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Push on for wildlife refuge expansion
No property will be acquired by eminent domain process
An aerial view of the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. - photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

The power of eminent domain would not be used in the acquisition of property needed for the proposed expansion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

That’s according to Mark Pelz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is one of the federal agency’s staff involved in the initial gathering of public comments for the preparation of a draft environmental assessment on the proposed plan to expand the existing wildlife refuge by up to 22,156 acres along the lower San Joaquin, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus rivers.

Land acquisition for this purpose would only happen “if we have a willing seller,” he said. The targeted areas are “river frontages” and, in some cases, they “may be only interested” in the riparian habitats, added Pelz during a recent open-house public meeting held at the Hampton Inn in Lathrop.

The proposal to extend the boundaries of the Central Valley’s wildlife refuge also is not something that would happen soon, or in a matter of just a few years. “We’re talking decades,” Pelz said of the time element involved in the overall process.

The land acquisition is just half of the equation affecting the expansion plan. The other half involves funds that would be needed to purchase the private properties as they would become available. Pelz said the expansion project will rely on two funding sources: the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund which would involve the sale of avian-themed stamps with the blessing of Congress, and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

At the Lathrop input-gathering open house, among the concerns raised by those opposed to the proposed expansion were “loss of water rights,” public access near the refuge property, and the need for “more dialogue with landowners and farmers.”

Others wanted to know how farmers can be assured that “new restrictions would not be placed on neighboring lands” and on farming practices - such as crop dusting and spraying - on lands adjacent to the refuge. One suggested creating “more easements” rather than going after “fee title acquitions” to achieve the expansion. There’s “too much property involved” in the expansion being proposed, was another comment and suggestion offered at the informal, one-on-one open house meeting which Pelz said gave “more opportunity for people to talk one-on-one” with the federal officials present.

That set-up proved successful, with Pelz noting, “We got lots of great comments; we had a good turn-out too.”

One of the supportive comments that evening came from Jane Humes of the Waldo Holt San Joaquin Wildlife Conservancy, a Stockton-based non-profit organization dedicated to “preserving wildlife habitat in San Joaquin County.”

“I’m interested in conservation, and I want to see what they are doing,” Jane Humes, the organization’s secretary, said of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intention of expanding the valley’s wildlife refuge.

“It’s a good thing. We want to see agriculture and wildland stay healthy in the county,” said Humes who came to the open-house meeting with her husband Richard who is also a member of the five-year-old Waldo Holt Conservancy.

The refuge expansion proposal

The proposed refuge expansion would give the Fish and Wildlife Service the green light to acquire lands and develop agreements with willing landowners.

One of the two alternatives, which calls for the acquisition of up to 22,156 acres, would “connect the refuge with the Grasslands Ecological Area, a 160,000-acre mosaic of Central Valley floor habitats located in the historic floodplain of the San Joaquin River,” according to the Service report.

“This vast network of freshwater marshes, alkali grassland and riparian thickets is the result of decades of collaborative conservation involving private duck clubs, CA State Parks, CA Department of Fish and Game, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Maintaining connectivity between the remaining natural areas and minimizing further fragmentation is crucial to the long-term viability of California’s natural heritage,” added the report.

Those who were unable to attend any of the public-input meetings but would like add their comments can do so by mail, fax or telephone to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 8, Refuge Planning

Richard Smith; 2800 Cottage Way, W-1832.