Mare Island, the now sleepy peninsula some 23-miles northeast of San Francisco, was once the largest Naval Base on the West Coast. Since then, Mother Nature has reclaimed much of the land, making it a haven for native flora and fauna, as well as a playground for outdoorsy types. But recent battles over its public access, recently sparked wildfires, and in-limbo development plans threaten this Bay Area gem's ecological health.
Seemingly overnight, the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve – a 215-acre park that sits on the archipelago, home to tens of miles of hiking trails and what many believe to be the best birdwatching in all of Northern California – was closed off to the public earlier this fall. As Patch reported toward the end of September, the expansive nature destination closed after two fires damaged trees and a city-owned fence. Vallejo officials chose to shut down all recreation activities on the island until a thorough investigation was complete and deemed the area safe again. And the Vallejo Fire Department eventually concluded that someone purposely cut five active power poles with a power saw, causing the two fires.
Hands in the air! Guiding walks full of joy for the great out of doors. Mare Island Preserve on Thanksgiving Day. Locked out of the Preserve, yet we found ourselves in it. pic.twitter.com/j5q2UAoqUG— Mare Island Preserve (@island_mare) November 29, 2019
KPIX broke the news in early October the preserve was to stay closed until 2020, with no cemented grand reopening date on the horizon.
4 alarm brush fire burning on Mare Island. Crews tell @KCBSRadio they’ve been able to stop forward advance of the flames, now working on containment. Happening in the Mare Island Nature Preserve. pic.twitter.com/BIV75Zi0qO— Matt Bigler (@mattbigler740) September 25, 2019
Since its abrupt closing, no member of the public has been able to set foot past the preserve’s steel gate. Not even the land’s community-chosen steward and matriarch, Myrna Hayes, who manages everything from the preserve’s history museum to hosting campers inside one of the two yurts found on the sanctuary, has walked the other side of that barricade.
“[We have] the power to turn the clock back or fast forward,” Hayes opened in a “letter to the editor” for the Times Herald, preaching for the preserve to again be open to the public. “Who you call, email and write letters to, speaks loud and clear.”
Thanks Bill George for photos from today’s Thanksgiving morning hike nearby the Mare Island Preserve unexpectedly closed to us abruptly since the fires. Locked out and kicked out. But, not giving up on our precious placevof peace. Vallejo wild, wilderness, wildness. pic.twitter.com/P85vzFhiBN— Mare Island Heritage Trust (@MareTrust) November 29, 2019
Mare Island is something of a treasure trove of species, to boot. Recent (and old) field surveys and studies show that the island is brimming with a unique biodiversity, with a handful of creatures not seen anywhere else. Take for example the island’s population of Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes: They’re smaller, far less aggressive than their mainland counterparts, and sport stronger dorsal bandings, perhaps affording them better camouflage amongst the tall fennel shoots. (And, yes: Mare Island once hosted the annual Mare Faire and Fennel Festival, the one last year being its 12th iteration.)
Glorious guerilla art installations; a Christmas-light-lit skeleton of a ship; expansive, baren viewsheds; hollowed naval bunkers to play acoustical games – and more – all are found within the sanctuary’s confines.
But most, if not all, of the island’s quirky idiosyncrasies, may fall to the wayside, opened to the public or not. Why? Three words that every Bay Area local slightly recoils at: Construction and development.
The Chronicle made clear the plans of one developer and winemaker, Dave Phinney, on how he hopes to bring the island back to its industrial glory days, breaking the cool-calm the island (and preserve) are known for with the addition of “thousands” of residential and commercial buildings. The Nimitz Group – which already owns over 800 acres on the island, including the island’s 170-acre golf course – aims to increase its presence on Mare Island, which Phinney is a partner of. As of last month, they also closed on the purchase of 500 acres on the Island land from one of the nation’s foremost real estate developers Lennar Homes (CalAtlantic Homes), helping him secure his vision of seeing the island as a “mixed-use village.”
Currently, the property collective oversees over businesses that employ roughly 3,000 people. A large part of the island’s development plan orbits around affordable housing initiatives; the Nimitz Group also holds the housing manufacturer Factory OS, a modular home company spearheading affordable living spaces in California.
Phinney, himself, wants to create a “heterogeneous community,” one that’s socially and economically viable for generations to come, sans the hiccups myopic communities and financial models can create. He, too, hopes more filmmakers and movie directors will use the island as backdrops for cinema; the begrudged and bemoaned teen suicide Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” was shot on Mare Island.
“[Mare Island] needs to be economically sustainable and socially sustainable,” he said to the Chronicle. “We want to create synergies. A new tech company? They’ll need housing. An educational institute? They’ll need housing and gyms and cafeterias.”
While that sounds splendidly idyllic, what’s to become of the preserve? City Manager Greg Nyhoff said to KQED that there’s no plan to develop the preserve (yet) and, in fact, the City of Vallejo aims to expand it after the Navy reallocates certain equipment to the mainland.
Playing with the seven second natural reverb in this space was a truly memorable (and surprisingly emotional) experience. Huge thanks to the Re:Sound folks and the Mare Island Nature Preserve. pic.twitter.com/HlUHASIm7t— Chuck Johnson Sounds (@cirrus_oxide) July 1, 2019
Nevertheless, Hayes feels sidelined from all fronts. Prior to the fires, Vallejo officials prohibited campers from staying overnight on the perceives — and those camping fees, per KQED, helped garner the nonprofit, The Mare Island Heritage Trust, a third of its near $100k in total revenue last year. Plans to remove Hayes and her gaggle of volunteers have already been talked over in whispers, and, should the private development plans go as outlined, it’s not likely she’ll continue to oversee the land she’s worked so hard to preserve for years.
“[The city and Nimitz Group have] no sensitivity for historic trees, native plants,” she told KQED, making light of the fact that contractors at the nearby Nimitz Group-owned golf course had started to even use herbicides and pesticides on the land ... that can (and will) inevitably find their way on to the preserve.
A swift reopening of the park — a boundaried and regulated one – advocates say, would ensure the area’s flora and fauna are properly cared for and looked over. That… and there’s a lot of fennel yet still to be collected.
Keen on seeing the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve reopened for your visiting pleasure? Sign the Change.org petition, here.
Image: Wikimedia Commons