Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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FARALLON NWR: Air National Guard Provides a Huge Lift to the Farallones
California-Nevada Offices , April 5, 2010
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Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS)
Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
A California National Guard helicopter and derrick head for the Farallones. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS)
A California National Guard helicopter and derrick head for the Farallones. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
Helicopter maneuvers into position to pick up the derrick. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS)
Helicopter maneuvers into position to pick up the derrick. (photo: Doug Cordell, USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a

By Doug Cordell, San Francisco Bay NWRC
Getting onto the Farallon Islands has never been easy—not for people, anyway.  Twenty-eight miles off the coast of San Francisco, separated from the mainland by shark-infested ocean waters, the tiny cluster of steep, rocky isles has long posed a challenge for researchers and managers looking to study the teeming seabirds and marine mammals on this historic National Wildlife Refuge. 

In recent times, access to Southeast Farallon Island—the most commonly traversed—has principally been via a 50-foot derrick designed to hoist visitors and supplies out of the water in a small “safe boat.”  Even that limited access became restricted last fall, though, when parts of the derrick were found to be severely corroded and in need of replacement. 

Thanks, however, to an impressive, elaborately coordinated effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the California Air National Guard (ANG)—together with Sheedy Drayage Company and Aris Helicopters—the derrick was removed and replaced in a series of carefully choreographed airlifts running from December to March. 

With powerful, eight-ton Pave Hawk helicopters, crew members from the ANG’s 129th Rescue Wing (Moffett Federal Airfield, CA) and workers from Sheedy Drayage were able to sling 30-foot, steel sections of derrick to and from the islands, using Stinson Beach on California’s northern coast as a staging site.  FWS refuge staff provided logistical coordination and oversight.

Since the airlifts met training hour requirements for ANG crew, FWS was spared the considerable expense of paying for crew, fuel and helicopter time. 

“It’s great when two government agencies are able to cooperate like that and both benefit somehow,” said Gerry McChesney, acting manager of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.

The operation also required coordination with the National Park Service, since Stinson Beach, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is typically open to the public.  Stinson Beach Fire Department crews were on hand, as well, to provide emergency assistance in the event of an accident. 

In addition to the logistical difficulty of moving enormously heavy equipment by helicopter over nearly 25 miles of ocean, there was the added pressure of a ticking clock. Because the roar of helicopters disturbs nesting birds, all transports had to be completed by mid-March, when nesting season begins for 13 species of seabirds on the island.

With members of the operation putting in long hours over many days, all sections of the derrick—fashioned and refurbished by Heco Pacific Mfg.—were delivered to the Farallones by March 15, with PRBO Conservation Science researchers and FWS refuge staff on site throughout to help unload and move the materials.  Within days of the last delivery, the sections were reassembled by workers from Sheedy Drayage, with the assistance of Aris Helicopters—both outfits serving as subcontractors for Brahma Engineering, Inc.—and the restored derrick was up and running.  

The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt In 1909 to protect seabirds.  Southeast Farallon and adjacent islets were added to the Refuge in 1969. Today, the islands contain the largest seabird breeding colony in the contiguous U.S.—including the largest colonies of western gulls and Brandt’s cormorants in the world.  They support half the world’s population of rare Ashy storm-petrels, and are also home to five species of seals and sea lions. 

Acting refuge manager McChesney, who began his career as an intern on the Farallones with PRBO, describes his first impressions of the place: “I was enthralled…  amazed.  The sheer numbers and diversity of bird and animal wildlife—what a scientific goldmine it is."

Current research at the islands looks at species populations and reproductive success, not only to gauge the survival of the creatures themselves, but to search for clues to changing conditions in the surrounding ecosystem.  In recent years, there have been sharp drops in the populations of some seabird species—which researchers attribute to the decline of seabird prey, such as krill and anchovies, in local ocean waters.  That decline, in turn, is linked to an increasingly volatile ocean environment, including wild swings in ocean temperatures, that may be the result of climate change. 

It turns out that, with its incredible density and variety of marine wildlife, the Farallon Refuge is a unique barometer of our changing environment.  What we monitor there can tell us a lot about larger changes afoot. 

Now, thanks to a remarkable team effort—and some very heavy lifting—researchers can count on continuing that monitoring. 


For more information on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, go to www.fws.gov/sfbayrefuges/Farallon or contact: Doug Cordell, 510-792-0222, ext.143, doug_cordell@fws.gov




Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov
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