By Michael Doyle
Yosemite National Park in California would grow by 1,575 acres under a bill seeking traction on Capitol Hill.
Written by a Democrat and backed by local Republicans, the Yosemite expansion legislation could have a leg up on some of the myriad other national park bills being shopped around Congress. But in an environment where public lands ownership also can push political buttons, advocates still have their work cut out for them.
"This is a challenging Congress to move things through," Laurie Wayburn, president and co-chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Pacific Forest Trust, said Tuesday. She added, though, that "this is one of those rare, common-ground movements. Yosemite has a very special place in Californians' hearts."
The legislation introduced last month by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., authorizes the National Park Service to expand Yosemite's western boundary through the addition of several adjacent Mariposa County parcels. The park service could buy the designated land, located near an existing resort development called Yosemite West; in theory, the agency also could accept donated property or acquire it through a land swap.
The Pacific Forest Trust currently owns about half of the 1,575 acres covered by the bill, and a consortium of medical professionals owns the other half. The non-profit trust bought its share about seven years ago with the long-term goal of conveying it to Yosemite, Wayburn said. The doctors had bought the land as an investment, potentially for development.
The landowners' anticipated scenario now is that federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars would be used to buy both parcels once the National Park Service secured its authorization, Wayburn said.
"The inclusion of these lands within Yosemite will be critical to saving money for local communities and preserving the integrity of one of our nation's most celebrated places," Costa wrote Monday in a letter asking for a hearing by the House subcommittee on national forests, parks and public lands.
Yosemite currently spans 761,266 acres, ranking it 17th among all parks nationwide.
Costa's bill is backed by Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and Dan Lungren, both of California. While this helps in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, every public lands bill faces a series of hurdles ranging from price tag to public policy.
The legislation does not specify how much the Yosemite-area properties might cost, and Wayburn said the value would have to be appraised.
This year, the Land and Water Conservation Fund provided a total of $146 million for federal land acquisition nationwide. Although the Obama administration requested a 45 percent jump in land acquisition funding for fiscal 2013, the fund has historically fallen short of what advocates hope for.
The conservative Republican whose newly redrawn congressional district includes Yosemite and Mariposa County, Rep. Tom McClintock, has not taken a public position on the bill.
Park expansion advocates also confront a school of thought that the federal government already administers too much public land. The sentiment surfaced again earlier this year at a House hearing on a separate bill by Denham to authorize the purchase of 18 acres in Mariposa for a Yosemite visitors' center and office.
"While many of us recognize the need to accommodate our tourism industry, we're in opposition at the federal government purchasing more land in our county. They currently own 50 percent," Mariposa resident Ronika Johnson told the House subcommittee, adding that "most of all, we have to question spending at this time. Neither the federal government, the county, nor the states are managing our money wisely."
If the land is purchased, the current Yosemite West subdivision would become encircled by park service property.
Emily Schrepf, program manager for the Fresno, Calif.-based Central Valley field office of the National Parks and Conservation Association, said Tuesday that she has not heard of any opposition to the bill. Like Wayburn and the Pacific Forest Trust, Schrepf is now trying to demonstrate the kind of public support that can attract California's two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.