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A key piece in the puzzle of restoring wetlands in San Pablo Bay slid into place Friday with the purchase of the 1,092-acre Haire ranch on Skaggs Island.

The Sonoma Land Trust coordinated the $8.3 million purchase, something it has been trying to do since 2010.

"I'm kind of pinching myself," said Wendy Eliot, conservation director at the trust. She described the ranch as the "holy grail" of conservation projects. "It's a big day."

The nonprofit land conservation group immediately transferred the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will restore it and the other 3,300 acres on the island to marsh.

The entire island is now part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Located just north of Highway 37 and east of Highway 121, it was once part of an extensive tidal marsh system on the edge of San Pablo and San Francisco bays. Then, about 130 years ago, the island was diked and drained as wetlands around the bay were converted to agricultural use.

But in recent decades, sentiments shifted and people began recognizing the value of wetlands for wildlife habitat and flood protection. The San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge was created as a way to restore the wetlands for migratory birds and other wildlife in 1974. Friday's purchase helped grow the refuge to more than 20,000 acres, said Doug Cordell, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Beth Huning, coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, helps conservation agencies prioritize the most biologically important land purchases. She described Haire Ranch as being the center of a 50,000-acre vision for restoring historic wetlands around San Pablo Bay.

"This is where it all comes together," she said Friday, standing on a bridge near the entrance to Skaggs island. To the south, cars hummed by on Highway 37 and birds lifted up from the grassy wetlands.

The island is a key component of that plan because of its large size and central location. It is named after M.B.Skaggs, a supermarket mogul and founder of Safeway who acquired the island during the Depression.

In 1941, the U.S. Navy turned most of the island into a intelligence-gathering base. But Skaggs sold about 1,100 acres to William Haire, the grandfather of the current owners, siblings Jim and Judy Haire.

The Haires have farmed it ever since, first with dairy cattle and then hay and grain.

The Fish and Wildlife Service took over the Navy's land in 2011 with the goal of restoring the wetlands there. But a 1940 agreement required whomever owned the Naval property to maintain the network of levees, ditches and stormwater pumps that keeps Haire Ranch dry enough for farming. Keeping Haire Ranch dry meant keeping the rest of the island dry, so acquiring the ranch became the key to restoring the entire island.

For years, Jim Haire resisted the idea of selling the land. Eliot said there had been disagreements between Haire and the trust over the value of the land.

Haire declined to discuss the purchase price.

"Its not about money," he said of the land that has been in his family for generations. "It's just the idea that my whole life has been there. I got hundreds of different memories down there."

Haire lives on 288 acres north of the Skaggs Island property where he grows chardonnay and pinot grapes. His son is interested in taking over the vineyard but not the ranch. He said he hopes to live long enough to be able to look down from his home on the former ranch property and see it being used by salmon, migratory ducks and other wildlife.

Haire added of the sale, "I'm trying to find a place to put it in my mind. Something I've worked on my whole life is going to be gone."

Huning and Eliot credited Haire and other farmers in the area for their roles in preserving the land from development.

"The farmers really kept San Pablo Bay from being developed" like other wetlands around the bay, Huning said.

Now that the land has been purchased, restoration planning is underway. It likely will be five years until the levee around Haire Ranch is breached and tidal water again flows over the historic marsh.

Once that happens, Cordell said, the wetlands should rebound quickly, perhaps within a couple years. Pickelweed and cordgrass will return, providing habitat for native fish and water fowl. The goal is to restore the land for migratory birds and protected species such as the clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The island also eventually will be open to the public, with opportunities for hiking, bird watching, canoeing and environmental education.

"Given where this land is, there's a lot of opportunities for public access," Cordell said. "We're pretty excited about the potential here."

(Staff Writer Derek Moore contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.)