Activists choose broad path to preserve Berryessa-Snow Mountain area

Activists are bypassing Capitol Hill and going to the White House to preserve Berryessa-Snow Mountain

Nature has no rival when it comes to patience. It took millions of years for the gnashing of tectonic plates to form the magnificent riot of rocks that is home to the unspoiled rivers and rolling oak woodlands of California's inner Coast Range.

For a group of residents here determined to provide federal protections for this lesser-traveled region, their campaign has only felt like millions of years, but the effort has required no less endurance.

After a conservation bill stalled out in Congress, the methodical, decade-long effort to permanently protect 350,000 acres in the Berryessa-Snow Mountain region that hosts some of the most biologically diverse landscape in California may finally become reality.

The preservation campaign headed by the Woodland-based conservation group Tuleyome is bypassing Capitol Hill and going straight to the White House. A public meeting at Napa Valley College last month with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has fueled speculation that President Obama may soon use his executive powers to create the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument.

It would, with the stroke of a pen, afford permanent protection for the area's scientifically rich and often overlooked patchwork of land managed by more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies.

In his last State of the Union address, Obama pledged that if Congress continued to balk at legislation creating new protected areas, he would use his authority to set aside "pristine federal lands for future generations." The authority Obama referred to is found in the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives the president the option to preserve public land without consulting Congress.

While the president's critics find his increasingly frequent use of independent executive action distasteful, Obama and Jewell have made protecting public lands a priority, invoking the law to preserve overlooked gems.

Last year, the president expanded the California Coastal National Monument with the addition of 1,665 acres at Point Arena-Stornetta. In October, he designated 350,000 acres of national forest land as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Tuleyome's carefully choreographed — and patient — effort to preserve this portion of the Coast Range has become a model for how to accomplish conservation goals in the realpolitik of the moment.

Working steadily since 2002, the group has painstakingly stitched together a network of unlikely supporters. Initially, the goal was to ask Congress to approve legislation that would create a Berryessa-Snow Mountain Conservation area, a designation that generally allows a wide range of recreation.

The group quickly learned it had to pivot on major issues to keep the loose coalition together. When hunters at early public meetings indicated they were worried about losing their privileges, the group launched community outreach campaigns reassuring them that hunting would not be excluded.

Off-roaders weighed in, too, insisting that motorized recreation not be shut out from the proposed conservation area. The bill was rewritten to include ATV trails. Boaters were also promised that they could still motor around Lake Berryessa.

Don Amador, the western representative for the national off-road organization Blue Ribbon Coalition, said his group would not normally support executive action. But he praised Tuleyome and other supporters for their perseverance and collaborative approach.

"I think we are past the days when you had blood feuds between environmental groups and off-road organizations," Amador said. "This is more or less the model for how to conserve these places and some to agreement."

Despite Tuleyome's efforts to gain support in the region, legislation introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) languished in Congress, alongside dozens of bills proposing wilderness or other protections that have floundered as low priorities.

Seeing the mood of legislators, Thompson began to advocate publicly for monument designation. And the Tuleyome group made an economic case for monument status in an area that serves as a playground for residents of dense urban centers in the Bay Area and Sacramento. They wooed county supervisors with studies and forecasts suggesting a national monument would bring a surge of eco-tourism to a struggling region.

The Winters Chamber of Commerce commissioned a report projecting that a Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument could generate revenue of $50 million over five years.

To Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the potential economic boon was only one reason to support the monument.

"My goal is to have economic development and save what's in my backyard," she said. "I've lived in Winters 56 years. That mountain range is my home."

Many scientists agree the region is worthy of special status. Geologists, in particular, hold this section of the Coast Range in high regard. Steeply uptilted rock faces testify to a past of violent tectonic head-butting. Here, the North American plate rears up against the Pacific plate in a battle that, over hundreds of millions of years, has created striking escarpments and deposited the contents of ancient sea beds into a region that avid geology buffs keep as their outdoor laboratory.

The place is rich with rocks and rock types: sedimentary, volcanic and the delicate green- and black-flecked serpentine, California's state rock. It also supports a luxurious plant world. The flanks of the region's high country are swathed in classic plein-air scenes: chaparral communities with bristling shrubs giving way to a smoky blue oak woodland, blue-tinged trees clinging to slopes shot through with silvery ghost pines.

Speaking at last month's public meeting, UC Davis environmental professor Susan Harrison compared the region to both a cradle and a museum — a birthplace for new species and a living compendium for millions of years of natural process.

Sara Husby, Tuleyome's executive director, said it's a place worth patiently preserving.

"We've been careful and, we hope, broad-based" she said, "and we think that that approach will be successful."

julie.cart@latimes.com

@julie_cart

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