Local Wilderness Bill Passes House in D.C.

Last February 26th brought some good news for the Santa Clara River Watershed and tributaries of the River.

Congressman Salud Carbajal’s (D. Santa Barbara) public lands protection bill, H.R. 973, passed the House of Representatives in Washington D.C.

Named the ‘Central Coast Heritage Protection Act’, the legislation aims to designate 287,500 acres of federal public lands as new wilderness areas across Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and western Kern Counties. Rep. Julia Brownley (D. Ventura) is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Wildflowers in the vicinity of the Sespe Creek (J. Danza)

The new wilderness areas are spread within Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plains National Monument and include designation of 159 miles of rivers and creeks within these counties as new additions to the national Wild & Scenic Rivers system.

The legislation did not need to go through committee hearings in the House this year, as it had already done so in the previous session of Congress as part of H.R. 2546. H.R.973 passed the House by a vote of 227-200, showing bipartisan support. It now awaits action in the U.S. Senate, where it will require a committee hearing before coming to the Senate floor to be voted on. It is expected to proceed through the Senate this spring or summer.

Included in the areas are the remaining 21 miles of Sespe Creek, left out after 31.5 miles of its course which was first protected as a Wild & Scenic River when that was written into The Los Padres Forest Condor Range and Rivers Act of 1992. These 21 miles include, upstream, the 20 miles of Sespe’s headwaters and downstream, one mile, north of Devil’s Gate, down to Los Padres Forest’s southern boundary near Fillmore, close to where it enters into the Santa Clara River. Both these additions are a huge recognition of the need of for true riparian protection and that dividing a river, by the very nature of it, is harmful to the river itself and watershed ecology. As well as the wilderness overall.

It is good to remember the history of why this last mile of Sespe Creek within Los Padres National Forest was left out of the 1992 legislation. It was in planning to allow for a potential reservoir, named Oat Mountain, that would need space to potentially flood into that one mile. Fortunately, activists showed at that time that this proposed dam site (south of the forest boundary, and close to the north end of Goodenough Road) was located exactly where the San Cayetano earthquake fault, which runs east-west, crosses Sespe Creek. This fault, studied by the U.S. Geological Survey is still active, capable of a 7.2 quake on the Richter scale. Also, that potential reservoir would have silted up fast, in the same way of the reservoir behind Matilija Dam, north of Ojai, which was built in the late 1940’s.

Now Sespe Creek, one of the main tributaries of The Santa Clara River will flow in its legislative description to match its real and natural one.

In H.R. 973, Piru Creek will also be protected from its source to the upstream end of Lake Piru, a length of 56.5 river miles. This is also the location of the southern end of the 400 mile Condor Trail which runs up into Big Sur.

In our sister Ventura River Watershed, H.R. 973 includes other proposed wilderness areas of Los Padres Forest in Ventura County that extend the current Matilija Wilderness, doubling its current wilderness size of 29,648 acres. Also proposed are 14.5 miles of Matilija Creek to be designated as a Wild & Scenic River – over 7 miles down from the central source (the fork where the falls are located), and over 7 miles downstream from the North Fork Matilija Creek’s source, both segments ending at the forest boundary.

Here is a summary of Wild and Scenic Rivers as described in the 1968 Act:

Wild Rivers

Wild river areas are described in the Act as being “essentially primitive” and representing “vestiges of primitive America.”  There should be no roads or other permanent structures built within the river corridor, and there should be little or no evidence of human activity.  Motorboat use may be allowed, but unless otherwise authorized by law, it should be limited to the level of use that was occurring at the time of designation.  Opportunities to phase out motorboat use should be pursued.

Scenic Rivers

Scenic river areas are described as “largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”  Thus, some rivers or segments of rivers that otherwise appear natural have existing developments that preclude their classification as wild.  This shouldn’t be interpreted as justification for additional structures or roads, which would almost certainly diminish the values for which the river was designated to protect.  Motorboat use may be allowed, but unless otherwise authorized by law, it should be limited to the level of use that was occurring at the time of designation.  Opportunities to phase out motorboat use should be pursued.

Thanks to Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild Committee for his help with this article.