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California and the West

State Has Its Eye on Utilities' Sierra Lands

Conservation: The 160,000 acres of wilderness have become a bargaining chip in energy talks. Deregulation could have led to development.

March 02, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of the energy morass the state may pluck a singular prize--more than 160,000 acres of Sierra Nevada wild lands laced with blue-ribbon trout streams, alpine lakes, whitewater rivers and old-growth forest.

The pockets of land surrounding widely scattered hydroelectric plants along California's jagged spine have for decades been managed by utilities almost as if they were public, open for recreation and protected from development or extensive timber cutting.

Deregulation of the private electricity industry cleared the way for them to be sold, raising fears that relatively undisturbed pieces of the Sierra could be heavily logged and carved into vacation-home lots.

Now the lands--each piece composing part of a watershed surrounding a powerhouse or lake--have become a bargaining chip in the state's energy negotiations. And environmentalists see a chance to protect precious property that generations of Californians have retreated to for fishing, hiking and boating.

"It is difficult to imagine passing this up," said Laurie Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust.

As part of his rescue plan for Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, Gov. Gray Davis is proposing that the two private utilities give the state "conservation easements," in effect giving up development rights for the land.

One of the companies has already agreed. Last week Davis said Edison would grant the state a 99-year easement on 20,000 acres in the southern and eastern Sierra as part of a tentative, $2.76-billion pact to sell the utility's transmission lines to the state.

The governor is still pursuing a transmission-line deal, including a conservation agreement, with PG&E. Key to any resolution of California's power problems, the state's biggest utility owns the bulk of the watershed lands, about 140,000 acres from Redding to Bakersfield. Neither utility is commenting on the negotiations.

Many environmentalists would like Davis to go beyond easements and place the watershed lands under direct public ownership--a suggestion some rural county officials are decrying.

The possibility of PG&E shedding tens of thousands of acres of Sierra wild lands first arose after deregulation in 1996. The utility began selling its generating plants and applied to the state Public Utilities Commission to auction off its hydroelectric facilities and adjacent watershed properties. The move rang alarm bells not only in environmental circles but at the U.S. Forest Service.

In documents and testimony filed with the PUC, the Forest Service expressed grave concerns about PG&E's divestiture plans, which involve lands bordering portions of nine national forests in California. Officials said auctioning off the property could lead to development that would disrupt animal habitats, hurt water quality and interfere with management of adjacent national forest land.

As an example of the allure the PG&E tracts hold for developers, Carol Efird, a Forest Service lands and recreation specialist, cited 26,000 acres near the Tahoe National Forest, one of the most heavily used federal forests in the country. The watershed land is near a major highway, Interstate 80, has two rivers running through it, and 21 lakes popular with anglers and boaters.

"The high mountain lakes on PG&E land could be particularly attractive to people wanting a mountain residence," Efird told commissioners at a hearing last year, worrying that national forest land would essentially become a backyard for vacation homes.

Tim Duane, a UC Berkeley associate professor of environmental planning and policy who also works for the PUC, said a draft environmental report on the proposed divestiture indicated that as many as 10,000 homes could be developed on the PG&E acreage.

The report further warned of the possibility of increased logging and road building that could harm fisheries and wildlife habitat. "The proposed auction would have led to quite a few adverse impacts," Duane said.

After the energy crisis reached a boil late last year, the Legislature passed a bill stopping the utilities from selling any more assets, including the hydroelectric facilities and adjacent lands.

That has not calmed fears about the watershed properties. Even if the utilities remain in control of the tracts, the companies' financial woes probably would increase pressure to exploit the holdings through some development and increased logging.

"The way the lands have been managed in the past may have relatively little to do with the way they are managed in the future," said Guy Phillips, chief consultant to Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek). Keeley has for several years pushed for state acquisition of the entire hydroelectric system. Concerned that even easements could be written to allow some development, many conservationists favor public ownership of the watershed tracts.

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