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On one of the few sunny afternoons last month, Joe DiDonato expertly maneuvered his park-district-issued Ford Expedition up Welch Creek Road, a narrow, winding grade just south of Apperson Ridge. DiDonato is one of Bay Area's foremost experts on golden eagles and other large raptors. "That many trucks a day," he said, when asked about the effects of the mining operation on wildlife, "could send a shock wave to any number of species and basically eliminate their use of the area."
On a fire road atop a ridge that connects Apperson's property to Sunol and Ohlone parks, DiDonato pointed out three golden eagles in a span of two hours. The federally protected birds flew high above the ridge line, their brown-feathered wings spreading up to seven feet across, hovering on the air currents that funneled upslope from the canyons below. Golden eagles are expert hunters, and will swoop down over the grasslands, sometimes just a few feet above the ground, before snatching a squirrel or the occasional snake or rabbit. The birds mate for life, and jealously guard their hunting and nesting territory. Like humans, they will fight to the death over ownership of their land.
DiDonato has studied the golden eagles of Alameda and Contra Costa counties since the mid-1980s. Before he went to work for the park district, in fact, he and a colleague from UC Santa Cruz conducted the raptor survey that DeSilva financed. The two biologists lived outdoors for an entire year, from 1986 to 1987, near Rose Peak in Ohlone Wilderness, counting the eagles. The lanky biologist wouldn't comment on the park district's decision to take money from DeSilva rather than do what it could to block his mining operation but you could see the embarrassment on his face.
Overall, there are least one hundred pairs of golden eagles in the Diablo Range from Pacheco Pass to Mount Diablo. "This area is the densest nesting population of golden eagles in the world," said Grainger Hunt, one of the leading golden eagle experts in the United States, who conducted a more recent survey of the Diablo Range along with his wife, Terry. "It's a storybook setting," he said of the Sunol-Ohlone region, "particularly for somebody interested in birds, especially big birds raptors and it's right in the Bay Area."
DiDonato and Hunt, who works for the Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based conservation group, estimate that there are seven pairs of golden eagles on Apperson Ridge and its immediate surroundings in Sunol and Ohlone parks and San Antonio Reservoir. These fourteen raptors probably will not leave immediately when the mining operation begins, Hunt said. They share another trait with humans they're stubborn to a fault. The big birds will try to tough it out, but they likely won't be able to reproduce. All the noise from the dynamite, the rock crushers, and the countless dump trucks will disrupt their nesting routine, Hunt said. The deafening sounds also will prevent other eagles from moving into the territory.
In fifteen to twenty years, the birds' average lifespan, there likely will be none of them left in the heart of one of the best golden eagle habitats in the world. "If all they're going to do is mine rock for roads, you'd think they'd go to another place than a pristine wilderness," said Hunt in his Western drawl. "You stop 'em. Ya hear?"
Just off Calaveras Road, a few miles south of I-680, begins a Sunol Wilderness hike that has one of the best payoffs in the Bay Area for the least amount of work. It's the Maguire Peaks trail, a two-to-three-hour loop that begins amid a classic California landscape of rolling grasslands and oak trees and then ascends to two rocky outcroppings at about 1,700 feet. The twin peaks offer panoramic views of the East Bay. To the north, beyond San Antonio Reservoir, stands Mount Diablo; to the east, the Altamont Pass; to the southwest, Mission Peak; and to the west, San Francisco Bay.
But the best view is of the 2,200-foot Apperson Ridge less than a mile away. The ridge, in fact, dominates the views along at least half of the Maguire Peaks trail. Once the mine opens, this trail will be little more than a steep hike to a massive quarry.
The mine's havoc will be far more widespread, however. Weekday visitors to Sunol and Ohlone will have to contend with all the 24-ton dumptrucks on Calaveras Road, while the noise of blasting and crushing will reverberate throughout a region that outdoor author and hiking guru Tom Stienstra called "the East Bay's most unspoiled backcountry" in his book California Hiking.
In the 6,800-acre Sunol wilderness, the explosions may be heard from as far away as Little Yosemite, a scenic gorge along Alameda Creek that features pools and waterfalls in winter and early spring. The sounds of dynamite blasts could even reach the most remote sections of the stunningly beautiful 9,700-acre Ohlone wilderness. Among its gems is Murietta Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Bay Area, and the butt-kicking but spectacular Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which runs 28 miles from Del Valle Reservoir, south of Livermore, all the way to Fremont.
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