WASHINGTON -- A proposed John Krebs Wilderness in the southern Sierra Nevada won approval Thursday by a key Senate committee, as part of a massive public lands package that will soon swell even larger.
The Krebs wilderness designation would lock in long-term protections for some 69,500 acres located within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. It also grants a rare distinction to Krebs himself, an 81-year-old former San Joaquin Valley congressman who could now become one of the few living individuals to see a wilderness named after him.
"This is a fitting honor for a man of great political courage and vision," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Now retired in Fresno, Krebs secured passage of the 1978 law that folded the Mineral King Valley into Sequoia National Park. The move blocked further development of the area, much of which could now be designated wilderness as well as national park. Kreb's activism also helped cost him his congressional seat, as he lost to a since-departed Republican who blamed Krebs for taking away jobs.
By voice vote, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the Krebs Wilderness designation along with 53 other public lands-related measures. These will now be folded into another omnibus bill that already contains more than 90 unrelated public lands bills.
"The sponsors of these bills ... have been real champions for wilderness protection in our state," declared Sam Goldman with the California Wild Heritage Campaign.
In theory, lawmakers hope the resulting behemoth that could easily exceed 1,000 pages can get through the Senate and House sometime this month.
"We are certainly hopeful it will pass the Senate before (adjournment)," committee spokesman Bill Wicker said.
In practice, obstacles still remain. In particular, Republicans could insist on holding environmental bills hostage until they secure a vote on offshore oil drilling.
Still other controversies could yet arise over specific provisions of the big public lands package. Notably, one bill added Thursday would overturn a ban on guns in national parks. This bill was the only one to excite opposition Thursday, finally winning committee approval on an 18-5 vote.
With only about three weeks left in the congressional session, and with partisan pressures intensifying to campaign pitch, controversy could prove fatal to any bill.
Boxer authored the Senate version of the Krebs Wilderness designation as a companion to a House measure authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. In order to win Senate committee approval, negotiators revised the original wilderness proposal.
Senate negotiators strengthened language intended to ensure that recreational horseback riding and commercial pack-and-saddle operations can remain in the new wilderness. The tinkered-with bill now states that nothing in the act "precludes horseback riding in, or the entry of recreational or commercial saddle or pack stock" into the newly designated Krebs Wilderness.
Some skeptics still don't embrace the revised wilderness bill, including environmental activists who fear too many exceptions were carved out. For instance, the bill removes from wilderness what opponents deride as a "mile-wide corridor" surrounding existing Mineral King cabins.
"In my opinion, the land would be better protected if this bill were to fail," George Whitmore, spokesman for the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter, said Thursday. "Naming such an ill-conceived wilderness area after John Krebs is not an appropriate way of recognizing his huge accomplishments."
Once the entire public lands package is bundled together for potential Senate action, it will include other measures including:
A multi-million dollar plan to restore water flows and salmon runs to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
New designated wilderness covering some 430,000 acres in the eastern Sierra mountains of Inyo and Mono counties.
A new groundwater recharge project proposed for Madera County.