Zone the wildlife refuge “Open Space”

Below is the draft of a city council resolution that has been introduced to the council by councilmembers Stewart Chen and Tony Daysog.  It is on the council agenda for 7 PM, Tuesday, February 19, 2013.  The community is urged to attend and voice their opinion.  

The refuge has been home, harbor, and safe haven for many species, even during use as a military base.  As the property transitions to VA ownership, the protective status of “Open Space” and “Wildlife Refuge” should travel with it on into the future.  It is a rare piece of earth on the Bay that should be available for nature to reclaim.  Proper zoning will reflect the level of commitment we have toward environmental stewardship in an era of growing demands on ecosystems everywhere.

zone it open space

Draft – City Council Resolution

Resolution re-affirming support for creation of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge at Alameda Point

Whereas, the 1996 Community Reuse Plan identifies the southern two-thirds of the Naval Air Station-Alameda airfield for preservation as a wildlife refuge;

Whereas, the 1996 Community Reuse Plan stipulates that this area “would remain as open space to provide for the preservation of wetlands, sensitive species, and regional open space uses”;

Whereas, the City of Alameda General Plan was amended in 2003 to add Chapter 9 on Alameda Point, which includes support and encouragement for funding and implementation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge;

Whereas, the General Plan amendment supports “a system of trails that provide public access to and within the Wildlife Refuge” that balances natural conservation with public access and education;

Whereas, the General Plan amendment supports the creation of education facilities and programs, similar to other conservation areas such as the Elsie D. Roemer Bird Sanctuary;

Whereas, the wildlife refuge is home to one of the most successful nesting sites in California for the endangered California Least Tern;

Whereas, Breakwater Island is part of the wildlife refuge vision in the 1996 Community Reuse Plan, and it is the only night roosting area of its kind in San Francisco Bay for California Brown Pelicans, which were only recently removed from the Endangered Species List;

Whereas, the wildlife refuge, and the entirety of Alameda Point and its adjacent waters, are subject to special restrictions for protection of the least terns by authority of the 2012 Biological Opinion issued by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the responsible agency for enforcement of the Endangered Species Act;

Whereas, the 511-acre refuge area offers a rare and vast inner urban opportunity for public access and education, a respite and retreat from the built environment, introduction of native plant species, expansion of wetlands, and wildlife recovery and protection efforts;

Whereas, the Alameda Wildlife Refuge would complement the land uses contemplated for the mixed-use area of Alameda Point, as well as complementing the entire city and the Bay Area;

Whereas, numerous federal, state, and regional public agencies possess the experience and mission for collaboratively managing a wildlife conservation area;

Whereas, environmental cleanup and remediation will be completed by the Navy in compliance with federal and state environmental laws;

Whereas, ownership by the VA will ensure that potential environmental cleanup liabilities regarding the Site 2 landfill, and any other portion of the federal property, will be borne by the VA (unless retained by the Navy) regardless of the land uses;

Whereas, the wildlife refuge vision is compatible with, and complementary to, proposed plans for a VA clinic and columbarium;

Now be it therefore resolved:

          The City Council of the City of Alameda re-affirms our commitment to and support for the creation of a wildlife conservation area known as the Alameda Wildlife Refuge at Alameda Point;

          And be it further resolved that the adjacent waters of the Alameda Point Channel, and Breakwater Island, are to be included in the management plan for the refuge;

          And be it further resolved that the City Council of the City of Alameda will support the zoning of the wildlife refuge property as “Open Space with a Refuge Overlay,” or similar conservation zoning designation, to promote the protection and implementation of the values and goals recited in this resolution.

Burrowing owl on refuge.
Burrowing owl on refuge.

Alameda Wildlife Refuge podcast

This interview with wildlife biologist Leora Feeney was done in 2008 as part of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture’s “Your Wetlands” series.

Click hereor on image below, to access the podcast.

