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."