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.

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.

Least terns depart – volunteers move in at Alameda Point refuge

The last egg, abandoned at the end of the season.

The least tern nesting season ended in mid-August much as it usually does – a lonely and dangerous place for young terns.  There were three of four pairs of adults flying back and forth with food for their young chicks.  These late nesters are often the ones whose eggs or chicks were attacked by avian predators and have re-nested.  Their vulnerability is only compounded as the weeks wear on because the rest of the adults and their flight-ready young have left, leaving the remaining families without the strength of numbers to mob a predator.

Volunteers arrived at the nesting site on September 9th to begin gathering up the oyster shells, wooden A-frame shelters, and clay tiles randomly arrayed about the site that serve as camouflage and chick shelters from predators.  

They also carefully gathered up over 300 numbered nest markers that were placed near the nests by the US Fish & Wildlife biologist.  A tern nest consists of a small depression in the gravel – no twigs.  The four-inch white nest marker rings are set upright in a plaster base and each have a number.  This allows Fish & Wildlife to monitor breeding success and record predator activity such as taking of eggs.  Between now and next April when the terns return, the site’s substrate of gravel will be groomed and weeds removed.

On September 16th, volunteers returned to continue gathering oyster shells and taking care of another task:  Removing a pernicious weed call stinkwort.  It is virtually impossible to eradicate stinkwort with herbicides and must be removed by hand.  Pulling the tough sticky weed out by its roots is usually not successful, and volunteers were limited to chopping the weed off at its base.  If not removed by fall, the weed would begin releasing seeds that find their way through the gravel and into small crevices in the old pavement underneath.  The weed is so prolific that it can quickly inundate an area.

It is undesirable to have any weeds in the nesting site or in the immediate vicinity of the nesting site.  The historic nesting habitat of the terns is on beaches.  The presence of vegetation in close proximity to the nesting area signals possible hiding places for predators and may cause the terns to look elsewhere for safe nesting.

On both days, volunteers included members of the Key Club at Encinal High School  in Alameda, a student organization that encourages volunteerism.

Monthly work parties organized by the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge will continue through March of next year.  The terns arrive in April.  To get involved, contact FAWR.

Wildlife refuge gets the ax in VA development at Alameda Point

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received a green light from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Fish & Wildlife) for their Alameda Point clinic and national cemetery project in late August.  Fish & Wildlife issued its biological opinion, which focuses only on the impacts to the least tern colony that nest on the previously proposed wildlife refuge.  While they agreed with the VA that the project would adversely affect the least tern, they concluded their review by saying the tern colony’s existence is not placed in jeopardy by the plans.

The area labeled “VA Undeveloped Area” used to be labeled “Wildlife Refuge”

The opinion includes a description of the VA’s planned uses for the 511 acres, labeled “VA Undeveloped Area,” that will not be used for the clinic or cemetery.  The description makes clear for the first time that the national wildlife refuge envisioned by Fish & Wildlife in 1998 is dead.  Other than the 9.7-acre nesting area for the terns, the remainder of the tarmac, taxiway, and runway pavement will be used for emergency training exercises during the non-nesting season (August 16 – March 31), and set aside to be used as a staging area during emergencies and natural disasters.  Two ammo bunkers will be used to store emergency supplies.

The VA has been working with the Navy since 2005 to take over the proposed 549-acre wildlife refuge.  Previous talks between Fish & Wildlife and the Navy ended over disagreements about environmental cleanup.

Still, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the main advocate for a wildlife refuge, held out hope for a full-fledged wildlife refuge.  Their website has a conservation page dedicated to the Alameda Wildlife Refuge that lists one of their goals as:  “Achieve transfer of land from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge.”

A colony of the endangered California Least Terns has been nesting here for decades.  The VA’s project stalled last year over proximity to the tern nesting site, but was revived when a compromise plan emerged that will move the clinic facilities and part of the cemetery northward away from the terns.  Due to the terns’ status as an endangered species, the VA needed clearance from Fish & Wildlife for their project to proceed.

Another indicator of the downgrade from wildlife refuge to surplus land with a small bird sanctuary is the amount of parking for the VA’s Conservation Management Office – the Nature Center – to be built next to their clinic.  It will have ten parking spaces.  In contrast, the 1998 Fish & Wildlife plan for a national wildlife refuge included visitor projections that ranged from a low of 46,000 to a high of 113,000 annually.

