Drive onto the proposed site for Alameda’s wildlife refuge this spring and you won’t see much — at first. There are acres and acres of gray cement, spreading out in every direction. There are a lot of weeds (at least in the summer). There are a few small outbuildings here and there. There’s a big corral-like area where, supposedly, a colony of least terns is rearing its young. (To be honest it, looks like it’s filled with many pieces of white litter.) And, of course, there’s the Bay and one glorious view of San Francisco. But the area looks dingy, somehow. Industrial. Abandoned. Not very full of wildlife. Not very much like a reserve.
But peer closer — especially with the aid of a pair of binoculars — and a whole world of least tern life begins to emerge. White and black parent birds swoop across the flat, pebbly site, looking for their young. Fledglings earnestly run hither and thither. Chicks huddle beneath small wood A-frames. And if you lift your eyes to look beyond the colony, you might see brown pelicans on a breakwater, red-tailed hawks circling in the wind, even great blue herons gracefully launching from the reeds.
“It’s an oasis right in the middle of the Bay Area,” says Leora Feeney, chairwoman of Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, or FAWR, a nonprofit group working to protect the site. “There’s nothing else like it.”
California least terns, which have been listed as an endangered species since 1970, were first recognized at Alameda Point in 1976. Today the site hosts the largest endangered least tern colony in Northern California. Since 1993 local conservationists and political activists
have dreamed of developing a national wildlife refuge out there, but they’ve encountered one hurdle after another. Next year may present the biggest hurdle of all — the Navy is planning on giving 549 acres on that part of the Point to the Department of Veteran Affairs so that it can build an outpatient clinic on the far western point of the base, plus administrative offices and a columbarium to hold the cremated remains of some 310,000 veterans.
“This is setting off alarm bells in the people who have been working on this refuge project for the last 17 years,” Feeney says, “not only because their plan would compromise the refuge possibilities and create risk to endangered species, but because it’s not a suitable location for the VA project. This is a turning point for the terns.”
It was a Navy officer’s wife who first identified least terns nesting on the Naval Air Station back in 1976. The Navy was still using the base back then, of course, and the nests lay right next to
a runway. But over the next few years, the Navy actively tried to protect the birds by building a barrier near the nests to keep vehicles away, even closing the runway during the terns’ nesting and fledgling seasons.
While the Navy continued to maintain the site, conservationists began monitoring the least tern colony area in 1980, when there were just 25 breeding pairs. Since then, the colony has witnessed a dramatic flourishing of the species. As of 2009, Alameda Point was hosting 316 pairs of terns (who raised 357 fledglings), even as the statewide fledgling production was dropping. Because least tern habitat and fishing areas have been sharply reduced
by development, the Alameda Point
colony is now one of the most important colonies for producing young in California. In fact, in 2009, no other least tern colony in the state produced as many young as Alameda Point.
The colony is not on a straight-line trajectory to success, however. Some years fledgling production goes better than others because of fish shortages, predation, and, sometimes, mysterious causes. “Even a few years can cause seriously reduced populations,” Feeney says. “Regaining those numbers again can be difficult.”
The California least terns (Sternula antillarum browni) winter in Mexico (and sometimes as far south as Guatemala), but each spring they fly the 2,500 miles to Alameda Point, where they’ve chosen the abandoned runways to establish a colony across about 10 acres of land. The least terns make their nests in shallow depressions and move small markers (stones, shells, sticks) nearby to identify the nest when they have to leave to get food. “There can be 300 to 500 birds out here at a time,” Feeney says. “The parents have to be able to find their own nests.”
The eggs themselves are smaller than a mussel shell, and the chicks, like all chicks, are impossibly cute. Unfortunately they start running — truly running — the day after they hatch, which raises the risk of predation considerably. To help protect them, volunteers put out oyster shells every year to help camouflage the chicks, plus clay tunnels and small wooden A-frames to protect them from sun, wind and predators. They also put out plaster of Paris markers to create a grid map of nest locations. And then the volunteers watch very, very carefully where they walk when they’re out working near the colony.
Least terns flock to the base because they like to nest in large, flat areas with little vegetation, which makes it easier to spot predators. The Bay is also rich in food that the terns like, including herring, silversides, anchovies, salmon and small crustaceans. And the least tern colony itself is protected from human disturbance, as the public currently isn’t allowed on that part of the Point.
And that’s why a number of people in and around the Bay Area think the very best thing this far stretch of Alameda Point could become is a National Wildlife Refuge — one administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and open, at least in part, to the public. Given the site’s location — in the middle of the Bay Area and well served by bus and ferry lines (but not in the area that would have been developed by SunCal, under its plan) — supporters think it could be an oasis of wilderness in a very urban area. “We’re imagining a visitors center, walking paths and field trips for school children,” explains Dale Smith,
co-chairwoman of the community Restoration Advisory Board for Alameda Point. “It could be beautiful.” Feeney also dreams of creating opportunities for older children to do outdoor biological research there.
