Off-roaders may again have access to federal land in Fresno County

Congressman Jeff Denham speaks during a ceremony to honor local veterans in Central Park on Veterans Day in Turlock, California, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Congressman Jeff Denham speaks during a ceremony to honor local veterans in Central Park on Veterans Day in Turlock, California, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Modesto Bee

San Joaquin Valley lawmakers want to reopen some western Fresno County land to off-road vehicles, but there’s a price to be paid.

In a classic Capitol Hill tradeoff, conservatives would get the Clear Creek Management Area reopened to off-roaders while liberals would secure new wilderness and wild-and-scenic river designation for other federal lands.

Supporters of the Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act call it the kind of cooperation that Congress could use more of.

“It’s a good, bipartisan effort,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, said Wednesday. “Do I like expanding wild-and-scenic designations? In most cases, it doesn’t make sense. But in this case, I think it’s a good compromise.”

In addition to returning off-road vehicles to the Clear Creek area, the bill would establish a new 21,000-acre Joaquin Rocks Wilderness on adjacent federal land in Fresno County. Several nearby stream segments would receive wild-and-scenic river designation, preventing them from being dammed or their channels from being altered.

“It’s a good opportunity to have more recreational vehicles out and using public land,” Denham said.

Denham’s fellow conservative, Rep. David Valadao, R-California, also is a co-sponsor.

This legislation is a common-sense solution which not only reopens the land for off-highway vehicle use but also directs additional land to be preserved for future generations.

Rep. David Valadao

A newly scheduled House subcommittee hearing set for next Wednesday will put the political spotlight on the Clear Creek proposal. For Rep. Sam Farr, the 74-year-old California Democrat who introduced the bill and will retire after next year, it also could be part of establishing his legacy.

“The compromise really all came about from the community, all of the interest groups that had a common interest in the land,” Farr said Wednesday, adding that “I think it’s a win-win-win.”

Still, some potential challenges and objections linger.

Sprawling across 75,000 acres in Fresno and San Benito counties, the rugged Clear Creek Management Area was once a popular off-road vehicle destination for riders who relished exploring some 242 miles of often-steep public trails.

But in 2008, citing Environmental Protection Agency concerns about exposure to the area’s naturally occurring asbestos, the Bureau of Land Management shut out motorized vehicles. Asbestos is a carcinogen and can be kicked up into the air by spinning wheels.

“The activities with the highest exposure – motorcycling, ATV riding, and SUV driving/riding – had the highest corresponding excess lifetime cancer risk,” the EPA noted in a May 2008 report.

Earlier this year, following years of study and public hearings, the Bureau of Land Management released a plan that largely keeps the off-road vehicle ban in place.

Critics, led by off-road vehicle fans, have long argued that the EPA’s asbestos exposure estimates were exaggerated. Fresno County resident Steve Koretoff, at an earlier House panel hearing, noted he and others “found ourselves in strong disagreement” with the BLM’s closure decision.

“At our national parks and federal lands, we allow a lot of assumption of risk, a lot of things you can die from, and we don’t shut it down,” Farr said, adding that the legislation’s introduction might “push the administration” to revise its land management.

A Senate version of the Clear Creek bill has not yet been introduced. Typically, lawmakers bundle together multiple public lands bills into one big package, in an effort to maximize political appeal.

Last December, for instance, President Barack Obama signed a defense authorization measure that included several dozen public lands provisions, including one authored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, to study honoring the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” who patrolled Yosemite National Park in the early 20th century.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10