Central Coast government and tribal representatives have reached a significant step in the fight to preserve the unique ecosystem of the regional coastline, after the federal government gave the OK on Nov. 9 to start the designation process for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

The proposed sanctuary area, named for the region's Chumash tribe, spans 170 miles of coastline and comprises 7,000 square miles of water adjacent to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Tuesday that the public can begin submitting comments as the site is considered for the sanctuary designation, which would protect the region’s marine ecosystem, maritime heritage resources and cultural values of Indigenous communities.

Local leaders, with Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chairman Fred Collins leading the charge, have pushed for years for the area to be protected from the threats of oil drilling and climate change impacts, with the tribe nominating the site for the designation back in 2015.

“Today’s announcement marks a major milestone after more than 40 years of tireless advocacy for ocean protection, and also represents the first tribally nominated sanctuary in the nation," said Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chairwoman and Collins’ daughter. "Today, my father would be proud. This is one of the things he wanted to see the most.”

With the expiration window for the nomination approaching, in August Rep. Salud Carbajal was joined by members of the California delegation in sending a letter urging the Biden administration to advance the proposed site into the designation phase, and it worked.

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Carbajal said obtaining the nationally recognized sanctuary status would also strengthen the region's $1.9 trillion coastal economy by protecting opportunities for tourism and commercial fishing.

“Bringing the proposed sanctuary into the designation phase is the result of years of public engagement and I am grateful that we are one step closer to permanently protecting our coastline for future generations to inherit and enjoy," Carbajal said. "I'm just elated and excited to see this process take shape."

The sanctuary site will exclude the Morro Bay 399 area proposed for offshore wind energy development, according to NOAA.

The four-step designation process is expected to take around two and a half years. The first step is scoping, in which the public is encouraged to submit comments regarding the sanctuary name, boundary, compatible uses, threats it would address, how best to promote marine science and education initiatives.

Comments can be submitted online at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/Chumash-heritage through Jan. 10. NOAA will host a series of virtual public meetings on the topic on Dec. 8, Dec. 13 and Jan. 6. 

Next steps involve the drafting of the sanctuary proposal by NOAA, public review of the proposal and final designation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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