2 House bills would open California public lands to off-road vehicles

Rep. David Valadao, left, R-Hanford, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, back a bill to open some Fresno County land to off-road vehicles.
Rep. David Valadao, left, R-Hanford, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, back a bill to open some Fresno County land to off-road vehicles. Vida en el Valle

Off-road vehicles could again be roaring through Fresno County’s western hills and Southern California’s desert under bills weighed Wednesday by a House panel.

While the separate legislative packages would designate new wilderness areas for protection, the bills emphasize public use of federal lands. That puts them in the middle of a perennial access vs. conservation debate that often stymies Congress.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, chair of the House subcommittee on federal lands, which conducted the hearing, said federal land managers have “stubbornly” kept the public away.

The two bills differ in size, scope and, perhaps, competitive prospects.

One, authored by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, is more modest and enjoys the politically useful co-sponsorship of Reps. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, even as it draws criticism from the Obama administration.

This bill would reopen the 75,000-acre Clear Creek Management Area to off-road vehicles. The rugged, steep terrain spanning portions of Fresno and San Benito counties includes 242 miles of public trails once popular among off-road riders.

“To shut off all the land, and say there’s no public access, is unacceptable,” Farr said.

But in 2008, citing Environmental Protection Agency concerns about exposure to the area’s naturally occurring asbestos, the Bureau of Land Management banned motorized vehicles. Asbestos is a carcinogen and can be spit into the air by spinning wheels.

In addition to returning off-road vehicles to the Clear Creek area, the bill would establish a new 21,000-acre Joaquin Rocks Wilderness on nearby federal land in Fresno County. Stream segments totaling 31.3 miles would also receive protection under wild-and-scenic river designation.

The Obama administration supports the conservation components of the Clear Creek bill but voices alarm over reopening access to asbestos-laden lands.

“We cannot support provisions in the bill that would increase the exposure of public land users and employees to naturally occurring asbestos,” Kristin Bell, assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management, advised the House panel.

The EPA study showed that visiting the Clear Creek area more than one day a year “can put adults and children above the EPA’s acceptable-risk range for exposure to carcinogens,” Bell recounted.

Bell also raised questions about the other, larger California public lands measure considered Wednesday.

Authored by Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, the package would establish first-ever National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas covering slightly over 300,000 acres of Southern California desert. The new designation would ensure future administrations could not reverse course and close the areas to motorized vehicles.

While establishing a new 140,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument and designating additional desert as protected wilderness, Cook’s 130-page bill also puts a priority on continued access for commercial and recreational purposes.

“This would be a win for conservation, as well as a win for vital economic development,” Cook said.

Cook casts his legislation as an alternative to desert protection proposals championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. A Feinstein bill would create three new national monuments in the desert, including a 965,000-acre Mojave Trails area. Cook’s bill would keep some of the Mojave Trails area open to miners and allow more off-road vehicle use.

With her bill a hard sell in the GOP-controlled Congress, Feinstein has urged President Barack Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to unilaterally designate the new monuments. Similar moves in the past, such as President Bill Clinton’s establishment in 2000 of the 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument, have incited both praise and vehement local opposition.

Bell said of Cook’s legislation that the BLM “cannot support the bill as written,” adding that it “would fail to adequately protect the nationally significant resources” found in the desert.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10