Keeping the wild in wilderness

Ambitious land protection plan includes 9,000 acres in Butte County

Jessica Rios, right, addresses a gathering of wilderness supporters at Cedar Grove in Bidwell Park. Maureen Kirk, far left, said, “Protecting these precious places will ensure that they remain just as beautiful and pristine for future generations as they are for us today.”

Jessica Rios, right, addresses a gathering of wilderness supporters at Cedar Grove in Bidwell Park. Maureen Kirk, far left, said, “Protecting these precious places will ensure that they remain just as beautiful and pristine for future generations as they are for us today.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Save while you can: The 2.5 million acres under consideration represent about one-third of the land still eligible for wilderness protection in the state. If approved, they would be added to the 14 million acres--about 13 percent of the state--already under federal protection.

Jessica Rios has devoted two years of her life to helping bring to fruition the California Wild Heritage Campaign, a plan that, if adopted, would place 2.5 million acres of wilderness and 400 miles of rivers under federal protection.

So on Saturday, May 11, when Rios gathered with supporters and other members of the campaign in Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove to announce that Sen. Barbara Boxer was unveiling her plans to introduce this week the California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2002, which would provide the vehicle to take the ambitious campaign through the Senate, it was understandable that Rios would get a little teary-eyed.

Rios apologized for the unexpected emotions, then thanked those locally who had devoted an estimated 700-plus hours of volunteer work to get the plan this far. But she added there is much work to come and the campaign still faces an uphill battle.

“A lot of people still think this amounts to a lock-out on the land,” she said. And although the Senate is controlled by Democrats, who are traditionally more environmentally sensitive, the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans.

Representatives Mike Thompson, D-Eureka, and Hilda Solis, D-East Los Angeles, will introduce a similar bill later this month in the House.

The act would outlaw logging, mining, construction and the use of motorized vehicles in 77 parts of the state, including the Feather Falls Wilderness Area of Butte County, and set up a conservation area along the Sacramento River.

Butte County’s representative in Congress, Wally Herger, R-Marysville, has already hinted he will fight the act. In early April, when he learned of Boxer’s intentions to introduce the act, Herger sent a letter to the Butte County Board of Supervisors warning of the “far-reaching impacts on our area.”

“By locking away forest lands in a one-size-fits-all wilderness designation,” Herger wrote, “I believe we remove flexibility for the future and effectively tie the hands of local experts and land managers who know best how to sustain and manage these resources for the good of the forests and local communities.”

The board chose not to take a position on the proposal until it could gain more information.

Rios says a polling firm that also does work for Gov. Gray Davis reports that nearly three-quarters of Californians support the bill.

This method of protection comes from the federal Wilderness Act, which was passed in 1964 to protect the country’s dwindling wilderness from development. The act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now comprises more than 104 million acres from Alaska to Florida. The act changed the way land is protected by allowing citizens to develop proposals and then submit them to their representatives, rather than having to wait, and hope, that land management agencies would act.

Boxer, in unveiling her plans for legislation, noted that in the past 20 years 675,000 acres of unprotected wilderness have been lost to activities such as mining and logging. If they gained federal protection, the areas would be open to horseback riding, fishing, hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing and canoeing.

Joining Rios was Chico Vice-Mayor Maureen Kirk, who said she was representing the Chico City Council, which has not heard from Herger on this matter.

Reading from a prepared statement, the vice-mayor said, “For the past two years dozens of volunteers in Oroville, Chico, Paradise, Forest Ranch, Cohasset, Redding and Red Bluff have joined volunteers from throughout the state of California working toward the remarkable goal of protecting the state’s last wild places.”

Kirk said that, as the nation’s sixth-highest waterfall, “Feather Falls is not only a treasure for local residents, it is also a destination for people from around the world.”

Indeed, the supporters of the bill are working to counter claims that restricting the use of wilderness leads to economic hardships for local communities. Loss of logging jobs, they say, can be offset by increased employment in the recreation industry in towns located near federally declared wilderness lands.

Brandy Daniel, an equestrian and labor market consultant from Oroville, said wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers generate income and jobs.

“Studies have shown that wilderness areas generate an additional $44 per acre per year of spending in nearby communities, contributing one job for every 550 acres of wilderness,” Daniel told the two dozen or so people gathered in Cedar Grove.

Such wilderness declarations also increase private property values and, by natural extension, improve the quality of life, she said.

Besides Republicans like Herger, off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers are expected join forces to fight the bill.