Your Wetlands podcast AWR

The only updates are that the Loggerhead Shrikes are no longer seen nesting on the western shoreline following cleanup work that was performed.  And the Harriers have not been seen nesting at Alameda Point in recent years.  

The refuge remains a unique wildlife habitat that deserves permanent protection.

Runway Wetland on southeastern corner of refuge.

Annual Audubon Society bird count includes Alameda Point wildlife refuge

On December 16, from before dawn until dusk, hundreds of hardy volunteer birders trekked through parks, neighborhoods, wetlands, and woods to count birds during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count in the East Bay.  In Alameda, three teams fanned out across the city.  One team went to Alameda Point.  

Carrying binoculars, spotting scopes, a clipboard, and bird reference books, bird watchers were participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) organized by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.  While the total number of birds tallied during the count helps to fill out the picture, the main goal of the day was to identify as many different species of bird as possible.

White-crowned Sparrow“This is not just about counting birds,” said Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist. “Data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count are at the heart of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and inform decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA.  Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey of North America and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere.”

The Alameda Point team was led by Alameda resident Leora Feeney, of Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, and John Luther, one of the most experienced bird watchers in the state.  Linda Vallee was responsible for tallying results on her clipboard list of bird species as they were reported.   

MerlinJohn’s 50 years of observing birds in every California county is evident in his quick identifications and economy of movement with his spotting scope.  “There’s a Common Loon…and…it just went under…there it is…turn around(as if speaking to the bird)…it’s… a Red-throated Loon,” he would say.  “White-crowned Sparrows – two.”

One thing you learn about bird counting etiquette, if you’ve never been to one of these events, is that you should not chit chat with someone while they are staring intently through a scope.  They could be trying to systematically count hundreds of birds by adding groups of 5 or 20 or 100 in their head as they keep landmark references in focus.  At one stop, attention turned to Breakwater Island on the other side of the Alameda Point Channel where an unusually high number of California brown pelicans (for this time of year) were roosting amongst the cormorants.  Leora counted 304 pelicans.

Continuing around the refuge, there were Burrowing Owls, Killdeer, a Horned Lark, a Peregrine Falcon perched on a fence, and a much smaller falcon not commonly seen around Alameda Point called a Merlin.  Often the birds were in fast moving groups darting around, landing, skip, skip, pick, pick, and off they flew.

Great Horned Owl at Alameda Point wildlife refuge.The biggest surprise came at the thick stand of willows at the north boundary of the refuge.  There, just inside the branches was a Great Horned Owl, a bird that Leora said she had never seen in eight years of doing twice-monthly bird surveys on the refuge.  Even more surprising was how approachable the owl was as it was being photographed, slowly turning its its head 180 degrees, appearing fearless.

After leaving the refuge, the team made other stops at the Seaplane Lagoon, the Inner Harbor on the south side, Breakwater Beach, and the neighborhood where the Big Whites are located.  The Big Whites neighborhood has a very good variety of mature trees, ideal for bird watching.

The preliminary total for all species sighted in the Oakland count area on Sunday (the 15 mile circle that is centered at Lake Merritt and includes Alameda) was 177 species.  According to GGAS Communications Director Ilana DeBare, “That is pretty much in line with a normal ‘good’ year.  There were 29 teams total, with well over 100 participants.”

“Christmas Bird Counts combine many of the things Golden Gate Audubon stands for,” said GGAS Executive Director Mike Lynes. “It’s a fun day with a serious purpose.  Everyday volunteer bird-watchers become citizen scientists, contributing data that will help inform future decisions about Bay Area bird life and habitat.”  The San Francisco Christmas Bird Count is on December 27.

