California lawmakers are quietly mounting a campaign to persuade President Barack Obama to protect a 50-mile stretch of California coast along Sonoma and Mendocino counties by the end of this month -- a move that would permanently ban offshore oil drilling there and create California's largest ocean preserve in 20 years.
The group, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-San Rafael, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, is asking Obama to sign an executive order establishing a new offshore national monument extending from Bodega Bay near the Marin County-Sonoma County border north to Point Arena in Mendocino County.
The area is one of the West's most scenic coastal landscapes, famous for its steep cliffs, rugged wind-swept bluffs and long sandy beaches. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil companies showed interest in sinking new rigs off the area, which includes the communities of Jenner, Sea Ranch and Gualala, along with Fort Ross, a former Russian fur-trading outpost dating back to 1812.
The proposed monument, which Obama could create without a vote of Congress, would effectively enlarge the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the adjacent Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary by adding 2,771 square miles of newly protected ocean -- more than doubling the 1,811 square miles of waters the two sanctuaries now encompass.
"This is one of the most pristine areas in the world," Woolsey said. "It isn't only the romantic part of it; it's about protecting fishing and tourism. Those industries depend on the coast."
At a White House Christmas party Monday night, Woolsey discussed the issue with Vice President Joe Biden and briefly with the president as he was posing for photos with members of Congress. Last month, she talked with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about the issue when he visited Marin County.
Meanwhile, 12 California House members sent Obama a letter last week seeking the new preserve. The signatories included Northern California Democrats Jackie Speier, Zoe Lofgren, George Miller, Barbara Lee, John Garamendi, Mike Thompson, Anna Eshoo and Sam Farr.
"Unfortunately, the hazards faced by our coast area are real and imminent," the letter said. "That is why we respectfully request that you create a marine monument that includes the expanded boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank sanctuaries."
Woolsey has tried to pass bills in Congress since 2004 with the same goal. But her most recent effort, HR192, has been blocked by House Republican leaders who oppose new limits on oil and gas production. And Woolsey is retiring from Congress when the current session ends Jan. 3.
White House spokesman Brandon Lepow declined to comment on the sanctuary proposal.
Oil industry officials, who have in the past opposed efforts to limit drilling off the California coast, downplayed the issue.
"I know there were some prior assessments that suggested there might be a small amount of oil there," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. But "it has never been an area to my knowledge that has been considered a significant source of energy."
Still, he said, "we do ask that the nation's energy security and energy future get careful and thoughtful consideration whenever there are proposals like this."
The creation of the new protected area has been endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown, along with fishing groups. Environmentalists say Obama could use the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create national monuments by executive order, to help boost his conservation legacy.
"This is a national treasure that needs to be protected," said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Noting that both "George W. Bush and his dad did a lot," Charter said: "I think the Obama administration is feeling it's time for the White House to start building a legacy with protecting the oceans."
George H.W. Bush established the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, banning offshore oil drilling off a 276-mile stretch of the California coast from Hearst Castle to the Marin Headlands. His son signed an executive order in 2006 creating an even larger protected ocean area, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which stretches for about 1,000 miles from Hawaii to Midway.
The younger Bush used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the Hawaiian ocean monument, and the law has been used by nearly every president in the past century.
Theodore Roosevelt used it to set aside the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods, Herbert Hoover to protect Death Valley and Arches, Utah. And Jimmy Carter used it to protect Denali and other Alaska lands.
Obama has used the law four times since becoming president, establishing new monuments at Fort Ord in Monterey County; at the home and former headquarters of farmworker leader Cesar Chavez in Kern County; at Chimney Rock in southwest Colorado; and Fort Monroe, in Virginia.
"We have been working for years in Congress on this legislation and talking to the administration about ways to expand these sanctuaries," Boxer said. "I am hopeful we can finally get it done."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.