Haire Ranch acquired for refuge

Jim Haire, whose family has been farming on or near reclaimed Carneros marsh land for more than 100 years, may have one more hay crop in his future (if it ever rains again) but his 1,092-acre Skaggs Island ranch now belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which intends to let San Pablo Bay take back what was once hers.

Like most of the North Bay shoreline, Skaggs Island was “reclaimed” more than a century ago, diked and drained by a Nevada state senator named John “Percy” Jones who owned the Sonoma Land Company. What had once been marshland and sloughs became fields of hay and grain.

But for land use planners from a multitude of local, state and federal, public and private agencies, those reclaimed lands held the promise of both a vast natural preserve, and a buffer against rising sea levels and future flooding. Acquiring salt ponds and diked wetlands at the top of San Pablo Bay has been going on for more than a decade, but one piece of the land acquisition puzzle has remained elusive. The Haire Ranch, said Wendy Eliot, conservation director of the Sonoma Land Trust, “has been the holy grail of conservation projects,” the missing centerpiece of a 4,400-acre package of reclaimed farmland on Skaggs Island long envisioned as part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

“For more than a decade,” Eliot said, “the government has been waiting to restore Skaggs Island to tidal marsh, but Haire Ranch stood in the way, just out of reach.”

The USFWS acquired 3,300 acres of Skaggs Island from the U.S. Navy in 2011 and promptly removed a virtual village of buildings erected by the Navy since 1941, when it took over the land for a communications and intelligence-gathering base. The Navy left in 1993, and while the property was fenced off with a locked gate, it remained a magnet for curious visitors and sinister intruders alike. The scores of buildings provided endless palettes for graffiti artists, some of the structures were rumored to house meth labs, and all the while the adjacent Haire ranch continued to farm oat hay, its fields kept dry from the encircling bay waters by a “perpetual maintenance agreement” negotiated by M.B. Skaggs who bought the land from Sen. Jones.

Marion Barton Skaggs was a brilliant entrepreneur who pioneered “cash and carry” self-service grocery stores, eventually building a 418-store chain that formed the basis of the Safeway empire.

The maintenance agreement Skaggs shrewdly negotiated with the government after his land was condemned for the Navy’s use, required that the Navy – or whoever subsequently owned the land – must maintain the network of levees and pumps that have kept Haire Ranch and Skaggs Island dry since the 1880s.

Jim Haire laughs when he recalls how “they threatened to take me to court twice. But they never did.” The “they” is the federal government and they didn’t ultimately file suit because the agreement Haire held, thanks to M.B. Skaggs, was brilliantly, legally ironclad.

“He was a very, very intelligent man. He tied the agreement to the land, not to himself. And it covered ingress and egress from Ramal Road. They once threatened to close the bridge (onto Skaggs Island from Ramal Road), but they couldn’t because of the agreement.”

Haire was not eager to sell the land and rebuffed efforts to acquire it for four years. A sale was complicated by a presumed land value set earlier when San Francisco airport authorities were planning to push a second runway into the bay and needed to mitigate the loss of bay acreage by preserving some elsewhere. They made a deal with Haire that would have netted him a rumored $15 million or more, but the runway deal fell through and no one came along to match it.

Ultimately, the Skaggs Island acquisition united a small consortium of interests in a joint venture in which the Natural Resources Conservation Fund paid Haire and his sister, Judy, $7.5 million for a USDA Wetland Reserve Program easement, and the Sonoma Land Trust raised an additional $700,000 for the land from the state Coastal Conservancy and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The total package cost $8.3 million.

Plans for the property call for a scientifically-guided breeching of surrounding levies that will incrementally flood the Haire ranch, returning it to tidal marsh with hillocks of upland habitat surrounded by rising and falling brackish water, combining the flow of Sonoma Creek with bay tides.

Haire says there is a sizeable herd of resident deer, the land is teeming with raptors that feed on the abundant rodent population, and as the marsh expands it will nurture increasing populations of fish and wildfowl.

As Eliot quipped, “You just add water and you get a marsh.” But she was quick to add that the process is not that simple, and detailed hydrological studies will be needed to determine the location and size of levee breeches so that unintended consequences don’t flow from one site to another.

For his part, Haire has mixed feelings about the loss of his ranch. “The land was a family member,” he said. “You would deal with it all the time. But I look at it this way – the land was underneath the water, under the bay, before Percy Jones leveed it off and put it to work. If the land is ever needed again, it will still be there, and you could levee it off again.”

But Haire, who owns vineyards in the hills overlooking the ranch, understands the bigger picture as well. “It will have the ability to take in excess water from floods. There will be fishing, bird watching, maybe hunting. Those are good things. I hope in my lifetime I’ll be able to see what they’re talking about creating. I’ll be up there in the vineyard looking down on it. I’m just hoping for the best.”