Scientists worry about proposal to open Calif.'s Farallon Islands, the first place to look for a dive instructor

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Posted by on February 21, 2005 at 23:38:46:

SAN FRANCISCO - Scientists worry that a proposal to allow limited public access to the Farallon Islands could harm one of the largest seabird breeding colonies on the West Coast.

A bill by two leading House lawmakers would direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide special permits "during at least one period each year " to visit the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, located 28 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

The measure was introduced by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., in response to requests from amateur radio operators who want to broadcast from remote islands.

But scientists fear that even limited public visits could have a negative impact on populations of birds and marine mammals that have rebounded since access to the Farallones by humans was strictly limited in 1969.

The refuge, sometimes known as "California's Galapagos," totals 211 acres, half of which consists of small granite outcroppings. More than 250,000 seabirds and five species of pinnipeds call the islands home.

The bill's critics worry that the measure would allow not just ham radio operators but birders and others to visit the main island, which is less than a quarter of a square mile in area but densely packed with seabirds and other marine life.

"This is about opening the floodgates of public access to the Farallones," said Ellie Cohen, who heads the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which has conducted research on the island since 1969. "Public access is not compatible with the refuge mission to conserve and protect marine wildlife."

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, said the measure is written so that the Fish and Wildlife Service can limit public access if the agency believes it is threatening seabirds or other marine species.

"This assertion that this would open the floodgates to the general public is somewhat silly," Kennedy told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I certainly think the scientists are in a great position, as experts, to be able to navigate a few members of the general public through this public land without harming any of the wildlife or its habitat."

Humans devastated the islands' marine life until President Theodore Roosevelt established the Farallon Islands as a refuge in 1909, but it wasn't until 1969 that the largest part of the islands - South Farallon Island - was protected. Since then, only researchers have been allowed on the islands - and no more than eight people can visit at any one time.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, said he was stunned to learn about efforts to open up the refuge to the public.

"I am concerned that even limited public access to the Farallon Islands will hurt the extraordinary birds and marine mammals protected there," Lantos said. "I intend to make it clear that opening the Farallon Islands will harm rather than help our great wildlife refuge."

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