Trump wants to open Carrizo Plain for oil drilling. These lawmakers are trying to stop it

As the wildflowers in the Carrizo Plain reach peak bloom, an effort to permanently protect the landmark and about 170,000 additional acres of public lands from Los Angeles to Monterey counties is being renewed in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, Central Coast Congressman Salud Carbajal re-introduced the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, which would designate, among other areas, nearly 80,000 acres near the Carrizo Plain National Monument as new wilderness land, a designation that would protect the areas and natural watershed from oil drilling and other human impacts.

“If you consider the public land heritage that we enjoy on the Central Coast, all the things that we enjoy and our way of life as we know it, this (bill) would protect these areas in perpetuity so future generations can also enjoy them,” Carbajal said by phone Wednesday.

The effort — which has been ongoing at least since the tenure of since-retired Congresswoman Lois Capps — has been unsuccessful in recent years, most recently in 2017, when a similar bill submitted by Sen. Kamala Harris failed to get a hearing in the Senate.

This recent bill is also sponsored by Harris as a package of three bills that would protect a total of about 1 million acres in Northwestern California, the Central Coast and foothills in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Even though a Republican majority still controls the Senate, Carbajal, a Democrat, said the political winds have shifted with recent bipartisan support for legislation related to protection of public lands and water resources.

“We have a tradition in this country of coming together when it comes to our public lands,” Carbajal said. “I feel good about this making it over the finish line.”

HR 2199 map.jpeg
A map released by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal’s office shows areas of prospective wilderness and scenic area designation as proposed by H.R. 2199.

Specifically, the bill would designate a total of nearly 250,000 acres between Los Angeles and Monterey counties as wilderness land, which prohibits oil exploration or drilling and other man-made activities, though the areas would continue to be open to the public.

In San Luis Obispo County, the law proposes to protect four new areas in the Carrizo Plain: a 35,619-acre area known as the Caliente Mountain Wilderness Area; about 13,332 acres near Soda Lake called the Soda Lake Wilderness Area; the 12,585-acre Temblor Range Wilderness Area; and a roughly 17,870-acre area called the Diablo Caliente Wilderness Area.

It seeks to expand existing protected land in other areas of the Los Padres National Forest outside San Luis Obispo County.

The bill also proposes to connect a network of about 400 miles of existing hiking trails to create the Condor National Recreation Trail, a trail that would stretch from inland Los Angeles County to Monterey County.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist and Public Lands Deserts Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Carrizo Plain is a place unlike any other on the planet in terms of biological life, home to a number of critically endangered species. Wilderness designation — even stronger in terms of protection than national monuments — will ensure that these animals aren’t encumbered by any man-made barriers, Anderson said.

“It basically keeps that ring of life connected,” Anderson said. “It’s very beneficial, biologically speaking, to have these vast expanses.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has been a major proponent for wilderness designation of the Carrizo Plain for decades, and Anderson said the nonprofit wholly supports Carbajal’s bill and Harris’ legislative package.

“We’ve been watching this for several decades,” Anderson said. “Delay is not necessarily our friend in this case.”

Congressman Salud Carbajal leads a hike Saturday in Los Padres National Forest near one of the areas that his new bill, H.R. 2199, would designate as protected wilderness. Office of U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal

The re-introduction of the bill comes at a time of uncertainty for preservation of the Carrizo Plain. Though it was one of 27 monuments initially considered for re-designation by the administration of President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Land Management in April approved the creation of a new oil well and small pipeline in the area, a project supported by San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who represents residents of California Valley.

Arnold did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed protections Thursday.

“The Trump Administration has embarked on a very poignant process to open up our public lands to oil and gas exploration,” Carbajal said. “If there were ever a time to remind the public what’s at stake, it’s now.”

A first hearing for the legislation had not yet been scheduled as of Thursday.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee