Subscribe

California Sen. Alex Padilla backs sweeping US wilderness bill as House authors wait for Senate opening

A far-reaching package of public lands bills that would designate more than 535,000 acres of new federal wilderness in California is picking up support in the U.S. Senate, where its fate will be determined after swift passage last month by Democrats who control the House.

California’s two Democratic senators, Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, will introduce a series of companion pieces in the Senate to support the legislation in the coming weeks, according to Padilla’s spokeswoman.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act is in the package, said the political strategy was part waiting game and part chess match — a search for the right moment and enough supporters to usher the legislation through a floor vote.

“The entire game right now is figuring out some path through the Senate,” Huffman said in an interview.

The wider legislative package calls for more than 2 million acres of new wilderness across Washington, Colorado, Arizona and California, amounting to the largest addition to the federal wilderness system in a decade.

NWCaliforniaWildernessRecreationandWorkingForestsAct.pdf

Huffman and fellow Democrats are voicing optimism about their prospects, with their party in control of both the Senate and the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris, a potential deciding vote in the Senate, championed the California wilderness additions when she was a California senator.

Policy experts, though, caution that action may not come swiftly, with a path and passage in the Senate still uncertain. The package, titled the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, could be caught up in partisan standoffs or fall victim to Republican opposition. The GOP has members who adamantly oppose new wilderness and others who may welcome new land protections in their districts.

Another key factor is the stance of Sen. Joe Manchin, the now-powerful West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was assigned the House package and is also likely to be the first stop for any companion legislation.

“It’s not dead on arrival and the question is can it be fit within this complicated landscape,” John Leshy, professor emeritus at the UC Hastings College of the Law and an expert in federal environmental policy.

Only eight House Republicans voted in support on the final, Feb. 26 floor vote. Those in opposition included a lone Democrat — Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas — and 199 Republicans.

Huffman’s bill designates 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. It would designate an additional 49,692 acres as potential wilderness, pending further study. 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.

Huffman’s bill does not create any new federal land but gives vast swathes of several national forests a greater layer of protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

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.

Click the link below to download the map of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act.

HR2250_South Fork Trinity River Wilderness Additions_15-5-2020.pdf

Map of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act (California Wilderness Coalition)
Map of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act (California Wilderness Coalition)

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.

Padilla will introduce bills in the Senate to mirror those sponsored by Chu, Carbajal and Huffman in the coming weeks, his spokeswoman said. Feinstein will bring a companion bill for Schiff’s proposal.

The total package is endorsed by President Joe Biden. The administration supports the act because it confronts “the ongoing decline of nature,” among other environmental goals, according to a White House statement.

Biden in January executive order called for protecting 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, a benchmark that Gov. Gavin Newsom and other Democrats have endorsed as key way to safeguard natural resources and wildlife amid the ravages of climate change. Achieving it is another matter. All told it would require additional conservation safeguards across an area roughly twice the size of Texas, according to experts — about 438.5 million more acres than is considered in the PAWS Act.

Huffman, a former environmental attorney, first joined Congress in 2013 and has seen his wilderness proposals for Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties stalled by GOP opposition ever since. Unified Democratic control of Washington and the White House endorsement might finally break that logjam.

“The Senate moves slowly, we know that,” said Lydia Weiss, government relations director for The Wilderness Society. “But the House never moves as fast as it did,” on the latest public lands package, she said.

“We are really optimistic about these bills passing into law in this Congress,” Weiss said.

Few are willing to wager when that might happen over the next 20 months, however.

“Public lands bills tend to be popular but they’re not necessarily considered urgent,” said Michael Painter, coordinator with the group Californians for Western Wilderness. “And so very often what happens is public lands bills get pushed through at the end of the congressional session.”

Passing the legislation on its own in the Senate would require at least 60 votes to clear a potential filibuster. That could prove an overly steep hurdle, especially in the face of staunch wilderness opponents like Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Public land issues “are really radicalized for some of these senators,“ Huffman said.

In the last Congress, Democrats attempted to push a version of the package, including Huffman’s bill, into law through the National Defense Authorization Act, which lawmakers consider must-pass legislation. Republicans opposition forced the conservation bills to be dropped.

A similar strategy might be employed this time around.

“I’m hopeful that Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla will fight to pass it, or include it on other must-pass legislation,” Schiff said in a statement.

“We’re going to just be extremely opportunistic,” Huffman said.

Manchin’s stance might matter at that point. A hearing in his committee would heighten the legislation’s profile and raise its chances, advocates said, while his floor vote could also be pivotal. But the West Virginia moderate — a suddenly pivotal figure in a Senate evenly divided between the two parties — has warned he is unlikely to support legislative add-ons without bipartisan support.

Still, local support for protected lands in Republican territory might shift the needle, said Leshy, emeritus UC Hastings professor. “Even though the Republican Party is rhetorically hostile to public lands, the reality is underneath that rhetoric there’s a lot of local support for legislation like this,” he said.

Huffman has faced opposition to his proposal from some in Trinity County, where the long, painful decline of the timber industry has soured some officials’ taste for more wilderness.

His bill carves out 724,007 acres in Trinity and Humboldt counties as a restoration area, much of it overlapping the giant footprint of the 2020 August Complex wildfire and other blazes. In that area, the bill directs the Forest Service to unleash wildfire mitigation work, including treatment through logging on 232,000 acres. If passed, “this is going to prove up in the years ahead to be a really good thing for these communities,” Huffman said.

Trinity County Supervisor Keith Groves conceded that changes have been made to address local concerns. But many county residents, himself included, do not think those revisions go far enough.

“This county has a large issue with the Forest Service and the federal government because we have been told a lot of promises over the last 100 years and very few of them come as promised,” he said.

But river rafting outfitter Michael Charlton said more wilderness would boost his business. “I don’t think it will be overnight, but yes, I think eventually it will,” he said. A resident of the hamlet of Del Loma, Charlton employs four people full time and hires as many as 15-20 guides on a freelance basis at his company, Redwoods and Rivers, he said.

Charlton at first worried that Huffman’s bill might close off road access to some of his favorite hunting spots. The congressman, a fisherman and avid outdoorsman, assured him that wouldn’t be the case, Charlton said. Like Groves, Charlton also worried the Forest Service won’t keep up its end of the bargain — in his case by building infrastructure to support expanded outdoor recreation. Huffman made assurances on that point too.

“We’ve got to deliver and make sure that stuff really happens,” Huffman said. “And if it does the economic benefits are going to be so undeniable that its going to be hard to make some political argument against [the bill].”

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

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette