Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Vote on California marine preserves roiled by board shake-up

By Matt Weiser of the Sacramento Bee

Published Wednesday, Aug. 05, 2009

An unexpected layer of political drama has been added to the controversy over 30 proposed ocean preserves off the California coast: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday added a voting member to the commission that will decide the fate of the preserves.

The plan to protect 153 square miles of ocean habitat between Santa Cruz and Mendocino has been in the works for two years. A final vote on the preserves is due today, at the California Fish and Game Commission meeting in Woodland.

Many fishermen believe the new preserves are too much for a state in financial turmoil. Conservationists call it a rare chance to protect the coast for future generations.

Commission President Cindy Gustafson had been considered a supporter of the plan. She was also seen as a likely tiebreaker, since two of five commissioners have expressed doubts about new preserves in a budget crisis.

But Gustafson abruptly resigned from the commission Friday, citing an opinion from the state attorney general's office that found her commission post in conflict with her job as general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utilities District. Gustafson sought the opinion herself after being promoted at the PUD last year.

"My biggest fear was that it was going to be made into some political issue, and it really wasn't," she said. "It's a huge disappointment. It was definitely heart-wrenching to leave."

In response, Schwarzenegger appointed Donald Benninghoven of Santa Barbara to replace Gustafson.

Benninghoven, 76, did not respond to a phone message left at his home Tuesday afternoon. Like Gustafson, he is considered a supporter of new marine preserves.

"I think it's probably quite fair to characterize him that way," said Kaitilin Gaffney, director of Pacific ecosystem protection for the San Francisco-based Ocean Conservancy.

Benninghoven was chairman of a blue ribbon task force appointed to oversee planning of new marine preserves for the state's South Coast region, part of same Marine Life Protection Act process that governs the plan for the North Central Coast region between Santa Cruz and Mendocino.

This prompted others to speculate he was chosen to ensure a "yes" vote on preserves.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said the vote should have been delayed and criticized making an appointment on the eve of the meeting.

Fishing groups have been deeply involved in planning the preserves alongside environmentalists. But they also say the plan closes too much of the ocean to fishing.

But predicting Benninghoven's vote may not be easy.

He also is a member of the California Game Wardens Foundation. Wardens have urged the commission not to adopt new preserves, saying the state doesn't have resources to protect them.

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