Bair Island attracts visitors looking to escape Bay Area development

An estimated 250,000 visitors annually retreat to Bair Island, a marshland reserve, filled with wildlife and a symbol of victory for open space advocates.
  • An Anna’s Hummingbird rests along the marsh of Inner Bair Island on Jan. 28 in Redwood City, California. (Bethney Bonilla/Peninsula Press)
Construction zones are a common sight throughout cities of the Bay Area. Urban, open spaces are rare, and likely to be found barricaded by fences dressed with developer signs, where housing projects will reside.

But on the east side of Highway 101 in Redwood City, a short drive down Bair Island Road, the scene quickly transforms into a mosaic of tidal marsh at the nature reserve known as Bair Island.

Nearly 30 Bay Area residents and travelers gathered for the year’s first weekend tours of the island’s public trail in Redwood City, on Saturday morning, Jan. 28. Tour guides led the groups along dirt pathways, speckled with pedestrians walking, running and biking, where more than 30 species of native plants are growing alongside the trail.

The 3,000-acre tract of marshland separated by water channels into Inner, Middle and Outer Bair Island, is part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The restored wetlands of Inner Bair Island are part of an ongoing restoration project led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which began in 2007. It remains the largest undeveloped island in the South San Francisco Bay.

“This space is an incredible combination of recreation and wildlife,” Vicki Martell, a volunteer and tour guide for the Peninsula Open Space Trust said, as a group of visitors huddled around her.

She went on to tell the story of the island’s history, interweaving facts about tidal marsh benefits and her recent kayak trip to Outer Bair Island. What is now a restored wetland ecosystem was once used as grazing lands and salt evaporation ponds. Martell noted the contrast between the sprawl development happening beyond the wetlands and the similarly rapid but natural growth occurring at Bair Island.

“It’s changing quickly, which is why it’s so cool to see because there aren’t many places in the Bay Area, where you can see restoration in progress,” Martell said.

The group’s attention was quickly captured by an egret landing about 50 feet ahead. Martell said the tidal wetland acts as a refuge, not only to wildlife species like the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse, but to community residents and tourists, who want to learn about tidal marsh habitats and enjoy access to natural scenery.

Judy Brown, a resident of El Granada and her husband, Charlie, were first-time visitors to Bair Island. But, the couple knew of the land’s history and donated money to save the refuge many years prior to Saturday morning’s stroll.

“It’s nice to celebrate a win for a change and to be outdoors,” Brown said.

Docents and signage inform visitors that a meager 15 percent of San Francisco Bay’s original wetlands survive today, after more than 150 years of diking, dredging and filling for development. Bair Island outlived multiple threats of development, including a massive residential project, which was defeated by a citizen referendum in 1982. The region is now protected in perpetuity, under management by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A report released January 2016 by Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based environmental group, concluded that nearly 300,000 acres across the Bay Area remain at risk of sprawl development, including Bair’s neighbor, the Cargill salt ponds.

In Redwood City, 14 major development projects are under construction, five more have received approval for construction and an additional 14 projects are under review, according to the Development Projects page of the Redwood City website.

“In the increasingly developed and fast-paced Bay Area, places like Bair Island, and the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR as a whole, provide quiet spaces for the public to enjoy the natural beauty of the Bay Area,” said Ivette Loredo, wildlife refuge specialist at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in an email.

Although the legal work of preserving Bair Island is finished, nature has more to do. And volunteers, federal, state and local partners are working to ensure restoration thrives. The flat land many tour today is expected to undergo several more years of change, as tides slowly bring in sediments for tidal marsh vegetation. Volunteer groups can often be spotted planting native plants along the uplands, hoping to create a better home for birds and other animals.

“I’ve flown in and out of San Carlos Airport previously and you can see all this land from up there,” Charlie Brown, a resident of El Granada said in an interview at the end of his tour. “But seeing it from down here, it gives me a better perspective of it all. It’s a hidden gem.”

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