Embracing a landfill, greens deal with the devil to save San Francisco Bay

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, June 1998

I See Your Runway and Raise You a Heron Reserve
Embracing a landfill, greens deal with the devil to save San Francisco Bay
By Pam Squyres

Ralph Nobles smooths a crumpled nautical chart over the couch in his study and begins pointing out landmark features of San Francisco Bay: "Here's the Bay Bridge. Here's Bair Island. There's Angel Island." As he talks, one can almost see the map's meandering lines coming to life in his mind's eye. The crags of the Marin headlands. Sailboats flying under spinnaker. Banks of fog breaking against the base of Alcatraz. It makes for an idyllic mental excursion, until Nobles gets to an innocuous marker about the length of a cigarette taped over what should be open water but represents something considerably less appealing: several million cubic yards of dirt, cement, and riprap that may soon extend more than a mile into the Bay, providing an endless stream of jumbo jets with a newly proposed replacement runway at San Francisco International Airport.

It's hard to imagine a better way to antagonize this area's environmental community — renowned for its willingness to engage in brass-knuckle politics — than by proposing to dump a landfill into their bay. Yet Nobles, 77, who heads up Friends of Redwood City, a vigilant local conservation group, and who would normally go to great lengths to kill such a project, appears curiously unperturbed. Indeed, he actually seems to like the idea. "It's just too good a deal not to happen," he declares.

If this reaction seems strange, the explanation lies in a bold counterproposal that Nobles has cooked up, which would require the Airport Commission to purchase, shut down, and rehabilitate salt production ponds sprawling across 29,000 acres of wetlands. Before these marshes were diked in the early 1900s, they teemed with salmon, grizzly, pronghorn antelope, and countless waterfowl. Reviving the marshes would, in a single stroke, reclaim about 80 percent of the wetlands lost in the south Bay Area since the start of European settlement. And in exchange for this ecological peace offering, Nobles and his colleagues would agree to stand by quietly when the dump trucks start backing up to the shoreline sometime around 2002.

The deal applies an innovative new twist to "mitigation," the decades-old process by which developers atone for environmental damage they inflict upon one area by performing good deeds, like conservation or restoration, in another. Problem is, mitigation has typically demanded mirror-image, eye-for-an-eye replacements for each piece of land lost, thereby yielding patchwork plots that often fail to function as an intact ecosystem. In recent years, however, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have shown keen interest in moving toward a more holistic approach. Nobles's idea, which would trade open water near the airport for marshland half a dozen miles away, offers a high-profile test case that may echo around the country. "It could have marvelous influence in places like the Mississippi delta," says Bob Curry, a wetlands expert at California State University at Monterey, "places where we don't have a regional planning effort at all."

By the end of this month, consultants should have a picture of what a finished runway might look like — at which point, bargaining will begin in earnest. Already, however, Nobles's notion is firing the imaginations of people who would otherwise be appalled at such a massive marine intrusion. The runway would be "huge," concedes Michael Monroe, an EPA scientist in San Francisco. "But Ralph Nobles's proposal is ... " He gropes for a worthy metaphor and comes up empty. "Like, really big. It would be probably the best deal the fish and wildlife have ever gotten in the Bay."

Illustration by Mike Lee

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