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Rep. Jared Huffman and environmentalists are concerned that a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill marks the beginning of a Republican assault on a national marine sanctuary system that protects 350 miles of California’s coast from offshore oil development and pumps millions of dollars into local economies, including Sonoma County.

The House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing is likely a precursor to legislation that would gut federal laws that foster protection of natural resources and habitats nationwide in a system encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters, said Huffman, D-San Rafael, the subcommittee’s ranking minority member.

“They don’t like anything that limits development or energy extraction,” Huffman said, regarding the intent of Republicans who control Congress. “There’s a huge exuberance right now on the Republican side to pass legislation,” he said. “Right now they are firing live ammunition.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said the hearing will focus on “the real life impacts” of marine monuments and sanctuaries on communities that depend on their natural resources.

“The federal government simply does not know better than the people on land, on the docks or in the water,” Lamborn said in an email. “Our agencies need to work with local officials, industry and all stakeholders as they are the ones that will directly benefit from, or bear the burden of these closed areas.”

The 19-member subcommittee includes 11 Republicans and eight Democrats and overall eight members are from California (three Republicans and five Democrats).

Huffman, a former environmental attorney, said there is nothing to prevent Congress and President Trump from removing properties from the list of sanctuaries or marine monuments.

Two protected zones — the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries — were more than doubled in 2015 and now cover nearly 4,600 square miles from just outside the mouth of San Francisco Bay to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

A government report last year said visitors to the Greater Farallones sanctuary in 2011 spent $86 million, boosting local businesses and generating more than 1,000 jobs.

A third sanctuary extends south to Cambria in San Luis Obispo County, and another sanctuary surrounds the Channel Islands.

In 2014, Point Arena held a community celebration over the addition of a 1,665-acre shoreline tract to the 1,100-mile California Coastal National Monument, culminating a 2 1/2-year grassroots campaign to protect the lands.

The subcommittee hearing’s title — “Examining the Creation and Management of Marine Monuments and Sanctuaries” — seems innocuous, Huffman said, but “the agenda behind it is a little more direct.”

Republicans have long had their eye on the Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, granting the president broad powers to create national monuments on federal lands, Huffman said.

“But they are walking into a political buzzsaw with this issue,” Huffman said. “There is a broad national constituency for these protections.”

Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, an offshore oil drilling opponent since the 1970s, shares Huffman’s concern over the significance of Wednesday’s hearing.

Protections for the ocean are “now under attack like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “We’re not taking this lightly. This is getting very close to the heart of the North Coast.”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation, an international environmental nonprofit, said there is no precedent for undoing a marine sanctuary designation.

If it were undertaken now, he said, there would be a legal challenge lasting longer than the Trump administration.

Marine sanctuaries are now the North Coast’s only protection against energy development, he said.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has generated a popular and profitable tourist industry for Alpena, Michigan on the edge of Lake Huron, contradicting the notion that such protections cause economic loss, Charter said.

John Bruno, a biologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will be the Democrats’ witness at the hearing. In an interview, Bruno said he would describe the economic and recreational benefits of marine preserves.

He also believes the Republicans intend to roll back such protections.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal,” Bruno said.

Huffman will not attend the hearing because he was unable to arrange travel back to Washington because of the winter storm and canceled flights.

Lamborn, who was elected to Congress in 2006, has a lifetime 4 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters. He received $213,500 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry between 2005 and 2014, according to Ballotpedia.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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