Spotted during Audubon Society's 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Burrowing Owl spotted during Audubon Society’s 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Burrowing Owl at shoreline embankment on Alameda Point wildlife refuge, Dec. 16, 2012.
Burrowing Owl at shoreline embankment on Alameda Point wildlife refuge, Dec. 16, 2012.
Spotted on western shoreline during Dec. 16, 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Merlin spotted on western shoreline during Dec. 16, 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Spotted during Dec. 16, 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Peregrine Falcon spotted on Alameda Point wildlife refuge during Christmas Bird Count 2012.
Great Horned Owl in willow tree on wildlife refuge at Alameda Point
Great Horned Owl in willow tree on Alameda Point wildlife refuge – Dec. 16, 2012.
Great Horned Owl spotted during December 16, 2012 Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Great Horned Owl spotted during December 16, 2012 Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.
Merlin - Dec. 16, 2012, Christmas Bird Count at Alameda Point wildlife refuge.
Merlin spotted during Christmas Bird Count at Alameda Point wildlife refuge.
Spotted during Dec. 16, 2012 Christmas Bird Count.
Surf Scoter (with colored bill) in Seaplane Lagoon during Dec. 16, 2012 Christmas Bird Count.

Read background info on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count here.  

Follow reports about the Oakland and San Francisco Christmas Bird Counts on the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s website.

Read more about the Christmas Bird Count in Alameda on the Alameda Patch.

Navy and VA ignore economics, environment in killing Alameda National Wildlife Refuge

White-tailed kiteOnce upon a time there was talk about a national wildlife refuge at Alameda Point.  It was included in the reuse plan for Naval Air Station (NAS)-Alameda that was accepted by the Department of Defense.  It was added to Alameda’s General Plan.  The US Fish & Wildlife Service was poised to be the owner and caretaker of the refuge.

But after talks broke down between the Navy and US Fish & Wildlife Service nearly a decade ago, the Navy arbitrarily decided to give the land to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a clinic and columbarium.  The VA is counting on the City of Alameda to give them an additional 70 acres of land early next year so that their clinic can be located further away from the nesting site of the endangered California least terns.  This would bring the VA’s property to roughly 620 acres, even though they need only 110 acres.

The city should impose a condition on this land deal:  Before the city changes its reuse plan footprint to accommodate the VA, the city should insist that the Navy place a conservation easement on the 511 acres that the VA does not need.  A conservation easement would lay the groundwork for creation of a wildlife refuge or wildlife conservation area to be operated by another agency.

Golden Gate Audubon Society 1995 study examines economic value

The benefits of creating a wildlife refuge at Alameda Point go beyond environmental stewardship.  They also include economic benefits to Alameda and the region.  The Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) understood the economic angle back in 1995 when they were advocating for creation of a wildlife refuge.  To provide substance to their views, they commissioned a study by Robert Hrubes and Associates that was released in March of 1995.  It’s called “The Potential Economic Benefits of the Proposed Alameda National Wildlife Refuge:  An Overview.”  The conclusion of the 1995 study—that a wildlife refuge will complement economic development—still holds true today.

2012_Composite_NoFence_Rev1The study went on to extol the intersecting virtues of wildlife habitat protection and economic value.  “While important in their own right, the benefits that would be generated by establishment of the wildlife refuge are not limited to habitat and species protection,” stated Hrubes and Associates.  “[T]here are indeed potential economic benefits that could derive from a wildlife refuge/day-use recreation area located in the central Bay Area. That is, the wildlife refuge proposal is not an ‘either/or’ choice between environmental quality and economic development.  Rather, it constitutes a land use that not only will take optimal advantage of the environmental attributes the site has to offer but also will generate economic activity that benefits the local region. Further, it will enhance the economic value for development of the remainder of the NAS.”

VA’s project requires further study of impacts

VA development area - Version 2The current proposal for the VA to own and control the 511-acre refuge area next to their 110-acre medical clinic and columbarium makes it all but impossible for this area to become the urban wildlife oasis that it could be.  The VA’s proposed project map makes this clear by wiping out the words “Wildlife Refuge” and replacing them with “VA Undeveloped Area.”

