September 4, 2004

When he took office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the creation of a Sierra Nevada conservancy was one of his priorities. Now all he has to do is sign a bill to make it happen, thanks to an extraordinary compromise forged by one of the state Assembly's staunchest conservative Republicans and a liberal Democrat.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) had bitterly opposed the Sierra conservancy bill, AB 2600, carried by Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), out of concern that it would create a state superagency that could override city and county planning rules and take vast stretches of land off the tax rolls. He demanded a local veto of conservancy acts, something Laird could not accept.

Leslie and Laird sparred for months until they forged a bill that provided a workable compromise for saving the best parts of the Sierra from thoughtless development. One oddity of this process was the lack of debate about the fact that the new conservancy would include the Owens Valley and the Mono Lake area, where the city of Los Angeles gets much of its water. Just two months ago, Mayor James K. Hahn created a major stir when he talked of establishing an Owens Valley conservancy to preserve the mostly pristine valley.

Hahn backed off when the idea ran into stiff opposition from valley officials and Dominick Rubalcava, president of the city Department of Water and Power board, who said the valley could be preserved for 50 or 100 years simply through a board resolution. The DWP, which owns 320,000 acres in the valley, has long treated the land as its own colony, and Rubalcava wanted to maintain control. Even many local residents were wary of Hahn's proposal, fearing they would lose grazing or fishing rights.

The idea of trusting the DWP to save the Owens Valley is absurd. A resolution can be junked in the blink of an eye.

What Leslie and Laird worked out, with strong support from the California Resources Agency, allows the conservancy to channel bond funds or other state money to nonprofit groups or state departments to buy land for preservation. Perhaps more important, the conservancy would be able to consider the good of the 400-mile-long Sierra as a whole, something planners have not done since the U.S. Forest Service backed off from its so-called Sierra Nevada Framework.

The new conservancy won't necessarily save the Owens Valley from overdevelopment — the land still will belong to the DWP, unless the agency decides to sell. But it's a good start, coming at a time when the vast mountain area faces the inexorable pressures of population growth.