Calif. City Wants to Drill on Nature Preserve

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A California city that sought to protect 1,290 acres from oil companies now might drill on the same land.

The city of Whittier bought the property more than 10 years ago to create the Whittier Wilderness Preserve.

With oil hovering at almost $100 a barrel, proponents believe the city could take in $177 million a year by drilling for oil on seven acres of the vast Whittier Hills area.

The proposal has bitterly divided the Los Angeles suburb founded by Quakers in the late 19th century, a religion with a deep commitment to protecting the environment.

Whittier city official Bob Henderson, the very man who has fought to protect the land around the city from the drilling companies for the past three decades, said he now finds himself leaning toward drilling.

"It's not that I've decided to destroy the preserve," he said. "What I do believe in very strongly is that you've got to be open and alert to help the habitat and the city."

"This has the potential to contribute millions of dollars to the preservation effort and in making sure the preserve is viable in the long run," he said.

Opponents say allowing oil companies to drill would violate the intended use of the property and they fear it could expand to more acreage in the future.

"You can't one minute say, 'I want to save these hills,' and then move to drill on them," resident Paula Castenon, with Whittier Hills Oil Watch, said. "He's definitely going back on his word."

:The whole point in obtaining the mineral rights to that land was to preserve it and prevent oil drilling in the future," she said.

If the county approves the project, others worry it could set a precedent as other cash-strapped Southern California communities search for money during tough economic times.

It could put thousands of acres of open space at risk to endure the driller's bit.

"Certainly if the county were to approve this, there would be a lot of pressure on the county if other cities want to do the same thing to allow them to revert park land as well," said Sean Hecht, executive director of the Environmental Law Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"It opens the door for more people asking for that," Hecht said.

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