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The four-decade battle to preserve Sonoma County's scenic coast from offshore oil drilling came to an apparent end Thursday as federal officials announced plans to expand two marine sanctuaries, putting an area the size of Delaware off-limits to energy development.

The Obama administration, under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, intends to add about 2,770 square miles to two sanctuaries that were created in the 1980s and, along with a third sanctuary, currently extend from Cambria in San Luis Obispo County north to Bodega Bay.

If the expansion is implemented in a process that could take a year or two, the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones sanctuaries would be extended from Bodega Bay to Point Arena in southern Mendocino County.

"It's a big day for the Sonoma Coast," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who attended a news conference in Washington announcing the expansion plan.

Woolsey, accompanied by fellow House Democrats and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., hailed the plan as a permanent protection for biologically rich North Coast waters that support the fishing and tourism industries and afford the public unmatched natural splendor.

"At long last, we're on the road to giving these waters off the Sonoma County coast the protection they need and deserve," Woolsey said.

Boxer, whose effort to protect the coast dates back to the 1980s, called the expansion plan announcement "a historic milestone."

In a telephone interview, Woolsey, who is retiring next month, said the plan is also a fitting cap to her 20 years in Congress.

"This will be my legacy when it gets completed," she said, calling the untrammeled coast "something we'll be able to see and appreciate forever more."

Woolsey, who was elected to Congress in 1992, has been trying to get the sanctuaries expanded by legislative action since 2004 but saw her bill die in the Senate in 2008 and more recently was thwarted by oil-friendly House Republicans.

Last month, she and Boxer took a new tack, asking President Barack Obama to establish — with the stroke of a pen — a marine monument protecting the same coastal waters.

But the White House balked at the idea, proposing instead to expand the sanctuaries, a process that can also be done without congressional action but involves public hearings.

Woolsey said she had discussed the expansion last month with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who told her it was not under his jurisdiction but rather the Department of Commerce.

In her last push, Woolsey said she pitched the plan to Vice President Joe Biden at a White House Christmas party earlier this month and briefly to President Obama during a photo session with lawmakers.

Woolsey said she normally wouldn't have lobbied the chief executive that way, "but I'm not going to be around that much longer."

The sanctuary expansion plan "wouldn't have happened if the White House had been against it," she said.

But the battle to prevent oil rigs from sprouting along the North Coast dates back to the late 1970s, involving previous public officials and environmentalists like Richard Charter.

"This is Santa arriving and landing on the beach," said Charter, a Jenner area resident and senior fellow of the Ocean Foundation.

Drilling foes fended off their nemesis through a patchwork of annual moratoriums that lapsed in 2009.

Over time, plans for offshore drilling packed public hearings in the region, while roadblocks to permanent protection thwarted a long line of North Coast legislators and made the issue one of the most vexing for environmental advocates.

Steadily, the push for protection earned backing from nearly all of the region's local elected officials, Charter noted.

"The wave of support for protecting our coastal economy and all of the special places on this coast just became too big to ignore," he said

The proposed expansion of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries takes in more than 60 miles of coastline.

Biologists say the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water along the North Coast creates one of the richest feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean for fish, birds and marine mammals.

Combined with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, they currently stretch from Cambria to Bodega Bay. Managed by NOAA, the sanctuaries allow fishing but prohibit oil drilling and other commercial activities such as seafloor mining and discharges by ocean liners.

California Democratic Reps. Lois Capps, Sam Farr, Jackie Speier and Barbara Lee joined Boxer and Woolsey at the press conference.

Farr, D-Carmel, called the plans one of Woolsey's "crowning achievements."

"I can't think of a finer way of paying tribute to your 20 years in Congress," he said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said the plan was "a tribute to the passion and perseverance of Lynn Woolsey."

The expanded sanctuary "will stand as a fitting capstone to her distinguished career defending our coastal heritage," Pelosi said.

Woolsey, a former Petaluma city councilwoman, is best known for her early and vocal opposition to the Iraq war and as an advocate for women, families and the disadvantaged.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association and an ally of Woolsey on coast protection, hailed the proposed sanctuary expansion.

Fishing interests have worked well with the federal sanctuaries, Grader said.

"It's provided an extra level of protection for those waters that are so valuable to us," he said.

Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the oil industry recognizes that opposition to drilling is well established in California.

Most of the state's offshore oil is in Southern California, he said, and there's little of it in the North Coast areas designated for protection.

"It's not an area our members have expressed strong interest in," Hull said.

But Charter said the oil industry remains interested in several areas off Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

Woolsey said that extending protection farther north will be a job for her successors.

"It will happen someday," she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

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