Fresno Bee: Bill Aims to Preserve the Sierra

Plan creates a huge agency with power over 20 counties as far south as Tulare County. By Eric Stern Bee Capitol Bureau (Updated Tuesday, July 6, 2004, 9:34 AM) SACRAMENTO — Along a stretch of state highway leading to the northern entrance to Yosemite National Park, a volunteer band of conservationists has been buying up vacant land. The group has cobbled together about 400 acres in a desirable meadow off Highway 120. But the scrappy Tuolumne County Land Trust is no match for a proposed golf course community that would rise next to its land. “A little land trust like ours — nobody even listens to us,” said Marlee Powell, who also is Sonora's mayor. The only way to compete with developers is to get more money, she said. So the land trust is closely watching a bill in the Legislature that would create a Sierra Nevada Conservancy. Assembly Bill 2600 is five years in the making and would create a massive government branch stretching across 20 counties as far south as Tulare County. Central San Joaquin Valley counties have opposed the plan, and the Madera County Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the latest version at its meeting today. The umbrella agency essentially would take over the piecemeal efforts of smaller land trusts, nonprofit groups and state boards that have been buying land and conservation easements for decades. It would be modeled after the eight other conservancies that have been protecting California coasts and mountains since the 1970s. More important, the Sierra conservancy could tap into multibillion-dollar bond measures voters have approved in recent years for environmental causes. “I personally think it's the only way we're going to save the Sierra,” Powell said. “When you're dealing with going after money, bigger is better.” This year's effort has gained momentum with the support of Gov. Schwarzenegger, who called the Sierra “one of the state's crown jewels” during last year's recall campaign. He has dispatched officials from his Resources Agency to hammer out a deal. As in the past, the notion of a conservancy has been met with fierce opposition from many rural landowners who fear a government land grab. The area, after all, has a rich history of holding fast to private property rights, going back to the Gold Rush days of claim jumping. And the competition for land today pits those who want more open space against new homes climbing into the foothills. The Sierra population has exploded from 200,000 full-time residents in 1970 to 800,000 today. By 2020, 1 million people are expected to live in the Sierra year-round. More than 70% of the mountain range already is owned by federal, state and local governments, from parks to forests. And there is distrust about allowing a state conservancy board controlled by Sacramento to override local zoning decisions. To appease critics, Assembly Member Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, is working with Assembly Member John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, to craft a plan that could give county supervisors some veto power over the conservancy board. The conservancy also would not have eminent domain authority to take over land or regulatory power to dictate how the land could be used. But most lawmakers who represent the foothills that drop into the San Joaquin Valley still oppose it. Assembly Member Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who represents the mountain counties of Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne, is not wholly opposed to the idea of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said spokesman Chris Norden. But Cogdill voted against AB 2600 because the bill didn't give local governments a bigger voice on the conservancy board, Norden said. The bill passed the Assembly by a 52-20 vote in May. It survived an initial vote last week in the Senate Natural Resources Committee by a 6-3 majority. Sen. Jeff Denham of Merced joined the Republican minority. In the committee hearing, held in a room with a mural of the Yosemite Valley that stretches more than 12 feet, Sen. Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, said the bill infringes on the “personal freedom” of landowners. “It will be exactly what we fear,” he said. Even though the intent of the conservancy is to preserve land, the idea runs counter to the independent spirit of longtime Sierra residents and ranchers, said Brent Harrington, president of the Regional Council of Rural Counties. “It's kind of live-and-let-live attitude,” said Harrington of Angels Camp. “They like the option of being able to do something with their land down the road that might include selling it.” Others, such as El Dorado County supervisors, are concerned that the proposed conservancy boundary — ringing the mountains at the 500-foot elevation mark — wrongly includes hot-growth foothill communities. John Gamper, director of taxation and land use at the California Farm Bureau Federation, said taking more land off local property tax rolls “to build bike trails in El Dorado Hills” is “absurd.” He said many counties with large swaths of tax-free government land can't afford to give up any more. Meanwhile, some business owners in the Sierra see a tourism boon from setting aside even more land for horseback riders, hikers and wildflower enthusiasts. Chris Lizza, owner of the Mono Market near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, wrote to legislators that “the Sierra Nevada range is important to every resident of our state for water, resources and recreation, yet the Sierra receives less than 2% of the conservation funds spent in California.” But if the bottom line is money, there is definitely trouble ahead. The conservancy is estimated to run up $300,000 in annual staffing costs, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Deirdre Alpert, D-San Diego, has expressed reservations about spending money on a new state agency during a budget crisis.