A large puzzle piece in the patchwork of North Bay marsh restoration sites fell into place Friday with acquisition of a long-time hay farm at the northern end of Skaggs Island.

Following years of negotiations, the Sonoma Land Trust announced it had bought the Haire Ranch which will lead to restoration of up to 4,400 acres of wetlands west of Vallejo.

"It's our holiday gift to the public and to the fish and birds and the clean water," said Wendy Eliot, land trust conservation director.

The ranch is a long-sought after piece of land that environmentalists have wanted so that the entire island, once home to a U.S. Navy base and spy station, can be flooded and restored to tidal marshes.

Immediately following purchase, the land trust transferred the 1,100-acre Haire Ranch to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the nearby San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The project fits in with the big-picture effort to restore tens of thousands of wetlands acres around the bay. Eliot called the purchase the "holy grail" of conservation projects.

"For more than a decade, the government has been waiting to restore Skaggs Island to tidal marsh," she said. "But Haire Ranch stood in the way, just out of reach."

A haven along Highway 37 for raptors and deer, Skaggs Island came under the Fish and Wildlife Service umbrella in 2011. The previous year, more than 100 buildings left over from the long-closed naval base were demolished.

But plans to restore the 3,300-acre former naval property to tidal marshes and open the area up for public access hit a major snag with the ranch.

Sonoma County hay farmer and vintner Jim Haire and his sister have held a deed restriction which requires island levees to be maintained so that his acres are kept dry in perpetuity for farming.

To keep the ranch dry, the island could not be flooded -- a crucial step for restoring the wetlands, officials said.

"This has been the real bugaboo for the refuge," Eliot said. "So we've been kind of stymied in restoring the 4,400-acre island until we got Jim Haire's property."

Part of the north-south travel corridor for migratory birds, Skaggs Island was the last patch of Bay Area tidal marsh to be diked and drained in the 1880s. For decades, the property was farmed for oat hay, until its former owner, the Sonoma Land Company, sold the land to supermarket mogul M.B. Skaggs during the Depression.

In 1941, the Navy acquired most of the island for a communications and intelligence gathering base. Skaggs sold the remaining ranch property to William Haire, the grandfather of the current owners, who'd been working the land since the late 1930s.

Skaggs also negotiated an agreement requiring the owner of the larger portion of the island -- currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- to maintain pumps and levees which keep the ranch dry enough to farm. With the latest acquisition, however, that agreement becomes moot.

Eliot said complex negotiations began several years ago. Essentially, the purchase involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture buying an easement over the property for $7.5 million which restricts the land to wildlife habitat and wetlands restoration, she said.

In the second part of the deal, the land trust bought the property for about $700,000 with funds split from the State Coastal Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The deal also required convincing Haire to part with the land his family has farmed for 75 years -- a decision he likened to giving away the beloved family dog.

"I just hope (the restoration) is done correctly and on a timely basis so we can all see this land come back ... and people can enjoy open space," Haire, 71, said. "I hope there will be opportunities to enjoy that land."

Plans to restore the property are well underway, Eliot said.

However, through the purchase agreement the Haires can stay for at least a year and get in another hay crop, she said. Haire can also negotiate up to two additional years.

The purchase was made in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Don Brubaker of the San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuge said his organization will be coordinating restoration efforts among various public agencies and figuring out public access in the future.

Meanwhile, bird watching and other public activities will likely be available during the upcoming San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival centered on Mare Island the second weekend of February.

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6832. Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at tburchyns@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6831.

Skaggs Island glance

The 3,310-acre Skaggs Island was commissioned on May 1, 1942 and decommissioned on Sept. 30, 1993.

Skaggs Island was named after M.B. Skaggs, the founder of Safeway stores.

Skaggs Island's former 150 buildings included a bowling alley, power plant, movie theater, public works department, post office, tennis courts, houses and barracks, chapel, gymnasium, bar and exchange.

With a staff of 400, Skaggs' primary responsibility was communications and intelligence gathering for the Navy and other federal organizations.

Navy SEALs practicing forced entry methods have blown holes into the walls of many of the buildings.

Skaggs Island is part of a large marsh, but surrounded by four sloughs.

-- Source: Navy and other historical records

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