Pinnacles National Monument might become national park

Pinnacles National Monument, a landscape of massive spires and sheer-walled canyons east of Salinas Valley, would become California’s newest national park under legislation introduced in Congress recently.

FOR THE RECORD: In Monday’s LATExtra section, an article about legislation that would elevate Pinnacles National Monument to national park status referred to California condors as predators. The birds, which do not eat live prey, are scavengers, not predators.

Rising out of the chaparral-swathed Gabilan Mountains in central California, the 26,000-acre area of volcanic rock formations is a nesting place for the endangered California condor, North America’s largest soaring bird, with wingspans up to 9 feet.

Pinnacles now gets about 165,000 visitors a year who are drawn by the condors, caves, challenging rock climbs and spectacular wildflowers. Elevating it to a national park “will draw even more visitors to this spectacular piece of California’s natural and cultural heritage,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), author of the bill.

Boxer’s bill would also boost the area of officially designated wilderness in the monument from 16,000 acres to 19,000. The National Wilderness Preservation System is the nation’s strongest form of public land protection.

The campaign for a Pinnacles national park was launched five years ago by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), author of companion legislation in the House. “Its geological distinctiveness is second to none,” Farr said, adding that the designation “would be a major boon to an economically starved area, a huge benefit for the state’s Central Coast. Pinnacles is a hidden gem.”

The designation has wide support in the region, according to Scott Fuller, chairman of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee. “The general public sees it as a deserved recognition for the unique resource that Pinnacles represents,” he said.

Pinnacles National Monument, first established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, is on the remains of an ancient volcano and was formed by millions of years of erosion and tectonic plate movement. Condors were reintroduced in 2003 and today the area is home to 26 of the free-flying predators.

The park’s first condor chick in modern times was born in March but had to be evacuated in May for treatment for lead poisoning. Condors often feed on the carcasses of animals shot by hunters using lead ammunition.

Pinnacles is a culturally significant area for several Native American tribes, and it served as a backdrop for John Steinbeck’s books, “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden.”

Supporters of the park legislation include the California Wild Heritage Campaign, the California Wilderness Project and the Wilderness Society.