Restoring the river

Farmers worried about huge Sacramento Wildlife Restoration Project

HIGH WATER <br>Ron Keyawa, who farms walnuts and almonds right alongside the Sacramento River Restoration Project, said the refuge will “almost certainly” make working his land more difficult.

Ron Keyawa, who farms walnuts and almonds right alongside the Sacramento River Restoration Project, said the refuge will “almost certainly” make working his land more difficult.

Photo by Tom Angel

Federal lands: Currently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service owns upward of 30,000 acres of open land in Butte County, and representatives say they will continue to purchase properties.

Pointing across the muddy Sacramento River at bushy green rows of cottonwoods, willows and silver-green shrubs, farmer Ron Keyawa talks about his future neighbors.

“It’s going to look like that,” Keyawa said. He then turned to indicate the neat walnut orchard in which he stood. “Everything, where we are, this will all be gone, and it’ll be sort of like a jungle.”

Keyawa is talking about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to build a massive wildlife refuge along the Sacramento River and how that will affect the ag lands it will border. Keyawa farms 650 acres of walnuts and almonds right next to the proposed refuge.

Fellow farmer Ed Hay is downright livid about the plan. His message is clear: Leave things as they are—the farmers don’t want a government-owned refuge interfering with their livelihoods.

Hay, a member of the United Sportsmen for Habitat and Wildlife Conservation, says he fears that the river, wildly popular with sportsmen, hunters and fishermen, is being taken away from the locals by government dictate. He complains that the FWS, a federal agency, “polices and controls” the land, and that it will kick people like himself out once the land is turned into a wildlife refuge.

What has Hay so exercised is a plan to turn 2,300 acres of riparian habitat along a 77-mile stretch of the river—from Princeton to Red Bluff—into a national wildlife refuge, making it part of the 12,000-acre Sacramento River Restoration Project, a series of protected areas along the river. The 2,300 acres, much of which currently supports orchards, would be seeded with native plants and trees as part of the national wildlife sanctuary.

Most of the sanctuary is publicly owned. FWS, at the behest of Congress, started buying land along the river in 1989, with plans to turn it into a refuge, said Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Manager Kevin Foerster.

Much of the land the government has purchased was used for years as crop lands—mainly orchards for walnuts, prunes and almonds. Because the government didn’t have short-term plans for the land, it leased much of it back to the sellers for farming, Foerster said. That arrangement is now coming to an end.

“These were willing sellers,” Foerster said. “This is land that isn’t really profitable anymore [for orchards] … so you could say we’re planting a new crop, which is native riparian habitat.”

He added that Hay’s fears about the government taking land from private citizens and closing it to the public are groundless.

“What we’re doing is returning this land to its natural state,” Foerster said. “That doesn’t mean that no one will be able to see it or visit it.”

Even so, it isn’t a plan that everyone is thrilled with.

Some farmers in the area, like Hay and Keyawa, are concerned that having a wildlife refuge for a neighbor will spell disaster for their already-fragile crops.

Keyawa, whose family has been farming by the Sacramento River since 1969, said that while he’s “not necessarily against” the refuge, he has some serious concerns about it.

Currently, his orchards are surrounded by nothing but farmland. It’s an arrangement that works well, since the frequent fungicide and herbicide sprayings the orchards require don’t harm the neighbors’ crops—in fact, he said, they’re sometimes even helpful.

“Right now, if I’m spraying, and there’s a little drift over there, it’s like I’m spraying my neighbor’s crops, too,” he said. “But any drift at all on a refuge … there could be trouble.”

The neighboring orchard at the north end of Keyawa’s property would be converted into refuge. That means that the nut trees that are currently there could be removed as early as next year, and the land replanted with the native trees and grasses that used to thrive along the river.

Keyawa’s also concerned about the nuisance animals, particularly rodents, that would be drawn to the refuge.

“Almonds are like candy to them,” Keyawa said. “They’re going to live over there and come to the orchards to eat, and I’m going to have to eat the loss.”

“The way it is now with farmers, we all work together,” Keyawa said. “If I mess something up for my neighbors, I take care of it. If I get flooded and eroded from the refuge, who do I call, the government? They’re going to say they don’t have the resources to fix it.”

Ryan Schohr, who farms 1,600 acres of rice and hay near the state-owned Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge, near Gridley, said he’s seen several problems relating to the refuge on his land.

“I’ve seen 50 to 75 percent of my crop being eaten by rodents,” Schohr said. “When you put in [a wildlife refuge] next to farmland, it might as well be a refrigerator for them.”

“It’s like your neighbors having a big party and leaving a big mess on your lawn for you to clean up the next day.”

Butte County Agricultural Commissioner Richard Price said he’s heard all of the concerns before and said he shares many of them. Several farmers have told him, he said, that they’re worried that the new, looser soil that would fill the refuge area after the orchard trees are removed would create a flooding and erosion disaster, and that creating habitats for animals—some of them possibly endangered—to live next to regularly sprayed farmland is simply a bad idea.

“Right now, these aren’t problems [for farmers],” Price said. “But they could be introduced as problems, and we need to mitigate that.”

He added that refuge planners have said that they will cooperate with the county and local farmers to decide what types of native plants will be grown in the refuge. Keyawa said that some of his concerns were assuaged when he received the same assurances, but Price said he’s still waiting on the plan.

“The management plan is still a little nebulous,” Price said. “The devil is in the details, and the details are cloudy so far.”

But Foerster, who manages the refuge, pointed out that an exhaustive, recently completed environmental assessment performed by an outside firm found that there would be no significant negative impact on the human environment from the refuge.

In fact, the report notes several beneficial impacts to the surrounding environment, including providing for the long-term stability and growth of the complex aquatic environment and healthful water for the fish (including the endangered salmon that spawn in the river). In addition, special-status plants and sensitive natural communities would thrive in the increased wildland acreage, and diverse plant and animal life would thrive in the protected area.

John Carlon, president of the group Sacramento River Partners, said that the benefits of the refuge are numerous. His nonprofit agency has helped plan the refuge, and he said that the Sacramento River is one of the most important ecosystems in all of California.

“Upwards of 200 species use the river as a habitat,” Carlon said. “This is an area that is so important to protect.”

He noted that he’s heard of the farmers’ concerns about the project, but said that almost half of his staff, including himself, own farms in the area. He said that the problem is that many local farmers simply don’t know how beneficial the refuge will be for them.

“This is good for farmers,” he said. “This will actually improve soil quality and the health of all of the environment around the farms.”

He added that farmers’ fears of rodents running wild in their orchards and eating their crops have never been verified. “There hasn’t been one case where that has been actually documented,” Carlon said.

He pointed out that the area is prone to flooding and said that crop production has suffered for years because of it. Since many of the farms are no longer profitable, most private buyers aren’t willing to invest in them, but the federal government will pay top dollar for the land anyway. The sale, he said, gives farmers the chance to buy more profitable farms on higher ground, while allowing for the refuge at the same time.

He also pointed out that there is a glut on the market of many of the crops grown in the area, particularly prunes, and said that taking some prunes out of production raises their price for remaining farmers.

But in the end, Carlon said, the refuge would simply be good for all of Northern California.

“Wildlife refuges are a community resource for everyone lives here,” Carlon said. “And they’re here for perpetuity. I’m personally glad to see my tax dollars go to support something as important as the river.”

Jennie Tezak contributed to this story.