Panetta pushes reopening of Clear Creek

Wilderness plan tied to expanding regional recreation

Rep. Jimmy Panetta wants the Bureau of Land Management to create a new protected wilderness area and reopen the once-popular Clear National Recreation Area, closed for more than a decade.

Legislation introduced by the Congressman for the 20th District, which includes San Benito County and parts of Gilroy, would direct the Bureau of Land Management to protect 21,000 acres of federally managed land adjacent to Clear Creek by designating the area the Joaquin Rocks Wilderness. It would also reopen the 63,000-acre Clear Creek National Recreation Area in San Benito and Fresno counties for public outdoor recreation, including off-road vehicles and hiking.  

“By introducing this bill, I am proud to continue the legacy of our local leaders, including former Congressman Sam Farr, to protect and preserve California’s public lands for future generations,” said Panetta.

“Preserving the Joaquin Rocks Wilderness will bolster our conservation efforts and reaffirm our commitment to protecting our pristine environment on the Central Coast. At the same time, reopening the Clear Creek National Recreation Area will promote recreation and tourism in our district.”

Once considered a premier off-road vehicle recreation site, Clear Creek was temporarily closed in 2008 to the public following an Environmental Protection Agency analysis about potential risk created by naturally occurring asbestos.

The proposed bill instructs the Bureau of Land Management to develop a rigorous plan to minimize the risk from asbestos exposure and educate visitors about the naturally occurring asbestos. The bureau also would be required to find ways to reduce the impact of off-road vehicles to protect the area’s habitat.

The Clear Creek Management Area actually encompasses approximately 75,000 acres, of which 63,000 acres are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management Central Coast Field Office. Topography is rugged, with elevations ranging from 1,830 feet at Pine Canyon to 5,241 feet on San Benito Mountain.

Recreational opportunities include hunting, camping, hobby gem and mineral collecting, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, backpacking and sightseeing. Hobby gem and mineral collectors are drawn to the Clear Creek area, one of the most highly mineralized areas in California, by the presence of over 150 semi-precious minerals and gemstones. Among these are serpentine, jadeite, cinnabar, tremolite, topazite, neptunite and the extremely rare California state gem, benitoite.

There are two developed campgrounds in Clear Creek, Oak Flat and Jade Mill, both with picnic tables, shade structures, fire rings and pit toilets.

The county considers the Clear Creek area, at the county’s southeastern border, important as a tourism destination.

The long and winding road to reopen the Clear Creek Management Area in southern San Benito County, closed in 2008, has taken much longer than retired Congressman Farr could have anticipated when he first introduced a bill in 2012 to reopen it.

Clear Creek was closed by the Bureau of Land Management after an International Research Foundation study found a minimal health risk to off-highway vehicle users from naturally occurring asbestos in the Serpentine Area.

Even if Panetta’s bill were to be approved today, it would most likely be another two years before the area would be opened again to the public.

If the Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act is finally signed into law, 63,000 acres will be re-designated as the Clear Creek National Recreation Area, along with the newly named Joaquin Rocks Wilderness Area with 21,000 acres in San Benito and Fresno Counties.

The bill’s fate is uncertain in the Republican-dominated Senate, where an earlier version was held up in committee for the last half of 2018. Because the bill was not approved by the 115th Congress, Panetta had to reintroduce it.

According to Panetta’s office, a Hazards Education Program must be created within two years after the bill’s enactment. In total, there are approximately 6,170 acres of overlap between Joaquin Rocks and the Clear Creek area. So the Clear Creek Recreation Area is 75,000 acres with 6,170 acres overlapping with the Joaquin Rocks Wilderness (approximately 68,830 acres) and Joaquin rocks is 21,000 acres with 6,170 acres overlapping with the Clear Creek Rec Area (approximately 14,830 acres).

The latest attendance records, taken from the March 2013 Clear Creek Management Area Proposed Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement, are from back in 2006, when there were 43,000 visits to Clear Creek. Estimates are that the number of visits will most likely triple as word of the recreation opportunities in Clear Creek spread once it is open. A conservative guess would be over 90,000 visits annually.

Located next to Clear Creek is Joaquin Rocks, sandstone outcroppings that rise over 4,000 feet from the valley floor. Considered the centerpiece of this remote area, the three scenic monoliths are the eroded remnants of an ancient Vaqueros Sandstone formation.

Due to the cool climate created by the rocks elevation, the formation is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna and several species of wildlife. In addition to falcons, hawks and owls, the cliffs provide a potential nesting habitat for the California condor which was reintroduced in the nearby Gavilan Range.

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