The past few days have seen two dramatic victories for wild places and wildlife. Both are a tribute to the grassroots efforts of Sierra Club volunteers -- as well as cautionary stories on the importance of raising the bar.
The most spectacular news came from Kern County, California, where Tejon Ranch agreed to set aside for preservation 240,000 acres -- 90 percent of the total ranch. This preserve, which will eventually include a major new state park, covers what is probably the largest, most ecologically significant and most pristine private land in the state. "For Southern California, this is the ecological equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase," said Bill Corcoran, senior regional representative for the Sierra Club. "It is the only place in the region where, within a few minutes, a visitor can ascend from Joshua tree woodlands to oak-filled canyons on up to vast plains with views across the coastal range."
Tejon will now be free to seek regulatory approval for development projects on the remaining 10 percent. These projects, while not optimal, are far less damaging than earlier versions -- and the remaining 90 percent is safe forever.
The Tejon victory is also a sober reminder of the importance of setting your sights high, staying at the negotiating table, and being willing to bargain hard. Back in 2005 and 2006, Tejon offered to set aside much smaller parts of the ranch for preservation, in exchange for being able to pursue some very damaging versions of its development plans. The company balked at setting aside more than 100,000 acres, and some environmental advocates and groups wanted to accept those offers. But a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, turned down the offer, and the Sierra Club laid down a line in the sand. I told Tejon that we would make saving Tejon one of our top California priorities, and that long and bitter litigation would precede any development approvals. The company came back to the table, and this week we were able to ink this fabulous win for wildlife.
Three thousand miles away, in Washington, DC, we saw another major victory. Congress passed and the President signed the Wild Sky Wilderness bill -- another monument to hanging tough. The Wild Sky bill designates 167 square miles in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National
Forest north of Sultan as federal wilderness, the government's highest
level of protection, and it was ready to pass in the last Congress. But the House Resources Chair at the time, Richard Pombo, held it hostage -- seeking to trade it off for his assaults on public lands and endangered species. But environmentalists, instead of caving in to Pombo, decided to take him out instead and pass Wild Sky once Pombo was an ex-Congressman. As we all know, the defeat of Pombo in the 2006 election was probably the highlight of election night for environmentalists, and with Pombo out of the way, Wild Sky sailed through to signature by President Bush this week.