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Senate OKs Wilderness Protections

President is expected to sign measure affecting land near Big Sur.

November 21, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved legislation Wednesday to protect as wilderness nearly 55,000 acres of land around the Big Sur coast and in Pinnacles National Monument.

"This development is an important first step in our effort to protect the most important and endangered wild areas in California," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

The measure was passed by the House earlier this week and now goes to the White House, where environmentalists expect President Bush to sign it.

The largest collection of new wilderness would be 34,840 acres in the Ventana Wilderness area of Los Padres National Forest. Steep canyons in this area provide a vital habitat for endangered condors. Stands of old-growth redwoods stretch skyward, and several creeks and rivers provide spawning ground for endangered steelhead.

The second-largest wilderness addition would be 17,055 acres in the Silver Peak Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, close to the tiny town of Plaskett. Golden eagles soar over the deep canyons forested with virgin redwoods. The crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains in this area provides sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Both additions bolster a treasured stronghold of wilderness in an increasingly urban area.

"This is another jewel in the crown of Big Sur," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who sponsored the legislation.

It also includes 2,715 acres in Pinnacles National Monument, a spectacular landscape of rock monoliths, spires and sheer-walled cliffs that rises out of the Gabilan Mountains east of central California's Salinas Valley. The area is popular with hikers and rock climbers.

The bill covers a small portion of the 2.5 million acres of public land in 81 areas of the state that Boxer has asked Congress to protect as wilderness. But the senator's spokesman, David Sandretti, said Farr's more limited legislation turned out to be all that could realistically be accomplished this year.

Since 1964, Congress has been designating areas such as these, which are largely untouched by human activities, as wilderness.

The goal is to preserve them by permanently prohibiting drilling for oil and gas, logging, mechanized forms of transportation and development, including roads.

As a rule, there is little interference with nature in such areas.

Hiking, primitive camping, cross-country skiing, non-motorized boating and sometimes horseback riding are the principal recreational activities.

Despite the relatively modest acreage, environmentalists were delighted by the passage of the legislation, one of the few positive environmental measures to pass Congress this year.

"It's the 18th time that Congress has designated wilderness in the state," said Jay Watson, the California representative for the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group. "It continues a long tradition of wilderness in California."

All the news was not good for environmentalists from the Senate's flurry of legislative actions Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

The Senate also approved two controversial land exchanges in Alaska. One would give the University of Alaska 750,000 acres of federal land for development.

The other would hand over 12,000 acres of temperate rain forest in the Tongass National Forest to two corporations for logging, mining and other development.

In exchange, the federal government will receive 3,000 acres, largely already clear-cut lands. That measure now goes to the House for approval.

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