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Hundreds attend discussion on proposed Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area

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Upper Putah Creek, lower left, enters Lake Berryessa near the southern end of the proposed Snow Mountain Berryessa National Conservation Area. Photo by Ed Oswalt.

CLEARLAKE, Calif. – Two United States congressmen, six panelists, representatives of wilderness organizations and nearly 200 community members packed the Highlands Senior Center in Clearlake last Thursday for an informative town hall meeting on the proposed Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area.

The meeting was arranged by the environmental group Tuleyome, which along with other groups such as the California Wilderness Coalition, was instrumental in developing the proposal.

The proposal is to move existing federal land into a single unit with a "National Conservation Area" (NCA) designation.

An 11-member advisory committee, consisting of representatives of counties, wilderness organizations and the public, would be formed to create a management plan.

The NCA management designation is used to conserve public lands for present and future use, and is given to areas of special scientific, cultural, ecological or historic significance.

The proposed area extends 100 miles from Lake Berryessa at its southern end to north of Snow Mountain and consists of several separate pieces, the largest being in Mendocino National Forest east and north of Clear Lake.

The land is currently administered by the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bureau of Reclamation, and includes the Cedar Roughs, Cache Creek and Snow Mountain Wilderness areas.

The designation would make the area eligible for federal funds available only to units of the National Landscape Conservation System.

In the first portion of the meeting, each panelist spent about five minutes answering a question from moderator Peter Windrem.

The panel consisted of Ed Robey, Lake County Sierra Club chair and former Lake County Supervisor; Denise Rushing, Lake County Supervisor and organic gardener at Dancing TreePeople Farm near Upper Lake; Judy Ahmann, past president of California CattleWomen; Clay Shannon of Shannon  Ridge and Vigilance Wineries; Cecilia Aguilar-Curry, mayor pro-tem of the city of Winters; and Rich Burns, project manager at the BLM Ukiah office.

The two congressmen present were Mike Thompson of California District 1, and John Garamendi of California District 10.  Garamendi serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and was deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President Bill Clinton.

Thompson and Garamendi offered insights into the legal process and its ramifications.

In describing what makes the area special, Robey recalled explorations of swimming holes and springs as a youth. Botanists consider the area special for its large number of endemic species, particularly those adapted for serpentine soils.

Rushing and Aguilar-Curry emphasized the potential economic gain from developing the area as an attraction for tourists, with Rushing referring to Costa Rica as a model for ecotourism.

Aguilar-Curry pointed out her town of Winters is about 10 miles from the southern tip of the proposed NCA, and that it allows the “Gateway to Lake Berryessa” to also consider itself to be the gateway to the entire region.

Ahmann emphasized recreational opportunities, such as hiking on trails developed by Tuleyome. She and her husband granted easement on part of their 1,275-acre Running Deer Ranch to allow access to hiking on the east side of Lake Berryessa.

After moderator Windrem’s questions, he remainder of the two-hour meeting was devoted to questions and comments from the public.

Many questions concerned the Walker Ridge Wind Project. Burns answered that as the result of a process which included public input, Walker Ridge – which lies within the proposed NCA – was approved for a wind electricity generation plant of up to 70 megawatts.

The NCA designation would not change that, and another round of public input would be required
to rescind the approval, Burns said.

Lake County Agriculture Commissioner Steve Hajik expressed concern about the affect of the NCA designation on the cattle business.

The panel and Ryan Henson of the California Wilderness Coalition said no existing cattle grazing would be disallowed.

It was the theme of many of the panel's answers that the regulations are crafted specifically for this area, and that in particular no roads would be closed, and use of herbicides to control invasive weeds would still be allowed.

The Tuleyome organization is planning more informational meetings, including one in Napa in March.

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