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Valley residents may help plan future of area wetlands

WASHINGTON — Valley residents will now shape the future of federal wildlife refuges that protect some of California’s largest remaining freshwater wetlands.

Be patient. It’s going to take time.

Starting this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will initiate planning for three prominent wetlands areas in Merced County. The planning will cover the Merced and San Luis national wildlife refuges and the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, which together currently span some 129,000 acres.

“They’re very important,” Sacramento-based Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Scott Flaherty said of the refuge plans Monday. “They’re a manager’s roadmap.”

The refuges could potentially grow, as a result. Visitors might find new features. Valley farmers, whose used irrigation water has flowed into the refuges with sometimes catastrophic consequences, could face new choices.

The refuges near Los Banos and Gustine are part of the Pacific Flyway, a home-away-from-home for up to one million migrating waterfowl each winter. They are also replete with vernal pools, which fill with winter rainwater and welcome endangered tiger salamanders and other species.

A 1997 law requires that a Comprehensive Conservation Plan be developed for every national wildlife refuge. They are akin to management plans required for national parks, like the periodically litigated Yosemite National Park general management plan.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 2011 as a target date for completing the Merced County refuge plans, but that can easily slip. In Washington state, for instance, officials began the comprehensive planning for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in 1997. In 2005, the plan was finished.

Originally, the Nisqually refuge was authorized to cover 3,936 acres at the southern end of Puget Sound. Under what its conservation plan termed a “bold new vision,” the refuge’s authorized size would expand to 7,415 acres.“They do take a while, because they are comprehensive,” Flaherty said, adding that the amount of time often “really comes down to the amount of public use” of the refuge.

In this vein, public planning for the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge began in May 2001. The document was completed four years later. It called for a 47 percent increase in the refuge’s annual operating budget. It included revisions as small as producing new brochures and as large as allowing more bird hunting and building new parking lots.The conservation plans are supposed to cover the next 15 years. The work will start with three sessions to be held in Los Banos and Merced later this month, the times and dates for which have not yet been made public. The plans are not a guarantee of future funding, staffing or land purchases.

The 10,262-acre Merced National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1951 and the 26,878-acre San Luis National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1967. The Grasslands area was established in 1979. It currently spans 90,000 acres for which property owners have provided conservation easements, but it is has an authorized boundary of 230,000 acres.