Conflicting Visions for ‘Serengeti of California’


Perhaps nowhere else is the conflict between California’s thirst for energy and its desire to protect its vanishing natural landscape sketched in broader strokes than in this remote basin in Central California.

Just west of the Temblor Range, a splendid carpet of grass extends as far as the eye can see, a vista broken only by the sight of grazing pronghorn antelope.

Called “the Serengeti of California,” the Carrizo Plain is the last large remnant of the aboriginal ocean of grassland that once covered the San Joaquin Valley--so valuable that President Clinton gave it federal protection as a national monument.

But east of the mountains, toward Bakersfield, are some of the richest oil fields in America. And a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey says the “probability for undiscovered oil and gas resources is high” in the Carrizo itself.


So the question being asked around here is, which will it be? Preservation or petroleum?

In late March, the Bush administration announced its intention to review the Carrizo and 20 other national monuments created or expanded by Clinton since 1996. Officials believe that some were designated in haste and that some public lands could be developed.

"[T]here are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment,” President Bush said recently.

Now, battle lines are being drawn here as everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the Chumash Indians registers their opposition to any plans to open the Carrizo to oilmen. To them, an energy crisis is not reason enough to invade the plain.

“What are these people thinking of by even considering this?” asked Chief Mark Vigil of the San Luis Obispo County Chumash Council.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes most of the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain, has promised to fight any administration effort to get at the resources lying under the grassland. “The administration’s inquiries pose a serious threat to the protection of the Carrizo Plain,” she said.

Stung by the response to talk of opening public lands to exploration, the administration now measures its words on the monument issue. Officials insist that Interior Secretary Gale Norton is taking a cautious approach.

“She wants to go about this in a responsible, reasoned manner,” said Norton spokesman Mark Pfeifle.

Privately, officials say she is unlikely to kill any of the monuments but could change the boundaries and the rules governing the lands. Even that is perceived as a threat around here, where people pride themselves on their green lifestyles.

They object to the kind of math that would weigh an antelope against a barrel of oil, or a blunt-nosed leopard lizard against air conditioning on a sweltering summer day.

What makes the Carrizo Plain worth fighting over is its geography and geology. A 50-mile-long, 8-mile-wide corridor of range land between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, it is where you go to see what the San Joaquin Valley looked like before the tractors, dam builders and ranchers arrived.

“This is the only place in California where so many endangered plants and animals coexist side by side in an area large enough to sustain them,” said Ron Fellows, a field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Besides the antelope, leopard lizard and elk, the plain is home to the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat and the San Joaquin antelope squirrel. Operated jointly by the BLM, the California Department of Fish and Game and the Nature Conservancy, facilities for tourists are rugged, consisting of a small visitor center with no water. A rutted road runs the length of the monument, skirting the white alkaline sink of Soda Lake. Painted Rock, a giant sandstone formation erupting from the grass, is sacred to the Chumash.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the plain in 1999 and came away impressed. “I can’t believe there is a place like this left in California,” he said.

To Capps, it is “a local and national treasure.”

Driving into the Carrizo from the south on California 33, one passes a thicket of oil wells. The acrid odor of petroleum saturates the air. Just miles from the edge of the Carrizo, these are among the nation’s most productive wells.

Midway-Sunset yields more oil than any other well in California, and Elk Hills--formerly the U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve--is the largest producer of gas associated with oil production.

Some experts feel certain that there is oil to be found under the Carrizo. The monument covers parts of two geological basins, the Cuyama and San Joaquin. In the San Joaquin Basin, “several significant oil and gas plays” may extend into the plain’s underground geology, according to the Geological Survey.

In fact, of all 21 monuments reviewed by the survey, the Carrizo had the highest probability of large oil and gas reserves.

Limited drilling already occurs on the southwestern edge of the plain, but Clinton’s action forbids new exploration. Carrizo BLM officials like Fellows doubt the Geological Survey’s findings, saying hundreds of test wells have been drilled over the years without success.

While the Carrizo shares geology with the San Joaquin oil fields, one important thing separates them--the San Andreas fault, whose white scar can be seen from the plain, slashing across the Temblor Range.

One Republican staffer in Washington, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said it’s silly to think there isn’t something valuable under the Carrizo.

“It’s right there, next to huge oil and gas reserves,” he said. “The oil and gas people say they’ve always had interest there. I admit the interest comes and goes with the price of oil.”

Advocates of oil and gas exploration say drilling techniques are so advanced today that not one endangered animal need be harmed.

As fractured and uncertain as the geology is, the politics of the place are just as fragmented.

Unlike some of the other monuments endorsed by Clinton, the Carrizo boasts a long history of efforts to protect it. The people of San Luis Obispo County knew they had something special and wanted to keep it safe. The Chumash hold summer solstice events at Painted Rock, where centuries-old drawings by the Chumash and Yokuts tribes can still be seen.

Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), whose district includes 12,000 acres of the Carrizo, joined Capps in the last Congress to co-sponsor a bill designating the plain a national conservation area. That would have guaranteed protections to local species but allowed oil exploration under BLM regulations. At the last minute, the Clinton administration withdrew its support.

“We thought we had a deal, and they pulled the rug out from under us,” said a spokesman for Thomas.

Then on Jan. 17, just days from the Bush inauguration, Clinton announced that the Carrizo would be a national monument and that there would be no future exploration. Thomas was incensed.

Thomas’ pique was shared by a lot of others in the new administration, who felt that Clinton had ignored local decision makers, particularly with regard to the eight monuments he acted on in his last days.

Norton announced plans to review Clinton’s actions. “In the normal process, I believe local input would have gone before the creation of these monuments, but that process was not followed,” she said.

Despite assurances from the Bush administration that it is merely trying to defend the rights of local decision makers, suspicion runs high around the Carrizo Plain that the White House wants to invade America’s last pristine areas with bulldozers and drill rigs. Even the business-friendly San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce has entered the fray, saying it is “concerned” about Norton’s intentions.

Thomas remains angry, and because he is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, his is not an inconsequential voice. He paid a visit to Norton last week. One Thomas source said they feel there is still “some possibility” of downsizing the monument and allowing “managed exploration.”

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this story.