The Splendor of Big Sur Calls for Federal Protection

George T. Frampton Jr. is the president of the Wilderness Society in Washington

Big Sur is one of the world's most spectacular meetings of land and water. It is nature at its best. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have enjoyed this natural tapestry owe it to future generations to make sure that Big Sur retains its beauty.

Aiming to do just that, Monterey County has devised a comprehensive plan that, among other things, would limit the construction of large hotels and condominiums and bar the widening of Highway 1. It took more than 10 years of study and negotiation, and is a credit to the county and its lawmakers.

But the plan covers only the 55,000 acres along the 68-mile seacoast that are privately owned. Monterey County has no control over the 10,000 acres in the Big Sur area that are in state hands. Nor does it have any say over the largest chunk of land at Big Sur: 70,000 acres of Los Padres National Forest, which is managed by the federal government.

Under an important piece of legislation that was introduced by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), all 135,000 acres would be part of a Big Sur National Forest Scenic Area. For the federal land, that would mean a higher level of protection than is provided by regular national forest status. For the other 65,000 acres, the measure would mean that the federal government would be able to block inappropriate development if Monterey County's plan is someday either watered down or repealed. In other words, the federal government would serve as an additional line of defense for the land.

Unfortunately, the most common reaction in Monterey County has been resentment. Residents are concerned mostly about two things: what they call "federalization," and tourist invasions.

These fears are understandable, but they are misplaced. Because more than half the area involved already is part of a national forest, the federal government would always be a major player in land management. The legislation does not call for federal annexation of private or state property. Only if the current county plan were weakened and a development proposal approved, or if the owner wanted to sell to the federal government, would the government have the authority to acquire land.

Will Big Sur be overrun by tourists? Its designation as a national forest scenic area would not, as the bill's critics contend, dramatically affect visitation. Big Sur already is renowned as a beautiful place. The ban on widening Highway 1, which the federal government would be committed to backing up if the county were to have a change of heart, would limit the number of persons who could reach Big Sur. The bill does not contemplate a national park or the construction of any facilities. Critics' claims that the area would become home to wax museums and Disneyland North are pure fantasy.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), is aimed solely at preserving Big Sur's scenic splendor and maintaining the area's rural character. By formally creating a national forest scenic area it would prohibit commercial logging, geothermal-power development, oil and gas leasing and mining on Forest Service lands, except for those who already hold valid existing rights. The prohibition on oil drilling would extend for 20 miles into the ocean.

To be truly effective, the bill should be strengthened. For example, the federal government should be permitted to manage any lands that it acquires from willing sellers rather than offer them to the county, state or private land trusts first. To make such acquisitions possible, federal funding should be provided. The bill also should impose clearer limits on grazing and off-road-vehicle use, both of which can damage the land.

But the Wilson concept is sound. If we are to guarantee the preservation of Big Sur, it is not enough to admire the plan crafted by Monterey County. The political muscle that developers can flex makes any county law subject to amendment or repeal, and who can offer assurances that the board of supervisors sitting in Monterey 20 years from now will be strong enough to resist such pressure?

The Wilson bill recognizes that political reality and offers a way to ensure the protection of Big Sur. Congress should make protection of this special area the law.

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