Refuge Gets Ax

Least tern habitat allegedly not in jeopardy

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received the green light from the US Fish & Wildlife Service for its 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 nests 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 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 (Aug. 16 through 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. The society's 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 least tern nesting site, but was revived when a compromise plan emerged that would 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.

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. Wild grasses are used for shelter and foraging by common visitors like the killdeer, a shorebird that spends its time on the ground.

Construction of the clinic will mean the destruction of a thick stand of willows that are frequented by songbirds, as well as the seasonal wetland next to the willows that is enjoyed by waterfowl.

Read more of this story at www.alamedasun.com.

Alameda resident Richard Bangert writes the online Alameda Point Environmental Report.

 

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