WASHINGTON (AP) — A contingent of California environmental groups, business representatives and politicians will use a visit Friday from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to push for permanent protection of some 350,000 acres of picturesque federal land near the state's famous wine country.
Congress declined this session to pass legislation from Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson that would have designated the land as a national conservation area, and companion legislation by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer also faltered. That prompted Thompson and other supporters to push the Obama administration to act on its own and designate it a national monument.
The difference revolves primarily around who does the authorizing. Congress approves new national conservation areas, while presidents can protect wildland and historical sites as national monuments.
Officials said the practical effect is the same — permanent protection of federal land that can lead to greater recreational opportunities but also restrictions on new mining and other commercial activities.
Three separate federal agencies currently manage land in the region that Thompson wants to set aside: the U.S. Forest Service; Bureau of Land Management; and Bureau of Reclamation.
Supporters said the myriad recreational activities now allowed, including hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and mountain biking, would continue if the area were designated a national monument. Land already designated as wilderness would continue to be managed under the government's highest form of protection.
"Right now, you have all these different agencies that manage their specific parcels differently," said Matthew Kirby of the Sierra Club, which supports the heightened federal protections. "This allows for a more cohesive, unified vision for the entire monument."
The region lies generally to the east of the famous Napa-Sonoma wine country and stretches north from the area around Lake Berryessa, a major recreation reservoir, to just beyond the Mendocino National Forest's Snow Mountain Wilderness, which includes two 7,000-foot peaks.
The hilly region of rivers and scenic canyons is home to black bears, mountain lions, tule elk and several rare plants species. Areas now open for cattle grazing will remain that way, even with a national monument status, Thompson has said.
Lake Berryessa, already popular with water skiers, anglers and house boaters, would not be included in the national monument designation because it is not of historic or scientific value, an aide to Thompson said.
President Barack Obama already has shown his willingness to designate federal lands in California as national monuments when Congress declines to offer additional protections.
Two months ago, Obama designated a similarly sized swath of land near Los Angeles as San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. A spokesman for Jewell, Jessica Kershaw, said the secretary will underscore her support for Thompson's legislation and listen to the "community's vision for further protections, conservation and management."
Thompson testified in support of his bill during a subcommittee hearing over the summer.
"The real important thing is its proximity to population," he said. "... It's not property we're putting at arm's length from folks and disallowing their easy access."
The Friday afternoon hearing at Napa Valley College will include officials from the departments of Interior and Agriculture, as well as those from local interest groups.
Matt Rexroad, a Republican on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, voted against a resolution endorsing a national monument designation. He said the federal government already administers all the land, which makes it easy to stop any unwanted commercial development.
He said he has never seen proof the designation is necessary.