Mostly clear

poised to begin Measure to free 3,300 acres at former Navy base for wildlife refuge

The bureaucratic stalemate over the creation of a wildlife refuge on an abandoned Navy base at Skaggs Island could finally be nearing an end.

Legislation approved by Congress this week and awaiting President Bush's signature would require the Navy to negotiate a transfer of 3,300 acres of former tidal marshland to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for creation of a preserve.

The bill also authorizes the federal government to accept $8 million in existing state funds for the demolition of 100 dilapidated military buildings on a portion of the property.

Navy officials had been balking at the turnover plan since the base was decommissioned in 1993, citing financial concerns. The new legislation essentially requires the military to cooperate.

"This is a major step forward," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who wrote the proposal included in the $700 billion Defense Authorization bill. "It gives me the clout I need if these two departments don't work together."

Advocates for returning the land to its natural state and making it part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge were optimistic.

Marc Holmes of the Novato-based Bay Institute, who has been working to restore Skaggs Island since before the Navy station closed, said the legislation gives clear instructions that will prevent delays.

Cleanup of environmental damage is long complete but since President Bush took office nearly eight years ago the Navy has been dragging its feet on removing the buildings and completing a transfer, Holmes said.

"I'm thrilled about the legislation," Holmes said. "Congress says you shall negotiate an agreement that effectuates the restoration. Honestly, there's nothing else holding it up."

Woolsey said demolition could be completed by the end of next year. Rather than being open like a public park, the refuge would be an educational preserve with guided tours. Operating expenses would be handled through annual appropriations.

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