At this stage of the environmental review process, the only significant environmental requirement that has been imposed on the VA is that they provide predator management, housekeeping, and record-keeping for the California least terns during their four-and-a-half-month nesting season at Alameda Point from April to mid-August.  This is because the Biological Opinion issued by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the summer of 2012 focused only on one species – the least tern – due to its listing as an Endangered Species.  It remains to be seen whether the VA and Navy will prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as typically required for a federal project of this size and scope.  The National Environmental Policy Act provides for an impact report that is similar to California’s Environmental Impact Report.  If the Navy and VA perform an EIS, they will then have to look at impacts to other species (such as the burrowing owl), habitat values, climate and traffic impacts, as well as identify alternative sites for all or part of their project.  

Existing grasslands between runways on wildlife refugeHowever, based on public statements from the VA about their timeline for construction, it does not appear that they have any intention of doing a full EIS, and thus their environmental commitment will be limited.  This will mean that rather than adding grasslands to perimeter areas that already have pockets of grasslands between runways and taxiways in order to divert hawks and other avian predators away from nesting terns, they will keep the refuge looking as much like a fenced-in stadium parking lot as possible (like it has been for the past decade).  The pretext is that it removes habitat for predators, but in this case they would be torturing the concept by making the tern nesting site so conspicuous that it will invite predation.  Virtually all of the least tern predation events have been from flying predators—like the peregrine falcons that come from miles away on the other side of Alameda.

Runway'taxiway area of wildlife refugeThe real reasons for maintaining the industrial look are to reduce maintenance and capital costs, and to exploit the paved areas for revenue-generating uses that don’t require construction.  They have already said they will use the area for emergency preparedness training, disaster staging, and storage of supplies.

Over 180 different species of bird have been spotted on the refuge at one time or another.  Some of the wetland area can easily be expanded and linked permanently to the Bay.  Grasslands could be added.  Instead, what we can expect to see added are auto driving events and RV shows.

Early in 2013, the Alameda city council will play a pivotal role on whether the VA is able to permanently kill the wildlife refuge vision.  The city council must vote on an amendment to its no-cost conveyance deal with the Navy in order to allow the VA project to move forward.  By their action, the city will decide whether the 1996 Community Reuse Plan for Alameda Point will be amended to remove the wildlife refuge as a goal, or if it remains.

Killing the wildlife refuge is not only a bad idea for the environment.  It’s a bad idea for the economy.

Read more in the Conservation Action section of the Alameda Point Environmental Report.

California Brown Pelicans roosting at Alameda Point

L-shaped Breakwater Island – largest brown pelican roosting site in San Francisco Bay – with San Francisco in background. Breakwater rocks in foreground extend back to Encinal Boat Ramp.  Former Naval Air Station is located to the right.

The successful recovery effort for the once endangered California brown pelican is evident every summer through fall on Breakwater Island, an area which forms the beginning of the Alameda Point Channel leading to the ship docks and Seaplane Lagoon.  The breakwater is a wall of boulders built up from the Bay floor to reduce wave action in the harbor.

California brown pelicans were listed as an endangered species in 1970.  The pesticide DDT was identified as the cause of their decline.  It caused reproductive harm, and altered the birds’ calcium absorption, which led to thin eggshells that would break under the parents’ weight.  Use of DDT was banned in the United States 1972. 

A recovery effort was launched in the 1970s on Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara. The only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.

California brown pelican preening on Breakwater Island.

In the summer and fall, the brown pelicans can range from nesting colonies in Mexico and the Channel Islands all the way up to British Columbia.  Alameda Point’s Breakwater Island is the largest roosting site in San Francisco Bay. A safe, secure roosting area is essential for pelicans to rest, preen, dry their feathers, maintain body temperature, and socialize.

When the Naval Air Station was still active, the Navy enforced restrictions against boats landing on the Island and posted signs that warn against disturbing the birds.  Since the base closed, there has been no one to enforce regulations against disturbing the pelicans. 

California brown pelicans relaxing on Breakwater Island on sunny fall day. Their mouth sack is the largest of any bird and is used to scoop fish when they plunge into the water.

