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Boxer, Feinstein seek to expand federal wilderness land in California

WASHINGTON — The next California wilderness fights will stretch from the desert to the Delta, in a dicey new political environment.

This week, the state's two Democratic senators set the stage by introducing myriad wilderness-related bills. Their overall prospects are unclear, but their ambitions are undeniable.

"I've still got one million acres to go," Sen. Barbara Boxer said of her wilderness aspirations Wednesday, adding that "wilderness is all over the state. You go from top to bottom, from the east to the west."

In Tehama and Shasta counties, for instance, Boxer wants to designate a 17,869-acre Sacramento River National Recreation Area. East of the Salinas Valley, Boxer calls for upgrading the Pinnacles National Monument into a new national park.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants creation of a national heritage area to attract federal funding. And in the vast Mojave Desert, Feinstein wants to designate a 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument.

Some proposals force stark choices.

Feinstein's Mojave Trails bill, for instance, would effectively block major wind and solar energy projects planned in the proposed monument region. This could force environmentalists to choose between supporting alternative energy and protecting public lands.

One proposed desert project called for a solar panel farm covering eight square miles of public land.

"I think that we must be cautious when we oppose renewable energy projects on federal lands," Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said last year.

Feinstein this week countered that the proposed wind and solar projects could be relocated, in order to protect what she describes as the "beauty of the massive valleys, pristine dry lakes and rugged mountains."

Boxer said Wednesday that her California state director, former Fresno City Councilman Tom Bohigian, is still evaluating the desert monument legislation.

More generally, many Republicans now controlling the House voice skepticism about expanding the federal reach.

"It's something I will look with a critical eye at," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, said Wednesday. "At a time of fiscal crisis, we should be looking at selling properties, not buying them."

Denham serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman, Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, stressed Wednesday that "federal policies that block access to our resources are making us more reliant on foreign resources that cost American jobs."

The various California environmental bills could take several routes to the White House.

Lawmakers can slip individual provisions into larger, unrelated bills. Last year, for instance, Feinstein tried doing this with the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area. The legislation would authorize up to $1 million a year to "preserve and protect" the five-county, ecologically sensitive region.

The omnibus bill into which Feinstein inserted the Delta legislation ultimately failed. Reviving the proposal will resurrect opposition from conservatives like Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, who denounced the national heritage proposal as "another layer of government."

Lawmakers can also promote wilderness bills as standalone measures. This works if the bill enjoys bipartisan local support. For instance, a Boxer bill to buy the 272-acre Gold Hill Ranch in Coloma, east of Sacramento, would recognize a 19th century Japanese settlement. Because it has the support of Boxer's ideological opposite, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, its standalone prospects may be greater.

Still other bills simply face very long odds. This week, for instance, Boxer reintroduced a measure nearly tripling the size of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries, all the way to the Mendocino County coast. Similar bills have been introduced since 2006. Though a Senate committee finally passed it last Congress, this year's version will confront a profoundly skeptical House.

"It gets harder and harder," Boxer said of California wilderness bills in general, "because all the easy ones have been done."
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