Hitch in North Coast marine sanctuary plans delays unveiling

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Last-minute details related to expansion plans for two adjoining marine sanctuaries off the North Coast were still being hammered out between federal agencies Tuesday, delaying publication of a final rule, officials said.

There was no indication of a hitch significant enough to derail the expansion proposal, which was developed over the past two years under the direction of President Barack Obama.

It was unclear, however, just what was holding up the process, representatives with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

A spokesman for the National Marine Sanctuaries program said last week that the legal consultations underway between various agencies are typically privileged, though there have been reports that some of the delay, at least, relates to discussions over U.S. Coast Guard operations within sanctuary boundaries.

But most parties following developments said they doubted there was any cause for alarm.

“I’m hearing that the very top brass at the Coast Guard and the NOAA are working on this, and there will be a good solution,” said retired Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who championed coastal protections and sanctuary expansion legislation for two decades before her 2013 retirement.

The current expansion proposal developed by the Obama administration would more than double the combined area of the two sanctuaries, putting an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean off-limits to oil, energy and mineral exploration or extraction. It would also extend wildlife protections and conservation efforts across a vast stretch of nutrient-rich habitat, from Bodega Head to Manchester Beach on the southwest Mendocino Coast.

The additions would create a 350-mile band of protected coastal waters reaching north from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on the Central Coast.

“We’re enthusiastic about expanding the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank (National Marine Sanctuaries) so we’re just trying to make sure we check everything off the list and make sure it can happen as quickly as we can,” NOAA spokeswoman Keeley Belva said.

The final management plan was released in December, triggering its circulation among federal agencies for a 30-day period. That period has been extended by continued talks.

Richard Charter, senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and a member of the advisory council for the Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary, said Washington sources suggested the timing “is still within the window of typical.”

“It’s a huge pile of paper,” Charter said, referring to the final environmental impact statement and associated regulations connected to the plan. “It has to go through a lot of in-baskets and out-baskets.”

The next step is for the final rule to be published in the Federal Register, initiating a 45-day period of review by Congress and California Gov. Jerry Brown before the expansion takes effect.

National Marine Sanctuaries spokesman Matt Stout said last week that solid congressional support for the project up to this point suggests there should be no problem, despite new Republican strength in Congress.

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Maria Brown said arrangements for a celebration in late April were still being made in anticipation the expansion would take effect as expected.

“We’re actively planning on it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press​democrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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