When Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for governor last fall, he called the Sierra Nevada “one of the state's crown jewels” and said that if he was elected he would support establishment of a Sierra Nevada conservancy. The Sierra deserves all superlatives, but it is an asset under stress. The governor should fulfill his promise this year.

The Assembly has passed AB 2600 by Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) to create a Sierra conservancy within the state Resources Agency. It would be similar to eight other such groups established by the Legislature since 1973, including the Santa Monica Mountains, the Coastal and the Lake Tahoe conservancies. These organizations identify and work to conserve wildlife habitat, watersheds, historic and cultural areas and open space. They may use state bond funds or grants from nonprofit foundations to purchase prime private lands threatened by development.

The federal government controls most of the Sierra, but privately owned land in the foothills and other fringe areas is under sometimes critical development pressure. Izzy Martin of the nonprofit Sierra Fund, a proponent of the legislation, told The Times' Julie Cart that “we miss out [on state land-purchase funds] because we don't have a seat at the table.” Martin says areas that might qualify for conservancy assistance include dramatic river canyons and some blue oak woodlands on the west slope. Portions of the Owens Valley and Mono Basin on the east side of the Sierra certainly are candidates.

The idea of a Sierra conservancy has been controversial because some local officials fear a grab for power by state government. Those officials and business interests supported AB 1788 by Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), which effectively would give county governments veto power over any action of the conservancy. That would bar bringing together the resources to solve problems of regionwide or statewide interest. The sprawl of Sierra foothill communities is ample evidence that local planning has not been successful.

As backers of the Laird bill note, the conservancy would have no greater power than any of its predecessors. The body would have to work with local agencies and respect their plans. The conservancy would have no power to condemn property. Land could be purchased only through negotiation with willing sellers.

The natural resources that make the region so attractive to both new residents and new businesses need protection. Too many areas, including the Mammoth Lakes region, could succumb to the syndrome of “loving it to death,” awaking too late to the need for regional planning and protection of resources.

Both the Laird and Leslie bills passed and went to the Senate, which should work out an acceptable compromise on the issue of local participation. Then the governor could sign the legislation in a ceremony beside a sparkling creek and meadow abutting lofty spires of Sierra granite. Everyone could proclaim victory.

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