Council shows support for Alameda Point wildlife conservation

Council shows support for Alameda Point wildlife conservation

Michele Ellson

Contributed graphic.

Alameda’s city leaders offered a unanimous show of support for a future nature reserve at Alameda Point on Tuesday, approving a resolution that affirms the city’s commitment to a wildlife conservation area at the former Navy base and offers support for formally designating more than 500 acres as a conservation area.

The resolution will have little formal impact on the fate of the land, since it’s being transferred from one federal entity to another and the city has no control over who the Navy gives its property to or how they choose to use the land. But it does let the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is hoping to acquire 624 acres of the Point from the Navy this year, know what the city wants, City Councilman Stewart Chen said during an interview Wednesday.

“This is just a reaffirmation of what we believe in and what we agreed to in 1996,” said Chen, referring the 1996 plan that details how the base will be reused, which city leaders have been using to direct their current revitalization efforts. “I’m not against the VA moving to the Point. I just want (them) to know where we as a community stand.”

The resolution - whose approval comes just two weeks after the council voted 3-2 to support the Navy's plan to give the VA 74 acres it had intended to transfer to the city - could also assuage the concerns of open space advocates who fear that the pending deal to turn land once expected to become a national wildlife refuge over to the VA, which plans to build an outpatient clinic and columbarium on a portion of it, could see some species getting short shrift.

“I think it’s really important that the public and the region see something on the map that reflects what’s really there, and it also sets some goals for where we want to go in the future,” Irene Dieter, one of three open space advocates who brought the resolution to Chen for his sponsorship, told the council on Tuesday.

Richard Bangert said he and Dieter wrote the resolution after the refuge fell off maps detailing future Point plans. He'd like to see the VA lease the land it's not planning to use to an agency or group of agencies "to develop and enhance this area to its fullest potential."

"We're hoping the resolution keeps alive the original goals that were spelled out in the Fish & Wildlife Service's plan for a national wildlife refuge, which seemed to be fading from memory," Bangert said in response to a reporter's questions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially sought to create a refuge at the Point in 1994, a year after the federal government announced the Naval base would close. But negotiations broke down over liability for contamination on the site, some of which the VA is agreeing to assume.

The VA originally requested 549 acres on which to build the clinic and national cemetery as part of its efforts to enhance and consolidate services for a growing number of veterans and after looking at a host of other possible locations; the current proposal is to move the development north in order to push it further from a California least tern colony on the base. They have said they don’t plan to develop 511 of the 624 acres they’re seeking, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has handed down a list of rules guiding development of the site and management of the tern colony intended to ensure it continues to thrive.

But some longtime refuge proponents are concerned the VA’s efforts are focused too strictly on preservation of the tern colony, which is one of the endangered bird’s most productive in California. They want more consideration given to other birds that use the Point as a migratory stopover along with other wildlife that aren’t on the endangered species list – like the California brown pelican, which has been delisted – and native vegetation.

Chen said the VA has been “a good partner” and that he’s received letters from the federal agency reiterating their plan to maintain the acreage as open space; no one from the Navy or the VA spoke at Tuesday’s council meet. Still, he said there are also concerns that they agency could reconsider in the future if the tern falls off the endangered list.

“We’re just telling them as a community we support the reserve and open space,” Chen said. “Hopefully this will resonate with the VA and the administration that we care about open space.”

President Theodore Roosevelt created the national wildlife refuge system in 1903, in an effort to preserve habitat along major bird migration corridors. A constellation of wildlife refuges line San Francisco Bay, which has refuges on the Farallon Islands, in San Pablo Bay, near Antioch and in Newark, which is home to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The California least tern was first discovered nesting on the Point’s runways in 1976, and active efforts to monitor the colony’s progress began in 1980. Over the years the Navy fenced the colony to protect the birds and added gravel, oyster shells and drain tiles to better approximate the beaches the birds once nested on. The colony is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and officials with the VA have said they’re negotiating with the service to keep them in that role.

In addition to the runways, the site to be acquired by the VA includes a pair of former landfills contaminated with a host of toxins and structures that include bunkers, watch towers and a Quonset hut, the fish and wildlife service’s 1990s-era draft plan for the refuge says.

It prioritizes protection of endangered species like the least tern but also lists the protection of habitat for migratory birds and restoration of native biological communities among its goals.

City staff retooled the resolution to make it consistent with city’s existing Point plans and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rules, Ott said Tuesday. And she confirmed in an interview that while the city can express its desires by zoning the land for conservation, federal agencies like the VA aren’t required to commit to those desires.

“The City can zone federal property within its jurisdiction, which is what the (resolution) directs the City to do, but the federal government has no obligation to adhere to the zoning,” Ott said in response to a reporter’s e-mailed questions Wednesday. “They are not subject to the zoning, in other words.”

But both Chen and Dieter said they think the VA wants to work cooperatively with the city.

“VA reps told me on the USS Hornet that they do care what the community wants and they want to work with us and be a good neighbor,” Dieter said, referencing a set of meetings last week on the Hornet to discuss the potential impacts of the VA’s plan. “And they want to work with us and our city.”