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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

S.F. Bay Island Restoration Plan in Red Tape Quagmire

Conservation group is stuck with mortgage after Congress delayed purchase of land, holding back program to protect endangered species.

September 21, 1998|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAIR ISLAND — Visible for a two-mile stretch along U.S. 101 south of the San Mateo Bridge, Bair Island--3,200 acres of marsh, sloughs and abandoned salt ponds thrusting into the San Francisco Bay--isn't much to look at.

Devoid of trees, the prettiest part of the island is dominated by thick, ground-hugging pickleweed. The uglier parts--where commercial salt mining went on for decades--have been likened to a moonscape.

But this unattractive hump also is the largest chunk of easily restorable wetlands left on the south end of the nation's most urbanized bay. For that reason, it has for decades been a prize fought over by would-be developers and determined conservationists.

Piece by piece, the state and federal governments bought the outer 1,574 acres of the island between 1974 and 1980. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service then turned it into a federal wildlife refuge by opening the levees that held back the sea and re-flooding the salt ponds.

The remaining 1,626 acres--just offshore from Redwood City--were bought and sold by a succession of development firms, each of which found a wall of opposition from conservationists to building on the island.

Then, last year, in what environmentalists hailed as a major victory for endangered bay wildlife, a local nonprofit group bought the remaining 1,626 acres for $15 million.

That was supposed to be the happy ending to the Bair Island saga. But for reasons that have everything to do with the misplaced optimism of a well-meaning conservation group and the byzantine nature of Washington politics--and very little to do with Bair Island's merits as a wildlife refuge--the happy ending has yet to be written.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust, which borrowed most of the money to buy the island, planned to quickly resell it to a federal government that had identified the island as a top purchase priority and indicated it would be willing to buy it back. The trust also planned to create a visitor area near the shore and to help rapidly restore the wetlands by breaching the remaining levees.

All that was needed was a $10-million appropriation from Congress to pay back the loans the trust took out to make the below-market-value purchase it had negotiated. The trust raised most of the other $5 million from private donors.

Audrey Rust, the trust's executive director, said the group expected the appropriation for Bair Island to be made last fall, or this fall at the latest, from money that the federal government sets aside each year from offshore oil leases to purchase public lands.

Identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985 as essential to the recovery of the endangered clapper rail, the island was listed by the service as a top priority for acquisition, but there was no money to buy it. Rust said she expected the purchase to win bipartisan support in Congress.

But bipartisan sentiment is hard to find on Capitol Hill these days. This month, money to purchase Bair Island got bogged down in bickering between the interior and appropriations committees. Local congressional representatives who are lobbying for the money are Democrats, Rust said. Republicans control the committees.

So the trust has been left with $300,000 annual loan payments--a stretch for an organization with a $1.5-million annual budget.

That is the risk nonprofit organizations always take when they make such a purchase, because the federal government never commits in advance to coming through with the money, said Jean Hocker, president of the Land Trust Alliance, an umbrella organization in Washington that represents hundreds of land trusts across the nation.

"You're always dependent on appropriations for your project," Hocker said. Because of the risk involved, "very few land trusts are in a position to take on a project the scale of Bair Island," she said. "Most are smaller organizations than [Peninsula Open Space Trust]. Many just operate with privately donated funds and depend on gifts of land or conservation easements to make acquisitions."

Although the Peninsula trust has made large purchases in the past that involved some state and federal funding, Rust said, it has never faced such a nerve-racking delay in expected reimbursement.

"We feel quite strung out about this situation, I would say," Rust said. "We are still in debt to the tune of $10 million, and that puts us in a high-risk situation."

Congress now is considering an appropriations bill that would authorize $3.5 million for Bair Island this year, Rust said. Even if that passes, it will force the trust to keep servicing a considerable chunk of debt for at least another year, possibly more, as it waits for more congressional funds to come its way.

But loan payments aren't the only problem. As long as the trust owns the island, it must pay about $60,000 a year for mosquito abatement. It must also mount security patrols and carry insurance on the property, Rust said.

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