisioned once the federal government completes its draft environmental study. The new borders could be finalized in 18 to 24 months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees marine sanctuaries.

The action by the Obama administration would put an apparent end to the four-decade battle to prevent oil drilling off the Sonoma Coast.

Previous efforts to achieve a permanent ban and expand the sanctuaries through congressional action have come up short. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the now-retired Petaluma Democrat, saw her sanctuary bill die in the Senate in 2008 before being thwarted recently by oil-friendly House Republicans.

Environmentalists, commercial fishing representatives and others have hailed the new plans, saying they protect an important resource, and not just for wildlife.

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