Bird Breeding Grounds : Conservationists Buying Wetlands

Times Staff Writer

Conservationists are using a developer's approach in an effort to curb the threat of further destruction to California's wetlands.

The wetlands are wintering ground for most of the 14 million waterfowl and untold millions of shore birds produced annually in the breeding marshes of western North America and the Arctic portion of eastern Asia.

Groups such as the National Audubon Society are no longer content to take their disputes to court and wait out the long delays of litigation.

Whenever possible, they are acquiring the land themselves to ensure restoration of natural habitats that once served to perpetuate the wild-bird populations of the Pacific Flyway, the birds' migratory route.

Typical of the new approach is the recent $1-million purchase by the National Audubon Society of a portion of Christman Island, 10 miles west of Modesto in California's Central Valley, at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers.

Tops List of Priorities

As part of a network of wetlands in California's Central Valley, Christman Island is an integral part of an area that has been ranked by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as its No. 1 national priority for protection.

A major winter retreat for about 3.5 million waterfowl, that lowland area is an identified critical habitat for cranes and the Aleutian Canada goose, an endangered species of which there are only about 3,000 left in the world.

The landscape in that area, with its freshwater wetlands, valley oak woodlands and riparian forests, reflects California's early environment when tule elk, proghorn antelope and the grizzly bear roamed the San Joaquin Valley.

"The owners of the property contacted us after becoming alarmed by the discovery of about 200 to 250 nests of Great Blue Herons and the American heron and what their proposed agricultural expansion might do to endanger the island's natural habitat," said Glenn Olson, Audubon's regional vice president.

Seek Further Acquisitions

"They wanted to know whether we were in a position to acquire part of the property for a preserve. They, in fact, agreed to lower the appraised price from $1.5 million to $1 million, when it was all we had available for that purchase.

"Whenever possible we hope to gain ownership of land that must be protected, and we are lobbying in support of further acquisition by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We are currently lobbying to acquire the 22,500-acre Klamath Forest Marsh in southern Oregon, 40 miles north of Klamath Falls, that has been a property of the Nicol family since the turn of the century.

"The family is cooperating on the deal and is lowering the price to $325 per acre. We want to encourage Congress to appropriate money for this acquisition from its Land and Water Conservation Fund (derived from oil exploration royalties).

"The fund reportedly allows a maximum of $900 million to be appropriated each year for purchase of wildlife refuge and park areas, though normally not more than about $40 million or $50 million are appropriated," Olson added.

"This particular property would expand the boundaries of the existing San Luis Island National Wildlife Refuge, the home of the tule elk."

Funds for the 780-acre acquisition were received as an anonymous gift from a wealthy sportsman, Olson said, providing the Audubon Society with the opportunity to obtain a challenge grant and to create seed money to recapture other lands that should remain as wetlands.

Since it is unlikely that sufficient public wetlands will ever be acquired by private groups to meet the wintering habitat needs of Pacific Flyway birds, private wetland owners are being encouraged to assume a greater role in preserving and developing them, Olson stressed.

Sportsmen Praised

He said that affluent sportsmen, oft-maligned as causing a reduction in bird populations, for the most part, are active conservationists and are the ones primarily funding existing wetlands and waterfowl programs.

"As a wildlife preservation group, we are neither pro-hunters nor opposed to them," Olson said. "Our mission is to keep a certain balance in nature, and what our program is saying is that we have tipped the balance pretty far one way to the point where there has been a destruction of 4.5 million acres of the state's wetlands since 1850. That has left the Pacific Flyway with only 300,000 remaining acres in California, representing a 95% loss."

Most hunters in 300,000 acres of wetlands that are still extant in California are members of private hunting clubs. "We owe a great deal to them in terms of habitat preservation, and that's something that most people don't realize," Olson said.

"The easy way to preserve wildlife is to preserve the habitat, and that is what hunters have done. Most clubs maintain wildlife habitats the year round, but their hunting season is only about 70 days, with short hours, and that adds to maybe 20 or 30 days out of 365 days each year, which means you have a wildlife sanctuary for 330 days of the year.

