Although I have spent most of my career in Washington, DC, my home and heart has always been along the beautiful central California coast. Growing up along the shores of Monterey Bay inspired my lifelong commitment to promoting responsible management of our oceans.
The Californian Ocean has been an integral part of its culture and its people long before its status as a state. Coastal and inland Native American tribes depended on and cared for the ocean for thousands of years. Our coast continues to give, providing food, jobs, and entertainment – all important to California’s economy.
Unfortunately, the health of the ocean itself has too often been taken for granted; we mistakenly assume that its generosity and capacity to absorb waste is limitless. And the recent oil spill off Huntington Beach is a wake-up call we cannot ignore – the health of our coast and the wildlife, people and economies that depend on it cannot continue to absorb these preventable disasters.
Twenty years ago, I helped lead the Pew Oceans Commission, a non-partisan effort that brought forward scientific recommendations that congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and the Democratic and Republican administrations have since made progress. significant to implement. These advances, however, are threatened by the rapidly escalating effects of climate change, including rising ocean temperatures and levels, increasing disease cases and ocean acidification.
When I was in Congress, I worked with a bipartisan coalition to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, permanently protecting the area from future offshore oil and gas developments. For nearly three decades, Monterey Bay Sanctuary has provided immense benefits to communities along its waters and ocean life. Today, I think the time has come to create a new sanctuary in California, this time in partnership with tribal communities.
The road to the creation of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary was far from easy. It took years of community protests and intense congressional intervention to prevent Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush from opening the California coast to oil development. After the tanker Exxon Valdez dumped nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989, President Bush finally announced his support for the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
It was with a sense of déjà vu that I watched the Trump administration release an oil and gas lease plan that proposed opening 90% of federal waters nationwide for 47 new lease sales. , including six off California. Despite federal and state efforts to protect California’s precious coastline, the threat of further oil drilling remains very real. As the oil-covered beaches of Orange County have shown again, the consequences for ocean life and coastal communities are dire and costly, and will last for a long time.
Along the central California coast, from Santa Barbara to Cambria, there is a great opportunity to act now. Led by former Northern Chumash Tribal Council chairman Fred Collins, community members from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties have led their own multi-year campaign to create a shrine. Sadly, Collins passed away on October 1 before his dream could come true. But his dream does not die with him, and the Chumash National Heritage Marine Sanctuary project deserves President Biden’s support and swift action.
The Chumash Heritage Sanctuary is said to protect an area, long targeted for offshore oil and gas development, that contains cultural and sacred sites of Chumash as well as sensitive ocean habitats. The sanctuary designation would advance ecosystem planning to protect fisheries, seabirds, marine mammals, estuaries and beaches and promote wind power at sea at appropriate locations.
Consider the alternative: A major oil spill in this region would threaten much of California’s coastline, endangering nearly half of the state’s coastal waters and beaches.
The designation of the Chumash Heritage Sanctuary would be historic as a major federally protected ocean area ruled by Indigenous peoples and a fitting complement to Biden’s recently restored protections for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, all supporting its commitment to protect 30% of the United States. land and oceans by 2030.
We owe it to the careful stewards of past and future generations to protect our coast. It’s time to endorse the Chumash Heritage Sanctuary, switch to clean energy, and do all we can to make the latest California oil spill the last.
Leon E. Panetta founded the Panetta Institute in Cal State Monterey Bay. He served as the United States Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, Chief of Staff to the White House, Director of the Bureau of Management and Budget, and Congressman from the Central Coast of California for 16 years.