State’s wildlands could get extra protection

The Associated Press
Saturday February 17, 2001

Conservation groups say Gov. Gray Davis has taken the first step toward protecting thousands of acres of utility-owned wildlands from possible sale to developers or timber companies. 

One element of Davis’ plan to rescue two cash-strapped utilities from their $13 billion debt prevents Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. from selling land near their hydroelectric plants to help recoup their debts. 

“We’re concerned that if the lands remain in the ownership of the utilities they’ll be sold off or logged or otherwise destroyed to improve the utility’s situation,” said Steve Evans, conservation director with Sacramento-based Friends of the River. 

PG&E claims it owns around 160,000 acres and SoCal Edison owns at least 20,000 acres. Much of that land is in the Sierra Nevada and other environmentally sensitive areas, featuring streams, ancient forests and rivers. 

Davis on Friday announced a multibillion-dollar plan to help both utilities climb out of debt.  

The proposal calls for the state acquisition of the utilities’ transmission lines along with those of fellow investor-owned utility San Diego Gas & Electric. Davis says the plan can be financed without a rate increase for the utilities’ customers. 

Davis said the state would also obtain “conservation easements,” – which would ban logging or developing on watershed and other lands near hydroelectric facilities, though the utilities would continue to own the land. 

Once the state determined which tracts on which to purchase easements, a market value would be established for the development rights.  

Steve Maviglio, Davis’ spokesman, said the easements are just another bargaining chip to get value for backing up the utilities. 

The state would then own the development rights on those lands and, depending on the area, could establish wilderness areas or parks.  

Easements typically last forever, Maviglio said. He declined to disclose further details, such as how many acres would be protected or how much the easements would cost. 

PG&E and SoCal Edison declined to comment on the easement proposal. 

“Easements can be instrumental in ruling out some of the most worrisome scenarios,” said Nancy Ryan, an economist with Environmental Defense. 

Ryan said conservation groups still advocate state ownership of the lands.  

That would ensure that the public could still use the lands for recreation, and that state resources would play a larger role in the land’s upkeep, Ryan said. 

However, the properties bring in property tax money for many counties, including $1 million annually for Shasta County, home to two-thirds of the watershed lands. 

“If the state were to take over these facilities and these lands as has been discussed, that revenue stream would go away,” said Patrick Minturn, assistant public works director for Shasta County. 

Minturn said the utilities allow grazing and recreation on the land, which means jobs and tourism money flowing into rural communities.  

He said easements are unnecessary because of a recent bill passed by the Legislature requiring utilities to request permission from state power regulators before they sell any more land. 

High demand, high wholesale energy costs, transmission bottlenecks and a tight supply have all contributed to California’s power woes.  

Under the state’s 1996 deregulation law, PG&E and SoCal Edison cannot pass on their high costs to their customers, plunging them into debt.  

The utilities were also ordered to sell off their power plants to create more competition throughout the state. 

Conservation groups have pushed for protections for the past year or so and say they want the state to pitch in money to replace those lost tax dollars for those rural areas if the state owned the property. 

Some lawmakers had said they want PG&E and SoCal Edison to donate those lands to the state as part of whatever aid package the state produces to help them climb out from under their debt.  

No formal valuation of the land has been undertaken. 

PG&E has sold about 15,000 acres of land in 1996-97, showing that there is indeed a market for the utility lands. 

“Just the timber alone (was worth) half a billion dollars,” on PG&E’s land, said Nancy Ryan, an economist with Environmental Defense in Oakland.