Huffman, Kamala Harris tout wilderness bill

Bill focuses on rehabilitation, preservation and recreational development

A before and after comparison of an illegal grow site cleaned up with the efforts of the Integral Ecology Research Center and their partners. (IERC — contributed)
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Sen. Kamala Harris introduced the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act to the Senate earlier this week. The legislation is a companion bill to one introduced earlier this year by North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, who has been working on the bill since his first year in office.

The ambitious bill contains provisions that establish key elements necessary to preserve wilderness areas such as fire-prevention strategies, protections for rivers, and a framework to fund and funnel remediation efforts for areas that have been impacted by illegal cannabis operations on public lands.

“I’m excited to partner with Sen. Kamala Harris, who has been a champion for public lands and the environment since her days as California’s Attorney General, defending our state’s strong conservation record,” Huffman (D-San Rafael) said in a statement. “As Californians, we are so fortunate to live among some of the country’s most spectacular public lands, from the majestic Smith River to the ancient redwoods and old-growth forests, and the rugged mountains in between. Our public lands are worth protecting and restoring for future generations to enjoy, and this legislation is an opportunity to strengthen those protections and manage some of our state’s stunning northwestern landscapes to their full potential. We can do more to ensure fire resilience, support healthy wildlife, and spur outdoor recreation.”

Larry Glass, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center said he has worked on this bill for about five years.

“This is momentous,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful and happy that we’ve gotten to this point.”

The bill will protect “over 313,000 acres of federal public lands in perpetuity from road-building and other development,” and “over 379 miles of some of our wildest remaining rivers from new dams and water diversion,” according to the NEC.

“We’re protecting the areas we feel need to be protected,” Glass said. “[It is] about 90 percent of what we could ever ask for, but we’ve been asking for it for 30 to 40 years.”

Around 700,000 acres of public land will see the promotion of restoration and fuel-reduction efforts as a result of the bill, according to the NEC.

“This will help to improve the ecological health of forests that were clear-cut in the past while reducing fire danger along roads (where most fires start) and near communities,” the NEC said in an email.

“This is a preventative-type action rather than what we’ve seen in the past, which is reactionary,” Glass said.

Part of the fire-reduction strategy includes reducing fuels along roads to enable better access and escape routes if there is a fire. This allows residents a path to escape the fire safely while giving firefighters a way to access the fire and establish control points more easily, Glass said.

The provisions pertaining to forest management are the first step in a larger process, he added. Glass said the forest management approach has been vetted through a project in the Six Rivers National Forest called the “First 48,” which was essentially a proof of concept near the southern end of Ruth Lake on South Fork Mountain.

Unlike wildfires, Glass hopes to see the approach “catch on and spread.” He said our forests could become a real example for other forests to replicate.

“We’re doing something new, something different,” he said. “We want it to be copied in other places … we’re convinced this is the way to go.”

Glass also applauded the bill’s effort to address the problem of illegal cannabis grows on public lands.

Mourad Gabriel, co-director of the Integral Ecology Research Center has worked on cleaning up illegal grow sites for years. He stressed the importance of this bill, as it addresses many of the needs when it comes to the remediation of land impacted by illegal grows.

“There isn’t a cohesive effort statewide or nationwide to address this,” he said. “There’s no concerted or unified funding source where people can tap into to address it … that’s not going to be a solution.”

The bill seeks to address these issues through the proposed development of a guidance team to identify funding metrics, areas and regions of concern, and which groups are qualified to initiate or continue current remediation efforts. In terms of funding, the bill holds the potential to make accessing a central source of funding easier, Gabriel said.

Currently, Gabriel said IERC funds their grow cleanups by applying for “grant after grant.” But this is a piecemeal funding scheme that sometimes leaves the organization without the funding for cleanups when they don’t secure a grant, while thousands of known illegal grow sites continue tleachch harmful chemicals into the environment, he said.

A look at their cleanup numbers over the years clearly demonstrates the shortcoming of this funding scheme. Since 2012, IERC has cleaned up 183 grow sites. But the distribution of these cleanups doesn’t parse out at an even pace over the years. A total of 83 of the grow cleanups have occurred within the last year, made possible by a $1.1 million grant. Because IERC was able to secure the grant, they almost cleaned up more grow sites in one year than they have since they first began the process six years ago.

Thus the pace of IERC’s cleanups is dictated by the ability to secure funding, which is inhibited by the lack of a central funding source, Gabriel said. Additionally, the grants they secure are often doubled or tripled by the organizations they partner with to complete the cleanups. He said the removal of infrastructure is crucial because long term observations show that a site that is cleaned up will not see reactivation, whereas if the infrastructure is left behind, the site is likely to become active again.

“It’s public lands degrading,” he said.

The NEC also stated that the bill would, “authorize the construction of over 295 miles of new trails open to horses, hikers and mountain bikes.”

Numerous local business owners expressed their approval of the bill, including Aaron Ostrom, owner of Pacific Outfitters.

“As a local business owner, I am glad to see Sen. Harris’ introduction of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act,” he said.  “These beautiful places support all of our local businesses, since people come to the area to explore and shop while they are here.”

The bill was introduced on Dec. 5, and Glass recognizes that it has a journey ahead of it.

“Getting legislation passed is always a laborious task, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time and you have to be patient,” he said. “Eventually, it’s going to wind up on Trump’s desk, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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