Obama signs massive wilderness bill

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Monday signed into law a giant public lands bill that puts former Fresno-area congressman John Krebs in rare and exalted company.

The 1,218-page bill signed by Obama in a White House ceremony designates the new John Krebs Wilderness, now one of the few federally protected wilderness areas named for a living individual. Public lands advocates call it a well-earned tribute fittingly included in the largest wilderness bill signed in the last 15 years.

"This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted," Obama said, "but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share."

With many of the public lands provisions years in the making, the mid-afternoon bill-signing ceremony had a celebratory air. Environmentalists and lawmakers like Rep. Jim Costa, the Fresno Democrat who worked with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer on the Krebs wilderness legislation, backslapped and shook hands in White House's East Room.

Krebs, who is now 82 and living in Fresno, did not attend the ceremony.

"I'm greatly honored and humbled," Krebs said in a telephone interview following the bill signing.

Spanning 39,740 acres in the Mineral King Valley of the southern Sierra Nevada, the new John Krebs Wilderness is both modest and ambitious.

Its designation is only a tiny part of the overall public lands bill, which covers more than 1,000 miles of river and 2 million acres of wilderness. The newly designated California wilderness includes a total of 85,000 acres in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Land management won't change, as the Krebs wilderness has already been protected as a potential wilderness region. Future backpackers may not even know they've crossed a new boundary.

"We are very limited in what we install," Alex Picavet, spokeswoman for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, noted Monday. "We don't put up signs saying, 'You are now entering wilderness.'"

At the same time, Picavet said formal wilderness designation provides "more teeth and power" in securing the land's long-term protections. Bicycles, off-road vehicles and snowmobiles are prohibited on designated wilderness, as is timber harvesting. Overall, federal agencies manage wilderness as land that is "untrammeled by man."

The name also distinguishes the new wilderness. Currently, only about 20 of the nation's 704 designated wilderness areas are named for individuals. Nearly all of these, like the Sierra Nevada's John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness, are named for those who have already passed on.

Only a handful of wilderness areas have been designated while the honoree is still alive, such as the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness in Oregon and the Gaylord A. Nelson Wilderness in Wisconsin. Both were named for senators.

Krebs is being honored because, as a congressman in the 1970s, he ensured the remote Mineral King Valley would be protected from ambitious ski resort development plans.

"It is fitting and appropriate that we name this area after him," Costa said.

On Tuesday, National Park Service officials are meeting at agency headquarters in Washington to delve into the new public land bill's wilderness requirements. Other federal agencies, too, are shouldering fresh responsibilities as part of the bill.

Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation officials in California, for instance, will now be working on plans to restore the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. The public lands package includes a river restoration initiative designed to return salmon to the long-parched river channel by 2013.

Environmental attorney Hal Candee, who initiated the 1988 lawsuit that led to the river settlement, was among those present for the bill signing Monday.

"Today is a banner day," declared Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who pushed the Senate version of the San Joaquin River bill.