Viewpoints

We need to protect the Carrizo Plain. And we don’t have much time

Catch the ‘fleeting beauty’ of the Carrizo Plain wildflowers

The wildflowers are in bloom in San Luis Obispo County - especially along Highway 58 near the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The especially wet winter has led to an explosion of wildflowers along the Central Coast. The 2017 season is expected to
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The wildflowers are in bloom in San Luis Obispo County - especially along Highway 58 near the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The especially wet winter has led to an explosion of wildflowers along the Central Coast. The 2017 season is expected to

June 8 was the 111th anniversary of the passage of the Antiquities Act, the federal law that gave President Theodore Roosevelt and his successors the ability to preserve places like the Carrizo Plain for all Americans — forever.

For the past 15 years, I have had the good fortune to live on an inholding within the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The monument is located in San Luis Obispo County, where I have lived since I was a teenager. I started visiting Carrizo and the surrounding area in the late 1960s to observe birds of prey and to hunt. I still go hunting on the Carrizo every year.

In the 1970s, the Carrizo was a mix of heavily grazed federal land and dying ranches. Decades of overgrazing and mismanagement left the area looking like the dust bowl. In the 1980s, The Nature Conservancy began to buy up some of the ranches and dryland wheat operations. Since the Carrizo was mostly an aggregation of Nature Conservancy, federal and state lands, they created a managing partnership to protect and enhance biological resources of the Carrizo.

We have until July 10 to ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump not to rescind the Carrizo Plain National Monument designation.

The Carrizo is the last significant remaining piece of the San Joaquin Valley that has not been developed. Lack of water and lack of oil preserved the area from development. Farming and ranching occurred in this dry desert area, but over time, farming and ranching was hit or miss depending upon the weather. Folks looked for oil or tried to farm, but in the end, the land was sold or donated willingly for conservation and was combined with land already in public ownership to create a landscape-scale conservation area.

The Carrizo has long been recognized because of the high concentration of threatened and endangered species in the area. In fact, the Carrizo has the highest concentration of threatened and endangered species in California. In 1996, the Carrizo Plain was given special status as the Carrizo Plain Natural Area. Representatives Lois Capps and Bill Thomas authored legislation to designate the Carrizo Plain Natural Area as a National Conservation Area. Momentum for protection was building.

pat veesart
Pat Veesart. Photo by Renoda Campbell

In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt came to San Luis Obispo County to discuss the Carrizo with the public and found broad support to protect this unique area. In 2001, President Bill Clinton designated the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The monument proclamation protects designated “monument objects” such as Native American sites and natural resources, but allows oil/gas development and grazing to continue on the Carrizo Plain National Monument — subject to existing rights. The sky did not fall, as predicted by some.

After monument designation, the Bureau of Land Management began the public process of creating a new, stand-alone Resource Management Plan for the Carrizo Plain National Monument. There was controversy surrounding the Resource Management Plan; mostly around the issue of grazing. Properties that were transferred by The Nature Conservancy to the BLM are subject to “free use” grazing permits as opposed to traditional grazing leases; the idea being that grazing is to be used as a management tool as opposed to being an entitlement. Some folks wanted all grazing to be free use (or not at all) and some wanted traditional grazing practices throughout the monument. BLM managers and line staff were struggling with the new challenges brought on by the monument designation and the mandate to manage the Carrizo primarily for conservation. Change is rarely easy.

Although it took eight years, in the end, a progressive and protective Resource Management Plan was adopted by the BLM. Some traditional grazing leases remain, but the Resource Management Plan manages grazing to protect and enhance monument objects. Nobody got 100 percent of what they wanted, but in the end, I believe that folks across the spectrum got something that they could live with.

Since adoption of the Resource Management Plan, most everyone agrees the BLM has done a good job of implementing it and managing the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Over time, I have watched the land steadily improve. I am surrounded by many species that are rare and in decline everywhere, but common and thriving in my backyard. The cities of Atascadero and Taft and the community of Santa Margarita have declared themselves “gateway communities” and enjoy economic benefit from the monument. The numbers of visitors has steadily risen, with this year being way over the top. More and more people have come to realize what a treasure the Carrizo is. There really is nothing else like it in the National Landscape Conservation System. The benefit we (all of us) receive from the natural resource values of the Carrizo Plain National Monument far outweigh any benefit that we would get from commercial exploitation of these lands.

We have until July 10 to ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump not to rescind the Carrizo Plain National Monument designation or modify it — unless it is to increase the BLM’s budget for management. We need to inform the administration that the monument designation was not a “land grab,” but rather the logical conclusion of decades of private/public conservation effort. The Carrizo Plain National Monument enjoys broad public support and is being managed to provide critical habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species and recreation opportunities for the region. The Carrizo Plain National Monument adds a unique area to the nation’s public lands and should be preserved for future generations.

To voice your concern, visit www.regulations.gov.

Pat Veesart is a former San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner and a long-time advocate for conservation in SLO County.

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