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Congress is considering a bill that would knit together about 350,000acres of federal land in a sprawling "national conservation area," stretching from Napa County's Lake Berryessa 100 miles north into the Mendocino National Forest.

For proponents, it would be an ideal way to promote tourism while coordinating land management among three separate federal agencies:the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The proposed Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area would cover parts of Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Solano and Yolo counties.

"It's the right thing to do; it will save the taxpayers money and it will mean better access for the public" to natural lands, said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who is pushing the bill, which came before a House subcommittee for a hearing Tuesday.

To critics, however, it is a subtle land grab by a federal government bent on expanding public lands and micromanaging the private property abutting the area.

"It has no purpose other than to add another layer of government and it has no benefit whatsoever," said Lucy White of Calistoga, one of a number of activists campaigning against the bill.

The details of the legislation belie the passion of advocates on both sides. The bill calls for the three federal agencies to come up with a common land management policy to cover issues such as fire suppression, eradicating invasive species, protecting wildlife and giving the public access to recreation areas.

In response to critics, Thompson has added provisions that specify that private land is not affected, that existing mining and grazing operations on public land can continue and that motorized recreational vehicles can continue to use existing trails and facilities. It forbids the use of eminent domain to forcibly expand federal holdings and promises to maintain access roads across federal land to allow private landowners to get to their property.

"Clearly it is not a land grab by the federal government — it's already our land," said Bob Schneider, senior policy director for Tuleyome, a regional conservation organization that first suggested some kind of regional management structure for the area about five years ago. "We're not trying to make any new wilderness" that might restrict public access to the land.

The agencies are specifically directed to allow recreation "including hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, hang gliding, sightseeing, nature study, horseback riding, rafting, mountain biking and motorized recreation on authorized routes," although it leaves open the possibility to restrict the activities based on local needs or regulations.

That emphasis on tourism has drawn support from government and business interests in small neighboring towns such as Calistoga, Clearlake and Winters.

"It's just good for business," Schneider said.

Relentless campaigning by supporters and the changes and restrictions built into the bill by Thompson and his cosponsors have built an unusual coalition of backers, including most of the area's elected officials and local governments, the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, and outdoor sports and recreation groups including the Motorcycle Industry Council, the American Horse Council and the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Even some ranchers, historically suspicious of the federal government, have signed on. Napa County ranch owner Judy Ahmann testified in favor of the bill at Tuesday's hearing.

"By being a grandmother, protecting our public lands for future generations is important to me," she said. "I want to make sure that this scenic treasure is permanently protected so that it can be enjoyed by my grandchildren and their grandchildren."

Ahmann has provided a trail easement permitting access from neighboring federal land, allowing hikers in the proposed conservation area to reach the 3,000-foot Berryessa Peak, which has been inaccessible to the public for about 150 years.

"I look forward to my grandsons hiking this trail with their Boy Scout troops," she said.

Ahmann said she's hoping that an integrated land management plan will help the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the shoreline of Lake Berryessa next to her 3,000-acre ranch, learn techniques from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to better manage the underbrush to reduce fire dangers.

Ahmann's daughter, Christina Roberts, said she was wary of the conservation-area idea at first, but has come to share her mother's confidence that it will help preserve the rugged mountains that surround the ranch, rather than squeeze the private landowners out.

"It's not really a developed area out there," she said. "We'd like to preserve that aspect of it."

But all the assurances built into the legislation have not overcome the suspicions of critics, both in the region and in Washington. County supervisors in the counties of Colusa and Glenn came out against the idea, leading Thompson to reduce the size of the proposed conservation area, and some property rights groups remain opposed.

"We know it will only lead to increased land acquisition, erode private property rights and decrease recreation," wrote Ashley Indrieri, chief operations officer of the Maxwell-based Family Water Alliance, a leading opponent of the bill, in a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public Lands. "Efforts to protect, conserve, and enhance our region need to come from the bottom up."

The Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, saying it is unnecessary and is a stealth attempt to shutter some or all of the seven resorts that historically have operated on the shores of the lake. The fate of those resorts has been a hot topic in the area since the original 50-year contracts held by the operators who built them expired in 2008 and 2009. The Bureau of Reclamation has yet to sign new long-term contacts for six of the resorts, and two are closed entirely.

In a letter to the subcommittee, former chamber head Peter Kilkus said residents are "suspicious" of the intentions of government and even question why the lake should be included in some kind of conservation area at all.

"Lake Berryessa is not a nationally significant landscape, nor is it ecologically significant; it is a man-made lake serving as an agricultural resource, drinking water resource, and recreational resource — in that order of priority," he wrote. "Even many fish species are not indigenous."

Thompson dismissed such criticism as the minority opinion in the area, representing those "that don't like government and don't want government."

The prospects for the bill, however, remain uncertain on Capitol Hill. There are no Republican co-sponsors and Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, expressed some doubt about the necessity of the bill at the hearing, wondering what it would allow the three federal agencies to do that they can't do today.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who used to represent part of the region as a California state legislator, went further, saying the mere act of creating a specific conservation zone implies an endless spiral of restrictions on landowners, hunters, off-roaders and others who want to use the land.

"I am concerned that if you put this designation in place ... the regulators will begin tightening the regulations over time," he said at the hearing Tuesday hearing. "There is a narrowing of things because it has a name."

Even if the GOP House majority doesn't act this year, Thompson seems confident the idea eventually will take hold. He pointed out that it took nearly five years to pass the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act, which designated 273,000 acres along the coast as wilderness in 2006.

The Berryessa Snow Mountain designation "is good for the taxpayers," he said. "This will allow more efficient and effective management of these lands."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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