Final plan for North Coast marine sanctuary expansion expected within days

A dispute with the Coast Guard that for more than a month has stalled expansion plans for adjoining marine sanctuaries off the California coast appears to be resolved, paving the way for publication of the final regulatory proposal.

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman said Thursday he thought it would be a matter of days before publication of the final rule appeared in the Federal Register, a step that would mark a landmark moment for a federal plan in the works for more than two years and a proposal envisioned far earlier than that by supporters, including former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma.

“We’re all very excited to hear the final word when it comes,” said Huffman, D-San Rafael, speaking frankly about the potential risk of substantial delays had the Coast Guard persisted in its demands for regulatory exemptions in the sanctuaries. “This is going to be wonderful news for the North Coast and certainly for Congresswoman Woolsey and others who have worked many years on this.”

The plan to expand the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries would extend federal protections to coastal waters from Bodega Head to southern Mendocino County, putting an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean off-limits to energy and mineral extraction and more than doubling the combined size of the sanctuaries.

It would safeguard productive habitat fed by the nutrient-rich upwelling off Point Arena, and because the southern border of the Farallones sanctuary abuts the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it would ensure federal stewardship along 350 miles of coastline from Cambria to Manchester Beach.

The proposal, unveiled in December 2012 by President Barack Obama after years of legislative effort failed to garner sufficient backing in Congress, has strong support along the North Coast and in Washington, according to officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was expected to be published in late January.

But officials said the proposal was held up for weeks by demands from top Coast Guard brass who sought the same exemptions already included in the expansion language for the Navy and other branches of the military that fall under the Department of Defense.

The Coast Guard, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is not covered by the DOD provisions, which in essence waive sanctuary rules for ongoing activities deemed essential to the nation’s defense. Authorization for any new activities would follow consultation between the two agencies.

The Coast Guard also is concerned about retaining the ability to use some small vessels in its fleet that cannot store wastewater, and thus would be at risk of violating sanctuary rules on effluent discharge.

The agency, which would be tasked with enforcement within the sanctuary, also feared its training and exercises could be restricted, according to people familiar with the discussions in Washington.

Huffman said the Coast Guard’s concern was “reasonable,” but called it “unfair to raise it at the eleventh hour in a long review process.”

He also noted that the Coast Guard and NOAA sanctuary administrators have a track record of cooperation, and said an agreement now in place to work out a process of Coast Guard activities in all marine sanctuaries will cover the agency’s needs.

Huffman and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, were among five members of Congress from Central and Northern California coastal districts who last week called on the White House Office of Management and Budget to conclude negotiations and finalize the rule, citing an earlier, similar plea by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

“Ultimately, I’m glad to see that the Coast Guard stood down,” Huffman said.

Once published in the Federal Register, the final step in the expansion is a 45-day review period in which Congress or Gov. Jerry Brown could still raise objections, though sanctuary and NOAA officials have downplayed the likelihood of any impediment that would prevent the plan from going into effect.

Thompson, who was not available for an interview, said in writing that he was pleased “to hear that this expansion should be moving forward very soon.”

“When it happens, communities along our coast will see big benefits in the form of increased tourism dollars and a healthy ocean,” Thompson said in a written statement. “Once this expansion is completed, we will continue working toward our long-term goal of an integrated sanctuary system that protects our nation’s marine resources.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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