Last refuge

Rampant development puts Stone Lakes near the top of national ‘most threatened’ wildlife-refuge list

Stone Lakes manager Tom Harvey worries the wildlife refuge will never be completed.

Stone Lakes manager Tom Harvey worries the wildlife refuge will never be completed.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“It’s going to be tough for us to pull this rabbit out of a hat.” That’s the way Tom Harvey, manager of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, described his mission to save the endangered pocket of farmland and natural habitat. Only 12 miles south of the state capital, Stone Lakes gained national attention last month when it was ranked the sixth-most-threatened wildlife refuge in the country—in a federal system of 545 refuges.

The list is part of an annual report by the nonprofit group National Wildlife Refuge Association called “Beyond the Boundaries.” The report’s author, Evan Hirsche, sees suburbs that have expanded right up to the boundaries of wildlife refuges as one of the greatest threats.

Harvey has seen neighboring Elk Grove expand to Stone Lakes’ boundaries and beyond—a housing subdivision recently was built inside the refuge. He sees suburbia as his most serious problem and said, “Stone Lakes is really at a crossroads. Whether we will resemble anything close to what the original planners of the refuge envisioned 10 years ago, or basically just stay the way we are, is going to be decided in the next two or three years.”

The original planners of Stone Lakes envisioned an 18,000-acre wildlife refuge of mostly grasslands and wetlands set aside for waterfowl and other migrating birds. In 1992, an environmental-impact statement was signed, and lines were drawn on a map, encircling a broad swath of open country and farmland alongside Interstate 5.

The idea for the project began long before that, in 1972 when the Army Corps of Engineers identified the Stone Lakes area as good place for a wildlife refuge and not a good place for development—it’s a basin in a 100-year flood plain. Initially, local landowners feared that federal government would take away their land in order to create a wildlife refuge. But the 1992 plan was to just draw an outline of the refuge on a map and fill it in later by buying property at fair market value, parcel by parcel.

Today, only about 6,000 acres are officially protected—a third of the original vision. Harvey is not optimistic about the refuge’s future prospects. “I’m concerned about what land values and development pressures are doing. It’s very debatable whether the project will be completely finished.”

In 1994, when the first parcel was purchased, land in the area cost between $2,000 and $5,000 an acre. Today, an acre runs anywhere from $18,000 to $140,000. Adequate federal funding to buy land has not materialized. “The refuge system is massively under-funded,” said Hirsche. “It’s got a more than $2 billion backlog on an annual budget of less than $400 million.” Harvey received $1 million back in 1994 and since has raised about $8 million more in grants from federal, state and private agencies. But it is not enough; today, Stone Lakes remains just an outline, only 35-percent filled in.

Most of the refuge area is privately owned and mostly zoned for agriculture. Fortunately for the wildlife, much of the land is used in “wildlife friendly” farming—growing grains and row crops or raising cattle. Crops like corn, rice and tomatoes, as well as agricultural pests like insects and rodents, provide food for waterfowl and other types of birds. With good farming practices, endangered Swainson’s hawks can hunt mice in the summer, and rare sandhill cranes can spend the winter foraging in fallow cornfields. However, in the 1990s, wine grapes became more profitable, and many farmers planted vineyards—but vineyards are not as wildlife-friendly as corn or rice. Since 1992, vineyards within the refuge have grown from 750 acres to 3,000 acres.

Even less wildlife-friendly are housing developments. In the mid-1990s, 460 acres inside the refuge boundaries were rezoned to create a housing subdivision called Stonelake. Construction began in 1999, and most of the construction was completed in 2004. The winding streets were given names like Kestrel Cove, Marsh Wren Way and Swainson Hawk Drive.

Harvey doesn’t see the Stonelake subdivision as a singular event. “I think it’s very likely that we’ll have more of the project nibbled away at some point. It’s going to be pretty tough to hold the line.”

Liz Zainasheff of Elk Grove is part of the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Association. The group is one of many “friends groups” that help local refuges across the country in promoting environmental education and habitat restoration. She is well aware of how vulnerable Stone Lakes is to development: “You’ve got skyrocketing growth, and with growth comes skyrocketing land prices. You’ve got city councils and county supervisors that are in bed with the developers, and so they change zoning.”

With such rampant land speculation, outright purchases of property for the refuge will be difficult. “The landowners down here believe that they are all sitting on gold mines,” said Harvey. He thinks a more likely way for the preserve to expand is through donations, conservation easements and mitigation banks.

There haven’t been any donations, but about 1,500 acres are now protected by conservation easements. These are agreements in which the landowner retains the title to the property but sells development rights to the refuge and agrees to use only wildlife-friendly farming practices. In this way, farmers can continue to farm and still cash in on increasing property values while the refuge keeps out housing developments and vineyards. Easements can cost half as much as buying the land outright.

Mitigation works a little differently. When a developer destroys an acre of critical habitat in the course of constructing an office park or a housing development, he is required by law to compensate for the loss, which often means buying “mitigation credits” from a mitigation bank. “For every acre of land that gets nuked in Elk Grove, you’ve got to have an acre of land that’s been placed under easement somewhere,” Harvey explained. So far, the Stone Lakes refuge contains about 350 acres of mitigation lands. He admits that mitigation banks actually can result in a “net loss” for wildlife, but he sees them as a tool that can be used to help rescue the refuge.

Meanwhile, Zainasheff’s group is trying to inform the public about the threats to the refuge. The nonprofit, volunteer association helps with refuge tours, education, habitat restoration, bird banding and bird counts. In the last 10 years, it raised more than $150,000 to pay for improvements such as a wildlife-viewing platform, interpretive sites and the creation of a wetland. Work is now under way on a wildlife habitat and viewing area called Blue Heron Trails. It will allow public access to a portion of the refuge seven days a week. Currently, public access is limited to only two days a month. Harvey is moving forward with plans to increase public access; next month, part of the refuge will be open to duck hunters, and plans are under way to open up the area to canoeing and kayaking next year.

Hirsche sees the surrounding suburbs as a threat that can be turned into an opportunity. “Here was a refuge that was literally surrounded by farmland, and now, just a decade later, it’s rapidly being enveloped by suburban development,” he said. “The downside is its ability to conserve wildlife and habitat is compromised. On the other hand, refuges like Stone Lakes can play an unparalleled role in educating the public about the importance of conserving wildlife and habitat.”