A small portion of Lake Berryessa, which would be part of a proposed National Conservation Area. (Photo: Craig Miller/KQED)
On one of those crystalline mornings so rare in California valleys, I joined a small group gathered in front of a coffee shop in the town of Winters, about 30 miles west of Sacramento. But we wouldn’t be lingering there over lattes.
"The plan for the day is to go up to Cold Canyon," announced Bob Schneider of the Woodland-based conservation group, Tuleyome. "We’re gonna hike up to the ridge for the views."
The views being sought were of what could become the nation’s newest National Conservation Area, tucked into the broad nether region between I-5 and Highway 101. Nearly 350,000 acres of federal land, the Berryessa Snow Mountain Conservation Area would get permanent protection from mining activity, sale to commercial developers and -- it’s a bit unclear what else.
Tuleyome’s promotional handout calls the region a “largely undiscovered national treasure.” Michael Brune, the national head of the Sierra Club, agrees.
"It goes up about a hundred miles to the north to Snow Mountain and in between you’ve got got beautiful wintering habitat for bald eagles," Brune told me at a spot along Highway 128, overlooking Putah Creek.
Brune has thrown his weight behind the move to set aside this expanse. "Tule elk are here," he added, "You've got beautiful rolling hills on the western part of the valley."
Compared to the nation’s 16 existing National Conservation Areas, it would be among the biggest, a patchwork of lands variously managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation, pulling in three already-designated wilderness areas and a sizable chunk of the Mendocino National Forest.
"It’s a place that is close to Sacramento, close to the Bay Area, but very wild," says Brune.
Even if you make that hike up one of the ridges off the highway, east of Napa, the area stretches--literally--farther than the eye can see on most days. The Snow Mountain Wilderness Area is a hundred miles to the north. Down at the south end, the Conservation Area would encircle Lake Berryessa, a 16,000-acre reservoir and recreational magnet in this part of the state.
Talking with hikers and boaters around the lake, I found few who were even aware of the proposed NCA, let alone knew what it would mean. And that’s where it gets tricky. There seems to be no one set of rules for NCAs. Each one has its own "site-specific" set of protections and restrictions.
"I say this just doesn’t qualify," says Peter Kilkus, who publishes the Lake Berryessa News website from his 60-acre homestead overlooking the lake. He and some other landowners and business interests have opposed the NCA, saying it’s just not necessary. In February, the Woodland newspaper published an open letter to Yolo County supervisors from the head of the county's Farm Bureau, charging that an NCA designation "accomplishes little of merit, other than placing an additional layer of regulation over the affected area."
California’s first National Conservation Area was also the nation’s first -- the King Range, along the stretch of northern California known as the “Lost Coast.” To qualify, lands are supposed to have “exceptional scientific, cultural, ecological, historical, and recreational values.”
"If you look at this proposed National Conservation Area -- especially this south end at Lake Berryessa -- this in no way falls under what would be suitable for an NCA in my opinion," Kilkus says. "It’s totally man-made, in the first place."
True, Berryessa’s not a natural lake. It was created in 1957 when the Bureau of Reclamation penned up Putah Creek with the 300-foot-high Monticello Dam.
"Before the lake was here, it was a huge farming community," Kilkus explains. "Then they built the dam, kicked all the people out. And they put in a lake. Even the fish are not indigenous." But down at the south end of Berryessa, the conflict doesn’t seem to be about fish.
To many, the thrum of jet skis and power boats is the pulse of the Lake Berryessa economy -- an economy that has suffered in recent years, as an unfolding government snafu caused the shutdown of five of the lake's seven marinas. At first, the proposed NCA set off alarms that this kind of “motorized recreation” might be banned on the lake. Others worried that it might mean more restricted access to the lands themselves.
"It doesn’t affect anybody’s private property," Congressman Mike Thompson told me at a recent town hall meeting. "It’s federally owned property that will always be federally owned property."
This is the second time that Thompson, a Democrat, has put up a bill to designate this swath of land as an NCA. Barbara Boxer has a similar bill in the Senate.
"We’re providing this designation so all the federal agencies can better coordinate and better work together to get more bang for the taxpayer dollars," said Thompson. "Now how in the world anybody could be opposed to that is beyond me."
This time, lawmakers wrote in a promise not to mess with motorized recreation on the lake. That seemed to satisfy Marty Rodden, who runs the boat rentals at Markley Cove.
"I hope so," he told me, in between tinkering with outboard motors and casting off pontoon boats loaded with partiers. "Considering that this is how I make my living, and I’ll be out of business [if motors are banned]."
Rodden says he’s hopeful that once under a new multi-agency management plan, some of the abandoned resorts around the lake might come back.
"There’s a lot less going on up here," he reflected. "I believe there was about a million visitors a year, and we’re probably down to 250,000, so it’s taken a really hard hit on everybody."
Kilkus and others around Lake Berryessa are still skeptical. They’re concerned that once the land is redesignated, the government might yield to pressure from wilderness advocates and change the rules.
"If you read the guiding documents behind a NCA, it gives the government huge latitude to do almost anything they want," says Kilkus. "There’s still a lot of mistrust."
In Washington, the bill will confront another group of skeptics. It now runs the gantlet of congressional committees, including the House Natural Resources Committee, which has not been real receptive of late to designating new protected lands. A committee is expected to hear the Senate version sometime in May.