Conservancy bill likely to move forward | SierraSun.com

Conservancy bill likely to move forward

David Bunker

Jim Grant / Sun News Service Assemblyman John Laird addresses the Sierra Nevada Alliance conference Saturday at South Tahoe High School.

A bill that proposes a state funding agency for the Sierra Nevada is in its final form, after recent amendments give it bipartisan backing and the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.The bill, which has been reworked to gain the support of both conservancy authors Assemblymen Tim Leslie (R- Tahoe City) and John Laird (D- Santa Cruz), will be voted on by the state Senate appropriations committee on Wednesday, Aug. 11, after Sierra Sun press time. All indications point to it passing the committee and heading to a full Senate vote next week, according to Leslie’s office. If passed by the Senate, the legislation will then go back to the Assembly for a concurrence vote because it was amended since its last approval. The last action the bill will face, if approved by both bodies, will be receiving the signature of Schwarzenegger. The amendments to the conservancy proposal, now called the Laird-Leslie bill, are in the areas of local governance and boundaries, the two main concerns Leslie had with Laird’s bill.

The conservancy, it was also agreed, will not be regulatory or capable of acquiring and holding land, according to amendments.”Everyone had to give something and everybody gained something. That is bipartisanship,” said Steve Frisch, director of natural resources at the Sierra Business Council, which has worked on the idea of a Sierra Nevada Conservancy for four years. The board of the conservancy is slated to have 13 voting members, six of whom will be county supervisors selected from the 22 counties covered under the proposed conservancy. The other seven representatives will be state members representing resource, finance, the Senate and statewide interests.”[Leslie] feels this conservancy design will create a strong voice for Sierra residents in directing the conservancy’s actions,” said Jed Medefind, Leslie’s chief of staff. “It has an unprecedented level of local influence.”The conservancy, proponents say, will fill a lengthy list of needs in a region that has been neglected by state and federal funding. It could tap into millions of dollars of funding from Proposition 40 with minimal startup costs that may be defrayed by securing private grants, said Medefind.

“The conservancy would be a vehicle for spending funds that are already there waiting,” he said.But skeptics foresee the agency interjecting state control and undermining private land ownership in the Sierra. While the conservancy will not be able to directly buy or hold land, it could direct funding to nonprofit groups for land acquisition. “It doesn’t make sense in the fiscal crisis we find ourselves to be creating a new bureaucracy to acquire more private land for government ownership,” said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation, who noted that a large portion of Sierra land is already in government ownership.The agency will have a larger scope than just a vehicle to purchase easements and preserve land, said the SBC’s Frisch.”I anticipate that there are going to be a lot of needs out there and land acquisition is only one of them,” said Frisch.

The conservancy could lend expertise and pump money into local governments’ storm water management plans, as well as work on projects that will enhance the Sierra’s attraction as a tourist destination, said Frisch.”There could be cases where the lost property taxes are made up by increased taxes in other areas,” said Frisch. Transient occupancy taxes, gas taxes and sales taxes could increase if the conservancy efforts enhances recreation and tourism in the Sierra Nevada. While securing funding for the mountain range is the main goal of the conservancy, proponents also see the agency as a way to share ideas within the Sierra Nevada and unite a region that can often partition itself into partisan groups. The conservancy, just as the effort behind its creation, must be inclusive, said Frisch. “There are bound to be people that, if this passes, will not be happy about this. It is our job, during implementation, to make them partners, to include them in decision-making, to ensure that their interests and concerns are taken into consideration,” he said.