In a move that increases the profile -- and most likely the tourist draw -- to Pinnacles National Monument near Hollister, President Barack Obama on Thursday signed legislation upgrading the area to full national park status.
The new Pinnacles National Park becomes the 59th full national park in the United States, joining Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades and the other most storied parts of America's national heritage.
The park, a 26,000-acre expanse featuring rocky spires, caves and California condors that was first set aside as a monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, also becomes the closest national park to the Bay Area now, supplanting Yosemite National Park.
The bill that Obama signed, HR3641, by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, does not increase the size of the park or its budget. But supporters, who included business groups in San Benito County, along with environmentalists, say it bodes well for the park's future.
"This will literally put Pinnacles on the map," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society, based in Washington, D.C. "You have millions of people who drive on the highways right past Pinnacles and don't know that it's there. But national parks are special. They are significant. I think you'll see an increase in visitation."
There are 398 units in America's national park system. They include national monuments, national historic sites, national seashores and other places set aside for their scenic and historic value.
Farr's bill, which was championed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in the Senate, encountered little opposition in Congress, even though Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives have blocked any significant new national parks or public lands laws in recent years.
In fact, the last Congress, which ended Jan. 3, was the first Congress since 1966 not to designate a single new acre of public land in America as federally protected wilderness, where logging, mining and other development is prohibited.
Farr's bill originally called for designating 3,000 acres inside Pinnacles boundaries as wilderness. The area is where biologists in recent years have been releasing California condors as part of a captive breeding program to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. But that provision was stripped out by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Resources Committee.
"The park's sanctuary for the California condor and native wildlife, its red crags, caves, impressive displays of spring wildflowers, and opportunities for star-viewing under its noteworthy dark skies make Pinnacles a special place and worthy of its national park status for future generations to enjoy," said Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Until Thursday, California had eight national parks -- Yosemite, the Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Lassen, Redwood, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Those are the ones on postcards and TV documentaries. The ones that usually receive more cash from Congress. The ones that busloads of foreign tourists yearn to explore. For instance, 3.4 million people visit Yosemite a year; roughly 175,000 see Pinnacles.
Debbie Taylor, president and CEO of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, said her organization plans to highlight Pinnacles' new status in brochures, its website and advertising campaigns. She said the chamber has been receiving inquiries from publications like Sunset magazine, with wide national audiences.
"We're absolutely thrilled," she said. "It's always been an amazing park, but it has never had the title to match it. When you say you have a national park in your county, it will only increase tourism."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN