Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors: Developers Strike Back: Arrowhead Marsh at Risk Again

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday August 14, 2007

All our victories are temporary; all our defeats are permanent,” David Brower is supposed to have said. Case in point: Oakland’s Arrowhead Marsh, the crown jewel of the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Regional Park. Friends of Arrowhead were relieved in 2005 when the Lower Lake Rancheria Koi Nation dropped their plans for a casino complex next door to the marsh. Now the developers are back: this time it’s at least one, maybe two trucking terminals. 

The Port of Oakland is doing all it can to grease the wheels for this latest project. In a meeting on Aug. 7, the Port Commission brushed aside an appeal by Golden Gate Audubon Society and the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club, unanimously approving the developer’s permit. Kansas-based Swann LLC owns the land, now a little-used parking lot, and plans to lease it to Roadway Express, headquartered in Akron, Ohio. Roadway already operates a terminal in West Oakland, but they want a bigger facility. Waiting in the wings is RLR Investments LLC, which owns adjacent property that may be developed for a second trucking terminal. 

What’s so special about Arrowhead Marsh? For starters, this triangle of pickleweed and cordgrass jutting into San Leandro Bay is home to one of the estuary’s densest populations of the endangered California clapper rail. Most of the year these rare chicken-sized birds are invisible, rarely even heard. But visit on a high tide in early January and you’ll see dozens of them, sitting disconsolately in little islands of pickleweed, trying not to be noticed, or sneaking along the edges of tidal channels. Every now and then they’ll exchange their trademark clappering calls.  

California clappers rails used to range from Humboldt Bay to Morro Bay, with enough in San Francisco and San Pablo bays to keep the market hunters busy. They were almost wiped out by overexploitation, recovering a bit after the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1913 gave them some protection. By the 1970s their numbers had built back up to an estimated 4,200-6,000. 

Then came the red fox, an exotic predator that doesn’t mind getting its feet wet, and the rail population crashed again. At their nadir, in 1990-91, there may have been as few as 300 left. Fox control was implemented and the rails rebounded, but the current estimate of 1,500 is still well short of where they were three decades ago. The 110 California clappers counted at Arrowhead on this year’s High Tide Survey would be something like 7 percent of the total global population.  

The clappers are the stars, but winter high tides also roust out soras and Virginia rails; even the elusive yellow rail has been spotted. Ducks abound, including such uncommon species as Eurasian wigeon and blue-winged teal, and the resident Canada geese are joined by cackling and greater white-fronted geese. Marsh wrens, Alameda song sparrows, and salt marsh common yellowthroats pop in and out of the vegetation, where endangered salt marsh harvest mice hide. Overhead, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, and the odd merlin cruise for prey. 

The rails and mice also use the new tidal wetlands created as mitigation after settlement of a suit over illegal dumping by the Port of Oakland. That restoration cost $2.5 million and drew in volunteers from Save the Bay and other organizations. And the mitigation marsh is right across the fence from the future trucking terminal. “It’s a habitat so much time, money, and effort have been invested in protecting,” says Golden Gate Audubon Conservation Director Eli Saddler. 

You can imagine the impact of a 24-7 trucking facility next door to this rich natural community. Saddler says many studies document the adverse effects of light and noise pollution on birds, and the developer’s mitigation proposals are vague at best. 

So now what? There are other permits pending approval, and questions as to the adequacy of the Port’s environmental analysis (which addressed Arrowhead Marsh proper but not the restored mitigation marsh, and didn’t consider cumulative impact on wildlife), whether proper public notice was given, whether the development violates the consent decree that resolved the earlier lawsuit. The attorney general’s office has recommended a full environmental impact report. The Port dropped the ball and now, Saddler says, “all of us are going to have a long headache.” Audubon is considering legal action under either the Federal Endangered Species Act or the California Environmental Quality Act. 

While all this plays out, public pressure couldn’t hurt. Oakland Mayor Ronald Dellums and the City Council were unresponsive to Audubon’s concerns and might need a bit of prodding. Or you could go directly to Roadway Express’s president Terrence M. Gilbert: 1077 Gorge Blvd, PO Box 471, Akron OH 44309-0471; terry.gilbert@roadway.com. 




Contributed photo. A California clapper rail: shy, cryptic, and endangered.