Asserting that she has worked for more than a year to build a broad consensus for support of a bill to expand wilderness in Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument (CPNM), as well as add 158 of miles new wild and scenic rivers, Congressmember Lois Capps is set to announce today she will be introducing a bill in Congress titled the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act within the next few days.
The act would increase the amount of wilderness in all of the Central Coast portions of Los Padres Forest, as well as establish three new wilderness areas in the Carrizo Plain; add wild-river status to large sections of the Manzana, Mono, Indian, Sespe, Matilija and Piru creeks; and officially designate the Condor Trail as a national recreational trail. “The Central Coast is home to some of the most diverse habitats and ecosystems in North America,” Capps explained. “We are really fortunate to have these national treasures right here in our backyard.”
In response to those who complain that there is already plenty of wilderness in Los Padres National Forest, Capps noted that there are potential threats to many of the non-wilderness parts of the forest and that they are too important not to protect. “It’s about the future we want to leave for our children; it’s about what we want to leave to them after we’ve gone,” she said. Currently, 49 percent of the forest is designated as wilderness. The proposal would increase that by 240,000 acres.
The bill is strongly supported by a coalition of organizations, businesses, and individuals, including the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Los Padres ForestWatch. Jeff Kuyper, who is the executive director of ForestWatch, ticked off a list of things that currently could occur in these non-wilderness areas, including oil and gas exploration and development; construction of temporary roads, communication towers, and facilities; thermal energy development; mining exploration; and commercial harvesting of wood products. “Unlike national parks, national forests are generally open to all types of development and industrialization,” Kuyper says. “This bill seeks to permanently protect some of the most important public lands in our region, for the benefit of wildlife, clean water, and outdoor adventure.”
Along with protecting 158 miles of streams through wild- and scenic-river designation, Congressmember Capps also noted that designation of the Condor Trail as a national recreational trail is an extremely important part of the bill. “To have this in our backyard is really exciting, and the fact that it highlights and supports the protection we need to provide for the California Condor is really important.” Rachel Kondor, who is the district representative for Capps in Santa Barbara, also noted that national recognition of the trail brings with it the potential for increased care and maintenance, not only of the route itself but the feeder trails that tie into it.
In addition to the added wilderness in Los Padres, the bill would authorize the creation of the Caliente Mountain, Soda Lake, and Temblor Range wilderness areas in the CPNM, totaling just over 62,000 acres. Capps noted that these, like the interior parts of Los Padres National Forest that are either now wilderness or will be if the bill becomes law, are also critical condor habitat and need the additional protection that wilderness designation would bring them.
Aside from the complaints that too much of Los Padres is already wilderness, the potential loss of recreational access if the bill passes has stirred quite a bit of controversy. A large number of the comments received by Capps’s office recently came from Santa Barbara area mountain bikers concerned about the loss of trail access. Mountain biking is not permitted in wilderness areas. “There is no net loss of trails under the proposed bill,” said Capps’s press secretary, Chris Meagher, with the exception of a 2.5-mile section of the Fishbowls Trail near Mutau Flats. Offsetting this loss would be the creation of a four-mile-long trail along the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains just above New Cuyama that would connect two extremely important trails — the Bull Ridge and Rocky Ridge trails — west to Aliso Campground. The two have been inaccessible for more than two decades after nearby property owners fenced off the road leading to them.
Despite this, some mountain bikers remain wary of the bill. In a letter dated April 4, 2014, Jack Greenbaum, acting president of the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers (SBMTV), said, “While we are supportive of measures to preserve lands from over-development and/or irresponsible resources extraction, unfortunately, in its current form, we are unable to support your Central Coast Wilderness Proposal.”
“There are two major concerns we have,” says Greenbaum. “As it is written, the bill will impact recreational access adversely by closing trails that mountain bikers have used historically.” He points out the Upper Mono, Alamar, and Alamar Hill trails as examples of routes that would no longer be accessible to mountain bikers. Meagher notes that all three of these trails are currently designated as “Recommended Wilderness” and are already being managed as such under the Los Padres Land Management Plan.
“How can the backcountry trails be maintained to acceptable standards if existing wilderness areas are expanded to include more trails?” Greenbaum wonders.
Greenbaum also doesn’t believe that the bill protects wilderness in the way that people think it will. Citing national forest staff numbers from the Mt. Hood and Tahoe regions, he estimates it costs three times as much or more to maintain trails in wilderness than non-wilderness. “How can the backcountry trails be maintained to acceptable standards if existing wilderness areas are expanded to include more trails?” Greenbaum wonders.
Matt Sayles, who is the wild heritage coordinator for Los Padres ForestWatch, disputes the idea that the bill will create additional expenses. “Over the past several years, we’ve had hundreds of meetings and made every effort to ensure that trails important to mountain bikers are not included in the proposed bill,” Sayles says. Using a process called “cherry stemming,” which involves designating the trail and a small portion of the land on either side of it as non-wilderness so that it remains open to mountain biking and allows use of power tools and other equipment that would be difficult to get permission for in wilderness.
“With the exception of the upper Mono Creek trails and the short section of the Fishbowls Trail in the Mutau Flats area,” Sales added, “we have added almost 300,000 acres of wilderness, provided wild and scenic river protection for more than a hundred miles of sensitive riparian habitat, and protected the heart of the Los Padres Forest from development for future generations.”
“The proposal impacts recreation without providing the protection people expect it will provide,” Greenbaum counters. As an alternative, SBMTV has provided Capps’s office with maps noting areas that his group feel would be better served if designated as national recreation areas rather than wilderness.
Despite the concerns raised by SBMTV, many mountain bikers are actually supportive of the bill. Chris Nybo, who is a 2nd grade teacher and avid mountain biker, says that many of the people he rides with support the bill. “I don’t think about what I’m losing but what I’m getting in return,” Nybo said. “I’m a huge proponent of preserving lands that need the highest level of protection. The small amount of access that might be lost is far overweighed by what we will gain.” The Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers have also expressed general approval of the bill after seeing several of their concerns addressed.
Surprisingly, CORVA, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which often is critical of adding new wilderness, is maintaining a relatively neutral position. Bruce Whitcher, the vice president of CORVA responsible for Land Resources and Public Policy, noted in an email dated May 11, 2014, that his group is “very pleased that the proposal does not appear to close any existing public access to the Los Padres National Forest or the Carrizo Plains.”
Meagher noted that negotiations with Capps’s office and SBMTV are ongoing and he is hopeful they will be able to work out a compromise. On a positive note, Greenbaum said, “We are in the midst of productive dialogue with Capps’s staff.” Should these efforts prove fruitful, the work done by Congressmember Capps and her staff will have paid off. “We are looking to get a broad consensus, not wait for the perfect bill,” Capps said of these efforts.
She just may get that.