WASHINGTON -- The future of a proposed John Krebs Wilderness in the southern Sierra Nevada could now hinge on some last-minute horse trading, literally.
A key Senate committee on Thursday will approve a massive public lands bill packed with more than 90 separate provisions, including some to restore the San Joaquin River, recharge Madera County groundwater and study the San Joaquin Valley's water future.
The 700-plus-page package is the last best chance for any public lands bill to succeed this year. But unless negotiators resolve questions about the proposed John Krebs Wilderness, potentially including how commercial horse-packing operations will be handled, the bill to honor the former Fresno-area congressman could be left behind.
"It remains the topic of active negotiation," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman Bill Wicker said mid-day Wednesday. "If everyone is not happy with its direction, it won't be included" in the overall bill.
The Krebs Wilderness bill is one of a dozen or more separate public lands measures on which negotiations could continue right up until the noon starting time of the Thursday committee markup session, Wicker noted. Only bills for which Senate conflicts have been resolved will be welcomed on the Senate Public Lands Management Act of 2008.
The House approved the Krebs bill June 9 following a year of negotiations. A Senate version authored by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was not included in the omnibus Senate bill unveiled June 26.
The House bill authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, would honor the congressman who legislated the protection of Mineral King Valley. In 1978, at Krebs' behest, Congress folded the scenic valley into the Sequoia National Park and thereby blocked potential ski resort development.
The new bill would designate about 69,000 acres now in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks as the John Krebs Wilderness. This locks in long-term protections, although park spokeswoman Alex Picavet stressed Wednesday that it "won't really change the way we operate."
Costa and Rep. Devin Nunes, the Visalia Republican whose district includes the mountain region, had to resolve potential conflicts. Some recreation and commercial users feared losing access, while some park advocates feared wilderness protection might be watered down.
The House members agreed to let cabin owners retain their Mineral King getaways and declared that four remote Southern California Edison check dams could be maintained and serviced with helicopters. Wilderness designation usually blocks motorized access.
The House bill further stated that "nothing in this act precludes horseback riding or the entry of recreational or commercial saddle or pack stock" into designated wilderness.
"Our position has been to preserve all wilderness use for pack-and-saddle stock," said Toby Horst, Fresno-based president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California's San Joaquin-Sierra Unit. "We have defended this use vehemently."
Horst cautioned, though, that he had not been involved in the most recent negotiations over the Krebs Wilderness, and active negotiators could not be reached to comment Wednesday to describe precisely the unresolved issues. They could be several-fold and extend beyond horses; they could also be wrapped up in time for the Thursday markup.
Selma resident and environmental activist Richard Kangas said Wednesday he opposed provisions that exempted from wilderness protection areas surrounding the Mineral King cabins. He said this might allow future logging.
In general, some have feared wilderness exceptions might become precedent for other wilderness areas. Others have feared existing users might eventually lose access if not given strict guarantees.