U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, this week reintroduced the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, which aims to safeguard public lands and rivers in the Los Padres National Forest.
More than 500 civic groups of stakeholders, leaders, landowners, businesses, elected officials, schools, farmers, ranchers and recreation leaders are in support of the bill as part of the Central Coast Wild Heritage Campaign.
Nearly 250,000 acres of federal public land across Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties would be protected by this bill, along with 159 miles of wild and scenic rivers. The act establishes two scenic areas encompassing 34,500 acres as well.
“The bill is a great opportunity to protect some of the last remaining wild places in the Central Coast region,” Jeff Kuyper, the executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, told the News-Press Friday. “There’s so few places like this left where people can really get out into nature and experience it without the hecticness of city life and development. There’s just some spectacular landscapes here that are really worthy of protection.”
ForestWatch is an advocacy group for the Central Coast’s wildlife habitats and wilderness landscapes, from the Big Sur coastline to the rugged backcountry of Santa Barbara and Ventura.
The protective bill would also designate a 400-mile Condor National Scenic Trail, which would stretch across the entire length of the Los Padres National Forest, from Big Sur to the Los Angeles County line.
Most of the trail is already there, so the legislation would formally recognize this interconnected network of trails and incorporate it into the national scenic trail system, similar to the Appalachian Trail.
“I think it’s even more important in times like these where people are seeking out refuge in nature, so we’re very excited about this legislation and hope that it will pass through Congress and be signed by the president,” Mr. Kuyper said.
The bill was first introduced in Congress by then Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley. It passed the House twice last year with bipartisan support as part of a larger package of public lands conservation bills, but did not receive a vote in the Senate.
“The bill has a long history — it’s been introduced many times over the last decade, so I think finally now, the political planets are starting to align. We’re very hopeful that things will all come together this year,” Mr. Kuyper said. “This would be the first wilderness legislation for our area since 1992, over a quarter century ago.”
In Santa Barbara County, the proposed lands for wilderness designation include additions to Dick Smith and San Rafael Wilderness areas, New Diablo Caliente Wilderness, Fox Mountain Potential Wilderness Area and Condor Point Scenic Area.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to protect over 200,000 acres of public land and over 150 miles of wild and scenic rivers,” Mr. Kuyper said. “This is a really momentous opportunity for us to protect these areas for current and future generations.”
Rep. Carbajal, who reintroduced the bill Thursday, told the News-Press that “it’s a shame” that it has been decades since public spaces on the Central Coast have been designated as wilderness.
“Protecting our public lands leads to a higher quality of life for everyone in our community, not to mention the impact it would have in combating climate change and preserving our natural treasures for the next generation to enjoy,” the bill’s author said. “We are lucky to live in the most beautiful district in the country, and I’m working hard to keep it that way.”
He said reintroducing this bill within the first couple of months of the new Congress underscores his priority of “acting as a good steward of the environment.”
“I’m also heartened that President Biden and the new Democratic Senate majority recognizes the scientific consensus that climate change is real. and I’m hopeful that will help us bring this legislation to the finish line,” Rep. Carbajal said.
He concluded that in Santa Barbara County, and all across the Central Coast, “life is lived outdoors.” He noted this bill would ensure it would stay that way for the community members and that it would bolster the local, tourism-driven economy.
“As we contend with a pandemic, members of our community seek solace in the great outdoors more than ever and we are lucky to live so close to so much natural beauty,” Rep. Carbajal said. “Protecting these public lands from development — like roads, structures, and oil and gas drilling — means we can keep them pristine for the next generation to enjoy.”
An interactive map of the lands, rivers and trails that will be protected by the bill is available at https://tinyurl.com/ys4tx2uz.