Wetlands No. 2 on list of most endangered

LOS BANOS -- When high snows melted in the Sierra or heavy rains pounded the Central Valley, long before the days of dams and canals, the mighty San Joaquin River overflowed and the Grassland was born.

The meandering marshland from Stevinson to Dos Palos, the Grassland Ecological Area creeps as far east as the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and westward to the San Luis Reservoir on Interstate 5. The elevation on this western edge of Merced County is low. Just under the surface is clay and just under clay is a very high water table, said Candace Sigmond, education coordinator for Grassland Environment Education Center.

The Grassland, at nearly 180,000 acres, is the largest contiguous freshwater wetland in California and the largest freshwater wetland in the western United States.

Wetlands are defined as an area that holds shallow, standing water long enough for specific wetland vegetation to grow, such as swamp timothy and smart weed. With water and food at a middle-to-end point on the Pacific Flyway, the area always has been a favorite of passing waterfowl. Some birds start as far north as the Arctic Circle. Others end their trip in western Mexico. Many winter in California between the Sacramento Valley and the Salton Sea, south of Palm Springs.

"We tell the kids it's sort of like McDonald's," Sigmond said. "You're moving a long ways and have to stop and eat somewhere."

Agriculture changed landscape

The land changed in the 1850s when irrigation canals turned much of the wetlands to agriculture. The first state refuge, Los Banos Wildlife Refuge, was dedicated in 1929, because even without wetlands, the birds still showed up. They decimated crops, especially rice, a favorite duck food. With so many dams and canals on the rivers now, the area doesn't flood naturally. The natural cycle is dependent on a public utility, the Grassland Water District.

"It's an interesting fact that a lot of people, even in the Los Banos area, if they don't hunt, they drive (Highway) 165 and think what can we use those (wetlands) for? It's in our minds, as humans, what can we build?" Sigmond said. "We have to fight against that."

Ducks Unlimited and California Waterfowl, among other groups, fight that fight. Millions of dollars are raised annually to buy spoiled wetland areas and return them to their natural state, which usually involves printing a basin back into land leveled for agriculture. Ducks Unlimited alone put $136 million toward conservation in the 2005-06 fiscal year and put the Central Valley No. 2 on the list of the most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent. (The Great Plains and Prairie Pothole Region, which stretches from Nebraska and Iowa north into Canada, is No. 1; the place most North American ducks hatch.)

Housing and development pose the biggest threat. Many who work and play in the Grassland are concerned about plans for the high speed commuter rail through Pacheco Pass and the proposed Highway 165 bypass.

"The Grassland around Los Banos is the last frontier in the valley, and to introduce major infrastructure without real long-term planning is simply dangerous," said Dave Widell, general manager of Grassland Water District and former policy director for Ducks Unlimited.

Unless the rail line environmental impact report takes a hard look at growth inducement, he said, a lawsuit is imminent.

"Ninety-five percent of our fresh-water wetlands in California have been lost, "drained for development, housing, agriculture," said Robert Parris, deputy refuge manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "It's staggering to even think about it."

Hunters finance conservation

Money to save what wetlands are left comes almost exclusively from hunters and firearm enthusiasts. Sporting arms and ammunition are taxed heavily and the money goes directly to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which doles out significant portions to state managers such as the California Department of Fish and Game. Money to the states must be used for hunter education and conservation.

Then there are the stamps, which waterfowl hunters are required to purchase annually as part of revenue generating state and federal programs. Ask any bird hunter to see his stamps. They'll rummage through their wallet and, this year, show you a picture of two ring-necked ducks on a federal stamp -- $15 -- and two pintails on the state stamp -- $16. Those dollars directly fund the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Hunting clubs on private land play their part, too. Most of the private clubs around the state and federal areas near Los Banos are under conservation easement or land trusts. Members pay top dollar for the barrels in the ground used as blinds, which goes toward keeping wetlands intact. Bob Hansen of Denair and his partner ante up $2,400 a season. He's been doing it 16 years. Some clubs cost thousands more; others a few hundred less. There are more privately conserved acres in the Grassland than state and federal land combined.

Other clubs are member-owned. Several people come up with $30,000 or $40,000 as a down payment on a few hundred acres. Leased blinds make the payments until it's paid off and the club is closed. Most club owners run cattle in the few dry months, an advantage come tax time.

Hunters' discretionary dollars make up another kind of tax advantage for Los Banos and other cities around The Grassland, too.

"From October to February, it's all about duck hunters," said Nicole Iturbide, at Wool Growers, a popular family-style Basque restaurant in downtown Los Banos. Her family's been cooking there more than 30 years; the building's stood since 1890. "Check it out Friday night. Now what will it be -- lamb chops, pork chops, tri-tip or chicken?"

Family style, $15 a lunch, $18 a dinner, the cash piles up when hunters from across the state flock in the night before a weekend of shooting. Like the ducks, they stop in the Northern San Joaquin Valley to feed and drink and rest.

Three men and a young boy all in camouflage ordered a meal on a recent Sunday afternoon.

"Duck hunters like to see new duck hunters come up the ranks," Hansen said. "That means more money for habitat. That means more ducks in the air."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.