Local environmental groups and business leaders gathered Wednesday to voice their support for a bill that would prevent oil exploration and drilling in the Los Padres National Forest.

Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), who wrote the Los Padres National Forest Conservation Act, spoke at a press conference downtown on how oil drilling would be detrimental to the economy, environment and quality of life in the Central Coast region of California. If passed by Congress, the Conservation Act would permanently prohibit all forms of exploration and drilling for oil or gas within the boundaries of the forest. Capps and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Salinas) introduced the bill on Feb. 11.

“I feel empowered by the people here today,” Capps said. “We have an obligation to protect this land for future generations.”

Capps said drilling poses “one huge threat” to the forest and surrounding areas and the region must be defended from such shortsighted business ventures.

The Bush administration is currently drafting a plan for oil and gas development in the Los Padres National Forest based on a USDA Forest Service study that rated 140,000 acres of the forest as “high priority” for drilling, according to a press release for the event. Nearly three-fourths of that land is not accessible by roads, which means a drilling operation would have to clear right-of-ways, causing additional environmental damage. Oil fields in and around the forest are estimated to contain about 13.2 million barrels of oil, which is 6.5 million barrels less than is consumed in the United States in a single day.

Jeanette Webber, managing partner of the Santa Barbara Hotel Group, said the damage an oil drilling operation would inflict on the Central Coast’s tourist industry would not be worth the production of such a relatively small amount of oil. Webber said tourism is becoming increasingly focused on enjoying nature and the forest’s scenery and abundant wildlife make it a popular destination for bird-watchers and other tourists.

“Travelers today seek more than sun; eco-tourism is here to stay,” Webber said. “We cannot afford to let the federal government destroy what is so pristine and valuable to our community for a few barrels of oil.”

Nick DiCroce, governing board member of California Trout, an environmental organization that works to protect wild and steelhead trout habitats, said drilling for oil in national forests is counter to the purpose of establishing them.

“It makes no sense to drill for oil in places like the Los Padres National Forest,” DiCroce said. “Resource extraction industries have no place in our national forests.”

Mati Waiya, executive director of the Wishtoyo Foundation and a Chumash ceremonial leader, said the Los Padres National Forest, the surrounding land and the wildlife that lives there – like the endangered California condor – are important parts of the cultural history of the Chumash Indians.

“This is the home of my ancestors, the home of my people, and this is now your home,” Waiya said. “Protect it.”