WASHINGTON -- The House on Monday named a remote Sierra Nevada wilderness after former San Joaquin Valley congressman John Krebs, in an unusual gesture of respect toward the living one-time lawmaker.
Following months of negotiations, the House by voice vote approved the new 69,500-acre John Krebs Wilderness in the Mineral King Valley. The wilderness designation would further lock in protections for a picturesque valley on whose behalf Krebs paid a steep political price.
"It's fitting and appropriate that we name this wilderness area after a gentleman who dedicated his life to preserving it," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Costa's bill now goes to the Senate, where it is championed by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. In addition to the new John Krebs Wilderness, the legislation adds 45,186 acres to the existing Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness.
The bill is a compromise, about which some park professionals quietly raise questions. It carves out a half-mile buffer zone around existing Mineral King Valley cabins, leaving them out of wilderness protection, and it permits certain helicopter and horseback use in the wilderness areas. The wilderness designation itself may carry primarily symbolic weight, as the land is already protected by the National Park Service.
"Some people are happy about it, some people are less happy about it," Krebs said a telephone interview Monday. "That's how the legislative process works."
Krebs is now 81 and living in Fresno, a naturalized U.S. citizen whose accent still holds the memory of his native Germany. A U.S. Army veteran, he served in the 1960s on the Fresno County Planning Commission and as a Fresno County supervisor between 1970 and 1974.
As a Democratic congressman between 1975 and 1978, Krebs expanded Sequoia National Park to include Mineral King Valley. The move blocked the Walt Disney Co. from building a planned ski resort. It also cost Krebs his job amid Republican charges in 1978 that he had undercut the region's economy.
Costa, who once worked for Krebs, authored the wilderness bill that offers a rare honor.
The federal government currently recognizes 138 national wilderness areas in California. One hundred and thirty-five are named after impersonal features, such as the Sierra Nevada's Carson-Iceberg or Emigrant wilderness areas.
Only three California wilderness areas are directly named after people. These include the iconic 19th century conservationist John Muir, the late nature photographer Dick Smith and the late San Francisco congressman Phil Burton. Burton muscled through the original 1978 public lands legislation that included Mineral King Valley.
Nationwide, only about 20 of the 704 designated wilderness areas are named after individuals.
"It's fairly rare to name a wilderness, just like anything else, after somebody living," noted Lisa Eidson, of the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names won't a name a feature for an individual until the person has been dead at least five years. Congress, though, can set its own rules.
Wilderness designation offers the highest level of protection for public land. Recreation is permitted, but mechanical and motorized equipment generally is not. The new wilderness encompasses Redwood Canyon, which includes a prominent stand of Giant Sequoia redwood trees, as well as several other areas.
Costa and Boxer introduced the original Krebs wilderness legislation last July. It changed, following negotiations with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. Nunes insisted on the cabin buffer zone and Southern California Edison's continued access to the region's small dams.
Nunes and Krebs clashed in previous years over cabins in Mineral King Valley. On Monday, though, Krebs praised Nunes' work as exemplary bipartisanship.
"I think it's a fitting tribute to Mr. Krebs, who dedicated his life to public service," Nunes said.