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.