On a warm evening in 1988 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, I sat with a group of women delegates from the North Coast listening to Rachel Binah — our coastal protection political and spiritual leader— who was rallying us to oppose offshore oil and support then-Rep. Barbara Boxer. We wore T-shirts with crossed out oil derricks, and when Boxer delivered a rousing speech, we waved posters and cheered her boisterously.
I don’t wear a shirt with a slogan unless I believe in it. I love our coast and know that with its beauty and natural bounty come a responsibility for those of us who live here to protect it. Protecting our Sonoma Coast became a major part of the campaign that brought me to Congress as Boxer’s successor in 1993.
At that time, California’s coast was protected only by a temporary moratorium banning oil exploration and drilling. The moratorium required an annual renewal by Congress. When Democrats were in the majority, this was not a big worry. But when the majority shifted in 1995, it became very uncertain.
In 2004, my staff and I discovered that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had studied our coast and found that its living marine resources were equal to, and in some cases exceeded, those in the nearby Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. These sanctuaries are similar in many ways to an oceanic national park. Oil and gas exploration is banned, while fishing and appropriate recreational activities are welcomed. It didn’t take long for us to conclude that the way to protect our coast was to expand the two sanctuaries.
Tom Roth took on the assignment of project manager, and our office set out to make it happen. We asked for advice from the experts: Richard Charter, a coastal resident and a nationally known ocean activist; Ed Ueber, former marine sanctuary superintendent; Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations; Susan Williams, then-director of the Bodega Marine Lab; staff from Sen. Boxer’s office and the House Natural Resources Committee; and many others.
After an enthusiastic local hearing, I introduced legislation in the House and Boxer introduced a companion bill in the Senate. After that it became complicated. But with my insistence and the work of my staff, we got our chance in 2008 when the House passed a new bill that included the southern Mendocino Coast in the expansion. With broad support from local and state government, environmental groups, fishing associations and scientists and business groups, the bill sailed through the House Natural Resources Committee, then passed without objection on the floor. Unfortunately, the companion bill stalled in the closing hours of the Senate’s session.
I reintroduced legislation in the following Congress and, then again, in the next Congress. But with a Republican majority in the House, our only hope was that the Senate would pass legislation that the House would agree to. The good news was that Boxer was named chairwoman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over this issue, and she saw to it that her committee passed her companion bill. The bad news was that we had only that one congressional term (less than two years) before I would retire.
My office continued efforts to move the bill while I explored every promising idea with fellow Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Sam Farr of Carmel. But it soon became clear that the Republican majority would not even allow a vote.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ultimately made the difference. Once she felt certain we had covered every possible base at the congressional level, she went to President Barack Obama.
In 2012, the president directed the Commerce Department, through NOAA, to begin an administrative process to expand the ocean sanctuaries north to Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The process required public hearings, which were held last year. In April, a draft environmental impact statement was released, and recently more hearings were held for public comments on the draft EIS. Once those comments are addressed, the expansion can finally take place. That’s likely to happen by the end of the year, and future generations will know this shoreline as we have been privileged to know it — clean, healthy, inspirational and essential to our local economy and lifestyle.