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POINT ARENA NATIONAL SEASHORE - The proposed expansion of adjoining national marine sanctuaries that would extend environmental and wildlife protections to the Sonoma and southern Mendocino coasts is on track for agency approval this winter, with suggested revisions that reflect public input, a sanctuary official said Wednesday.

Maria Brown, superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said she hopes by spring to celebrate completion of a process that would more than double the combined area of the Farallones and neighboring Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries, prohibiting energy exploration and development in an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean and granting federal stewardship to environmentally rich waters that are brimming with sea life.

“This hasn’t been approved by NOAA yet,” Brown said, referring to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which administers the nation’s 13 underwater sanctuaries and has authority to adopt the expansion, “but we feel fairly confident this is the direction we’ll be headed.”

The revised proposal includes a number of changes that address concerns brought forward during four public hearings on the coast in May and June, and in more than 800 written comments submitted to NOAA, agency representatives said.

It also acknowledges plans to change the name of the expanded Gulf of the Farallones marine sanctuary to something that more fully captures the region’s geography, history and underwater features — a conversation already begun within the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

“This is sort of a fun thing in one way, but it’s also, honestly, quite important,” said the council’s new chairman, oceanographer John Largier, a professor at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Changes made to the expansion proposal itself include a decision to drop, for now, controversial plans for four specified zones in which motorized personal watercraft would be confined, pending additional public input on the matter. That means there would be no federal limitations on personal watercraft in the expansion areas unless and until some additional regulation is adopted, according to spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm. Motorized personal watercraft are otherwise prohibited in the existing Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary, except where human life is at risk or otherwise specifically authorized by permit, she said.

Provision eliminated

Officials also have eliminated a provision permitting the superintendent of either marine sanctuary to authorize activities otherwise prohibited within sanctuary boundaries, Brown told the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

She said, however, that once the expansion is in effect, NOAA would create a process through which certain activities could be considered and permitted, with opportunities for the public to weigh in. She also said that opinions on the issue of motorized watercraft were “so divergent” that NOAA would assemble stakeholders at a later date to consider acceptable zones.

Also to be addressed later is a process through which the sanctuary administration would certify certain pre-existing uses within the expansion area, as is required under federal marine sanctuary law, for ongoing activities such as use of boat launches in Timber Cove, Bodega Marine Lab research off the coast and trans-Pacific utility cables that terminate at Manchester Beach. Any new procedures would include a process through which NOAA could put conditions on such activities, as they’re permitted to do, Brown said.

The revised proposal additionally states more clearly now that any energy or mineral exploration or extraction will be prohibited in the sanctuary, extending protections against oil rigs and similar uses all the way to Point Arena, she said.

Decades of work

The expansion plan would turn into reality decades of work aimed at preventing oil drilling offshore of the Sonoma Coast and would help protect critical feeding grounds created by the existence of an ocean upwelling offshore from the southern Mendocino Coast that pumps nutrient-rich water upward and southward toward existing marine sanctuaries. Sanctuary designation does not limit fishing.

Once the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is included, the proposal would put a 350-mile band of California coastline, from Cambria to Manchester Beach, under federal protection.

However, those on the northern Mendocino Coast who have urged officials to include them in the current expansion face disappointment, as do the many who pleaded for inclusion of the biologically rich estuaries of the Russian, Gualala and Garcia rivers.

Tough to expand further

Expanding the proposed boundaries to embrace anything more than what was in the initial proposal, Brown said, would require additional research for development and recirculation of a new draft environmental impact statement and would almost mean starting from scratch. “So if we wanted to expand into any of those areas, we would have to go through a separate public process,” she said.

The new proposal does include a minor boundary alteration to exclude Arena Cove in Point Arena, because of moorings there, Brown said.

There remain opportunities for hiccups to occur during the review process prior to publication of a final decision — say, for instance, if there were significant objection in Congress to some aspect of the plan, Brown said.

But she said she did not anticipate anything beyond minor “tweaking” to the proposal already in development for two years.

“We’re getting very, very close,” Brown said.

Editor’s Note: This story corrects the name of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, and clarifies that fishing is permitted within marine sanctuaries. It also clarifies the issue regarding use of personal motorized watercraft. An earlier published story omitted that information.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.