Fish & Wildlife’s funding projections in 1998 dollars were $848,000 for initial capital costs, and $299,000 per year for full staffing.  The Fish & Wildlife refuge plan called for wetland restoration, screened observation platforms for viewing and photographing wildlife in the wetland area, improving habitat quality for songbirds, and removal of non-native grasses.

Photo above shows weeds killed with herbicide.  Eliminating weed growth in areas like this one to the southeast of the nesting site creates an important roosting area for adult terns and for their chicks learning to fly.  This area is favored by the terns because of proximity to the nearby water in the Alameda Point Channel.  Areas to the far west and north of the nesting area, on the other hand, are poor candidates for weed removal and better candidates for grassland establishment.  New grassland is not part of the plan for managing this area.

The VA’s plans call for removing the mostly non-native grasses that have grown between the hundreds of pavement slabs.  Herbicides and sealing the pavement cracks are listed as options.  They have no plans to eliminate the pervasive non-native ice plant or to plant native grasses.  Grasslands in the outlying areas of the refuge can provide habitat for prey species like small rodents that would be attractive to birds like hawks that might otherwise focus on the nesting terns for a food source.  Wild grasses are also used for shelter and foraging by common visitors like the killdeer, a shorebird that spends its time on the ground.

Above:  Pockets of grassland on the the far west and north parts of the wildlife refuge offer ideal habitat for prey species that would relieve pressure on the tern colony from avian predators like hawks.  Areas in between these grassland pockets are covered with pavement that would better serve the terns’ welfare if it were removed and converted to grassland.  Much of the remnant pavement is significantly farther away from the tern colony nesting site than the aircraft hangars.

The land transfer is expected to take place next year after other environmental documents are approved.  The City of Alameda will have to approve the change in location for the VA project.  The city is currently slated to receive the 220-acre area on the northwest part of the runway area along the Oakland Estuary – the Northwest Territories – where the VA clinic and part of the cemetery are planned.

Alameda’s city council must approve an amendment to the no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy signed last year.  This will allow the Navy to keep 70 acres of the Northwest Territories that it will then include in the Navy-to-VA transfer.  Approval of the land transfer by the city council without conditions for establishment of a wildlife refuge will effectively amend the community reuse plan adopted in 1996.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Alameda Sun.

More photos and commentary 

Above is a typical view of the vegetation-free zone around the tern nesting site.  This view is looking southeast toward the Alameda Point Channel.  Beyond the cleared pavement is the area shown in the article above with all the weeds killed.  

Photo above shows taxiway next to grassland in north part of wildlife refuge.  Instead of removing weeds between pavement cracks, the pavement itself should be removed and a contiguous band of grassland established for predators to hunt in.  A mismatched hodgepodge landscape is not scientific wildlife or ecosystem management.

Hodgepodge landscape such as the above in the far western area of the wildlife refuge is not helping the terns to thrive.  The ice plant does not offer the habitat quality that grasslands would offer.  And the adjacent patchwork of pavement does little if anything to simulate a beach habitat favored by the terns for nesting.  Grasslands here would do more to help the terns by providing prey for avian predators than by leaving it as is.  Leaving this amount of pavement to capture heat rather than capture carbon is at odds with climate change science.  This particular area is only a stone’s throw away from the water and could easily accommodate pockets of wetland supplied by water via an open culvert.

This wetland in the above photo is on the interior of the wildlife refuge.  It is not seasonal – it’s permanent.  This photo was taken on September 16, 2012 when all seasonal wetlands on the refuge and adjacent Northwest Territories were completely dry.  The water source can only be from the Bay via the tide.  The VA’s columbarium cemetery footprint currently includes this wetland, which is not officially mapped as a wetland.

This stand of willows above is a favorite area for songbirds.  It may be compromised or completely removed for construction of the VA clinic.

The photo above shows the Runway Wetland at the southeast corner of the wildlife refuge in mid-September 2012.  This area looks like a small lake during most of the year.  The southern edge of this wetland comes within 20 feet of the Alameda Point Channel and could easily become a year-round wetland if an open culvert were created in the seawall.  No plans for such environmental enhancements are likely to emerge for land that is labeled “VA Undeveloped Area.”  Not one additional acre of wetland is being suggested for the area formerly known as the wildlife refuge – a failing grade in environmental stewardship.

Killdeer love the wildlife refuge and the habitat shown in the photo above.  Only about a dozen pair nest here, but for reasons not entirely clear, between one hundred and two hundred killdeer arrive in the winter and can be seen roosting on the tarmac area.  Killing all vegetation between the pavement slabs would destroy valuable bird habitat.

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.