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Ghost Lake

Will proposed federal management save Lake Berryessa?


UNCHARTED WATERS  The Bureau of Land Management could take over management of Lake Berryessa.
  • UNCHARTED WATERS The Bureau of Land Management could take over management of Lake Berryessa.

The Napa Valley brings to mind images of mud baths, pricey brunches and lots of wine.

Head northeast to Lake Berryessa, however, and you cross from wine country into beer country, where the recreation is less fanciful—fishing, boating, camping. But middle-class recreation has been undermined here since 2006, when more than 1,000 mobile vacation homes were evicted.

Now, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat who represents Napa Valley and the Berryessa area, has a bill that would shift management of the lake from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Bureau of Land Management.

"The congressman feels that the BLM is the best agency to manage recreational activities at the lake," says spokesman Austin Vevurka.

Thompson has also reintroduced a bill that would encompass the lake in a National Conservation Area (NCA) extending northward to the Berryessa Snow Mountain region. The move would end a multi-jurisdictional jumble and create a single overseer for the region, which would extend from the lake to the southern end of Mendocino National Forest.

Thompson's office has also signaled a willingness to consider national monument status for the roughly 400,000-acre proposed reserve if his NCA bill fails again.

"I don't know if this would happen or not," says Vevurka, "but there is an executive path—there's a way for the [Obama] administration to declare it a national monument."

That designation would provide the same protections as the NCA designation—mining would be banned, for example—without a congressional vote. President Barack Obama used powers under the Antiquities Act earlier this year to create the Point Arena-Stornetta National Monument in coastal Mendocino.

The Napa Valley tourist economy sings a song of viticultural bliss, thanks in part to Thompson. According to the Center for Public Integrity, he is the House's second largest recipient of funds from the beer and wine lobby.

Thompson took $83,462 in 2013–14 from the lobby, and is sandwiched between House Speaker John Boehner in the top spot and outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the three-hole.

Thompson, a fiscal conservative Blue Dog, has negotiated pro-business tourism and anti-development environmental concerns as he's massaged his bills to win over the locals.

He's been good to the wine people over the years, but the Berryessa constituency is leery.

In 2006, residents watched as the feds shattered the backbone of the area's economic driver here when it removed about 1,300 mobile vacation homes from around the lake.

"It's a ghost lake," says Peter Kilkus via email.

Kilkus is a resident who advocates for the lake's potential and wants to restore it to its former glory, he says. He opposes the NCA move, saying it's "unnecessary."

Tuleyome, a regional conservation group, has been pushing to create the Berryessa NCA.

Senior policy director Bob Schneider says NCA designation is a win-win for the environment and tourists, noting that a NCA designation for the Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico saw a big spike in tourism.

But Schneider acknowledges that enhanced tourism under a BLM-managed conservation area may come with a "potential threat": more tourists, more environmental stress.

Still, he notes that tourism at the lake wouldn't return to its previous scale. The mobile homes aren't coming back.

Schneider says BLM is best suited to manage the "impacts of new tourism opportunities" and says new campgrounds would provide four-season activities in an area that he says is primarily a summer boating-season retreat.

Thompson, he says, assured locals that motorboats could remain on the lake, and private-property owners would be outside the NCA boundaries. "This proposal also provides economic opportunities for towns in and around the lake," says Schneider.

Thompson's office stresses that the congressman isn't going to ban motorboats. "Neither one of the bills would have an impact on that whatsoever," says Vevurka.

Yet Kilkus remains skeptical of consolidating the Berryessa region under a BLM umbrella.

His concerns are echoed by fisherman Mark Lassagne, who blogged on the Bass Angler website that new federal oversight could "eliminate launch ramps, marinas and much motorized recreation and other recreational uses of the lake."

Kilkus says the NCA bill is likely to fail unless Democrats win back the House and keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

Hence the national monument option. "If Congress doesn't act, then the president should," says Schneider.

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