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The Planet

Boxer Bill To Protect Wild California | New Evidence in Death of Human-Rights Lawyer

Boxer Bill To Protect Wild California

By Laura Fauth

California's Los Padres National Forest, home to the state's only remaining wild California condors, has been targeted by the Bush administration for oil and gas drilling. The best hope for the extremely rare condor and at least 20 other threatened or endangered species found in Los Padres may be the California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2002.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in May, would protect more than 400 miles of wild river and approximately 2.5 million acres of wilderness, including California condor habitat in Los Padres. Parallel wilderness and wild rivers legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.).

In addition to Los Padres, the bill would protect wilderness areas as diverse as Northern California's Lost Coast, the longest undisturbed coastline in the country (officially known as the King Range), and the White Mountains in the desert north of Death Valley, home to nearly 5,000- year-old bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees in the world.

"This may be the most biologically significant wilderness bill ever introduced in California," says Barbara Boyle, senior regional representative for the Sierra Club. "It includes middle and lower elevation areas with amazing biodiversity, such as Coast Range oak woodlands that are home to elk, bald eagle and bobcats; southern coastal sage scrub containing rare native plant communities; and old-growth forests harboring northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets."

The bill has taken on a particular urgency as the Bush administration attempts to dismantle the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and to increase logging and oil and gas drilling on public lands. In Los Padres, for example, 74 percent of the 140,000 acres proposed for oil and gas drilling are roadless areas that would be protected by implementation of the Roadless Rule.

Other key areas that would be protected by the bill include the Clavey River, considered by scientists to be one of the healthiest watersheds in the Sierra Nevada; Duncan Canyon, one of the last remaining untouched, old-growth, mixed-conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada; and the steep-walled canyons of the Avawatz Mountains, a paradise for rock climbers, located on the southeastern border of Death Valley National Park. The legislation would also help protect the quality of California's drinking water, much of which comes from watersheds in the state's national forests.

Much of the wilderness to be protected is surprisingly accessible, notes Boyle. "It includes places within an hour's drive of Los Angeles where you'll find wild streams, soaring hawks and unexpected quiet and solitude," she says. "It protects the beautiful and wild headwaters of the San Diego River, which are just a short drive from San Diego. And residents of the Central Valley can visit protected wild areas and rivers in the western Sierra on a short day trip."

The public lands covered by the legislation would be officially designated "wilderness," while the rivers would be designated "wild and scenic." They would remain open for recreational activities including horseback riding, fishing, hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, rafting and kayaking. Logging, construction and motorized vehicles would be prohibited and no new mining or oil drilling leases would be allowed.

"Wilderness is not just something the backpacking crowd wants," says Boyle. "More than 80 percent of Californians support protecting more wilderness in the state - including anglers, ranchers, church members and business owners. But this bill can only be successful if grassroots activists call on their senators and representatives to protect California's diminishing wilderness."

Take Action: Ask your senator to co-sponsor Boxer's California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2002 (S. 2535) and your representative to co-sponsor the Solis and Thompson bills (H.R. 4947 and 4948). California residents, please urge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to support the bill; she is the only California senator on the Senate Energy Committee, which the bill must pass through before going to a full Senate vote.

New Evidence in Death of Human-Rights Lawyer

By Laura Fauth

Last October, Mexican human-rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, the first lawyer to represent persecuted environmentalists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, was found shot to death in her Mexico City office. A note found near her body warned Ochoa's colleagues at the Miguel Agust'n Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (PRODH) to stop their work or risk a similar fate.

In June, Maribel Gutierrez, a well-respected Mexican journalist, reported in La Jornada del Sur that she had uncovered evidence indicating that Ochoa was murdered by two assassins hired by Rogaciano Alba Alvarez, a Guerrero rancher with close ties to the army and local police. The men named by Gutierrez as the assassins were found dead in the months following Ochoa's death.

An investigator with the Mexico City attorney general's office, however, has publicly theorized in recent months that Ochoa committed suicide. These comments have outraged members of the human-rights community in Mexico and around the world, who are calling on President Vicente Fox, elected two years ago on a platform that included a strong commitment to human rights, to ensure that the investigation into Ochoa's death is thorough and impartial.

"All leads in this case should be aggressively pursued and no one theory should rise to the top before all the evidence has been taken into consideration," says Sierra Club representative Sam Parry. "The right to advocate for a healthy environment depends on ensuring the safety of environmentalists and those who protect them."

Ochoa, recipient of Amnesty International's Enduring Spirit Award and the American Bar Association's Human Rights Award, worked on numerous cases in which public officials, including members of Mexico's attorney general's office, the police and the military, were implicated in serious human-rights abuses.

She was abducted and tortured twice and received numerous death threats. In 1999, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a resolution urging the Mexican government to protect her. In 2000, facing escalating threats, Ochoa left the human-rights center and moved to Washington, where she worked for the Center for Justice and Environmental Law. She returned to Mexico in April 2001, six months before her death.

Barbara Zamora, a human-rights attorney who took over some of Ochoa's most high-profile cases, has in recent months received death threats similar to those received by Ochoa. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has called on the Mexican government to implement protection measures to ensure the safety of Zamora and other human-rights defenders.

Montiel and Cabrera, Mexican farmers, spent 30 months in jail as a result of their work to halt illegal logging in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Ochoa was instrumental in uncovering evidence that the two men had been tortured and forced to sign blank "confessions." Although Montiel and Cabrera were released from prison last November, the government has yet to officially recognize their innocence.

"Until Ochoa's death and Montiel and Cabrera's torture are thoroughly investigated and those responsible are brought to justice, it will not be safe to be an environmentalist or human-rights advocate in Mexico," says Parry.

Take Action: Write a letter urging President Fox to ensure that the death of Digna Ochoa, as well as the torture and arrest of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, are thoroughly and impartially investigated. Write Presidente Vicente Fox, c/o the Mexican Embassy, 1911 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006 or visit to send an e-mail. The Sierra Club has also developed a kit to guide people in asking local and state Bar Associations to take action on this issue. For more information or to receive a kit, contact

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