The vista from the cracked and abandoned runways of the old Alameda Naval Air Station is breathtaking: a sweeping panorama of San Francisco from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate that would make any red-blooded developer drool. It's more difficult to say whether the current occupants -- 260 pairs of endangered gray-and-white birds known as California least terns -- know or care that they're nesting on some of the hottest real estate in the Bay Area.
The tiny birds share the old base with two other endangered species: Alameda Point is a significant roosting site for California brown pelicans and foraging ground for peregrine falcons, as well as a host of other birds, jackrabbits, and foxes. This menagerie owes its property rights to the efforts of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, whose members lobbied long and hard with the Navy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve the terns' turf as a national public wildlife refuge. "I couldn't quite believe it when they decided to give the land to us, rather than real-estate developers," says Leora Feeney, chair of the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife, an Audubon Society committee.
What Feeney can't believe nowadays is that her beloved project may take fourteen years or more to even get off the ground. There has been little action from the Navy since it approved the refuge plan eight years ago, and official transfer of the land from the Navy to Fish and Wildlife -- a prerequisite for the refuge vision to proceed -- will likely take at least six more years. "That's a long time to have the care and management of an endangered species in limbo," Feeney says.
The reason for the big holdup? The Navy, according to the bird lovers, is taking its sweet time cleaning up 1.6 million tons of waste left in a 120-acre Superfund landfill adjacent to the nesting grounds. Until the site passes muster, the Audubon Society's vision of restoring the breeding grounds and expanding the tern colonies has been put on hold. And planned wetlands restoration and construction of public access trails also cannot proceed until the refuge is transferred to its new steward.
At the moment, the former military base is no place for a weekend picnic. The landfill in question contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are known carcinogens. It is also polluted with an alphabet soup of industrial chemicals, solvents, acids, plating wastes, batteries, low-level radiological waste, asbestos, pesticides, and medical refuse, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control at the state Environmental Protection Agency. "As far as I know, none of the contaminants are flowing into the Bay, but that's still under study as well," says Steve Edde, the Navy's environmental liaison for the Alameda site.
The Navy base officially shut down in 1997, but the least terns, also known as sea swallows, have been migrating there for almost fifteen years now. The birds nest and raise their young on the site from April through August. Edde reckons that they first settled on the edge of the runway because the noise from jet engines kept predators away. The concrete, interspersed with scraggly weeds that disguise the small birds, may look like home to the terns, whose native habitat is California beaches. "Over the years, the birds have done phenomenally well," he says.
To be fair, the Navy has played a role in the terns' success. During the early 1990s, an officer noticed three nesting pairs and hired a wildlife biologist to look after the birds, as required under the Endangered Species Act. Navy contractors later constructed a fence to protect the nesting area and placed small terra-cotta pipes to provide shelter for the chicks. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated a refuge manager, Chris Bandy, to oversee the terns and the land; the Navy is paying for his work monitoring and protecting the birds and will continue to do so, Edde says, until the land goes to Fish and Wildlife.
In the meantime the Navy has been cleaning up the site -- or rather talking about cleaning it up -- ever since the base shut down, but its plodding time frame is infuriating Audubon Society officials. Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the nonprofit's Golden Gate chapter, complains that the fate of one of the world's largest breeding colonies of least terns is being left in the hands of one of the planet's biggest bureaucracies. "There's a major threat to the wildlife there, in that there's an inherent insecurity at the site until the transfer takes place," he says. "Any year, there could be a change in Navy management, and if there are any institutional changes, we could have a disaster."
Tern-fanciers assail what they deem the Navy's haphazard cleanup efforts. Indeed, the Navy's initial analysis of the contamination, submitted in December 2000, was rejected by the state EPA, which is overseeing the cleanup. The agency determined that the Navy had set its contaminant-detection levels so high that the landfill and grounds of the proposed refuge tested clean. According to Feinstein, the engineers explained their results by surmising that all the toxins must have washed out into the Bay.
"The Navy doesn't want to find anything," he says. "They're trying as hard as possible not to find anything. And the way they're going about it isn't even clever or subtle."
Acknowledging that its first report wasn't up to par, the Navy hired a new contractor and revised its cleanup and land-transfer schedules. Analysis of the Superfund site, which Feinstein says was originally slated for completion by October, is now due to be finished in March 2005. Deadlines for the actual cleanup and land transfer have been extended to December 2008, with the possibility of a partial transfer of uncontaminated land within the next couple of years.
Edde says limited funds are available for Superfund cleanup at the Alameda site. "We are pushing for dollars all the time to get the budget so that we can complete the work," he says. "That's our main goal."
The funding, however, doesn't flow from a special fund; it is allocated each year from the Navy's general fund based on forecasts by each project's engineers. If a particular cleanup project lacks cash, it is because the Navy has failed to allocate it. "The Navy just doesn't really want to use the funds if it doesn't have to," says Briggs Nesbit, a restoration manager for environmental group Save the Bay, who is working on Superfund cleanup efforts at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, another former Navy base.
It's not clear how much the Alameda cleanup will cost. Feinstein estimates it could run into the tens of millions, while Edde won't venture a guess. The Navy is also retesting the grounds of the proposed refuge -- which is not a Superfund site -- for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, combustion byproducts that can be carcinogenic at high levels, says Blanchette. If the land tests clean, Edde says the Navy is willing to make a partial transfer to the Fish and Wildlife Service so that at least a portion of the refuge can be made available to the public.
But whether the land's new guardian will play along isn't clear. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about accepting land if it might end up being liable for contaminants," says Chris Bandy, the refuge manager.
Regardless, it will be quite some time before the public has access to the miles of trails and restored grasslands that the wildlife refuge will one day encompass. Until a transfer takes place, the Audubon Society can't even raise funds to complete the restoration projects it has in mind.
"It's very frustrating to have 500 to 600 acres of urban real estate and not being able to take the public onto it," says Feeney. "I don't think it will survive in the hearts of our community if they can't experience it; it's hard to get public enthusiasm and support when you can't go out there."
For now, her group has brought the refuge to the people by creating educational programs for Oakland and Alameda classrooms. Volunteers from Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge teach the kids about the endangered species and native vegetation in the proposed refuge, and once in a while are able to take a small school group out to the few areas that are known not to be contaminated.
Hoping to put a fire under the Navy's behind, Feinstein in March took the terns' plight to the nation's capital, where he made a presentation on the proposed refuge to US Representatives Barbara Lee, Pete Stark, and Nancy Pelosi, along with officials from the Navy and the Interior Department. "Ultimately, it's in the best interest of the Navy to keep their Congressional representatives happy. They decide the Navy's budget, after all," says Feinstein.
In the meantime, far from the madding crowd, the terns are spending their summer mornings snatching minnows from the Bay and settling in for the year's baby boom. They don't seem to mind that the only people ogling them are Bandy, the Navy's contractors, and the occasional reporter or school group. They don't get too worked up about nearby Superfund cleanups, environmental politics, or bureaucratic foot-dragging. Then again, they haven't heard about the cushy resort in store for them if the Navy ever gets its act together.
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