The refuge wouldn’t just protect least terns. Volunteer biologists conducting bird surveys on the base have identified more than 170 other bird species that visit the site (including great blue herons, brown pelicans, horned larks, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, osprey, killdeer, harriers, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, the endangered burrowing owls, oyster catchers, avocets, stilts, kites and kingfishers). Deer, black-tailed jackrabbits, fence lizards, red and gray foxes, raccoons and opossums have also been seen there. Harbor seals haul out near the pier on which thousands of brown pelicans roost and, in what can only be seen as signs of a “natural restoration,” native plants — including lupine, milkweed and willows — are springing up here and there, along with a huge anise patch that nurtures anise swallowtails every year. Wetlands have now formed in the westernmost area of the base; even a small tidal pond has developed, a result of water flowing beneath the tarmac.
But the refuge idea has been bedeviled almost since its inception in 1994. The biggest problem right now is the fact that although the Fish & Wildlife Service originally agreed to take the land back in 1996 (as a possible addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System), some years ago the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense hit “an impasse at the national level over contaminated lands elsewhere,” says Mendel Stewart, manager of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, “that has resulted in a deadlock on the transfer that continues today.”
If the Navy transfers the site to the VA, the VA says it will maintain the least tern refuge (and Fish & Wildlife has offered to continue to operate it if the VA gets the site), build a visitors center and do outdoor education there. “We think our presence there will be good for the city of Alameda and good for the least terns,” Larry Janes, capital asset manager for the VA’s Sierra Pacific Network, says. But members of FAWR — as well as members of Golden Gate Audubon Society and the Sierra Club — worry that both the construction of those structures (and the infrastructure to support them) will be disruptive to wildlife in the area. And once the structures are built, vehicle and foot traffic will continue to be an issue.
Notes Feeney, “The least tern management would become significantly more challenging and perhaps fail altogether [if the VA hospital is built]. Current management is already difficult and requires careful monitoring and diligent response to problems. There is no doubt that predator pressure on terns would increase with the loss of surrounding hunting areas for our local hawks and predatory mammals.”
And then there’s the issue of cleanup.
The entire area in question used to be mudflats. It was filled in by the Navy in the late 1930s (after it bought the land from Alameda for — hold onto your socks — $1). But huge swaths of the land under question are contaminated, with everything from radioactivity to lead, selenium, arsenic, solvents, cleaners, pesticides, discarded barges, engine hulls and exploded (and unexploded) cartridges.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which conducted all the sampling on the site to determine just which contaminants lie where, the Navy is responsible for the initial cleanup and capping some old landfills. (This work will have to be done during the “off season,” when least terns aren’t nesting at the Point.) Whoever accepts the land will be responsible for monitoring and maintaining those caps, making sure that the wetlands that the EPA plans to create in the refuge area remain viable, and cleaning up any additional contaminants found. That same arrangement would have applied to Navy-to-FWS transfers of other base properties across the country, says Alan Lee, base closure manager for the former Naval Air Station Alameda, and it’s what has led to a years-long breakdown in communication.
The VA has agreed to that arrangement. But critics allege it could end up costing the agency a pretty penny. “What we don’t understand,” says Arthur Feinstein, who leads the wildlife refuge efforts of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club, “is why the VA won’t take land on Alameda Point proper. The infrastructure is there. The cleanup has been done. It would be cheaper for the VA so more money could be spent on caring for veterans. Why start from scratch when it’s more expensive and you’re endangering an endangered species?” Adds FWS’ Stewart, “We believe the wildlife conservation value of the land would be diminished significantly by the VA’s
planned development. That would make
the former military base even less suitable as an addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
When asked why the VA couldn’t build elsewhere on the base, Larry Janes said that the only land being offered by the Navy
is the land currently under consideration.
Because the fate of the refuge is what’s called a “fed-to-fed” transfer, the city of Alameda has no say in what happens on
the base. (The City Council did pass a resolution in August 2009 stating its concerns about having adequate infrastructure connections to the VA and understanding more how it might impact the city. In the meantime, citizens who want to have a say need to write to their elected officials, Feinstein says.)
In the end, of course, the debate about that swath of Alameda Point mirrors debates across the country — debates in which communities struggle to balance economic development with habitat and species protection, the needs of people with the needs of wildlife. Some people involved in this local debate have suggested that building wider buffer zones around the colony, along with restricting VA construction to the months when least terns aren’t on the Island, might be one compromise. Whether that’s enough to protect the terns and other species remains unclear. What is clear is the strong desire of the terns’ most staunch advocates. If the land became a refuge, “We’re imagining a place like no other in the Bay Area,” Smith says. “This could be a respite in our urban landscape.”
Between September and March (the nonbreeding season), you can help support the least tern colony by pulling weeds, repairing fences and doing other kinds of habitat restoration. From April to August, when the birds are in Alameda, you can take a two-hour training session and then you also can volunteer to spend three-hour shifts documenting least tern behavior, estimating how many are there and keeping track of what other critters enter the colony. Volunteers can also help with public education by attending street fairs and
other public events. For more information, contact Golden Gate Audubon Society at (510) 843-2222.