Greens buy a farm - In a controversial move, a conservation group has bought 9,200 acres of Delta farmland
 
(Note: Was this a coup of taxpayer dollars, or what? TNC strikes again.)
 
December 5, 2001

By Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer
 
 
The San Francisco Chronicle
 
San Francisco, California
 
 
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@sfchronicle.com

Staten Island, Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California -- This entire 9,200-acre island is a corporate farm, annually pumping out hundreds of thousands of bushels of corn, wheat and tomatoes. There are no groves of hoary oaks, no native bunch grass uplands, no marshes.
   
It's not the kind of property, in other words, that tends to excite conservationists.
   
And yet, some conservationists are excited -- specifically those who work for the California Nature Conservancy, an organization that usually buys and preserves large tracts of the state's most endangered ecosystems.
   
In a controversial move, the conservancy has purchased Staten Island with a $35 million government grant. The organization doesn't plan to restore the island to wetland and riparian forest, as some conservationists would have them do; it's going to farm it.
   
The grant was administered by CalFed, a joint state and federal agency that was formed several years ago to guarantee an equitable split of the state's water among urban, environmental and agricultural interests. CalFed also restores wildlife habitat and fisheries in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their shared delta.

Chris Unkel, a senior field representative for the conservancy, acknowledges that the move "pushes the envelope" of conservation theory. But that strategy, he says, is dictated by necessity.
   
Wildlife cannot be protected by simply buying discrete parcels of pristine habitat, in part because there isn't enough left, Unkel says. Instead, wildlife has to be encouraged on land that is farmed or otherwise developed to one degree or another.
   
Wildlife already thrives to a very significant degree on the ranch. Up to 20,000 sandhill cranes spend the winter on Staten Island, as well as hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds.
   
The conservancy will maximize the wildlife carrying capacity of the farm through such techniques as flooding harvested fields to create the kind of habitat that migratory birds like, Unkel said.
   
"This is basically going to be a demonstration farm," Unkel said, as he inspected the property on a recent cold and blustery day. "We intend to show you can have both wildlife and a viable agricultural operation."
   
But some environmentalists are uneasy about the conservancy's bold new move, saying that the organization has strayed dangerously far from its original mandate of identifying, buying and protecting threatened wildlands.
   
Further, they say, the use of public funds to buy a commercial enterprise for a private organization -- even a nonprofit organization like the Nature Conservancy -- is wrong.
   
"If an asset is purchased with public money, that asset should be retained for the public," said Huey Johnson, a former executive director of the California Nature Conservancy, a past state resources secretary and the president of Defense of Place, a Marin County environmental organization.
   
"That certainly isn't the case with this acquisition," Johnson said. "There'll be virtually no public access."
   
Johnson also questioned the conservancy's comfortable relationship with large landowners and government regulatory agencies.
   
"A primary responsibility of environmental organizations is to criticize government, thereby keeping government honest," he said. "It has been a long time since the conservancy has criticized anything government has done. They're seemingly more concerned about money -- about picking up huge blocks of  land at public expense."
   
But Unkel countered that the Nature Conservancy has never been a litigious, or even confrontational, organization. Historically, he said, the group has sought consensus.
   
"We've always maintained cordial relationships with landowners and the agencies," he said, noting that the group has preserved more than 1 million acres of land in California. "That's how we're able to get things done."
   
Deals like Staten Island, Unkel said, are essential if wildlife is to thrive on a landscape-size scale rather than in isolated pockets.
   
"There simply isn't enough money to buy all the land you would need to accommodate migratory waterfowl, for example," he said. "If we can't get farmers to sign on to wildlife-friendly farming, we're in trouble. And they aren't going to sign on unless they're sure they can run a profitable operation."
   
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, concurred with Unkel, and said cropland can be excellent wildlife habitat.
   
"Well-managed farmland can be even better habitat than land taken out of (crop) production," he said. "Without flooded rice and corn fields, you'd have a lot of hungry waterfowl in this state. Wildlife agencies often have enough money to buy land, but not enough to manage it. If you can keep the owner producing on the land and work with him to maximize wildlife value -- that's your best scenario."
   
For some environmentalists, the most troubling aspect of the Staten Island deal is its financial structure.
   
"Essentially, this is a very specialized kind of conservation easement -- a commercial use of a property with certain management strictures that benefit the environment," said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club.
   
"From that basic perspective, this seems like a pretty good deal," Pope said. "But when you buy such an easement, the price is invariably less than the purchase price for the property. So you have to ask if the return to the public is fair in this case. It seems like the state should have bought the land, then sold it to a farmer with an environmental easement, or perhaps leased it to the conservancy. I'm not sure it's appropriate for the conservancy to own this property and run it for a profit."
   
Unkel said that Staten Island will be managed for wildlife more than for maximum monetary return and that all profits will be plowed back into farm operations.
   
From a larger perspective, said the Farm Bureau's Dave Kranz, anything that keeps farms producing crops must be considered a public benefit.
   
"County revenue in rural areas can be severely impacted when croplands are taken permanently out of production and put into preserves," he said. "It's getting to be a real problem."
   
Patrick Wright, the director of CalFed, said he feels there is little merit to the argument that government funds should be used only for the purchase of lands open to the public.
   
"There are plenty of cases where environmental organizations have bought land and excluded the public from it," Wright said. "It all depends on the specific goals of each project."
   
And, Wright added, social realities must also be taken into consideration. People in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, he noted, have perspectives that are different from those of Bay Area residents.
   
"The fact of the matter is that we can't afford to displace the agricultural community in the Central Valley," he said. "We don't have the money, and we certainly don't have the political support. The only reasonable option is forge collaborative partnerships with agriculture for projects with multiple benefits. Staten Island is a case in point."

Copyright 2001 San Francisco Chronicle
 
 
Map of area:
 
 
A sign on Staten Island, recently purchased by the California Nature Conservancy for $35 million, informs that the area is a designated wildlife habitat. Chronicle photo by Paul Chinn