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Bair Facts

Bair Island
Christopher Gardner

POST Haste: Citizens' group scrambles to raise $5 million for purchase.

Fate of unprotected SF Bay wetlands rests in an Ohio Republican's hands

By Michael Learmonth

FOR 30 YEARS, they fought the corporations--first Leslie Salt, then Mobil Oil and finally Tokyo-based Kumagai Gumi. Now, the citizens working to preserve the South Bay's last large unprotected salt marsh face one last giant hurdle: the Republican congressman from Canton, Ohio: Ralph Regula.

Bair Island is a 3,200-acre tract of salt marsh bisected by sloughs just north of the Port of Redwood City and south of Redwood Shores. The corporations that owned the land each tried unsuccessfully to build a city on the marsh. Japanese developer Kumagai Gumi gave up a 10-year bid last fall when Bair Island activists made a public plea to the president of Kumagai by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times. [See past Metro cover story.]

Kumagai agreed to sell Bair Island for $15 million. The Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) thinks it can raise $5 million from the community via newspaper ads, but is counting on Congress for the rest.

Trust director Audrey Rust went to Washington, D.C., last week to testify with U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo in front of the powerful Interior Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Representative Regula is chairman of the subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over all public lands and a budget of nearly $14 billion. Last year, only $44.4 million of that was used to buy new park land.

"It is an extremely competitive environment for us to be seeking funds," said Rust when she returned from Washington. Unfortunately, Bair Island is competing with some high-profile projects with powerful friends, such as Sterling Forest in New Jersey and the expansion of the Florida Everglades.

"What we see as our edge is that the salt marsh itself is an endangered species," Rust said. "There is so little left in the U.S. it is almost not quantifiable."

This is not the first time Eshoo has appeared before Regula's committee to ask for Bair Island funding. But the fact that Kumagai became a willing seller strengthens her case. Also, Bair Island is home to three federally listed endangered species: the California clapper rail, the California least tern and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

"Bair Island is unique in many ways," Eshoo testified. "It is easily restorable habitat that is already home to 125 species of birds, including blue herons, egrets and Caspian terns."

Rust and Eshoo will find out in May if their arguments moved the Ohio congressman. As soon as he gets word on how much money will be available from the budget committee, he will make his recommendations. A legislative aide to Regula said the odds of the entire appropriation happening this year were slim.

"Ten million would be a large amount of money for us to appropriate for one project in one year," she said. "We try to do things incrementally. We have an abundance of worthy projects, and we are going to look at all of them."

Rust and Eshoo are urging locals to write letters to Regula, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust has set up a fund to raise money for Bair Island. More information on both initiatives can be found at the trust's Web site.

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro

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