Cargill deal praised by activists, officialdom
New trails, tours in wetlands expected
Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Thursday, May 30, 2002


As if on cue, pelicans flew by as a U.S. senator, the governor and private fund-raisers sealed a $100 million preliminary deal Wednesday to buy thousands of acres of salt ponds to add to a wildlife refuge.

If the ambitious plan is completed to purchase 16,500 acres of land from Cargill Inc., an international food and agriculture company, the people who live around the bay should see a bonanza for the environment, officials predict.

The new acreage will expand the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the South Bay by nearly one-fourth, to 28,500 acres from 23, 000 acres.

"People come out to the wildlife refuge to get away from the hectic urban Bay Area," said Marge Kolar, refuge manager for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They smell the plants, they take pictures of wildlife. They hike and kayak.

They want to see the birds -- the birds are very calming. People want to relax and enjoy nature. They feel that they're away from day-to-day business," Kolar said.

She expects that new hiking trails, naturalist tours, spots to observe wildlife and a host of activities will be offered for schoolchildren and other visitors.

The ponds line the shorelines of Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Cargill also is selling 1,400 acres of ponds in Napa County on the Napa River.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who brokered the deal, Gov. Gray Davis and other top officials gathered at the refuge's Fremont headquarters Wednesday. They praised Bay Area environmentalists and Cargill.

A purchase agreement with Cargill is to be signed Sept. 16, and $53 million will be paid at a Nov. 16 closing, with the remainder due over five years.

Scientists have always valued wetlands -- tidal marsh, seasonal ponds and vernal pools -- as productive habitat.

About 300 species of birds and mammals, 150 species of fish, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians and an even greater number of invertebrate and plant species depend on the bay's wetlands and aquatic habitats for survival. Yet, in 150 years, the bay has lost to development 80 percent of its original 190, 000 acres of tidal marsh.

Bay Area environmental groups have lobbied for public money to buy and restore wetlands, raised private funds and volunteered on restoration projects.

The campaign was compared to the efforts to protect wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay, coastal Louisiana and the prairie potholes of the northern plains that contain water, food and cover for the bulk of the continent's migrating waterfowl.

For San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast, wetlands are the "cradle of life for so many species that live in and around the bay," said Michael Monroe, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental scientist attending Wednesday's event.

"Wetlands provide breeding, nursery and resting habitat for many, many species of birds, fish and mammals. They hold back floodwaters. They help protect shorelines from erosion and improve water quality by acting as natural filters," he said.

"The plants convert the sun's energy into carbohydrates -- the food available to small aquatic life, fish and birds. And they're renowned for their aesthetic beauty. They're wonderful places to be. They're full of life," said Monroe.

Watching the white pelicans at the refuge, San Bruno resident Sylvia Gregory, a member of the Save San Francisco Bay Association board since 1970, said, "The threat of filling the bay is something that never quit. So you have to keep fighting for it. Now we can start restoring it."

E-mail Jane Kay at [email protected].