Bill preserving Central Coast wilderness areas pending in Congress

Wilderness advocates (left to right) Warren Alford, Matt Sayles, Jeff Kuyper and Christopher Danch enjoy the view from atop Black Mountain of backcountry land proposed as a new scenic area under a wilderness bill introduced into Congress by Rep. Lois Capps.
Wilderness advocates (left to right) Warren Alford, Matt Sayles, Jeff Kuyper and Christopher Danch enjoy the view from atop Black Mountain of backcountry land proposed as a new scenic area under a wilderness bill introduced into Congress by Rep. Lois Capps.

With a radio tower looking like a gigantic golf ball as a backdrop, wilderness activist Matt Sayles looks northward from Black Mountain across some of the last untouched landscapes in the Los Padres National Forest.

The rolling chaparral-covered hills scattered with oaks and pines are prime habitat for numerous wildlife species and act as a natural water storage area for a region parched with drought.

Sayles is hoping that a wilderness bill in Congress will protect this wild landscape and others in San Luis Obispo County for generations to come.

“The main goal of these additional wilderness areas is to protect the headwaters of the main rivers and watersheds in the county and prevent habitat fragmentation,” said Sayles, Central Coast conservation director for the California Wilderness Coalition.

Nearly 150 square miles of federal land in San Luis Obispo County would receive additional protection if the bill recently introduced into Congress by Rep. Lois Capps is signed into law.

But like all legislation, the bill faces an uncertain future in today’s highly partisan Congress.

Called the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, the bill would protect a total of 245,665 acres throughout the entire Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument, which spread across three counties.

“We have a responsibility to protect the incredible landscapes, local water supplies and unique habitats the Central Coast provides, while at the same time preserving the recreational opportunities that contribute so much to the local economy and quality of life,” Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said.

SLO County areas

Although the bulk of the proposed new acreage is found in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, San Luis Obispo County would also see some key areas protected under the bill. They are:

Mountain bike concerns

The bill was crafted using a painstaking process of community involvement to avoid the conflicts that wilderness legislation commonly encounters.

Mountain bikers frequently oppose wilderness designations because they prohibit the use of any mechanized equipment including mountain bikes and tools such as chainsaws that are commonly used in trail maintenance.

“Mountain bikers are jealous of whatever tools we have for trail maintenance,” said Cayucos resident Greg Bettencourt, president of the Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers. “Anything that makes that more difficult we are not happy about.”

With this in mind, staffers with Capps’ office spent months meeting with mountain bikers and others concerned about access to ensure that their worries were addressed and conflicts avoided, Bettencourt said.

For example, Black Mountain contains several trails popular with mountain bikers and would become a scenic area rather than a wilderness. Scenic areas offer most of the same protections as a wilderness area but allow mountain biking and mechanized maintenance activities.

As a result, there is no net loss of trails under the Capps bill. Any trails affected by the bill will either be replaced or rerouted.

“By and large, we support wilderness,” Bettencourt said. “Capps’ people have done a good job of including bikers from the beginning, so if the legislation stays the same we will support it.”

Preserving habitat

Aside from preventing loss of recreational opportunities, the main value of the new designations is their benefits to the environment, backers say.

Each new area was carefully evaluated for its value as wildlife habitat and watershed protection and ecosystem continuity.

For example, the areas in the Carrizo Plain are habitat for tule elk and pronghorn antelope as well as the highest concentration of rare plants in the state. Wilderness designations prevent development and road building but allow passive recreation such as hiking and camping.

Backers of the bill are aware that getting it through the current highly partisan and gridlocked Congress and on to President Obama’s desk will be a difficult task. They are hoping that the bill’s broad support coupled with the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act will be enough to get it passed.

“Ideally, the bill could be signed into law by the end of the year,” said Jeff Kuyper, director of the group Los Padres ForestWatch of Santa Barbara.

Neither the Forest Service nor the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Carrizo Plain, has taken a position on the legislation.

Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, and Sam Farr, D-Carmel, represent districts adjacent to Capps’ in Congress and are original cosponsors of the bill.