For the last two weeks I have had the good fortune to be travelling with a group of University of Exeter undergraduate Geographers and Environmental Scientists to California for their final year fieldtrip.

I always find when I travel abroad that it throws some of our own landscape management issues in to sharp relief, and give new insights into what is happening on the ground. Yesterday we visited the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project near San Francisco. This vast project seeks to restore the natural marshland at the south end of San Francisco bay, some of which had been modified for salt production by artificial levees which created huge evaporation ponds.

The natural marshes provide flood control for some of the 7 million people that live in the San Francisco bay area, including the tech giants Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and others whose shiny glass and steel buildings are clearly visible from the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge which forms part of the salt pond restoration project.

Such proximity of big business and immense urban population is not something we are used to in Cornwall, let alone on the Lizard, but it reminds us that all natural environments are also social environments: places where people, wildlife and landscape interact, where policy is operationalised and where sometimes nature has to be defended against the interests of business and development.

The salt pond restoration project also highlights a classic conservation conundrum: to which version of the past should a landscape be restored? In the bay, that question focuses on the salt-adapted rare species of birds and animals that have come to call former salt-production ponds their home. To return all the ponds to their pre-salt-production condition would destroy a valuable habitat for some of North America’s rarest fauna such as the snowy plover. Meanwhile, stop-off points along the Pacific flyway migratory birds are also few and far between: the restoration of natural marsh from the salt production ponds provides a vital rest area.

To address this conundrum, the salt pond restoration is being conducted on a 50 year timeline which will about 10% of the former salt production ponds intact whilst 90% of the land will be natural tidal marsh. We were reminded that conservation conundrums always involve compromise of some kind, and science has to be squared with policy, politics and the views of stakeholders.

In a part of the site which we were privileged to visit, a distant ghost town – Drawbridge – is being allowed to fall into the marsh after being comprehensively documented – calling attention to the tensions between cultural and natural heritage, the challenges of managed realignment and what Caitlin DeSilvey (2017) called ‘curated decay’.

Finally, the site demonstrates the absolute necessity of working collaboratively between government departments, agencies, businesses, and other stakeholders in order to collectively secure the future of the site. This is a model with which we are familiar in the Lizard Countryside Partnership, and which has successfully secured excellent landscape management outcomes such as the expansion of the National Nature Reserve. Distant though San Francisco Bay is, it was instructive for me to compare its challenges and opportunities with those on the Lizard.
 
Follow our adventures on twitter using #CGESinthefield or find out more about the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project here: http://www.southbayrestoration.org/
Caitlin DeSilvey (2017) Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, University of Minnesota Press.

Published: Oct 2017

Author: Professor Catherine Leyshon (nee Brace)Associate Professor of Geography, University of Exeter’s Penryn campus