By Nick Cahill
(CN) — Looking to create a flood of new outdoor recreation opportunities in California’s majestic redwood forests and foothills, the state’s new U.S. Senator Alex Padilla on Monday unveiled plans to protect over 1 million acres of undeveloped federal land.
Coined the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act, Padilla’s legislation would grow existing national monuments, create a new 400-mile scenic trail and boost efforts to restore forests and rivers damaged by decades of illegal marijuana grows.
Padilla, a Democrat appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom after Padilla’s predecessor Kamala Harris became vice president, called public wildlands “the nation’s greatest treasures” and said his legislation would not only increase outdoor access but help slow global warming by restricting new oil wells and logging operations.
“The act will help keep them wild and as untouched as possible for future generations to enjoy,” Padilla said in a press conference. “To help combat the threat of climate change, we must protect natural spaces.”
Padilla’s legislation pulls from an overarching conservation package that cleared the House this year in a mostly party-line vote. Sponsored by House Democrats, the act would create 1.5 million acres of new wilderness and merge 1,200 miles of waterways under the umbrella of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
House Democrats and Padilla say the measures are inspired by President Joe Biden’s push to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.
The California package is three-pronged, beginning with a proposed 109,000-acre expansion of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Los Angeles County. The legislation would also create a new national recreation area and designate over 45 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers throughout the mountain range.
Supporters say increasing access to nature in the nation’s most populous county will directly benefit minority and underserved communities.
“Latinos and other communities of color are almost twice as likely to live somewhere that is nature-deprived than white communities, meaning there are far fewer parks, streams, beaches and other natural places nearby,” said Shanna Edberg of the Hispanic Access Foundation. “This leaves our communities with a legacy of poorer health and COVID-19 severity, higher stress levels, worse educational outcomes, lack of recreation and business opportunities and greater vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding.”
In addition, Padilla is calling for the creation of a wilderness trail stretching from Los Angeles north to Monterey County. The so-called Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would designate nearly 290,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument as wilderness along with 159 miles of streams.
Capping the package are new plans to clean up parts of the state’s Emerald Triangle, where massive-scale marijuana grows have damaged water quality and ecosystems in counties like Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity. The proposal also directs federal agencies to cooperate with local municipalities on fire management plans.
In total, the package would increase protections for over 1 million acres of federal lands and more than 583 miles of rivers.
Padilla, who was sworn in as California’s first Latino senator this past January, says the conservation package will help park-poor communities while protecting wildlife in some of the state’s most majestic undeveloped lands. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is co-sponsoring the conservation effort.
“This bill fights the underlying causes of climate change and it brings additional federal resources to bear on the problems we face today, including managing wildfires safely, preserving clean water and reversing pollution,” Padilla said from an existing recreation site in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Many House Republicans voted against the larger conservation proposal in February, arguing shutting off large swaths of federal land to development could have a negative economic benefit and make land more prone to mega-wildfires that have been plaguing California and western states. The proposal cleared the House 227-200, with eight Republicans voting yes.