Proposals to create two new state conservancies — one covering as much as a quarter of the state and one focused on a single Southern California river — are alive in the state Legislature. A proposed Sierra Nevada Conservancy appears to have gained some bipartisan momentum, while a proposed Santa Ana River Conservancy struggles to gain ground. Neither proposal is a sure thing during this budget-constrained legislative session.

While each proposal has its own set of land use issues and politics, the proposals also raise questions about how the state establishes conservancies, and whether conservancies are a good idea at all. But defenders of the proposed Sierra Nevada Conservancy say that if Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills and the San Diego River are worthy of a conservancy, surely the state’s defining mountain range is too.

Three years ago, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recommended the Legislature limit the creation of new conservancies and close out the existing conservancies. The LAO reported "the state lacks a comprehensive and cohesive statewide land conservation plan." Because there is no statewide plan, the conservancies do their own things and state officials are unable to prioritize the use of resources. The LAO’s sharp criticism followed a 2000 State Auditor’s report that reached similar conclusions. The Davis administration attempted to address some of these concerns, but that effort within the Resources Agency apparently petered out with the change in the governor’s office.

The findings in the 2001 report still hold true, said Michelle Baass, an LAO analyst. Recent state bonds have provided the conservancies with hundreds of millions of dollars for capital projects. But annual funding for programs, staffing, planning and other basics remains a struggle, and some of the capital funding has been diverted to ongoing operations (see CP&DR Public Development, April 2003).

"One of the key considerations is ongoing funding," Baass said. "That’s true of any land acquisition activity … or stewardship of the land" that the state undertakes.

The state currently has eight conservancies: Baldwin Hills, California Tahoe, Coachella Valley Mountains, San Diego River, San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains, San Joaquin River, Santa Monica Mountains, and State Coastal. Their jurisdictions and mandates vary widely, but ongoing funding has been a problem for all of them.

One of the newer agencies, the San Joaquin River Conservancy, is a prime example. The conservancy is charged with creating a 22-mile-long parkway from Friant Dam to Highway 99 near Fresno. Since its creation eight years ago, the conservancy has acquired about half the land it needs and opened five miles of trails. A nonprofit trust has built a visitor’s facility. The conservancy, which received $50 million worth of line items in three state bonds, is working on other trails and boating improvements, but the when those facilities will be available is uncertain.

"There are no resources right now for operating parks, patrolling parks and any of those things we need for opening facilities to the public. That’s definitely the most limiting thing we face right now," said Melinda Marks, executive director of the San Joaquin River Conservancy. There are funding ideas — local assessments, user fees, local and state agency budgets — but nothing is firm. Marks recommended that state officials figure out how to provide ongoing funding for any new conservancy.

Proponents of the new conservancies are aware of the background and concede they do not have all the answers. But, said Clyde McDonald, an aide to Sierra Nevada Conservancy proponent Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), the comparison ought not be between the proposed conservancy and an ideal model, but between the proposed conservancy and the current arrangement, which offers no systemic approach to the mountain range.

Bills to establish a Sierra Nevada Conservancy come from either side of the aisle. Laird is carrying AB 2600 while Tahoe City Republican Assemblyman Tim Leslie is behind AB 1788. In April, the Assembly Natural Resources Committee approved both bills. The authors requested the action so that they could continue negotiating toward legislation that both of them can support.

The bills have fairly similar aims. The proposed conservancy would serve mostly as a funding conduit, delivering grants and loans to public agencies, nonprofit groups and Indian tribes. The money could be used for cultural, archaeological and historical resource protection, tourism and recreation, reducing wildfire and flood risks, water quality improvements and local economic assistance.

"We see it as a potential pipeline of funds to an area that has been chronically underfunded," said Jedd Medefind, Leslie’s chief of staff. "Secondly, it would create a forum for residents, nonprofits and other entities who have a stake in the future of the Sierra to come together."

The bills diverge in three areas: Boundaries, governance and the role of local governments. Laird’s AB 2600 covers a broader region that extends north to the southern Cascades (which start at about Lassen Volcanic National Park) and the Modoc Plateau, and east to the White and Inyo mountains east of the Owens Valley. Leslie’s AB 1788 would keep the conservancy south of Lassen and west of Highway 395 and, apparently, farther up the slope of the Central Valley foothills.

Laird’s bill calls for a state-dominated, seven-member board: the Resources Agency secretary, the director of finance, an appointee of the governor, and two appointees each by the Assembly speaker and Senate Rules Committee. Leslie’s bill emphasizes a local approach with a 20 member board: 10 county supervisors, six governor’s appointees (including three people from the region) and two appointees each by the speaker and Senate Rules Committee.

