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.
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.
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.