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Conflicting Visions for 'Serengeti of California'

Nature: Talk of oil exploration alarms those who want to preserve remote basin and its endangered species.


CARRIZO PLAIN, Calif. — Perhaps nowhere else is the conflict between California's thirst for energy and its desire to protect its vanishing natural landscape sketched in broader strokes than in this remote basin in Central California.

Just west of the Temblor Range, a splendid carpet of grass extends as far as the eye can see, a vista broken only by the sight of grazing pronghorn antelope.

Called "the Serengeti of California," the Carrizo Plain is the last large remnant of the aboriginal ocean of grassland that once covered the San Joaquin Valley--so valuable that President Clinton gave it federal protection as a national monument.

But east of the mountains, toward Bakersfield, are some of the richest oil fields in America. And a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey says the "probability for undiscovered oil and gas resources is high" in the Carrizo itself.

So the question being asked around here is, which will it be? Preservation or petroleum?

In late March, the Bush administration announced its intention to review the Carrizo and 20 other national monuments created or expanded by Clinton since 1996. Officials believe that some were designated in haste and that some public lands could be developed.

"[T]here are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment," President Bush said recently.

Now, battle lines are being drawn here as everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the Chumash Indians registers their opposition to any plans to open the Carrizo to oilmen. To them, an energy crisis is not reason enough to invade the plain.

"What are these people thinking of by even considering this?" asked Chief Mark Vigil of the San Luis Obispo County Chumash Council.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes most of the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain, has promised to fight any administration effort to get at the resources lying under the grassland. "The administration's inquiries pose a serious threat to the protection of the Carrizo Plain," she said.

Stung by the response to talk of opening public lands to exploration, the administration now measures its words on the monument issue. Officials insist that Interior Secretary Gale Norton is taking a cautious approach.

"She wants to go about this in a responsible, reasoned manner," said Norton spokesman Mark Pfeifle.

Privately, officials say she is unlikely to kill any of the monuments but could change the boundaries and the rules governing the lands. Even that is perceived as a threat around here, where people pride themselves on their green lifestyles.

They object to the kind of math that would weigh an antelope against a barrel of oil, or a blunt-nosed leopard lizard against air conditioning on a sweltering summer day.

What makes the Carrizo Plain worth fighting over is its geography and geology. A 50-mile-long, 8-mile-wide corridor of range land between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, it is where you go to see what the San Joaquin Valley looked like before the tractors, dam builders and ranchers arrived.

"This is the only place in California where so many endangered plants and animals coexist side by side in an area large enough to sustain them," said Ron Fellows, a field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Besides the antelope, leopard lizard and elk, the plain is home to the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel. Operated jointly by the BLM, the California Department of Fish and Game and the Nature Conservancy, facilities for tourists are rugged, consisting of a small visitor center with no water. A rutted road runs the length of the monument, skirting the white alkaline sink of Soda Lake. Painted Rock, a giant sandstone formation erupting from the grass, is sacred to the Chumash.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the plain in 1999 and came away impressed. "I can't believe there is a place like this left in California," he said.

To Capps, it is "a local and national treasure."

Driving into the Carrizo from the south on California 33, one passes a thicket of oil wells. The acrid odor of petroleum saturates the air. Just miles from the edge of the Carrizo, these are among the nation's most productive wells.

Midway-Sunset yields more oil than any other well in California, and Elk Hills--formerly the U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve--is the largest producer of gas associated with oil production.

Some experts feel certain that there is oil to be found under the Carrizo. The monument covers parts of two geological basins, the Cuyama and San Joaquin. In the San Joaquin Basin, "several significant oil and gas plays" may extend into the plain's underground geology, according to the Geological Survey.

In fact, of all 21 monuments reviewed by the survey, the Carrizo had the highest probability of large oil and gas reserves.

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