The California Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009 after an almost 40-year recovery.  There is currently no plan to look out for the welfare of these magnificent birds after the base is transferred out of Navy ownership.  One way to ensure adequate protection and provide public education and appreciation of this unique ecological asset is to have it be part of an “Alameda Point Wildlife Conservation Area.” The East Bay Regional Park District would be an excellent agency to manage it; they already have a marine conservation area at nearby Crab Cove.

Young California brown pelican with leg band.

Young brown pelican
Old-timer. Brown pelicans can live to 30 years.

Close-up photos of Breakwater Island pelicans were taken in October 2012 from a kayak.

View more Breakwater Island pelican photos in the Flickr photo set.

More information is available on the Channel Islands National Park website.

This story is reprinted on the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s blog Golden Gate Birder.

Update – October 23, 2012

The brown pelican pictured above with a leg band reading “K69” was brought to the International Bird Rescue clinic in Cordelia near Fairfield, CA on July 9, 2012 in a thin and weak condition.  It is less than a year old.  After a one-month rehab, it was released at the Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve near Watsonville on August 10.  A blue band on a pelican leg means it was given a helping hand at one of the two clinics operated by International Bird Rescue – located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some of their released pelicans have been spotted in Oregon and Washington.  If you see a pelican with a blue leg band, they’d like to hear about it.

Wildlife refuge activist nominated for KTVU award – Vote online

Alameda resident Leora Feeney is one of three finalists in KTVU’s annual Cox Conserves Heroes contest.  KTVU, owned by Cox Media, is partnering with The Trust for Public Land to honor local environmental activists for their work and inspire others.  The winner will be determined through online voting that is underway now through September 24.

KTVU will donate $10,000 to the nonprofit of the winner’s choice.  Feeney’s choice will be the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.  Feeney hopes that some of the money will go toward a video camera system on the perimeter of the Least Tern nesting area that would help with monitoring activity and public education.  The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge helps maintain the site during the non-nesting season and conducts educational programs in schools.

You can vote for Feeney, and help our wildlife refuge, by going to KTVU’s Cox Conserves Heroes page  and clicking on the headline ***Vote now through September 24***.

Feeney first got involved with the Least Terns at Alameda Point in the 1980s when it was still an active naval air station.  She was managing a small California Least Tern colony on the Oakland Airport property when she offered to help the Navy’s biologist overseeing the recently established tern colony at the Navy base.

When the announcement came down in 1993 that the base was closing, Feeney helped organize a symposium at the College of Alameda on “Alameda Naval Air Station’s Natural Resources and Base Closure.”  This symposium was instrumental in laying the groundwork for setting aside over 500 acres for a wildlife refuge in the 1996 Community Reuse Plan.

Horned Larks arrived shortly after weeds were pulled from this area near the tern nesting site in early 2012 to forage for food.

The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge became an official committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society in 1997, the same year that Navy lowered the flag for the last time.  She has been working to protect the terns ever since.  She, along with other experienced birders, began doing twice-monthly bird surveys on the refuge in 2004, which she shares with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Navy.  One object of the surveys is to document predators of the Least Tern.

To date, Feeney has seen over 176 different species of birds on the refuge.  About 26 of these species, according to Feeney, have been documented as breeding on the refuge.  One of her most unusual sitings was of a Golden Eagle that came in one spring to eat goslings.  “When the eagle was hunting at the refuge, adult geese would be out on the Bay waters,” Feeney said.  “That was our clue to look for the eagle.”

The wildlife refuge property is slated for transfer to the US Department of Veterans Affairs next year.

Read more and watch a video:  “Protecting the California Least Terns at the Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge”  posted on the Alameda Point Environmental Report on May 3, 2012.

Semi-palmated Plover at Runway Wetlands – Alameda Point wildlife refuge
Plants growing between pavement cracks are a popular hiding place for Kildeer at Alameda Point’s wildlife refuge.
Great Blue Heron nesting in cypress tree on Alameda Point wildlife refuge – April 2012.