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'Miracle' expansion of California coastal sanctuaries

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

March 12, 2015

WASHINGTON — After more than a decade of effort by California lawmakers, the Obama administration gave final approval Thursday to a giant expansion of two marine sanctuaries off the coast north of San Francisco that will protect one of the planet’s most prolific ocean ecosystems.

The Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries will more than double to become an area nearly the size of Connecticut. The protected area will now extend north to the waters off Mendocino County.

The area around the Farallon Islands was first protected in 1981 for its rich bird and sea life. The 2,220-square-mile expansion to the north and west covers ocean where an unusual upwelling of cold water, driven by winds, brings nutrients to shallow coastal areas. That in turn encourages intense plankton blooms, reefs and sponges that provide food for fish, marine mammals such as endangered whales, turtles and birds, including the largest seabird colony on the U.S. mainland. It is one of four such areas in the world.

“This protects the food source for the existing sanctuaries,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Ocean Foundation. “This is the base of the food chain.”

Long-sought goal

The final administrative approval came after two legislative near misses by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat, who repeatedly tried to protect the area through an act of Congress. The plan had nearly unanimous local support but faced national opposition from the oil and gas industry, which will be barred from exploring the area under the federal designation.

Woolsey started the effort in 1998 and engineered House passage in 2008. Boxer got a companion version through the Senate Commerce Committee in 2009 and 2012, but it failed to reach final passage.

When Woolsey retired in 2012, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco asked her if she had any parting wishes.

“I said, 'I want this Sonoma coast national marine sanctuary to be signed into law,’” Woolsey said in a telephone interview from her home in Petaluma. Pelosi made the request to President Obama and ensured that the administration followed up.

“Nancy was the one who brought it home,” Woolsey said.

Proud moment for Boxer

Boxer said she considers the expansion one of her top legacies as she heads into retirement in less than two years.

“It includes the entire Sonoma County coastline, and anyone who’s driven up the coast knows it takes your breath away,” Boxer said. “It also preserves part of the Mendocino coastline forever.”

That includes a permanent ban on oil and gas drilling, discharges from cruise ships and other vessels, and any disturbance of the seabed by mining, Boxer said.

The administration announced its proposal in late 2012 and held seven jammed local hearings conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last-minute objections from national Coast Guard officials worried about access to the area threatened to delay the project past the end of Obama’s second term, but they were ultimately resolved, Woolsey said.

Gulf of the Farallones Superintendent Maria Brown said the agency had received more than 1,300 comments on the proposal and that public reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. Woolsey said the public comments improved the plan by leading to an expansion of the sanctuaries farther up the Mendocino coastline.

Big Oil battle

The administrative action skirts resistance by the oil and gas industry and Republicans who, according to Woolsey, shut down attempts to protect the area legislatively after taking over the House majority in 2010.

Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat who succeeded Woolsey, said getting any environmental protection laws through the current Congress is a long shot. “I’m glad the administration stepped up and used its authority as prior administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have done,” Huffman said. “The whole California coast has been in the crosshairs of oil and gas development for a long time.”

California sea lions at Seal Cove, one of the many species of wildlife found on south east Farallon Island, on Wednesday October 12, 2011, off the coast of San Francisco, Ca. Efforts to control the non-native house mice problem in the Farallon Islands hCalifornia sea lions at Seal Cove, one of the many species of wildlife found on south east Farallon Island, on Wednesday October 12, 2011, off the coast of San Francisco, Ca. Efforts to control the non-native house mice problem in the Farallon Islands have failed, officials say the mouse population has grown so large that they have altered the ecology of the island. Michael Macor/The Chronicle

The expansion of the Farallon and Cordell sanctuaries arrives nearly on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to declare national-monument status for 1,600 acres of coastline abutting the sanctuaries.

'War on nature’

Charter said the expansion of the sanctuaries also protects the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the south. “If one were to drop a few offshore drilling rigs off Point Arena, which has been in the works for a long time, one could easily contaminate all three sanctuaries and everything that lives in them,” Charter said.

“It’s ironic that against the backdrop of this war on nature that we’re seeing in the U.S. Congress right now, we are able to suddenly pull off this long-sought result of permanent protection for this spectacular piece of coast,” Charter said. “That is just a miracle.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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