Following through on a promise made long ago on the campaign trail, U.S. Representative Jared Huffman recently celebrated the passage of his Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act. Huffman’s bill, introduced alongside bills by fellow Reps. Salud Carbajal (CA-24) and Judy Chu (CA-27), was part of a massive federal public lands package called the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act. If passed in the Senate and approved by the president, it could protect 1.37 million acres of federal lands in California and 1,000 river miles in three states.
In 2012, while campaigning for the 2nd Congressional District, Huffman was approached by local conservation groups Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment (SAFE) and CalWild, who asked him to author a Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers bill to protect parts of Trinity County. The 2nd District had just been redrawn to include Trinity County, which had previously been part of the more conservative 1st District. Wilderness advocates saw this as their opportunity to finally pass legislation they had been working on for years. “Some of us in Trinity County had been working to protect these areas since the 70’s,” said Larry Glass, member of SAFE and Executive Director of the NEC. “They were identified then as roadless areas, they were Roadless Area Review and Evaluations (RARE II), and not included in past wilderness bills. Each time we proposed these areas (to be protected), and each time they would get kicked out.” Once the redistricting happened, they went to all of the candidates running for Congress in the 2nd District that year and asked for support. Huffman pledged to work to protect the areas in question and, seven years later, followed through.
In the years since Huffman was originally approached, an extensive public outreach process led to the drafting of legislation which expands nine existing wilderness areas and establishes eight new ones (some of which are detailed in the “Mountains and Rivers” insert in this issue). Designating an area as wilderness recognizes the unique values of that area and ensures that logging, mining, road construction, or other development will not take place in exceptionally wild stretches of public land. The bill also designates 480 miles of new Wild and Scenic rivers, protecting those areas from hydroelectric development and major stream diversions. Designations of “Wilderness” and “Wild and Scenic” provide the strongest protections possible for federal lands. Less than ½ of 1% of rivers in the U.S. fall under the “Wild and Scenic” designation.
According to Huffman’s office, this legislation will “protect communities by increasing fire resilience, restore forests and fish habitat, strengthen local economies, enhance recreational opportunities, and protect important wild places on federal lands. It will not expand federal land, limit hunting or fishing, close any legally open roads or trails to vehicles, or affect access to or the use of private property.” This bill also seeks to restore public lands affected by trespass cannabis grows by establishing inter-agency restoration partnerships.
The success of the bill has been attributed to Huffman’s comprehensive public outreach effort. Prior to drafting the bill, Huffman and his office consulted with “dozens of community leaders, tourism organizations, outdoor recreation groups, restoration specialists, tribes, county supervisors, conservation groups, forestry experts, fisheries scientists, fire ecologists, the timber industry, and other business owners.” The result is legislation that has garnered the approval of environmentalists and business leaders alike.
Now it’s up to the Senate to pass companion legislation. The Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act was introduced in the Senate by California Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein. The PUBLIC Lands Act has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. As Harris has said, “Rather than focusing on leasing our public lands to Big Oil, we should be focusing on protecting our future. I applaud the House of Representatives for taking decisive action to bolster protections for California’s public lands, it is now time for the Senate to act.”