- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

FARALLON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Calif. (AP) — The Farallones make up an archipelago of rocky islands that rises out of the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles from San Francisco, forming a largely undisturbed wildlife haven that biologists call California’s Galapagos.

The public isn’t allowed onto the granite islands that make up the country’s largest seabird breeding colony outside Alaska and Hawaii, but on a rare visit organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several reporters saw an ecosystem teeming with life: densely packed colonies of black-and-white murres nesting on steep rocky slopes and Western gulls squawking constantly while defending their brown spotted eggs.

“You don’t have to go to the Galapagos to see amazing biological diversity and thousands and thousands of animals,” said Russ Bradley, a Point Reyes Bird Observatory researcher who monitors seabird breeding on the islands. “It’s right on San Francisco’s doorstep.”

Only a handful of bird researchers and maintenance workers are permitted to set foot on the 211-acre archipelago at any given time, although that restriction could change.

Starting this week, the Fish and Wildlife Service will begin seeking public comment on a 15-year conservation plan that will address public access, among other issues. The agency is considering allowing small groups of naturalists to visit but probably not tourists.

Earlier this year, two congressmen proposed a bill to allow supervised access to the Farallones by amateur radio operators, who compete in broadcasting to and from remote locations. The measure, sponsored by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, and Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, now appears all but dead.

The Farallones, four main islands and dozens of craggy outcroppings, are home to five species of marine mammals and 12 species of seabirds, about 300,000 or 30 percent of California’s breeding seabirds.

The islands, which can be seen from San Francisco on clear days, aren’t exactly conducive to visitors. Because of stormy seas and steep dropoffs into the ocean, there are no docks. After a rocky 2-hour boat ride from San Francisco, authorized visitors must approach the main island in a small raft, then get hoisted onto the island by a 30-foot crane.

Though the Farallones are too close to shore to be biologically unique, as are Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, scientists here worry that opening the refuge to tourists could disturb skittish nesting birds and the endangered Steller sea lions.

Before President Theodore Roosevelt established the refuge in 1909, sealers wiped out 50,000 resident northern fur seals in the early 19th century. The common murre population plummeted during the Gold Rush, when “eggers” collected seabird eggs to sell in San Francisco. And during the 20th century, the military had as many as 70 persons living there.

In 1969, access was strictly limited to a small group of researchers who live in two wooden houses that once housed Coast Guard families, and biologists say the island wildlife is healthier than it’s been in years.

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