Navy trying to torpedo wildlife refuge
Instead of cleaning up its waste, Navy invites VA to build on site
The U.S. Navy is not usually known as an environmental protector, and now it even seems to be trying to reverse its own best deed.
In the early 1970s the endangered least tern made a dramatic appearance at a most unlikely location - the Naval Air Station at Alameda - nesting on gravel and sandy soil by runways. It was an odd relationship, but the Navy cared for the terns each nesting season. The terns may not have thrived, but they survived. The location is now the least tern's only consistent nesting ground north of Santa Barbara. In 2008 Alameda produced more fledglings than any other colony in the state - 20% of all fledglings. Several other colonies failed almost completely to breed. For a species in danger, this colony is essential. In 1994 the Navy closed the Air Station, and in 1996 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officially asked for 579 acres of land surrounding the nesting colony (out of the 1,700 acres of the Air Station) to form the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge.
For 12 years the Navy and the FWS have failed to achieve a transfer of the land - because they can't agree who will be responsible for the contaminants left on the site by the Navy. The military, despite being the best-funded branch of government, has a long track record across the country of trying to evade responsibility and expenses for cleaning up its toxic messes. When FWS, with its much smaller budget, wouldn't take on this burden, the Navy went out and suggested to the federal Veterans Administration (VA) that it use the refuge site to build a columbarium (cemetery for cremated ashes), a health clinic, and possibly a community hospital.
Such a move would violate the requirements set by FWS to protect the terns and would probably mean the end of the colony. The VA project would bring predators such as crows, ravens, and rats. The least terns wouldn't stand a chance.
Nonetheless, late last year the VA published a notice that it was going ahead and preparing environmental documents to allow its project to move forward. It held a "scoping" public meeting for community input.
At the meeting the Sierra Club reminded the VA that such a project would threaten endangered species. City of Alameda Councilmember Frank Mataresse pointed out that the VA project could be placed elsewhere at the Air Station on the over 1,100 acres not in the refuge. The Club suggested that the Navy's environmental review would be legally at risk if it did not consider such an alternate site. Such a site would also be easier and less expensive to develop than the refuge site, which lacks gas, water, and electricity infrastructure.
We were happy to hear that at a later Alameda City Council meeting, Mayor Beverly Johnson and other councilmembers asked the VA to look at the rest of the Navy lands.
The least tern has survived thousands of years of a difficult existence. It would be the height of irony if we humans wiped out this species to bury our own dead.
If you live in the City of Alameda, it would be very helpful for you to write to City Council members at:
Alameda City Hall
2263 Santa Clara Ave.
Alameda CA 94501
mayor's fax: (510)747-4704
councilmembers' fax: (510) 747-4805.
Tell them that the VA should not be sited on the refuge lands, and urge them to support the rest of the Navy land as a good alternate site for the VA. Thank the mayor for asking the VA to consider this alternative, and thank Councilmember Mattarese for attending the scoping meeting and insisting that the Navy and VA make a presentation to the City Council.