BLACK SANDS BEACH, Calif. — Pounding waves scour these jutting headlands, dredging rock and sand into the surf. The rain-soaked hillsides periodically shrug, sending tons of land into the path of the waves. The sea reciprocates by regurgitating sand up on the ever-shifting beach.
Nature's primitive architecture defines this 26-mile run of spectacular coast, the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental U.S. Its compelling landscape is the centerpiece of an ambitious wilderness bill that would bestow the nation's highest protections on an area known as the Lost Coast in Humboldt County.
Like the coast itself, supporters of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act say, this bill is special. The more than 300,000 acres of federal land have been hand-selected for their beauty, suitability and broad base of support, including that of local ranchers, hunters and California's largest homebuilder.
"If the bill passes, we are telling the public: 'This is special enough to protect in perpetuity.' I think it is," said Gary Pritchard-Peterson, who manages the federal conservation area included in the proposed legislation.
The bill, recently introduced by members of the California congressional delegation, has attracted bipartisan support at a time when wilderness protection is finding few political allies. President Bush has set aside fewer acres of wilderness than any previous president.
Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his support behind the legislation. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), an opponent of past wilderness bills, praised the effort to draw in diverse voices.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) introduced the bill in the House, and California's Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are the co-sponsors of the Senate version.
The Lost Coast is part of the 40,000 acres within the King Range National Conservation Area earmarked for wilderness designation. The area is operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Wilderness designation is often controversial because the classification prohibits some activities, such as road-building, motorized recreation, logging, mining and other commercial development. The permanent restrictions are in keeping with the Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as areas where "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."
For years, diverse groups have pored over drafts of legislation for the Lost Coast and demanded a range of changes. Borders were moved hundreds of yards to accommodate firefighting concerns. Some acreage was removed, and buffer zones were added. To ensure access for private property owners, no existing roads were closed. Livestock grazing was permitted. Hunting, fishing and other recreational uses were preserved.
"We've had Senate hearings. We've had town hall meetings in the district. Everyone had their say," Thompson said. "We have addressed all of the legitimate issues."
But there are detractors. Some landowners, off-road enthusiasts and even the International Mountain Bicycling Assn. oppose wilderness designation.
Leland W. Hadley's family has ranched the King Range since 1856, and he still owns property within the conservation area. His opposition to the bill centers on the prohibition against new roads. At 86, "You don't walk very far," he said, adding that it is eight to 10 miles from the edge of his property to the nearest road.
"Getting across the mountains is too tough, so I'd have to walk the beach, and that's not easy," he said.
Mary Etter, whose family has been ranching in Honeydew and within the King Range since the turn of the century, said she was opposed to the wilderness restrictions against motorized access. Etter is among a handful of "inholders," those who own private property within larger federal parcels. The bill doesn't affect their property rights and specifically allows existing roads to remain.
Nevertheless, Etter is not mollified. "You don't know what the future is going to bring, and I'm concerned about not being able to use my land," she said.
Mountain bikers say 170 miles of trails currently open to them would be placed off-limits under the terms of the bill. Under some federal land management policies, mountain bikes are classified as off-highway vehicles and prohibited from wilderness areas.
Jenn Dice, government affairs director for the Colorado-based International Mountain Bicycling Assn., said the organization supports wilderness protection.
"We can't lose those trails," Dice said. "We haven't seen any compromises made for mountain bikes."
She hopes there will be negotiating room during House debate.
The legislation's next stop is the House Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy). Pombo generally opposes restrictions on the use of federal land.