'Barometers for Survival"

"Still, there are only about 70,000 hunters in California and that is not enough to protect the wildlife.

"When we disturb and displace our wildlife, it is like destroying the indicators of the quality of our environment--the barometers for survival. It's like the canary taken down into the Welsh mine shafts. If the canary died, the miners knew there was too much methane gas and they'd better get out."

With most of the historical wetlands gone, shrinking habitats are beset by additional problems that include severe disease transmission among birds, brought about by an overcrowding of the waterfowl population.

Wetland tules have traditionally provided a natural filtering system where the rushing waters of a stream would get spread out into the vast marshes and swamps where all the sediment would remain trapped.

Coastal Act Helped

Sediment, under natural conditions and without all the toxic waste which is now docked into it, was healthy. And even when it wasn't edible, it provided a fertilizer in which foods and seeds would grow, Olson explained.

The California Coastal Act was approved by initiative in 1972 and by the Legislature, as required, in 1976. This legislation has slowed down the destruction of wetlands in terms of unbridled development, but the things that have happened to the wetlands go beyond overt land development, even though that pressure is always there.

These more insidious things include the sedimentation seen in Upper Newport Bay, for example, stemming from the watershed of the San Diego Creek where Irvine and Woodbridge are being developed and on up the watershed east of Interstate 5, where the sediment load and erosion has also created a mud flat with such an incredible load of sediment that it just overwhelms the marsh.

"These wetlands were never meant to take a load. The other insidious thing is the toxic question--nutrients from fertilizers and storm drain water runoffs from residential and industrial wastes polluting the environment," Olson explained.

Protective Measures Studied

"These changes in available wintering habitats are the main reason why it has become so critical to restore and preserve them. If they are not, the bird populations will vanish."

In addition to acquiring and restoring endangered wetlands whenever funds are available, other protective measures are being studied by concerned groups.

These include conservation easements and cooperative management agreements with owner/developers, with various agencies and support groups contributing their resources to promoting ancillary research and educational programs, already under way aimed at sustaining the waterfowl and water bird resource of the Pacific Flyway.

Summa Corp., the developer of Playa Vista--a grand scale, multi-use project just south of Marina del Rey and north of Westchester--has largely come to terms with conservationists' demands by releasing a 216-acre parcel of its development, known as the Ballona Wetlands. The property under jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission comes to the National Audubon Society, which will restore and manage the wetlands with the aid of a $10-million Summa grant.

'Pressures of Urbanization'

"Much of that area is severely degraded at present, due to the pressures of urbanization and flood control measures installed by the county 50 years ago that drain the area and prevent saltwater from entering the wetlands, which more than 100 years ago covered more than 1,700 acres, including Marina del Rey and part of Venice," said Ballona Wetlands project manager Eric D. Metz.

"But a century of development has reduced them to the area north of Westchester and Playa del Rey."

Metz added that the Audubon Society plans to install a complicated freshwater and saltwater circulatory system at the 216-acre Ballona Wetlands habitat, remove vegetation that is not native to the area and re-establish native dune, coastal sage scrub and grassland savanna communities, create saltwater channels, freshwater ponds and construct a moat around a two-acre area dubbed "Bird Island," where birds will be allowed to nest without danger from predators.

"Bird species that now use the Ballona Wetlands include the American bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California least tern, brown pelican and Belding's savanna sparrow, all officially listed as endangered species," Metz added.

Restoration Planned

The restoration of these wetlands, after certification by the Coastal Commission, is expected to begin in the summer of 1988. Still being resolved is a suit brought against the Coastal Commission in 1984 by the 1,500-member Friends of the Ballona Wetlands in an effort to obtain an additional 100 acres which the group claims should be a part of the sanctuary.

Olson explained that an overall federal government study of wetlands throughout North America confirms how crucial the wetlands are to the survival of waterfowl and shore birds and how vital they are to the survival of certain species of plants and sea animals.

