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Tenacity, pragmatism, and public support made the 2009 Omnibus bill work

by Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Director

NF San Jacinto WSR | Steve Evans

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-11). The bill was a conglomeration of public land and water measures affecting more than half of the states in the union, as well as the Puerto Rico Commonwealth. For California, the Omnibus Act included designation of 750,000 acres new wilderness and wilderness additions, as well as 105 miles of newly protected wild and scenic rivers in the eastern and southern Sierra Nevada, northern San Gabriel Mountains, San Jacinto Mountains, Santa Rosa Mountains, Mojave Desert, and the Peninsular Ranges.

Legislative leaders often package many individual bills into a larger package to secure more political support in Congress. The 2009 Omnibus Act included House bills introduced by Rep. Mary Bono-Mack (R) representing Riverside County and Rep. Buck McKeon (R), representing a sprawling district that stretched from northern Los Angeles County to Bridgeport in the eastern Sierra. At the time, the Republican Party controlled the House of Representatives, so Republican champions of these bills were crucial. The Democratic Party controlled the Senate, requiring Rep. Bono-Mack and Rep. McKeon to negotiate with Senator Barbara Boxer (D) and secure the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) to seek passage of their bills in the Senate.

Rep. McKeon’s modest original bill proposed extensive additions to the existing Hoover Wilderness. Senator Boxer worked with Rep. McKeon to expand the bill into what became the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wilderness Act. Most of Rep. McKeon’s voter base resided in northern Los Angeles County, which included the San Gabriel Mountains. Adding wild places in the San Gabriels boosted public support for the legislation in McKeon’s district.

A long list of Wilderness additions to the original bill

Ultimately, the McKeon bill included important additions to the existing Hoover, John Muir, and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas, and protected new areas, including the Owens River Headwaters, White Mountains, Granite Mountain in the eastern Sierra, as well as the Magic Mountain, and Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness in the northern San Gabriels. Wild and Scenic Rivers protected in the McKeon bill included the Owens River Headwaters (Glass Creek, Deadman Creek, and Owens River) in the eastern Sierra, Cottonwood Creek in the White Mountains, Amargosa River in the Mojave Desert, and Piru Creek in the Transverse Ranges north of the San Gabriels.

Rep. Bono-Mack’s California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act was packaged into the omnibus bill under the subtitle of Riverside County Wilderness. Her bill added to the existing Agua Tibia, and Santa Rosa Mountains, Orocopia Mountains, Chuckwalla Mountains, Palen/McCoy and Joshua Tree National Park Wilderness areas. It also protected new wilderness areas such as: Cahuilla Mountain, Beauty Mountain, South Fork San Jacinto, and Pinto Mountains Wilderness. The bill also protected as wild and scenic segments of the North Fork San Jacinto River, Fuller Mill Creek, Bautista Creek, and Palm Canyon Creek.

One important addition to the Omnibus Act that was not in the original House bills was the designation of the John Krebs Wilderness and the expansion of existing wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Senator Boxer included this provision in honor of former Representative John Krebs, who fought to protect the Mineral King Valley.

Many of the wild places and rivers proposed for protection in the omnibus bill had originally been included in Senator Boxer’s statewide California Wild Heritage Act, which was first introduced in 2002 and was reintroduced in subsequent Congresses. In 2005, Senator Boxer and CalWild, and our conservation allies began working on areas and rivers from the statewide bill on a congressional district-by-district basis. To pass the legislation, CalWild and its allies implemented a strategy of forming coalitions with national and local conservation and social justice groups to help mobilize public support. Another key component of this strategy included securing support from county supervisors, city councils, and other local elected officials and community leaders; chambers of commerce and local businesses; local water agencies; and Native American tribes.

Persistence and pragmatism lead to success

Amargosa Wild and Scenic River | Bob Wick

All successful legislative campaigns require pragmatism and persistence. Some wild places did not get into the bill because of local opposition but CalWild is prepared to address the protection of these places in future legislation, as congressional politics and districts change and public support for protecting wild places increases. For example, CalWild helped pass another omnibus bill in 2019 that added 7.5 miles to the 22-mile Amargosa Wild and Scenic River and we’re also working on legislation to add upper and lower segments to the Piru Creek Wild and Scenic River.

The many proposed wilderness additions in the omnibus bill also show that you can return to protect areas originally left unprotected. In some cases, this may mean securing a different kind of protection, such as the establishment of National Monuments via Presidential proclamation when congressional politics make it too difficult to pass legislation. CalWild will always be nimble and persistent in our ongoing efforts to protect cherished wild places.

CalWild wishes to recognize those who helped pass this legislation and protect these important wild places in 2009, including our legislative champions – Rep. McKeon, Rep. Bono-Mack, Senator Boxer, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. In addition, protection of these areas would not have been possible without our conservation and social justice allies, including The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Inyo, Community Hiking Club, Friends of Desert Mountains, National Hispanic Environmental Council, and many groups and individual activists and supporters too numerous to list here.