Posted Jan 23, 2017 at 11:29 AMUpdated Jan 23, 2017 at 6:44 PM
By Alex Breitler, Record Staff Writer
Facing strong local opposition, the federal government has essentially killed a plan to give San Joaquin County its first national wildlife refuge.
The existing San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto still will expand to the south, as first proposed. But plans to also expand along the river northward into south San Joaquin County have been eliminated.
Only several hundred acres of land within San Joaquin County, along the north bank of the Stanislaus River, still are in line for inclusion in the refuge.
“There was so much push-back during our outreach,” said Kim Forrest, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which made the decision to eliminate the northern section. “The vast majority of the negative comments were from San Joaquin County. They did not want us.”
County supervisors voted in 2011 to oppose the refuge expansion before it had even been formally proposed. The Banta-Carbona Irrigation District, which draws water from the San Joaquin River near Tracy, argued in 2013 that the federal government was attempting to “nationalize” the San Joaquin River by essentially “having their own territory in the middle of California.”
Only a tiny fraction of the region’s agricultural land would have been converted for wildlife. The old plan called for restoring about 18,492 acres in both the south and the north; the new, scaled-back plan calls for 10,738 acres, or less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the farmland in San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties.
In contrast, more than 95 percent of the forests that once lined Central Valley rivers has been eliminated.
Birders and environmentalists supported the northern expansion, which for the first time would have connected the existing wildlife refuge to the Delta, creating a kind of habitat highway for birds and other critters. Without San Joaquin County’s stretch of the San Joaquin River, however, that connection won’t happen.
The Environmental Protection Agency had urged officials to include the entire river, saying in 2013 that the refuge “has the potential to help make the San Joaquin River a destination area and bolster local economic activity from recreation and tourism.” And the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged in its final report released Monday that the original proposal would have provided more environmental benefits.
“I’m sorry to hear this. It’s certainly a shame,” Stockton-area rivers advocate Jim Marsh said Monday. “All of the wildlife and restoration people are saying that there need to be larger, contiguous blocks of land set aside. To do it piecemeal is not the best way to go about it.”
The expansion plan called for buying land from willing sellers over a period of a half century or longer. Farmers, however, were worried that the presence of the refuge would diminish property values and eventually force them to sell. They raised concerns about whether new public lands would be patrolled and whether endangered species might migrate onto private property.
Attorneys for San Joaquin County warned in 2013 that the plan would “gravely and negatively affect the local economy.” In its own economic analysis, Fish and Wildlife found there would be economic benefits and costs but did not attempt to quantify them as a whole.
The original proposal also came at a sensitive time, when Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed Delta tunnels plan included restoring large quantities of wetland habitat in the Delta. That prompted opponents to connect the proposed refuge expansion with the controversial tunnels.
Eliminating San Joaquin County’s share of the refuge is simply one less war to have to fight, said Mary Hildebrand, who farms along the river near Manteca.
“It’s good news,” she said Monday. “I don’t know how the landowners down the other way feel, but certainly we think with everything else going on in the Delta they should not come north of the Stanislaus River.”