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California Democrats seek to add 535,000 acres of wilderness in state

Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties could play host to part of the largest new designation of federal wilderness in a decade if Democratic sponsors of the land-protection package can find a way through the divided U.S. Senate.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would designate 257,797 of new acres of wilderness in Northern California while placing 480 miles of river in the region under the nation’s strictest environmental protections for waterways. The bill would designate an additional 49,692 acres as potential wilderness area.

In total, bills put forward by Huffman and three other California Democrats in a larger conservation package would add 535,000 acres of new wilderness and protect hundreds of miles of rivers in the state.

Areas designated as wilderness by Congress are off-limits to motorized vehicles and mechanized equipment, with some exceptions including combat against dangerous wildfires. Traditional uses, including camping, hunting and fishing, are generally allowed.

Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act does not create any new federal land but gives vast swaths of several national forests a greater layer of protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

His bill also designates the Bigfoot Trail, today an unofficial route that winds 360 miles through the Klamath Mountains, as a national recreation trail — joining the ranks of such famed paths as the Pacific Crest Trail.

The bill would carve out 724,007 acres in Trinity and Humboldt counties as a restoration area, opening forestland to a range of wildfire mitigation work, including treatment through logging on 232,000 acres.

The work also aims to restore critical habitat for endangered coho salmon, said Huffman, an avid fisherman and outdoorsman whose 2nd District stretches from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border.

“Being active in the outdoors and experiencing wild places in my district is more than something nice, it’s a way of life,” Huffman said in a Thursday press conference. The House is scheduled to vote on the package as soon as Friday.

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and three members of the Humboldt Board of Supervisors endorsed Huffman’s bill, but in Trinity County, where a large amount of national forest would be granted new designations, there was skepticism.

“We have some deep concerns,“ said Trinity County Supervisor Jill Cox. ”It really concerns me what’s going to get locked up and what people will have access to,“ she said.

Wilderness designation does not limit public access. It does bar motorized or mechanical travel, including use of snowmobiles and mountain bikes.

The Trinity County Board of Supervisors has not taken a stance on the proposal, but Cox said at least one fellow supervisor shares her view of it.

Though the bill promises restoration work including logging, such projects have failed to materialize in the past, she said, becoming lost in a quagmire of federal regulations and permitting.

Promised tourism dollars wouldn’t come from visits to the proposed wilderness areas, Cox said, describing them as difficult to access from her economically struggling county, where the timber industry has been in a decadeslong decline and massive wildfires have swept through federal land.

“We’re suffering out here,” Cox said.

“We live in a beautiful land and we have the ability to manage it,” she added. “The Forest Service promises they will take care of the land but I don’t see that happening. I just see it burning up.”

Huffman said his bill addresses such concerns. It grants new priority for fuel reduction projects, including logging, and the proposed wilderness areas sidestep places where logging is proposed “or where it could realistically be expected to happen,“ according to his office.

Bills put forward by three other California Democrats would add about 280,000 acres of wilderness in Southern and Central California, while also protecting hundreds of additional river miles.

The proposals from Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, focus on the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains and other areas near Los Angeles. A bill from Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, protects land along the Central Coast.

Schiff and Chu’s bills do address some private land, but do not use eminent domain to create federal land, those lawmakers said.

Those bills join legislation from Washington, Colorado and Arizona lawmakers that designate 1.49 million acres of public land as wilderness area and protect 1,000 miles of rivers under the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Seeking a ’moving train’ in the Senate

The larger package also removes 1.2 million acres of land from oil, gas and mining lease claims. Most of that acreage includes territory around the Grand Canyon that would be off-limits to new uranium mines.

President Joe Biden has indicated he supports the package. Sponsors were optimistic the bill would pass the Democratic-controlled House.

A Senate pathway is less certain. Passage would require 60 votes, and the chamber is evenly split with 50 members of both parties. Huffman was adamant enough Republicans will support the measure.

“If this bill comes to a vote in the United States Senate it will pass, and it will pass with bipartisan support,“ he said.

His office was asked Thursday to list Republican senators who support the legislation. A spokeswoman said they were unable to name any at this time.

If supporters are unable to secure a straight-ahead 60-vote margin, sponsors of the package will likely seek to hitch it to an even larger, must-pass piece of legislation.

“These days given the difficulty of passing any bills in Congress you look for the moving train,” Schiff said.

Options could include a big government spending bill or even legislation to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure, Schiff said.

“We are going to be tenacious in looking for every opportunity to attach this to something and get it passed,“ Huffman said, ”I will attach this to a ham sandwich if that gets this heard.“

During the press conference, two first-generation immigrants and California residents said expanding the nation’s network of protected public lands was of particular value to underrepresented or impoverished communities. Minorities and low-income families have historically had less access to national parks and wilderness areas, those speakers said.

The pandemic has heightened those disparities, said Ulmira Loza, of Los Angeles. Families confined to city apartment buildings have been “exposing their children to hours of video games and little exercise.”

Amid the stress of urban life in a new country, Loza described her own first visit to the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles, where Chu’s bill would expand an existing national monument. The trip, she said, “changed my life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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