PG&E bankruptcy preserves 140,000 acres of wilderness
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s bankruptcy left millions of Californians with higher energy bills, but the utility’s financial debacle has been a boon to the state’s environment.
As part of its bankruptcy settlement, San Francisco-based PG&E agreed to permanently protect more than 140,000 acres of wilderness – and provide $100 million for environmental programs – in what’s being hailed as one of the state’s biggest conservation deals in decades.
The settlement affects nearly 2,000 acres in Alpine County, 225 acres in El Dorado County and more than 4,800 acres in Amador County.
The land in Alpine County surrounds Upper and Lower Blue Lakes, Meadow Lake and Twin Lake. PG&E operates dams in those areas. Land affected in El Dorado County surrounds the Chili Bar powerhouse on the South Fork of the American River.
The land in Amador County surrounds PG&E’s Electra, Salt Spring No.1 and No. 2, Tiger Creek and West Point powerhouses, all of which are located on the Mokelumne River.
“These are tremendously important lands,” said David Sutton, Sierra Nevada program director for the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, which advocated for the land’s preservation. “It’s a really important contribution to parks and open space throughout the state.”
When PG&E declared bankruptcy three years ago, many environmentalists worried the 99-year-old utility would be forced to sell off its watershed lands to private developers or energy contractors.
But under an agreement reached with the California Public Utilities Commission, nearly 1,000 parcels of land, mostly in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, will be preserved permanently as wildlife habitat, open space and public recreation areas.
The deal allows California to “keep these lands for public use not just for our generation but for generations to come,” said PUC President Michael Peevey.
Leonard Turnbeaugh, public works director for Alpine County, said the Upper and Lower Blue Lakes area is popular for camping and fishing.
Turnbeaugh added that this year will be the first year all 12 miles of Blue Lakes Road will be open. It has been closed so it could be paved. A $10 million grant from the federal government’s Forest Highway Project financed the work.
The properties, which PG&E values at $300 million, will either be donated to government agencies or nonprofit groups, or protected through conservation easements that ensure the land won’t be developed for private use.
PG&E acquired most of the 141,729 acres over the past century for its hydroelectric operations. Nearly a quarter of the electricity PG&E sells is generated by hydroelectric facilities owned by the utility or its contractors.
The land is made up of 981 parcels in 21 counties stretching from Mount Shasta near the Oregon border to the Carrizo Plain near Bakersfield. About 85,000 acres are in the mountain regions of Shasta and Plumas counties.
The properties contain important sources of drinking water, old-growth forests, world-renowned fishing streams and a variety of wildlife and fish habitats. Most of the lands are situated high in the mountains along the American, Feather, Pit and Yuba rivers.
The land is home to 68 power facilities and 99 reservoirs that PG&E will continue to operate, even if the ownership of the land is transferred to other agencies.
Over the years, PG&E has allowed public access to the lands, which are used by 350,000 people each year for fishing, hiking and camping, said Randy Livingston, PG&E’s director of power generation.
“The opportunities here are huge in terms of providing additional protection and conservation values for these lands,” Livingston said.
The fate of each parcel will be decided by the newly formed Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, which is made up of 17 representatives from government agencies, industry groups and environmental organizations.
The council, which met for the first time in late April, has three years to develop a plan for each piece of land and seven years to carry out the plan.
Under its bankruptcy reorganization, PG&E also agreed to create a $70 million fund – paid for by PG&E ratepayers – to restore and maintain the land. It will also provide $20 million to acquire and maintain urban parks and recreation areas and $10 million to help disadvantaged urban youths experience the wilderness.
PG&E became the largest utility to declare bankruptcy on April 6, 2001, near the height of California’s energy crisis, when the state was experiencing rolling power blackouts and paying exorbitant prices for electricity.
The utility emerged from bankruptcy last month after distributing more than $10 billion to hundreds of creditors. The bailout will be paid for mostly by PG&E’s 4.8 million customers, who will pay above-market power prices for several years to come.
But PG&E’s bankruptcy has had a happy ending for conservationists who had worried the watershed lands would wind up in the hands of timber companies or real estate developers.
“We were definitely concerned that these lands could have been sold in the private market,” said Trust for Public Land’s Sutton, who is now also a member of the stewardship council. “It would have been a real loss to the public, and we’re happy that it didn’t happen.”
– Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter Gregory Crofton contributed to this report.