Lawmakers have competing ideas about expanding Yosemite

08/07/2014 1:50 PM

08/10/2014 11:59 AM

Two veteran California lawmakers are at loggerheads over how to expand Yosemite National Park.

A House Republican and House Democrat now have competing bills folding nearly 1,600 acres in Mariposa County into the park’s boundaries. They share some ideas. They differ, though, on key questions, including whether to offset the park’s growth by the sale of federal land elsewhere.

The explicit differences, now that they are spelled out in legislative text, could theoretically accelerate negotiations toward a final deal. Or, they could yield stalemate, over mountainous land both sides agree meets Yosemite’s high standards.

“The proposed addition to the park offers spectacular views from Henness Ridge and still has remnants of timber roads that could be adapted for hiking, riding, mountain biking, and other recreational pursuits,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said in a statement.

This month, following extended study, McClintock introduced his version of a Yosemite park expansion bill. His congressional district includes the park and several of its surrounding gateway communities.

The land was reportedly part of naturalist John Muir’s original plan for Yosemite.

Like an earlier bill introduced 16 months ago by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., McClintock’s legislation authorizes the National Park Service to expand Yosemite’s western boundary through the addition of several adjacent Mariposa County parcels.

The non-profit Pacific Forest Trust owns about half of the 1,575 acres covered by the bill, and a consortium of medical professionals owns the other half. The trust bought its share with the long-term goal of conveying it to Yosemite. The doctors bought the land as an investment, potentially for a development. The development never transpired.

On Thursday, Pacific Forest Trust Vice President Paul Mason said in an interview that it was “progress” for McClintock to have introduced the bill, though Mason added that there are problems with specific parts of the legislation.

“I think it’s positive that he’s actually come to the table,” Mason said.

A staunch conservative who frequently denounces federal management of public lands, McClintock included in his bill a requirement that the Yosemite expansion only occur after the Interior Department has sold, through public auction, about 1,575 acres elsewhere.

Nationwide, Interior manages more than 400 million acres, including more than 23 million acres in California. Yosemite currently has 747,956 acres.

McClintock said the provision “assures that acquisition of this new parcel will not add further to the problem” of public land management. Costa, though, called the requirement a deal-breaker.

“That’s a precedent, of exchanging land, that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Costa said in an interview. “I don’t think the administration will support it, and I’m not so sure it will pass the Senate.”

Mason was less adamant about this portion of the bill, observing that “the Interior Department owns so much land.”

California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have introduced a bill that mirrors Costa’s.

Costa further suggested McClintock’s bill was supposed to “get him off the hot seat” with Yosemite-area constituents interested in the long-debated park expansion idea. McClintock said his discussions with the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee convinced him that “it has been clear that a successful bill” must include certain elements.

The two bills also differ in how the land might be acquired.

Costa’s bill allows for a donation, swap or outright purchase. Laurie Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust, has previously indicated the land could be purchased through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

McClintock’s bill, though, specifies that the park service can only obtain the land through a donation; in part, he says, because he doesn’t want the government to simply bail out private investors. This requirement, he says, will “protect taxpayers.”

Mason, stressing that “we stepped in to address a real threat to the park,” said a donation of the Trust’s land was out of the question.

“We can’t donate the property,” Mason said. “We’re not that large of an organization.”

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