To protect the ecosystem that supports those animals, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials hope to nearly triple the size of the refuge within several decades by restoring 22,156 acres of land to the north and south.
Plans include planting native vegetation, among other restoration work, in a 15-mile area stretching toward Manteca in San Joaquin County and in a 26-mile swath of riparian areas in the West Side of Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft document in November that examines the environmental impacts of the project, and residents can publicly comment on the document until Friday, Feb. 1.
Kim Forrest, manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said she hopes the restored riparian areas will attract not only locals but also tourists, who could boost the economy by spending money locally.
“My vision is to draw people from out of the area, like people from the Bay Area, to visit these areas, … but I also want local people to view these public lands as their big backyard,” Forrest said.
Expanding the 12,887-acre refuge to more than 35,000 acres would be a lengthy endeavor, as U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials estimate it would take at least 45 years to acquire half the expansion area.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to buy 95 percent of the needed land, officials anticipate 5 percent would involve conservation easements or other agreements for land that would continue to be owned by others.
The plan assumes that the agency will continue to receive $1 million annually for restoration. With that money, Fish and Wildlife officials expect to acquire 150 acres of land and restore one mile of levee with native plants every year.
Land would be bought from voluntary sellers, not through eminent domain, Forrest said.
After the environmental assessment is complete, the regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will decide which of three options is best: restoring land both north and south of the refuge, southward restoration only, or no change. If one of the expansion options is selected, the Service can start acquiring land to expand.
Criticism and support
Fish and Wildlife Service representatives hope to protect endangered species that call the riparian ecosystem home and restoring habitat among other environmental benefits. The environmental assessment also indicates that the newly expanded refuge could even have economic benefits for the region.
At the same time, the plan has come under fire from the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.
Farm bureau members and officials alike worry about farmland being taken out of production and potential conflicts with agricultural uses, according to an article on the San Joaquin Farm Bureau website. Many fear that the government’s desire for acreage in the area would make it harder to sell farmland.
For similar reasons, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in August 2011, with Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller dissenting, to oppose the refuge’s expansion into San Joaquin County.
Still, Fish and Wildlife officials have generally heard support for the plan, Forrest said.
Patterson Mayor Luis Molina, who has expressed support for a state and federal effort to restore the San Joaquin River, said he did not know much about the most recent expansion plan. Yet he hoped to see the city engage in a dialogue with Fish and Wildlife officials.
Molina would like to see Patterson expand eastward and has described the river as a community asset. He hopes to speak with local youth to hear their thoughts about the river, as they will be able to enjoy it in future years, he said.
“That’s an outdoor classroom waiting to happen,” Molina said.
Forrest said she values input from Patterson residents and leaders regarding possible uses for the riverside property, though the Fish and Wildlife Service favors recreational uses that are compatible with a wildlife refuge.
Bicycles or horses, for example, would not be a good fit for a refuge, as they could frighten animals that live there, Forrest said. On the other hand, the agency would be interested in maintaining hiking trails there.
The city of Patterson’s draft Parks and Recreation Master Plan proposes a riverfront park that the city and county could create together. That park would be linked with a trail or bicycle path that would extend to another proposed park at the base of Del Puerto Canyon.
City Manager Rod Butler said that creating a riverside park would require cooperation with Stanislaus County, and he would would be open to speaking with Fish and Wildlife Service representatives, as well.
“To have a river that close to our city does present opportunities for recreation,” Butler said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or email@example.com.