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50-year plan for wetlands restoration
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FREMONT (AP) — A 50-year plan for the restoration of San Francisco Bay and other coastal wetlands was released Thursday by federal wildlife officials who say it's the biggest effort to save tidal marshes outside the Florida Everglades.

The $1.24 billion plan for the bay and a patchwork of tidal marshes in northern and central California calls for projects along 500 miles of the state's 1,100-mile coastline, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said.

The plan is the result of 15 years of research and provides recommendations meant to save 17 struggling species of plants and animals, including the endangered California clapper rail, a bird.

"The plan puts together in one document everything you need for their recovery," said Cay Goude, an endangered species expert with the service.

The plan was previously approved by the service, which has spent years reviewing and getting public comment. Funding will come from a mix of federal state and private sources.

Since the Gold Rush era, 90 percent of tidal marshes in the San Francisco Bay have been lost to development and contamination.

Tidal marshes, especially in such dense urban environments, help clean water flowing through the dense vegetation during tidal swings; sequester carbon dioxide in myriad plants; and provide habitat for sea life, birds and other animals.

The plan is not a regulatory mandate but does give government agencies and private conservation groups the science-based guidance needed to help focus their efforts.

"This plan gives us promise that the rare species we're losing have a chance of coming back," Jennifer Norris, field supervisor in Sacramento for the federal agency, said from a marsh recovery site near Silicon Valley. "That's reason to celebrate ... there's still time."

Marc Holmes, a wetlands policy expert at The Bay Institute, said the plan marks a shift by the service to focus on large-scale ecosystem restoration projects that can benefit many species rather than targeting one area at a time.

"It's a huge change of perspective in how government does business," Holmes said. "It's not about singling out actions for a particular species. The first objective should be to restore as much tidal marsh habitat as we possibly can."

The plan says about $426 million of the total price tag would be needed for land acquisition for future projects by local governments or conservation groups. However, the fish and wildlife service said it believes that estimate is high because some landowners will do their own conservation work.

"It's not necessary for lands to be acquired in public ownership," said Sarah Swenty, a service spokeswoman. "We will work with willing landowners to help them manage for the species."

Most of the other cost would cover restoration and research.

Much of the plan focuses on previously acquired properties that are either being restored or available for restoration projects.

More than 35 square miles of tidal marsh restoration around the San Francisco Bay has already started or is in the planning stages, with much of the work reliant on volunteer efforts.

Near the lush vineyards of Napa County, a 20-year restoration project to return industrial salt ponds to their natural state has already helped transform the area into a state wildlife refuge. Near Silicon Valley, the initial phase of a nearly 24-square-mile restoration of former Cargill salt ponds is also underway.

The fish and wildlife agency will be forming a team to help coordinate and guide the patchwork of projects to ensure the work is done properly and will not affect or damage existing infrastructure such as roads.

The goal of the work is to restore the ecosystem in a way that can sustain populations of the clapper rail, salt marsh harvest mouse and other species protected by federal law. It also calls for long-term monitoring of those efforts to gauge what strategies are working and which are not.

Florence LaRiviere, 89, a wetlands activist, was delighted with the plan after fighting for restoration with her now deceased husband Philip since the 1960s. The couple helped thwart plans to develop housing over tidal marshes that are now part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont.

"It feels like a culmination and a beginning," she said, standing on a marsh trail dedicated to her efforts at the refuge. "It's a guideline for the land we're going to protect."