Kin to the Earth: Barbara Boxer

February, 2017

Retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer leaves an inspiring conservation legacy. During her service in the Senate from 1993 to 2017, Ms. Boxer introduced and was the primary author of an estimated 144 pieces of legislation on conservation and environmental issues, including pollution reduction, preserving clean water, protecting the oceans, and preserving wild lands and streams on federal public lands. Despite having President George H.W. Bush in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress for much of her time in the Senate, Ms. Boxer was able to not only introduce conservation bills, but get them passed and signed into law as well.

One of the best examples of her tenacious advocacy is the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act. The bill was introduced in 2002 in the House of Representatives by Congressman Mike Thompson and in the Senate by Ms. Boxer. The bill proposed protection of 305,000 acres (over 476 square-miles) of wild country in Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties as “wilderness”—the highest-level of protection available for land under federal law.

New proposed wilderness areas included the King Range—the longest stretch of unroaded coast in the U.S. outside of Alaska, California’s “Lost Coast”—along with Sinkyone Wilderness State Park to the south, and the less well known Cache Creek, Cedar Roughs, Elkhorn Ridge, Sanhedrin, South Fork Eel, Mount Lassic and Yuki regions, as well as additions to the existing Trinity Alps, Siskiyou, Snow Mountain and Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel wilderness areas. The bill also proposed to protect 21 miles of the Black Butte River in Mendocino County (a tributary of the Middle Fork Eel River) as a “wild and scenic river” where dam construction and riverside logging or development would be prohibited.

Many of the areas included in the legislation had faced logging, mining, road construction or other development threats for decades, and the Bush-era US Forest Service fought Senator Boxer and Representative Thompson over the bill for four long years. In fact, it is fair to say that the strongest opponent of the legislation was the leadership of the Six Rivers National Forest in Humboldt County, where agency staff made no secret of their desire to log, rather than preserve, many of the proposed wilderness areas.

Senator Boxer and her staff were relentless in pushing back hard against the Forest Service and in trying to advance the bill through the Senate and House despite Republican opposition. She fought to keep every acre of proposed wilderness, called in political favors, and because of her constant pressure, the measure went from appearing dead in 2004, to being signed into law on October 17, 2006.

This exhausting process of introducing legislation and battling for years was repeated dozens of times by Senator Boxer, who never failed to live up to her pugilistic name when advocating for conservation and the environment. For example, at a time when Republicans were often trying to open public lands to development, she weaved and jabbed with a flurry of bill introductions, including ten wilderness bills and 23 other public land protection measures.

Highlights include:

  • The first bill to protect what is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve;
  • Legislation to protect what later became the Giant Sequoia National Monument;
  • The Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act that protected 468,854 acres as wilderness in Mono, Inyo and Los Angeles counties;
  • The California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act that protected 190,000 acres of new wilderness in Riverside County;
  • The Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park Wilderness Act that protected nearly 85,000 acres of the park as wilderness;
  • Two bills to expand the California Coastal National Monument;
  • Legislation to establish what is now the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Los Angeles County;
  • A bill to establish what is now the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Napa, Lake, Colusa, Glenn, Yolo and Mendocino counties; and
  • The expansion of Pinnacles National Park.

By the time she left the Senate, Ms. Boxer succeeded in protecting over 1,031,000 acres (over 1,610 square-miles) of federal land as wilderness, over 100 miles of undeveloped streams as wild and scenic rivers, and her work resulted in the establishment of over 673,000 acres of land in new and expanded national monuments.

Along the way, Senator Boxer worked to strengthen the conservation movement by teaching dozens of our leaders how to become more effective advocates. For example, her staff took the time in 2001 and 2002 to hold a series of “boot camps” to teach wilderness advocates from across the state how to build political support for legislation both at the local level and in Washington, D.C. The lessons from Senator Boxer’s activist boot camps are now being passed down to a new generation of conservationists.

It stings a bit to wonder what Senator Boxer could have accomplished for environmental protection and a host of other important issues if Congress during her time had not been dominated by opponents of progress. Still, she accomplished a great deal, and helped build and strengthen our movement. That is no mean feat, and it is a legacy that we hope will be continued by newly elected U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.