Sacramento Bee: Legislature Ok's Sierra Conservancy

By Stuart Leavenworth — Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, August 26, 2004

After four years of on-and-off negotiations, state lawmakers have sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill to create a state conservancy for California's largest mountain range, and the governor is expected to sign it.

The Assembly voted 62-14 Wednesday to create a Sierra Nevada Conservancy with a stated mission of protecting sensitive areas, reducing fire risks and improving tourism opportunities in 22 counties, including Placer and El Dorado.

More than anything, the new conservancy would allow the Sierra's rural counties to tap millions of dollars in state bond funds that have gone largely to affluent coastal areas and urbanized Lake Tahoe.

“Now that we have this body, we should start getting a fair slice of this money,” said Tim Leslie, a Republican from Tahoe City who helped sponsor the legislation.

“It's a great day for the Sierra,” said John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz who worked with Leslie in an unusual bipartisan collaboration.

California lawmakers have approved eight conservancies over the years, and they differ in their powers and mandated goals. Unlike the California Tahoe Conservancy, the Sierra Conservancy won't be able to own land outright, but it can give grants to land trusts and state agencies that want to purchase important properties.

Responding to concerns over local control, lawmakers required that six of the conservancy board's 13 members be county supervisors from the 22 counties – Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Tehama, Tulare, Tuolumne and Yuba.

The governor will appoint five other members, and the Legislature will appoint two.

Elizabeth Martin, a former Nevada County supervisor and longtime supporter of a conservancy, said the new body would give the Sierra a more unified voice in economic development and land preservation. Some Sierra towns, she said, would be able to apply for water grants that have so far eluded them because of their small size.

“This is a major milestone for the Sierra,” said Jim Sayer, president of the Sierra Business Council, a nonprofit group, soon after the Assembly approved the legislation, AB 2600. The Senate approved the bill Monday, and Schwarzenegger's aides helped craft the final version, according to Leslie and Laird.

With 72 percent of the Sierra already in public hands, the idea of a state conservancy is controversial. Some mountain residents fear more land will be taken off the local tax rolls. Some mistakenly think the state is creating a new Coastal Commission or Tahoe Regional Planning Agency – bodies that have broad regulatory powers.

Supporters, however, said the new conservancy can help the cause of conservancy without necessarily creating more public land. Conservation easements, for example, are one way for ranchers to keep working their properties, Sayer said. A conservancy can also help fire-safe councils and small water districts apply for funds.

Leslie, a conservative not known for collaborating with environmental groups, acknowledged he wasn't initially keen about sponsoring the bill. The lawmaker, however, said he became convinced that the bill was sure to pass during the Davis administration. “I wanted to make sure it wouldn't be onerous,” he said.

At first, Leslie and other Republicans pushed for a bill that would give local governments veto power over any conservancy decisions. Environmentalists balked. After Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, Leslie thought the conservancy was dead.

“Then I looked at Schwarzenegger's Web site and saw it was one of his top priorities,” said Leslie.

Through months of negotiations, Laird and Leslie came up with a compromise. Local officials won't have complete veto power, but they will fill nearly half of the 13 seats on the board.

In recent decades, California voters have approved bond referendums that have channeled several hundred million dollars toward conservation causes. Since 1985, the California Tahoe Conservancy has spent $150 million on projects in that basin. Since 1976, the California Coastal Conservancy has spent more than $500 million.

By contrast, the Sierra has received 1 percent of state conservation dollars between 1996 and 2001, according to the Sierra Business Council in a recent report.

Although not as powerful as some, the new conservancy will be a landmark for the region, said Sayer. “This is a conservancy that is exceptionally well-suited for the Sierra Nevada,” he said.