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Biden plans to expand two national monuments in California

A view of Cache Creek as it flows through the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Rumsey, Calif., on April 14.  (Max Whittaker/Max Whittaker)
By Maxine Joselow Washington Post

President Biden plans to expand the boundaries of two national monuments in California in the coming weeks, aiming to bolster his conservation record and increase access to nature for disadvantaged communities, according to two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Biden is expected to sign proclamations expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, both of which were originally designated by President Barack Obama, the two people said. The exact timing and location of the announcement has not yet been finalized, although it could coincide with Earth Day on April 22, they said.

John D. Podesta, senior adviser to the president for international climate policy, suggested that the expansions were imminent during a climate summit Thursday hosted by Washington Post Live.

“I worked for President Clinton, for President Obama. They both had tremendous conservation records,” Podesta said. “President Biden is just surpassing that in terms of what he’s able to do in the first term. And I think we’ve got more to come, including better use and better protection of public lands.”

White House spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Conservation groups, Native American tribes and California lawmakers have all called on Biden to expand these monuments. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) have championed legislation to enlarge the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, east of Los Angeles, but the measure has stalled in the divided Congress. Biden plans to use his executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to bypass the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Legislation from Padilla and Chu would increase the monument’s size by a third, adding 109,167 acres of Angeles National Forest land to the 346,179-acre monument. It is unclear whether the presidential proclamation would propose the same boundaries as the lawmakers’ bill.

The measure seeks to improve access to nature for Latino and low-income communities in eastern Los Angeles, which lacks parks and other green spaces. The Angeles National Forest is within a 90-minute drive for 18 million people, and it receives more than 4.6 million visitors annually – more than Yosemite, according to Forest Service data. On clear winter days, its trails offer stunning vistas of snow-studded peaks for hikers, mountain bikers and campers.

“The national forest provides a critical respite for escaping the urban blight and getting into the outdoors,” said Daniel Rossman, Southern California mountains landscape director for the Wilderness Society, which supports the monument expansion.

In November, the Agriculture Department held a public hearing on the proposed expansion – typically a precursor to a presidential proclamation. Most of the roughly 250 attendees voiced strong support for the proposal, saying it would protect scenic rivers and other sensitive landscapes for generations to come.

“The San Gabriel Mountains are among the most pristine and beautiful public lands in the country, with more visitors annually than Yellowstone, and they are right next to one of the nation’s densest and most park-deprived population centers,” Chu said in an emailed statement.

Chu, who stood beside Obama when he designated the monument in 2014, added that she would be “absolutely elated” for Biden to expand its boundaries and unlock “additional federal support and resources.”

The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and other Native American tribes have spearheaded the campaign to expand the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. They have called for adding roughly 3,925 acres and changing the name of the additional area from “Walker Ridge” to “Molok Luyuk,” which means “Condor Ridge” in the Patwin language.

Molok Luyuk and surrounding lands were part of the ancestral homeland of the Hill Patwin people. Condors once soared in the skies there, but their population has declined due to lead poisoning, habitat destruction and poaching.

The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) have led legislation to enlarge the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and allow for tribal co-management of the site. The measure passed the House in 2022, when Democrats controlled the chamber, but has since stalled.

Biden has set an ambitious goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. He has designated five new national monuments, many of which are on lands that area tribes consider sacred. Most recently, the president in August created the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument near the Grand Canyon, safeguarding the site from new uranium mining.