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Stretch of Mendocino coastline could get national monument status

Lisa Joakimides walks along the Stornetta Public Lands, north of Point Arena on Friday, March 22, 2013. Joakimides is a supporter of a move to expand the California Coastal National Monument to include the mainland property in the otherwise marine monument.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:22 p.m.

A move to add more than two miles of breathtaking south Mendocino coastline to the California Coastal National Monument — providing a mainland toe-hold for what is otherwise a protected off-shore marine area — is gaining momentum.

Advocates are actively pursuing extending national monument status to the 1,132-acre Stornetta Public Lands in Point Arena either through legislation or executive decision.

One way or another, they're working to ensure the federally owned property — with its chiseled cliffs, blow holes, waterfalls and awe-inspiring vistas — gains the added protection and visibility that would come with national monument standing.

“It just raises the level of care that the property gets, and public access, to an entirely new level,” said Winston Bowen, president of the Mendocino Land Trust.

“To my knowledge, there is no known opposition to this,” said Richard Burns, field manager with the Bureau of Land Management.

Visitors already are free to hike the former Stornetta Brothers Coastal Ranch under a $7.8 million conservation deal struck in 2004 that converted the property to federal ownership under the jurisdiction of the BLM.

Monument status would entail improved access to money for purposes such trail development and maintenance, or possibly permanent bathrooms, as well as a higher level of protection for wildlife and habitat, advocates said.

The Stornetta family continues to graze cattle on the acreage under a 10-year lease set to expire next year. A conservation easement on an additional 600 acres or so prohibits development while entitling the Stornetta family to run cattle and grow row crops there.

The public portion sustains important wildlife habitat that makes it an ecological gem, in part because of a two-mile stretch of the Garcia River and estuary that winds through, providing breeding grounds for threatened steelhead, chinook and endangered coho salmon. A coastal upwelling off the mouth of the river provides rich feeding grounds for the resulting juvenile fish, as well as other marine wildlife.

The property also hosts populations of the Point Arena Mountain Beaver and Behren's silverspot butterfly, both endangered; seals and sea lions; and an abundance of birds and other animals. It offers a varied landscape of wetland, riparian corridor, grassy meadows, cypress groves and windswept bluffs.

“It just heals your soul,” said Point Arena resident and business owner Lisa Joakimides, who frequently walks the property. “It's magic. The air is so pure, and it's so beautiful, and the ocean is so wild.”

In addition, the property is situated not only as an obvious gateway to the off-shore monument but as a connecting link to neighboring public properties that can provide real estate for the Mendocino portion of the California Coastal Trail.

The property wraps around the Point Arena Lighthouse, abuts Manchester Beach State Park on the north side of the point and, to the south reaches toward a growing expanse of public lands that includes the BLM-managed Cypress Abbey Ranch, Phase I, acquired by the Trust for Public Lands last year, and a larger Phase II to be added later this year or next.

The result will be a nearly 12-mile stretch of uninterrupted, publicly accessible coastline from the Point Arena Pier north to Irish Beach, noted Burns.

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are among those pushing to incorporate the property into the little-known California Coastal National Monument, a 1,100-mile expanse of off-shore islands, pinnacles, reefs and rocks in the waters off the state coast.

The two Democrats sponsored a Senate bill in January that reprised house legislation championed by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, last year.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, expects to offer a companion bill in the coming weeks calling for expansion of the monument to include the Stornetta land.

All four legislators also have called upon the Obama administration to utilize authority granted by the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve the property as part of the national monument — a move supporters actually hoped departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would spearhead before his retirement at the end of the month.

But lamwakers said they are confident of success, whether by legislation or presidential proclamation.

“It's a natural extension,” Huffman said. “There aren't many opportunities to extend protection to 1,132 acres of really valuable land.”

The Mendocino Coast business community has endorsed the idea energetically, as well, citing the boost to local business they would anticipate with national visibility for the Stornetta land.

Tourism on the Mendocino Coast already supports 5,000 jobs and generates $19 million in state and local taxes, said Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino.

National monument designation for a portion of the coastline would bring more visitors overall, he said, as well as highlight the attributes of coastal areas south of Highway 128 and the landmark destination known as Mendocino.

“I think this can really open up that south county area to greater visitorship,” said Bowen, with the Mendocino Land Trust.

Burns said there has been talk about finding a land-based link to the coastal monument since former President Bill Clinton dedicated it in 2000 to protect about 1,000 acres of off-shore rock formation running the length of the state as critical marine habitat.

It's “probably the strangest of the national monuments, because you can't get on it unless you take a boat,” Bowen said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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