Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) announced on Monday that he will propose an expansion of over 1,000,000 acres of federally protected land in California.
The Senator’s proposal, known as the PUBLIC Lands Act, would combine 3 previously passed House bills by Congressional members such as Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA). The new and expanded protected areas would be located across the state, but with a large focus on the Los Angeles area and the Northwest part of the state.
The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act would be the first piece of legislation added to Padilla’s proposal, protecting 262,000 acres of public lands as wilderness, protecting 379 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, enacting forest and wildlife habitat restoration measures, and cleaning up areas damaged by illegal cannabis operations.
Another act added, the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, would convert 288,000 acres of public land in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument as wilderness, protect 159 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, and create a new scenic trail from Los Angeles County to Monterey County. The trail, which would be known as the Condor National Scenic Trail, would stretch for over 400 miles.
The final part added, the San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act, would add over 109,000 acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, engulfing much of the western part of the western Angeles National Forest. 30,000 acres would be designated as wilderness in the national forest as well, with 45 miles of new wild and scenic rivers being added in the San Gabriel Mountains. A National Recreation Area would also be created to cover other areas of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo areas.
The last proposed piece of legislation would also likely help pave the way for a new National Park, as 4 former National Recreation Areas and National Monuments have been elevated to becoming National Parks since 2018.
Senator Padilla proposed the PUBLIC Lands Act to add to areas of California that can be untouched, increase open spaces, stop developers from encroaching on protected areas, to help increase access to protected areas for lower income people who can not afford to travel to such areas farther away in the state, and to help combat climate change.
“Our public lands are one of our state’s greatest gifts – from the San Gabriel Mountains, to the Central Coast, and through Northwestern California’s forests and rivers. It is incumbent upon us to be thoughtful stewards of these special places so that our communities can enjoy them and benefit from America’s natural resources for generations to come,” said Senator Padilla on Monday during a speech in Irwindale, an LA suburb adjacent to the San Gabriel Mountains. “And we must do so in a way that reverses racial and economic disparities in access to nature and parks,” he added. “Some of the protected land in this bill serves densely populated areas of the state that don’t have equal access to nature, which will help rebalance this historic disparity in access to untouched wilderness.
“We will keep them as wild and untouched as possible for future generations to enjoy.”
A push for more federally protected land
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who co-sponsored the bill, also noted that it would not only help fight climate change, but would help preserve some of California’s landscapes.
“From lush forests to majestic deserts to scenic coasts, California’s iconic landscapes have few rivals,” said Senator Feinstein in a statement on Monday. “In light of climate change, our growing population and challenges to the flora and fauna, protecting these special places is even more important. I’m pleased to partner with Senator Padilla on this effort and look forward to working with our colleagues to pass this bill.”
Many Republicans have come out in opposition to the bill, saying that it would create job loss in many of those areas due to possibly halting new developments, logging operations, and other industries that use forested or open lands.
“It’s not the question of job loss, but rather job replacement,” former forestry lobbyist Verna Tucker explained to the Globe. “Few question the need for more protected areas. It’s why we have seen such a huge upswing of protected areas in the last 10 or 20 years, with Donald Trump’s shrinkage of a few being the only really major exception. We’ve come a long way since the Spotted Owl controversy in the 1980’s after all. We don’t have loggers putting heads of endangered species on the grills of their trucks anymore to protest new protected areas.”
“But, with these areas being so close to urban areas, a lot of people are worried. Developers want more and more open land to build on, but more and more issues keep falling into place. Large new housing tracts have been squashed by wildfire concerns, water concerns, and other factors in recent years, some with the state itself actually blocking them from continuing. This has had many start to look farther out by these protected areas, but now the federal government is fighting back there too. They’re losing options fast, as many don’t want to go more smaller scale and replace older buildings in cities or suburbs. They’d rather just keep building new tracts.”
“Logging is another big concern. Many national forests can be used by logging companies, but if the U.S. Government keeps adding extra protections and designations like preserves to stop it from happening, they’ll lose places to turn too.”
“In return, you may get some national park jobs, maybe some outdoor companies will spring up for rentals, and maybe some hotels and other places may benefit from people staying several days. But we need to see hard figures. How many jobs lost vs. jobs gained. How much economic benefit would it bring in? We need to see those figures first. But they rarely provide them.”
The PUBLIC Lands Act is expected to pass in the Democratically-controlled House, but faces an uncertain vote in the divided Senate.