On the Atlantic Coast, 40% to 60% of all harvestable fish species will either spend part of their life in wetlands or feed on species that live part time in wetlands, he said, and some plant species can only grow in the wetlands.

Historical losses of wetlands reported by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for California show an existing 4 million to 5 million acres prior to 1900. By 1922, wetlands acreage had been reduced to 1.2 million as a result of the work that was done by the Bureau of Reclamation, the building of dams in the Sierra, which then allowed the valleys to be developed because they no longer flooded.

This led to the incredible agricultural production in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys but it also, eventually, left only 300,000 acres of natural wetlands.

Additional Wetlands Funds

After four years on the congressional agenda, the Emergency Wetland Resources Act was passed last October and signed by President Reagan in November.

The statute will raise an additional $25 million for wetlands acquisitions annually and will make Land and Water Conservation Fund monies available to federal agencies for protecting waterfowl habitat.

The law extended the Wetland Loan Act, permitting the Fish and Wildlife Service to borrow from the general treasury to buy wetlands. It also eliminated the loan act's requirement that nearly $200 million already borrowed be repaid with proceeds from duck-hunting fees.

Future duck-stamp monies would then be freed and available for wetland purchases or habitat maintenance.

In a cooperative effort, biologists of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, together with determined and dedicated private conservation groups have already identified key wetlands in the Southland and throughout the state for which protection has not yet been secured.

Bird Species Affected

The kinds of birds that are being victimized by this prevalent condition, namely in the Southland, include sandpipers, dowagers, mondo curlers, marble goblets, a whole array of species including many of the gulls and terns that would be nesting in Alaska and migrating south.

"This represents only a fraction of what is involved in this rescue mission," Olson believes, "but it is a start. For the most part, people are not aware that the wetlands are the lifeblood of California's rich wildlife heritage, and that they are dwindling because of ignorance and misuse of the land."

While the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys have been ranked by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the most important region in the nation in terms of biological value and threat factors in sustaining the continental waterfowl and shore bird population, a goodly number of ducks and geese and shore birds also migrate farther south and go on to Central America, and are critically dependent on suitable stopovers.

Earl Lauppe, wildlife management supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Game for all of Southern California's wetlands, from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, described particular areas of concern to the state agency.

Critical Areas Listed

"They have all now been reduced to small, fragmented pieces and are highly critical.

"In the Southland, critical areas include Mugu Lagoon adjacent to the Point Mugu U. S. Naval Air Missile Test Ground, the small but critical Malibu Lagoon and the Los Cerritos wetland in Long Beach that is currently a controversial issue due to development proposed there," Lauppe explained.

The Seal Beach area is the site of a national wildlife refuge and critical wetlands and is under protective jurisdiction of the U. S Naval Weapons Station.

The Bolsa Chica wetlands a little to the south, where the state now has a 200-acre ecological reserve for shore birds and waterfowl, is expected to be enlarged to about 1,000 acres as negotiations between Orange County, the state and the landowner, Signal Landmark, are completed.

Southland Wetlands

"There are wetlands at Huntington Beach, at the Santa Ana River mouth and in the 1,200-acre Upper Newport Bay which remains one of the most valuable wetlands in the region," Lauppe said. "And moving south, is all of the San Diego lagoon system, with strong efforts to protect them by the California Coastal Commission, the Coastal Conservancy and Department of Fish and Game."

Those lagoons are the Buena Vista lagoon between Carlsbad and Oceanside, Agua Hedionda, Batiquitos, San Elijo, San Dieguito, Los Penasquitos, Sweet Water-Paradise Marsh in Chula Vista and the Tijuana estuary and national bird sanctuary just south of Imperial Beach.

All eight lagoons serve either as wintering or migratory rest stops for waterfowl and geese or are breeding grounds for the light-footed clapper rail, the California least tern and Belding's savanna sparrow.

To what extent are these areas already threatened?

"We have lost most of the habitat around each of them," Lauppe said. "What we have available now in the wetlands are only slices of the pie. We are down to 5% of what we had, across the state.

"That is why conservation of what remains is so critical."

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