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Wilderness protection bill gets House OK

The legislation gives maximum federal protection to more than 2 million acres in nine states, including more than 700,000 acres in California. Obama is expected to sign it into law this year.

March 26, 2009|Richard Simon and Bettina Boxall

AND BETTINA BOXALL, WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — Congress on Wednesday approved the largest expansion of the wilderness system in 15 years, bestowing the highest level of federal protection on 2 million acres in nine states and launching one of the most ambitious river restoration efforts in the West.

The bill, the first major conservation measure set to be signed by President Obama, would designate as wilderness almost as much land as was set aside during George W. Bush's entire presidency. It passed the House on Wednesday, 285 to 140, after clearing the Senate last week.

In California -- which now has 14 million acres of wilderness (second only to Alaska, which has more than 57 million acres) -- the bill would protect about 700,000 additional acres from new roads and most commercial uses such as new mining, logging and energy development.

Included in the legislation is $88 million to help fund a project to return year-round flows and a prized salmon run to the San Joaquin River for the first time since the 1940s. The bill also would provide $61 million toward cleanup of polluted groundwater in the San Gabriel Valley.

The legislation passed Wednesday is an amalgam of about 160 bills, including measures to strengthen the protection of Oregon's Mt. Hood; designate President Clinton's boyhood home in Hope, Ark., a national historic site; create a commission to plan for the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla.; and designating the River Raisin battlefield in Monroe, Mich. -- site of a bloody battle in the War of 1812 -- as a unit of the national park system.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said at a news conference after the vote that the bill is the "most important piece of conservation legislation Congress has considered in many years."

California land to be designated as wilderness includes about 40,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County. The bill would create the Magic Mountain Wilderness -- named for a mountain northeast of Santa Clarita, not the Six Flags amusement park -- and the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness, west of Angeles Crest Highway.

About 428,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra would be protected, as would about 147,000 acres in Riverside County (including parts of Joshua Tree National Park) and about 85,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks -- including the Mineral King Valley area that was the site of an environmental battle in the 1960s when the Disney company tried to build a ski resort there.

The legislation also would strengthen protections of scenic rivers, including eight in California that stretch from the upper Owens River in the eastern Sierra to Piru Creek in Los Angeles County.

In addition, the bill would add about 8,400 acres to the 272,000-acre Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument near Palm Springs, and order a study on whether the World War II Japanese American internment camp at Tule Lake should be part of the national park system.

"We're ecstatic," said Sam Goldman, California wilderness coordinator at the Wilderness Society.

The bill brought together members of opposing parties who were eager to trumpet their conservation efforts and water projects.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, a conservative Republican who worked with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to push for the wilderness designation in the Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains, alluded to his unusual situation.

"We have some people who used to be my friends who are not happy with me, and we have some people who used to hate me who now think I'm great," he said. Showing pictures of mountains and rivers in his district, he added: "Places like this are treasures that we should try to preserve."

But the measure drew opposition from a number of congressional Republicans and business and property-rights groups, who attacked it as a land grab that would close off public land to energy production.

"If Congress and the administration are serious about jump-starting our economy, they cannot limit responsible American energy production of any kind, including oil and natural gas," said Barry Russell, president and chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America.

The $88 million for the San Joaquin River is aimed at ending one of California's legendary water fights.

So much of the river is diverted to irrigate farmland on the east side of the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley that about 60 miles of it has turned into a bed of dust. Its lower reach is so polluted with runoff and agricultural drainage that it is known as "the lower colon of California."

A chinook salmon run that once was one of the West Coast's most bountiful was wiped out after Friant Dam was built in the 1940s and most of the river's Sierra-fed flow was sent into two giant irrigation canals.

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