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Forest gap would be filled by mine stop

Legislation: Funds from bill would be used to purchase local land for preservation

Posted: October 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: October 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.

A bill awaiting a Senate committee hearing would not only stop a large-scale mine from being built in northeastern Canyon Country, but would also help provide a “vital link” between two segments of national forest, officials say.

The Soledad Canyon High Desert, California Public Lands Conservation Management Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would instruct the federal Bureau of Land Management to sell 10,000 acres of its land north of Victorville and use a portion of the proceeds to buy back contracts it granted to a Mexico-based mining company more than 20 years ago.

In 1990, mining giant Cemex secured two 10-year contracts from the bureau to extract 56 million tons of sand and gravel from almost 500 acres of land south of Highway 14 and north of Soledad Canyon Road in northeastern Canyon Country.

The city of Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County and several dozen community and business organizations have fought to stop the mine since then.

Boxer’s bill awaits a hearing in a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Aside from avoiding the air and water pollution and traffic congestion the mine’s operations could create, the bill could help bridge what conservationists say is a vital wildlife corridor, national Sierra Club representative Matthew Kirby said.

Besides buying back the Cemex contracts, selling the Victorville land would produce funds to buy land for preservation, helping to create a wildlife corridor between two sections of the Angeles National Forest in Canyon Country. The Cemex mine site is located between these two segments; squelching Cemex could help link them.

Wildlife corridors are areas allowing animals, particularly those with large ranges or migratory patterns, to travel from one habitat to another.

Biologists consider them important to maintain biodiversity and provide access to larger habitats.

Santa Clarita city officials have purchased the land to which Cemex bought mining rights and has slated it for open space to help create this wildlife corridor.

But the city only has control over the surface area; the bureau still retains the rights to the minerals below and has granted Cemex those rights.

“It’s an environmentally sensitive region,” Kirby said. “This mine would be in sight of the Pacific Crest Trail; it would be in sight of the Coast to Coast Trail. ... Not only would this bill keep that gravel in the ground, it would also buy lands ... in eastern Santa Clarita, linking those two areas. This is a vital piece that’s missing in that national forest.”

Santa Clarita Councilwoman Laurene Weste spearheaded the effort to create the city’s Open Space Preservation District, which pays for the purchase of land for preservation.

“Everyone (in the conservation community) agrees that this linkage needs to happen,” Weste said.

The city has already purchased more than 1,100 acres of land between the two forest segments, including the Cemex site.

“We’re looking into the future for all other generations to ensure richness of that habitat,” Weste said. “We see this as a very important linkage”

Local support
Sandra Cattell, a Placerita Canyon resident and member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter, which represents the Los Angeles and Orange counties, helped usher the issue from the local chapter of the Sierra Club to its national legislative office.

Cattell traveled in late September to Washington, D.C., to lobby in support of Boxer’s bill.

Kirby lauded the bill as a grassroots effort.

“It seems to us that it’s one of these win-wins, almost common sense proposals that’s the result of local stakeholder input,” Kirby said. “The only reason this came to the national level is people like Sandra, and the support of (Congressman Howard “Buck”) McKeon, (R-Santa Clarita,) and Boxer by crafting this proposal.

“This is a locally crafted bill that addresses a very localized, but very real, problem.”

Mike Murphy, the city’s intergovernmental relations officer, applauded Cattell for her efforts.

“I’ve been impressed with her,” Murphy said. “Sandra has shepherded this through and gotten it national attention. She just goes and does it.”

While in Washington, Cattell met with the organization’s public lands experts and with aides of both Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to lobby for the bill.

“If both senators from California are backing it, there’s a much better chance of it going through,” she said.
Feinstein has not yet taken a stance on the bill.

Other legislators
Feinstein is waiting to hear back from the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency that reviews legislation with financial impacts, before deciding whether to support the bill, spokesman Tom Mentzer said in an email Friday.

McKeon introduced several earlier versions of the bill in previous congressional sessions but declined to do so this year.

House Republicans categorize the bill as an earmark, or a special spending provision for a particular legislator’s district; earmarks have been banned under rules by the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Deadline approaches
A truce agreement between Cemex and the city — that the mining company will not act on its contracts as both work toward a legislative solution — expires Dec. 31.

Cemex officials have indicated to the city that the company will seek permits to act on its contracts in 2012 if there’s no progress in Washington.

The truce agreement has been extended six times since its first adoption in January 2007. The city would not approach Cemex about extending it again until December, Murphy said.

Boxer has requested that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hold a hearing on the bill.

“We have pushed hard for a hearing on the bill as soon as possible, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has indicated a willingness to hold a hearing,” Boxer spokesman Andy Stone said in an email Friday.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of bills are recommended to the Senate energy committee every year, according to Bill Wicker, the committee’s communications director.

Santa Clarita officials urge SCV residents to weigh in on the issue of the Cemex mine. Residents can visit for details.


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