In 1972, the nation’s most improbable national wildlife refuge was established. Amongst the pickleweed, cordgrass and meandering sloughs of South San Francisco Bay, a national wildlife refuge was created to protect nature in the heart of a major urban area. Federal wildlife officials, used to protecting far-off places, initially rejected the idea. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge only exists today thanks to the tireless activism of the Bay Area’s residents and allied elected officials who believed that a refuge was necessary to protect the Bay’s wildlife and ensure a connection to nature for Bay Area residents. Fifty years later, that vision and mission remains more important than ever.
Alarmed by the rate at which the shoreline was being gobbled up by development, Santa Clara County planner Arthur Ogilvie became convinced the only way to permanently protect the Bay and its wildlife from urbanization was to establish a national wildlife refuge. With the support of local activists and championed by Congressman Don Edwards, one of the nation’s first wildlife refuges in an urban area was established. Decades later, the Refuge has grown to 30,000 acres, protecting habitat for millions of migratory birds and numerous threatened and endangered species, and providing opportunities for the Bay Area’s millions of residents to enjoy the benefits of nature. As climate change reshapes our environment, the Refuge’s wetlands also provide the Bay Area with valuable protection against sea level rise and sequester carbon, reducing the impact of emissions.
However, the vision of San Francisco Bay’s national wildlife refuge remains incomplete – and under threat. Sea level rise caused by climate change threatens to drown the Bay’s wetlands if we don’t take rapid action to both reduce emissions and adapt our shorelines in a way that embraces, rather than rejects nature.
One of the most critical actions we must take is to preserve “wetland migration” zones around the Bay – open space areas where wetlands (and the Bay wildlife species that depend on them) can move inland as sea levels rise. There are a precious few wetland migration locations left in the Bay – and many of them are threatened with imminent development.
The most visible and urgent effort in the Bay right now is the need to protect the wetlands and upland habitat referred to as “Area 4” in the city of Newark, which make up one of the largest remaining open space areas left in the South Bay. Over a dozen organizations, and thousands of Bay Area residents, have come together with the Save Newark Wetlands campaign to see these 500 acres permanently protected as part of the Refuge. The Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark also continue to be key opportunities to expand the benefits of the Refuge, providing the possibility to restore thousands of acres of wetlands and provide critical upland areas for the future resiliency of the Bay.
Additional opportunities exist for protecting the future of the Refuge in the heart of our Bay, including reconnecting our local creeks with our Bay, multi-benefit projects which would provide sediment to help give our wetlands a chance to keep up with rising sea levels, and numerous other creative solutions being tested by the Bay’s dedicated scientists to ensure the resiliency of the diverse habitats of the complex San Francisco Bay ecosystem.
There is no doubt that the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge will look much different 50 years from now than it does today – but one thing remains constant: the future of our Bay’s wildlife refuge is, and always has been, up to us, its dedicated supporters.
Carin High and Gail Raabe are Co-Chairs of the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, an all-volunteer organization that for over 50 years has championed the creation, expansion and protection of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. www.BayRefuge.org