Adapted from Sonoma Land Trust press release
The nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust has purchased Haire Ranch on Skaggs Island along Highway 37, a long-sought after acquisition that will enable the restoration of 4,400 acres of diked baylands to wetlands.
The group joined with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in a local-federal partnership and part of the ongoing restoration of the San Pablo Bay wetlands.
The 1,092 acre ranch is now part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and will be restored to marsh habitat, much like it was 130 years.
“Haire Ranch has been the holy grail of conservation projects,” says Wendy Eliot, conservation director, Sonoma Land Trust. “For more than a decade, the government has been waiting to restore Skaggs Island to tidal marsh, but Haire Ranch stood in the way, just out of reach.”
Historically, Skaggs Island was part of a vast tidal marsh fringing San Pablo and San Francisco Bays before the marshes were diked and drained in the 1800s. USFWS has planned to restore Skaggs Island to tidal marsh for many years, but a 1940 agreement required the Service to maintain the network of flood protection levees, ditches and stormwater pumps that keeps Haire Ranch dry enough for farming. Because of that agreement and the owners’ earlier reluctance to sell, USFWS has been unable to flood the island and return it to wetlands. Until now.
An Important Link in Wetlands Restoration
Part of the Pacific Flyway — the north-south travel corridor for migratory birds — Skaggs Island was once a thriving tidal marsh. Adding it to the tens of thousands of acres of tidal wetlands along Highway 37 and surrounding areas has long been identified as a conservation priority.
“It’s taken us nearly 20 years to get to the point where this important link in the chain of wetlands around the bay can finally be restored,” says Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-5). “Skaggs Island served an essential purpose as a naval base for many years. Now, because of the long and hard work of so many, it will once again provide important habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl and other native species.”
Skaggs Island was the last patch of tidal marsh to be diked and drained in the 1880s by Nevada Senator John “Percy” Jones and his Sonoma Land Company. Like much of the reclaimed land along San Pablo Bay, the property was farmed for oat hay, which was shipped across the bay to San Francisco to feed horses in the booming town.
When the company fell on hard times during the Depression, supermarket entrepreneur M.B. Skaggs acquired the island. Then, in 1941, during World War II, the Navy condemned the bulk of Skaggs Island for a communications and intelligence gathering base, with the exception of the 1,092-acre property that Skaggs sold to the grandfather of the current owners, siblings James and Judy Haire.
Skaggs negotiated a “perpetual maintenance agreement” with the government that requires the owner of the larger portion of Skaggs Island — currently USFWS — to maintain the network of levees and stormwater pumps that keeps Haire Ranch dry enough to farm. Because of that agreement, USFWS, which took over the property from the Navy in 2011, has been unable to flood Skaggs Island and return it to its natural state.
“We want to thank the Haire family for their remarkable stewardship of this land over these past 70 years and for ensuring that the land will now be able to be restored to the bay for the benefit of all,” says 1st District Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin.
Restoring the island
More than a century of farming has caused the island to subside by several feet. Even dry, it possesses environmental value as a refuge for raptors, deer and other wildlife. To accommodate the current inhabitants and make room for other native species, some now endangered — such as the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse — restoration of Skaggs Island will likely incorporate a mix of tidal and brackish marshes, and upland habitat.
Restoration of Haire Ranch and the rest of the island will yield multiple benefits, including restoration of wildlife habitat, food and shelter for millions of shorebirds and the hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that migrate through or overwinter every year, filtration of pollutants entering the bay, carbon sequestration and flood protection. The Wetlands Reserve Program requires prompt restoration of the property, and the Service and NRCS have already initiated restoration planning.
“Sonoma Land Trust’s acquisition of this keystone property will help complete restoration of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and get us closer to the 100,000 acres of restored tidal marsh needed for the bay’s health,” says David Lewis, executive director, Save The Bay. “Tidal marsh benefits people and wildlife, especially with increasing impacts of climate change, and can help provide flood protection for Highway 37 and other infrastructure during heavy storms and high tides.”
Funding and access
The $8.3 million purchase price for Haire Ranch was funded primarily by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has acquired a USDA Wetlands Reserve Program easement from the landowners. Sonoma Land Trust raised the remaining portion needed from the State Coastal Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The restoration plans include opportunities for public recreation, such as bird walks, bicycle rides, and canoeing and kayaking, according to Don Brubaker, manager of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. “People will enjoy watching the salt marsh reclaim the island and the abundant wildlife that will follow.”