2013-12-13 by John King for "San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/place/article/Purchase-of-Skaggs-Island-farm-to-restore-S-F-5063279.php]:
By any measure, it's a good thing when 1,092 acres along San Francisco Bay become permanently protected open space.
This is even better: Friday's sale of an oat farm near Highway 37 to the Sonoma Land Trust will allow 4,400 acres of dry land to be restored to a functioning marsh, just like it was before humans put up dikes and walled out San Francisco Bay.
The complicated $8.3 million transaction was announced Friday in a media event on Skaggs Island, which in a few years is fated to begin to disappear - replaced by a managed weave of wetlands and water that will be part of San Pablo Bay's ever more extensive marshes.
The area is a favored stop on the Pacific Flyway for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl each winter.
"It's been a couple of years of work to get to this day," said Wendy Eliot, the conservation director for the land trust.
The deal comes nearly three years after the other 3,300 acres of Skaggs Island was purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Before that, it was owned by the U.S. Navy.
Maintenance agreement -
But one piece of the island remained in private hands, an oat farm belonging to siblings James and Judy Haire. Not only that, the prior owner - early supermarket magnate M.B. Skaggs - had negotiated a "perpetual maintenance agreement" with the Navy that required all of Skaggs Island be kept intact by use of levees and storm water pumps. This meant that Fish and Wildlife could tear down military buildings and clean the site, but not actually do any wetland restoration.
"The whole island is a sponge," Eliot explained. "If you flood 3,300 acres, the rest will stay wet too."
Even as the 2011 sale took place, the trust and Fish and Wildlife were negotiating with the Haires to buy the rest of the island. The challenge was finding the money.
The solution was to add yet another federal agency to the mix.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed to spend roughly $7.5 million to buy the farm's development rights from the Haires. Once that deal was signed, the longtime owners then sold the land itself to the Sonoma Land Trust for around $800,000. The Trust then transferred the property to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is now the official owner.
"It's a unique partnership - I don't think this model has occurred in our region before," Eliot said. "Our job was to put together all the pieces and then step aside."
For at least the next year, the Haires will continue to farm oats while Fish and Wildlife Service maps out how best to return Skaggs Island to a semi-natural state. There's also a need to conduct environmental studies and line up permits.
Protecting habitat -
The conversion won't be as easy as blasting a hole in the levee and letting Mother Nature take over; in the 130 years since Skaggs Island was formed, the diked island has been adopted as habitat by such now-endangered species as the clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. Because of this, the restored wetlands likely will include several forms of marshland as well as upland areas protected from tides.
The money the trust used to buy the land came from the State Coastal Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The easement purchase drew on funds for wetland preservation that were part of the 2008 federal farm bill.
"Knowing this would facilitate restoration of the entire island clearly made it attractive," said Dean Kwasny, an easement specialist for the National Resource Conservation Service. "They had all been caught a bit between a rock and a hard place."
A photographer jumps off the levee between Haire Ranch (left) and Skaggs Island. The ranch will become open space. Photo: Sam Wolson, Special To The Chronicle
"'Holy grail' of Bay Area wetlands plan acquired"
2013-12-14 by Sarah Rohrs and Tony Burchyns from "Vallejo Times-Herald" [http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_24724320/holy-grail-bay-area-wetlands-plan-acquired]:
A large puzzle piece in the patchwork of North Bay marsh restoration sites fell into place Friday with acquisition of a long-time hay farm at the northern end of Skaggs Island.
Following years of negotiations, the Sonoma Land Trust announced it had bought the Haire Ranch which will lead to restoration of up to 4,400 acres of wetlands west of Vallejo.
"It's our holiday gift to the public and to the fish and birds and the clean water," said Wendy Eliot, land trust conservation director.
The ranch is a long-sought after piece of land that environmentalists have wanted so that the entire island, once home to a U.S. Navy base and spy station, can be flooded and restored to tidal marshes.
Immediately following purchase, the land trust transferred the 1,100-acre Haire Ranch to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the nearby San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The project fits in with the big-picture effort to restore tens of thousands of wetlands acres around the bay. Eliot called the purchase the "holy grail" of conservation projects.
"For more than a decade, the government has been waiting to restore Skaggs Island to tidal marsh," she said. "But Haire Ranch stood in the way, just out of reach."
A haven along Highway 37 for raptors and deer, Skaggs Island came under the Fish and Wildlife Service umbrella in 2011. The previous year, more than 100 buildings left over from the long-closed naval base were demolished.
But plans to restore the 3,300-acre former naval property to tidal marshes and open the area up for public access hit a major snag with the ranch.
Sonoma County hay farmer and vintner Jim Haire and his sister have held a deed restriction which requires island levees to be maintained so that his acres are kept dry in perpetuity for farming.
To keep the ranch dry, the island could not be flooded -- a crucial step for restoring the wetlands, officials said.
"This has been the real bugaboo for the refuge," Eliot said. "So we've been kind of stymied in restoring the 4,400-acre island until we got Jim Haire's property."
Part of the north-south travel corridor for migratory birds, Skaggs Island was the last patch of Bay Area tidal marsh to be diked and drained in the 1880s. For decades, the property was farmed for oat hay, until its former owner, the Sonoma Land Company, sold the land to supermarket mogul M.B. Skaggs during the Depression.
In 1941, the Navy acquired most of the island for a communications and intelligence gathering base. Skaggs sold the remaining ranch property to William Haire, the grandfather of the current owners, who'd been working the land since the late 1930s.
Skaggs also negotiated an agreement requiring the owner of the larger portion of the island -- currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- to maintain pumps and levees which keep the ranch dry enough to farm. With the latest acquisition, however, that agreement becomes moot.
Eliot said complex negotiations began several years ago. Essentially, the purchase involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture buying an easement over the property for $7.5 million which restricts the land to wildlife habitat and wetlands restoration, she said.
In the second part of the deal, the land trust bought the property for about $700,000 with funds split from the State Coastal Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The deal also required convincing Haire to part with the land his family has farmed for 75 years -- a decision he likened to giving away the beloved family dog.
"I just hope (the restoration) is done correctly and on a timely basis so we can all see this land come back ... and people can enjoy open space," Haire, 71, said. "I hope there will be opportunities to enjoy that land."
Plans to restore the property are well underway, Eliot said.
However, through the purchase agreement the Haires can stay for at least a year and get in another hay crop, she said. Haire can also negotiate up to two additional years.
The purchase was made in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Don Brubaker of the San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuge said his organization will be coordinating restoration efforts among various public agencies and figuring out public access in the future.
Meanwhile, bird watching and other public activities will likely be available during the upcoming San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival centered on Mare Island the second weekend of February.
Skaggs Island glance -
The 3,310-acre Skaggs Island was commissioned on May 1, 1942 and decommissioned on Sept. 30, 1993.
Skaggs Island was named after M.B. Skaggs, the founder of Safeway stores.
Skaggs Island's former 150 buildings included a bowling alley, power plant, movie theater, public works department, post office, tennis courts, houses and barracks, chapel, gymnasium, bar and exchange.
With a staff of 400, Skaggs' primary responsibility was communications and intelligence gathering for the Navy and other federal organizations.
Navy SEALs practicing forced entry methods have blown holes into the walls of many of the buildings.
Skaggs Island is part of a large marsh, but surrounded by four sloughs.