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Padilla introduces bill to advance California wilderness additions

California’s junior U.S. senator unveiled on Monday a sweeping public lands package in the upper chamber of Congress that if passed into law would designate more than 625,000 acres of new federal wilderness area in the state.

The package, called the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act, includes a bill from Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, to create about 260,000 acres of new wilderness in Northern California.

Huffman voiced optimism over the meaning of Alex Padilla’s sponsorship and the fact that the legislation was in play early in the congressional session.

Padilla’s bill includes three of four California bills in the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, a broader public lands package the House passed in March.

“We have shown that we can pass [wilderness legislation] out of the House,” Huffman said Monday in an interview. “The challenge is figuring out a way to get it out of the Senate. You can’t do that without someone in the Senate championing that bill.”

Altogether, the package of bills moved by the House would add more than 2 million acres of new wilderness on federal lands across Washington, Colorado, Arizona and California, amounting to what would be the largest addition to the nation’s wilderness system in a decade.

The PAWS Act passed the House with bipartisan support, but Huffman said he wasn’t counting on Republican support in the Senate.

“The days of conservation-minded Republican senators... are just long gone,” he said. Padilla, who is a Democrat, and other Senate proponents will look to larger pieces of “must pass” legislation to carry the bill through, he said.

Padilla announced his California companion legislation on Monday at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale in an event that included representatives of the Gabrielino-Tonga tribal nation.

“The legislation we’re talking about today… will keep these lands as wild as precious and as untouched as possible for future generations to enjoy,” said Padilla, the former California secretary of state. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to fill the Senate seat vacated in January by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Representatives from Padilla’s office previously told The Press Democrat that he intended to introduce legislation after House passage of the wilderness package.

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)

Huffman’s bill designates 257,797 of new acres of wilderness in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties 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.

Other California 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’s act includes the bills sponsored by Chu and Carbajal. Sen. Dianne Feinstein intends to introduce a companion bill for Schiff’s proposal, according to Schiff’s staff.

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

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