WASHINGTON — Large swaths of California wild lands would gain federal wilderness protection under legislation that took a step toward approval in the U.S. Senate during a rare Sunday session.
The measure, which would expand the protection to more than 2 million acres of public land nationwide, may be the most significant conservation legislation in a decade, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the bill's manager.
It would designate as wilderness -- the government's highest protection -- about 190,000 acres in Riverside County, including parts of Joshua Tree National Park; about 450,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles; and about 90,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, including John Krebs Wilderness.
The measure also would authorize $88 million in funding to launch an ambitious effort to restore the San Joaquin River, which has been drained for decades to supply Central Valley farms. More water would be left in the river, and populations of spring-run chinook salmon would be returned under terms of a legal settlement in a long-running environmental battle over the river.
The proposal is expected to win final Senate approval by the end of the week and then go to the House, where it is also expected to be approved.
"We're very excited that these slices of wild California are so close to being permanently protected," said Ryan Henson, policy director of the California Wilderness Coalition.
As part of its wilderness protections, the measure would authorize a study on whether the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans, should be included in the national park system.
"This is a great moment -- for me personally and for California -- to see three important parts of it move closer to becoming law," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the Sunday session -- and the Senate's first roll call of the year -- out of anger over what he regarded as stalling tactics by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a critic of the bill.
Democrats increased their majority in the November election and were prepared to flex their muscle to prevent a filibuster. But it wasn't necessary. Because the bill includes projects eagerly sought by senators from both parties for their states, it easily cleared the procedural hurdle with a 66-12 vote.
Besides California, wilderness designations would be made in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, West Virginia and Virginia. The package of about 160 bills also would designate former President Clinton's childhood home in Hope, Ark., as a national historic site.
The measure also includes initiatives intended to reduce wildfire risk and increase water supplies.
The legislation drew opposition from conservatives and property rights groups, which assailed it as a land grab that would close areas to energy production. Critics also questioned whether Congress, facing massive budget deficits and a backlog of park maintenance, should be taking up legislation now that would authorize, among other things, a commission to plan a 450th anniversary celebration in 2015 for the founding of St. Augustine, Fla.
"We can't continue to pass bills by putting together a little bit of what everybody wants and forgetting what's good for our country," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness, said the legislation would be a "most welcome action by many Americans who face so much uncertainty in their lives. It will be nice for them to know they can visit their most treasured spots and see them just as they are. They will be able to continue to hike, hunt, fish, camp or canoe amid this natural splendor, and that is no small consolation in these difficult times."
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles contributed to this report.