Key U.S. House committee approves wilderness bill |

Key U.S. House committee approves wilderness bill

Erica Werner

WASHINGTON (AP) – A key House committee voted Wednesday to set aside nearly 277,000 acres in far northern California as federally protected wilderness. It was a long-fought advance for a bill that has passed the Senate twice but stalled, until now, in the House.

The legislation passed the House Resources Committee on voice vote after its author, St. Helena Democrat Mike Thompson, made a deal with committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, to drop about 27,000 acres of wilderness and add 79,000 acres of “recreation management area” for off-highway vehicles and mountain bikes.

Although the resulting compromise was not as sweeping as the version of the legislation that passed the Senate, its approval was cheered as a major victory by environmentalists and Democrats. The bill is expected to pass the full House as soon as next Tuesday, then return to the Senate for final passage and go to President Bush for his signature.

“I’m very excited about it. This is going to protect some of the most beautiful federally owned property in my congressional district. … It’s a great bill,” said Thompson.

“The balance provided in this broadly-supported bill is very important to me. Just as we are protecting wilderness areas in statute, we’re also protecting recreational areas in statute,” Pombo said in a statement, calling the outcome “a fair compromise.”

The Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act would protect some of the most breathtaking and remote areas in California, including portions of Mendocino National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest and stretches of undeveloped beach and coastal bluffs in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. The Black Butte River in Mendocino County would be designated a wild and scenic river.

If it becomes law it will be the first designation of federal wilderness area in California since passage of the Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act of 2002, which protected 54,000 acres in the Big Sur area, according to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office.

“We are inching closer and closer to protecting more than 275,000 acres of precious California land as wilderness,” said Boxer, who introduced the Senate version with fellow California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. “I am more optimistic than ever that we will soon see this bill signed into law.”

Thompson long had urged Pombo, who has been skeptical of wilderness designations, to move on the bill. The final compromise leaves out about 12,000 acres in Del Norte County and 15,000 acres in Humboldt County that were in the Senate version. There were objections from Del Norte officials to the designation in their county, and the Humboldt acres included some recreation areas, according to Pombo aides.

The recreation management area in the bill would codify the off-road and other activities that already happen at the Cow Mountain Recreation Area in Mendocino County.

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