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Sears Point’s wetlands join San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Next weekend marks a turning point for the Bay Area's newest 'natural area' at the Sears Point Wetland. On Friday, May 13, the Sonoma Land Trust is scheduled to turn over the property to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge; two days later an afternoon celebration will mark the transfer and the addition of a new 2.5 mile extension to the San Francisco Bay Trail system.

Which means, for the Sonoma Land Trust, their work here is done – almost.

'There's a lot to do on it still, believe it or not,' said the Sonoma Land Trust's Baylands program manager Julian Meisler. 'We have long term responsibilities in terms of monitoring. We're still working on creating native habitat on the levees. That's kind of a big job – we've got about 40 acres of ground we need to plant.'

Meisler has headed the restoration project since he came on board in 2009, and he acknowledges that change is coming slowly to the 1,000 acres of low-lying terrain now flooded by sea water, from last October's levee breach. 'It'll take 20 or 30 years before we see everything come to fruition. But the really nice thing is what is coming back on its own, passively, without any interventions.'

He's talking of the pickleweed (Sarcocornia pacifica) slowly filling in the now-flooded acreage, which provides habitat for the wildlife that more mature wetlands see: clapper rails, salt marsh harvest mice, osprey, coyotes, and a plethora of shore birds as well as salmon fingerlings and more.

But even now, a walk along the levee trails is a reconnection with nature – the sounds of songbirds percolating over the pickleweed, the stately silent fishing of egrets and avocets, and maybe the hissing of turkey vultures whose solitude is being challenged.

The Sonoma Land Trust purchased the property in 2005, as part of a $17 million arrangement with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the former owners, the Dickson family. Restoring it to wetlands, once the dominant ecology of the San Francisco Bay shoreline, became a high priority for the 40-year-old nonprofit. The Trust works with local landowners to develop long-term land protection strategies, often by executing the purchase of a property, then transferring it to an appropriate organization or government agency – in this case, the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

By becoming part of the Refuge, the wetlands joins a 20-square mile protected area in Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties, created in 1974 to protect migratory birds, wetland habitat and endangered species. The newest addition, which the Refuge is calling the Dickson unit, adjoins the 300-acre Sonoma Baylands, opened up to salt water just over 20 years ago but well on its way to full recovery.

'Historically this was a massive estuary, where freshwater and saltwater meet, and it makes these highly productive areas,' said Don Brubaker, refuge manager of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

'With the conversion of these lands to farmlands, back in the 1800s, that was lost… Converting these back to estuarine habitat is what we're doing.'

The new trail – to the left, or east, of the wetlands' access at the end of Reclamation Road, over a newly-enhanced railroad crossing – will become part of the San Francisco Bay Trail, a planned walking and cycling path around the entire San Francisco Bay, running through all nine Bay Area counties. With 345 miles of trail already in place, the newest leg brings it a tiny but significant bit closer to its 500-mile goal.

'This new 2.5 miles of levee-top trail directly adjacent to the Bay connects to an existing 1.5 miles of Bay Trail at Sonoma Baylands to the west,' said Maureen Gaffney of the Bay Trail. 'It is a significant addition of trail in a part of the region where access to the Bay shoreline has historically been extremely limited.'

Sunday's event begins at 2:30 p.m., and is open to the public. It will be emceed by Doug McConnell of NBC's 'Open Road' television program, which aired a segment on the wetlands in January. Among the guests are representatives from federal, state and county government, as well as the Dickson Family, former owners of the ranch property. McConnell will then lead the first 'official hike' down the newly-opened trail.

Starting the next weekend, on Saturday, May 21, a new program will be launched at the site by the Sonoma Land Trust. From 9 a.m. to noon, docents will be available to talk with visitors about the restoration project, tidal marsh ecology and wildlife. Introductory walks on these topics will be held hourly every Saturday morning.

The site will be open from sunrise to sunset daily; parking is free at the lot at the end of Reclamation Road. 'The beauty of that is it's open,' said Meisel. 'You look at all those people sitting in traffic on Highway 37 every day, and I hope that some of them decide to wait out the traffic and come out and take a run, take a walk, look at birds, whatever they want to do. It's much more relaxing.'

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com

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