As for governance, the difference again is state versus local. Laird’s version asks the conservancy to cooperate and consult with local governments. Leslie’s bill would require the appropriate local government to approve of any land acquisition by the conservancy or acquisition funded by the conservancy.

"Mr. Leslie comes at it from a local perspective," McDonald said. "My boss comes at from a statewide perspective. We normally don’t give local agencies authority over what the state does."

Medefind said the region is so large and issues so diverse that communities should have the final say. Requiring only consultation with local government "could be nothing more than symbolic," he said.

Nevertheless, representatives of the two lawmakers continue to negotiate and say a compromise can be reached.

Probably no group has worked harder toward creation of Sierra Nevada Conservancy than the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council. According to the council’s 2002 "resource investment needs assessment," the Sierra Nevada provides 60% of the state’s water and up to half of the state’s annual timber harvest, and supports at least half of all plant, bird, mammal and reptile species in the state. At the same time, population is expected to triple between 1990 and 2040, the region gets about 50 million recreational visits per year, large-lot development is common and local economies are in transition.

"This is a long-term issue, so a conservancy is the best approach," said Steve Frisch, the council’s director of natural resources. Integrated, long-term planning would bring together all levels of government. Additionally, a conservancy would be eligible for money from state bonds and programs, and could leverage local government, land trust, foundation and landowner contributions, Frisch said.

Issues surrounding boundaries and governance have plagued Sierra Nevada Conservancy proposals for the last four years, Frisch conceded. Still, Frisch and other supporters continue to negotiate with lawmakers, and Frisch believes "this is the year."

Not everyone is so sure, or so hopeful. Sierra Club lobbyist Jim Metropulos noted that his organization opposed a Sierra Nevada Conservancy bill two years ago because the proposed entity would have been locally controlled and would have let counties opt out. He said the Coastal Conservancy provides a good model, with its "small, independent board of representatives of groups of stakeholders."

"We are certainly supportive of a conservancy for the Sierra Nevada," Metropulos said. "But what type of conservancy?"

Opposition to the proposed conservancy is led by the California Farm Bureau Federation and local farm bureaus. "It would create another state agency. We feel there is enough bureaucracy already," said Jaimee Wood, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau.

Approximately 70% of the Sierra Nevada is already in public ownership, so there is no need for the government to acquire more, Wood said. Plus, there are fears that a new entity would take land from unwilling sellers.

El Dorado County Supervisor David Solaro, who backs the Leslie bill, said there is misinformation about the role of conservancies. Some people mistakenly believe conservancies are regulatory agencies like the controversial Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, he said. In fact, the California Tahoe Conservancy, which operates in Solaro’s district, spends 80% of its funding on water quality projects, the supervisor said.

Precisely where the Schwarzenegger administration stands on the Sierra Nevada proposals is unclear. The administration reportedly has not been part of legislative negotiations and it has not taken a public position on the bills. In fact, legislative analyses have resorted to quoting the website, in which Schwarzenegger says he favors a conservancy. Also conspicuously absent is the federal government, which owns more than half the land in the Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile, the proposed Santa Ana River Conservancy has a more modest intent but faces the same locals-versus-state issue. "It’s a fine line to walk," said Pablo Garza, an aide to Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). Correa is author of AB 496, which would create a Santa Ana River Conservancy. The agency would acquire and manage lands within the river’s watershed for recreation and wildlife habitat, and to improve water quality.

Central Orange County is one of the mostly densely developed parts of the state, and it is starved for parks, Garza pointed out. The river "is a potentially great resource that is underused right now. In Orange County, it looks like a sewage ditch," he said.

Local chapters of the Building Industry Association oppose AB 496, as do Riverside and San Bernardino counties and several cities. Riverside County opposes the proposal because it could impact potential freeway improvements and a variety of other projects near the river, county spokesman Ray Smith said.

Last year, AB 496 stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill — as well as the Sierra Nevada Conservancy bills — still must run that gauntlet. No one expects legislation that creates new agencies or programs to have an easy time this session.

Jedd Medefind, office of Assemblyman Tim Leslie, (916) 319-2004.
Clyde McDonald, office of Assemblyman John Laird, (916) 319-2027.
Pablo Garza, office of Assemblyman Lou Correa, (916) 319-2069.
Steve Frisch, Sierra Business Council, (530) 582-4800.
Jaimee Wood, Butte County Farm Bureau, (530) 533-1473.
Melinda Marks, San Joaquin River Conservancy, (559) 253-7325.
Michelle Baass, Legislative Analyst’s Office, (916) 319-8321.