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A new spotlight of conservation on the Bay

on February 22, 2013

An international treaty recently recognized the San Francisco Bay estuary — California’s largest wetland — as a “wetland of importance,” but while conservation groups called the news a victory, the designation won’t directly halt development that has threatened the area for years.

The 1,600 square mile region is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals, including many that can’t be found anywhere else, such as the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse, San Francisco garter snake and the Delta smelt fish.

On Feb. 2, the estuary was added to the Convention on Wetlands – more commonly known as the Ramsar treaty, after the Iranian town on the Caspian Sea where it was signed – to coincide with World Wetlands Day. The treaty has been ratified by 163 countries.

So what does “Ramsar status” mean for the Bay?

“That’s a good question. It’s not like they get a million dollar check,” said Herb Raffaelle, chief of international conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s not a designation that gives people a big hammer; it’s a designation that gives people a big carrot.”

Ramsar status affords no additional legal regulation to protect wetlands (the “hammer”) in the United States, but the designation could be a boon for conservation groups, which can hold it out as a “carrot.”

As an example, Raffaelle recalled a protected wetland in Kansas that was marked for a development project, but a local Congressman discovered the site was a Ramsar site and stopped endorsing the project.

“It’s important to have a little more weight on our side and educate the public and their elected officials on why it’s important,” said Deb Self, the executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

The convention calls for the “wise use” of wetlands and international cooperation in preserving them. That doesn’t mean people cannot build near wetlands or reap their recreational benefits. Indeed, the Ramsar Convention is more important in countries where there are no regulatory protections of such areas, making the treaty more important as a global tool than a local one, Raffaelle said.

Does a wetland’s protection under the Ramsar Convention make a difference? Even with the United States’s “maze of federal, state and local laws that protect wetlands,” international recognition does add some value to all the sites, conclude Royal Gardner and Kim Diana Connelly in a 2007 environmental law paper.

Recognition under the treaty often assists local groups secure funding for projects and protects surrounding areas and watersheds, the paper suggests. At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in the Chesapeake Bay, Ramsar status has helped convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with restoration work, according to the assessment.

Many federal grant applications for restoration and protection projects give preference to Ramsar sites. People can also invoke the convention in battles over development.

“I think that the Ramsar convention designation can be useful when the fights get a little more heated,” Self said.

Gardner concluded the treaty is not perfect, but it should be looked at as an “additional tool in educating the public and decision makers about the risks associated with nearby projects.” The paper also notes that Ramsar designation created no difficulties for the sites.

“It puts an even brighter spotlight on the San Francisco Bay wetlands,” said Judy Kelly, director of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. “The importance to us has long been known. I think it’s just a really celebratory moment for the Bay Area … to be recognized at such a high level.”

The Bay itself has changed since European settlers arrived around 1800.

San Francisco Estuary Institute scientist Letitia Grenier said 150,000 acres of tidal marsh in San Francisco Bay have been diked and filled – that’s seven times the size of Manhattan. Grenier described a series of maps that show the Bay Area in 1800 with a shoreline etched out by tidal flats. Richmond was covered in tidal marsh. The 1998 map shows the encroachment of humans on the waterline. Much of the East Bay’s previous tidal flat areas have been replaced by Bay landfill and development.

“Before the Europeans were here, it was a different California paradise,” Grenier said. “Seeing these maps is kind of a revelation. What is this place and where did it come from?”

The task of designating the Bay as a Ramsar Site was initiated four years ago by a group called the San Francisco Joint Venture, a consortium of agencies, conservation groups and development interests focused on restoring wetlands and wildlife habitat. Past attempts at enrolling the Bay in the treaty failed at various levels, but this time environmental groups focused their application on the habitat. The 17-page proposal emphasized the endangered and threatened species that the wetlands support, as well as its economic, historic and recreational importance to the people who live and visit it.

About 18 land managers signed on to the petition to list the San Francisco Bay as the 35th United States Ramsar site, California’s fifth. All of the wetlands owned by the East Bay Regional Park District were added, as well as Vincent and Washington parks in Richmond and Union Point Park in Oakland, said Beth Huning, coordinator for the Joint Venture.

The criteria for a region to qualify for Ramsar status have expanded over the years, which finally allowed the Bay to be included in the mix of protected areas. On World Wetlands Day, the Ramsar Secretariat declared the San Francisco Bay a region of international importance.

“It ties everything together in a more coordinated fashion,” Huning said. “A lot of people … get really focused on their project and this is a way to see the big vision of restoring the greater wetland landscape.”

Wetlands serve an important ecological and economic function. They filter water of pollutants. They absorb carbon dioxide to help offset climate change. They protect against floods and sea level rise – scientists and conservations like to demonstrate this by pointing to severe weather events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Coastal areas protected by wetlands and dunes tended to suffer far less damage.

While no one calls the Ramsar Convention by its full title – “Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat” – anymore, it hints at another significance of these areas. To get an idea of how the San Francisco Bay has changed, Raffaelle, the Fish and Wildlife chief, said to look for pelicans on Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz, an archaic Spanish word for “pelican,” used to be covered with the birds, he said. There aren’t many to be seen there anymore.

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