The long and winding road to reopen the Clear Creak Management Area (CCMA) in southern San Benito County, closed in 2008, has taken much longer than retired Congressman Sam Farr could have thought it would when he first introduced a bill in 2012 to reopen it. Clear Creek was closed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after an International Research Foundation (IRF) study found a minimal health risk to off-highway vehicle (OHV) users from naturally occurring asbestos in the Serpentine Area. The bill has less than a month to be approved before having to be resubmitted to Congress. But even if it were approved today, it would most likely be another two years before the area would be opened again to the public.
In 2010, the California Highway Vehicle Recreation Division commissioned an independent risk assessment within what was called the Serpentine Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). In 2014, the BLM closed the Serpentine ACEC, removing more than 70,000 acres from public recreation locations in California and halting county economic benefits associated with its use.
Farr has had to introduce three bills overall, one for each new Congress. Since he was elected into Congress, Jimmy Panetta has taken up the lead to reopen the area. When the bill (H.R. 1913, the Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act) is finally signed into law, 75,000 acres will be re-designated as the Clear Creek National Recreation Area (CCNRA), along with the newly named Joaquin Rocks Wilderness Area with 30,000 acres in San Benito and Fresno Counties.
The bill has been sitting since July 12 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee for review. According to Panetta’s office, the Senate has until the end of the 115th Congress, Jan. 2, 2019, to pass the bill. ENR leadership will determine which bills are brought up for a hearing and voted on. Typically, the majority will pick bills that align with their legislative agenda and the minority will push for bills that align with theirs. If there is not enough support by either party, the bill will stay in the committee and not receive a hearing or a vote.
If the bill does not become law during the 115th Congress, Panetta will need to reintroduce it in either the House or the Senate. He has until the end of December 2018 to get the bill signed into law. If it does not pass, he will have to reintroduce it, yet again, in the 116th Congress, January 2019-January 2021.
H.R. 1913 requires the Department of the Interior to prioritize environmentally responsible off-highway vehicle recreation and also facilitate hunting, hiking, gem collecting, and the use of motorized vehicles, mountain bikes, and horses; issue special recreation permits for motorized and non-motorized events; and reopen the Clear Creek Management Area to such uses.
The Interior will also create a comprehensive Resource Management Plan (RMP), in consultation with stakeholders, to include a Hazards Education Program (HEP) to inform visitors about asbestos risks. Additionally, the RMP creates a user fee program; guidelines for the use of funds collected for the management and improvement of the CCNRA; designate trails, roads, and other areas for OHV use; as well as wildlife management; and releases approximately 1,500 acres known as the San Benito Wilderness Study Area back into multiple-use
According to Panetta’s office, the HEP must be created within two years after the enactment of the bill. In total, there are approximately 6,170 acres of overlap between Joaquin Rocks and the Clear Creek area. So the Clear Creek Recreation Area is 75,000 acres with 6,170 acres overlapping with the Joaquin Rocks Wilderness (approximately 68,830 acres) and Joaquin rocks is 21,000 acres with 6,170 acres overlapping with the Clear Creek Rec Area (approximately 14,830 acres).
The latest attendance records, taken from the March 2013 Clear Creek Management Area Proposed Resource Management Plan & Final Environmental Impact Statement, are from back in 2006. There were 43,000 visits to Clear Creek. Estimates are that visitation will most likely triple as word of the recreation opportunities in Clear Creek spread once it is open. A conservative guess would be over 90,000 visits annually.
“This bipartisan bill will not only bolster our local conservation efforts, it will promote recreation and tourism in our district,” Panetta said. “Reopening Clear Creek will give people across the country and around the world yet another reason to visit and enjoy the central coast of California.”
Annual expenditures in support of recreation on public lands in CCMA might reach as much as $4 million (in today’s dollars). The impact statement also states that “…aside from the local motorcycle shops, recreation opportunities in the CCMA would also contribute revenue to other local and regional businesses including restaurants, hotels, sporting goods stores, gas stations, and grocery stores in these communities. Likewise, income from ongoing projects at the CCMA, and the jobs directly and indirectly associated with them provide benefits to social and economic conditions in the area.”
Even if the bill were to become law before it expires, Panetta said it could still take two to three years before the BLM opens it officially for recreation.
“That is because under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), before construction or any sort of development on public land, the BLM must review and document all environmental changes or damages caused since the area was last open to the public, and conduct maintenance of the trails,” he said. “BLM must also create an educational program to address potential hazards in the area, and open a public comment period.”
San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho commented by email: "This issue is very important to this county to be a recreational destination and has a profound impact on our economics for tourism. San Benito County's position is firm in that we believe the public lands should be available for access to those wishing to use it for recreation in the ways it has been used historically."
For information on Clear Creek go to the BLM website.
For more information on H.B. 1913, go to the website.