Monday, June 26, 2006

Wilderness Area Needs Access

In this story of the California wilderness bill in Congress, a big issue is access, as it should be.

Traditionally, access to wilderness areas has been restricted to foot traffic, but it is becoming more evident that other access methods are needed if all members of the public are to have the opportunity to use public areas set aside for their use.

And that is really the ultimate purpose of public lands, access for the public who pays for and maintains them.

Here is an excerpt.

Wilderness bill's fate hinges on access
Del Norte County initially was opposed, but changes put outcome in doubt
By David Whitney -- Bee Staff WriterPublished 12:01 am PDT Monday, June 26, 2006

WASHINGTON -- If Rep. Mike Thompson's 300,000-acre wilderness bill protecting some of the most scenic lands along California's North Coast passes this year, what made the difference may well have been negotiations that won the endorsement of a Del Norte County supervisor in February.

With the clock ticking down on the congressional session, last-minute pressure is building on House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, to move the bill out of his committee and to the House floor for passage.

First introduced in 2002, the legislation would declare as wilderness federal lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service from Napa County to the Oregon border.

The most spectacular addition would be 42,585 acres in the King Range National Conservation Area, including a 26-mile stretch of beach that is the longest undeveloped coastline remaining in the continental United States.

Other additions would be the 30,870acre proposed Cache Creek wilderness area in Lake County, a popular whitewater rafting area; a 50,000-acre expansion of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness; 48,754 acres of additions to the Siskiyou National Forest wilderness; and 53,887 acres in the proposed Yuki Wilderness Area of the Mendocino National Forest.

Lands designated as wilderness are off-limits to mechanized travel and generally are open only to foot travel. Thompson's bill, however, makes special provisions for fire prevention in the King Range, and some privately owned shore lands there still would be accessible to the owners by road or airplane.

The measure cleared the Senate last fall after Sen. Dianne Feinstein worked through changes with the measure's principal Senate author, fellow California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

But the bill has languished before Pombo's House Resources Committee following a contentious hearing last summer that removed any hope of smooth sailing there.

The bill drew heated criticism in the state's northernmost coastal county. Only about 13 percent of the federal lands proposed for wilderness designation are in Del Norte County, but it alone stood in the way of unanimous support of the Thompson measure among elected government agencies.

"The state and federal government currently own and control close to 80 percent of the land in Del Norte County," Supervisor Chuck Blackburn exclaimed at the hearing. "I hope that this committee will honor the request of Del Norte County to be removed from this bill."

The county's opposition could have been the kiss of death. One of Pombo's requirements for moving wilderness legislation is community support.

But after that hearing, Thompson, a Democrat from St. Helena, went to work on agreements with Del Norte interests that removed 1,200 acres from the wilderness list and earned the support of Supervisor David Finigan, placing in doubt the Del Norte board's previous 3-2 vote to oppose to the bill.

"A local ad hoc group and myself have worked with you and your staff to help refine the areas of major concern," Finigan said in a letter to Thompson in February. "The areas proposed are (now) suitable for wilderness designation."

Blackburn said he was surprised by Finigan's letter, saying he had not heard of his change of position until contacted by a reporter. But Blackburn insisted it doesn't change the board's official position against the measure. "This board has not voted to change its position," he said.

Finigan's view is not unanimous.

Among those with remaining concerns is the influential International Mountain Biking Association.