Pinnacles monument closer to park status

Pinnacles National Monument moved closer to becoming the country's newest national park, with House approval Tuesday.

Pinnacles National Monument, home to the endangered California condor and a favorite spot for hikers and rock climbers near Soledad (Monterey County) and Hollister (San Benito County), moved closer to becoming the country's newest national park, with House approval Tuesday.

The brainchild of Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, an upgrade of Pinnacles to park status has enthusiastic support from local elected officials and businesses who hope that the national park cachet will draw tourists, especially the foreign kind, who now pass by unaware of the rock formations along U.S. Highway 101.

"The Pinnacles National Monument is sort of a lost place," said Farr, who has been working on changing it to a national park since he entered Congress in 1994. At 26,000 acres, Pinnacles "certainly is not a Yosemite, and it's not a Kings Canyon, and it's not the Golden Gate National Recreation Area," Farr said, but it could be the only park in California's Central Coast.

Jerry Muenzer, a member of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, based in Hollister, said Europeans often plan vacations around national parks, but many have no idea what a national monument is.

"People come down there and say, 'Where's the statue?' " thinking they will see something like the Washington Monument, Muenzer said.

Help for the locals

Hollister, a town of about 36,000 people about a 45-minute drive from the monument's east entrance, could use a horde of German and French visitors, having lost its luster as a bedroom community for Silicon Valley when the economy crashed in 2008. Many commuters returned to San Jose, foreclosures soared and unemployment remains stuck in the high teens, Muenzer said.

Designated as a monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the national parks, the volcanic rock formations and talus caves of Pinnacles sit atop the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates collide.

During the spring wildflower bloom, it is home to some 400 species of bees, more than any place in the world.

Endangered condors were released in the area in 2003 as part of the species' recovery program, and it is home to several of the estimated 226 existing birds that live in the wild.

A park designation would alter neither the size nor management of the protected area, officials said.

Pinnacles is tiny compared with Death Valley National Park, at more than 3 million acres, or Yosemite, at 761,000 acres. It would be similar in size to South Dakota's 28,000-acre Wind Cave National Park.

The west side of the park got a new visitor center from the 2009 fiscal stimulus. The main entrance lies on the east side, south of Hollister. The only way to cross the monument is by foot, and most of the area, 16,000 acres, is designated wilderness, which allows no roads, motorized vehicles or permanent structures.

Farr's effort to increase the wilderness designation by 2,715 acres was defeated in the House Natural Resources Committee.

The legislation would rename the existing wilderness area the Hain Wilderness, after the Michigan homesteaders who were the first white settlers to arrive in 1886. Schuyler Hain was the first proponent of designating the area a park in 1893, leading to its designation as a monument.

The park designation got an endorsement from filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, who created the PBS documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

"While changing an area's designation from 'monument' to 'park' does not necessarily change its crucial attributes, it nonetheless alters its place in the American imagination," the filmmakers said in a letter. "A Pinnacles National Park, simply by its new designation, would attract and demand greater attention to the remarkable treasures the monument has to offer."

Politics at work

The uncontested House passage by voice vote was a rare achievement for any lands bill in the deeply partisan chamber and was the result of Farr's work with Rep. Jeff Denham, a Turlock (Stanislaus County) Republican who has lived in Salinas. Farr is in turn helping Denham place a new Yosemite National Park visitor center on 18 acres in Mariposa.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is sponsoring a companion Pinnacles bill in the Senate that faces little opposition because the status change will not cost any money.

But the Pinnacles bill and dozens of other public lands bills are stymied in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by an unrelated partisan dispute over a proposal to allow Sealaska, an Alaska native corporation, which handles land and financial claims for indigenous citizens, to swap land with the federal government.

If that dispute is not resolved before Congress adjourns at the end of this year, the legislative process for the Pinnacles designation would have to start all over again.

"Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much, but they all agree that the Pinnacles should be a national park," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy for the Wilderness Society, an environmental group. "It's a magnificent place."

The difference

National parks
National parks are established by Congress and contain outstanding scenic features or natural resources. They encompass large land or water areas to help protect those features. Hunting, mining and activities like logging and grazing are not permitted.

National monuments
A national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks a diversity of attractions. They are ordinarily created by presidential proclamation but may also be established by Congress. Landmarks, structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest may be declared national monuments.