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."