Skaggs to Riches

Burrowing Owl


In 2011, Skaggs Island, a former naval facility located between Novato and Vallejo, was transferred to San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, adding more than 3,000 acres to the refuge. With 140 buildings and other naval structures completely dismantled and removed, Skaggs Island now holds tremendous possibilities for wildlife conservation. The land has a storied past, and in over a course of 200+ years, Skaggs Island will once again be a place for wildlife.

The native people in and around San Pablo Bay saw a bay much different than what we see today. Likewise the early European explorers who viewed the north Skaggs to riches... in wildlife and their habitats end of San Francisco Bay. The view would have been a huge estuary that extended from Cougar Mountain east (at the junction of State Routes 37 and 121) to beyond the Napa River.

Tidal slough channels of all shapes, lengths, and depths would have coursed through the salt marsh habitat where sea and fresh water meet. Composition and abundance of species would have ranged from mosquitos to eagles and from crustaceans to fishes. Estuaries are incredibly rich, fertile, and productive ecosystems. We’d all like to take a trip back in time to see what the early people saw!

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dikes and levees were constructed to follow the contours of the wider and deeper slough channels to prevent tidal flow into portions of the estuary. This practice reduced the North Bay’s vast estuary into a much smaller tidal wetland. These areas were then drained of water to form dry islands to be farmed for hay to feed cattle and the horses drawing carts, buggies, and wagons. One of these islands was owned and farmed by supermarket and pharmacy mogul, M.B. Skaggs, the founder of Safeway supermarkets.

The U.S. Navy purchased 3,300-acres of land from the Skaggs family to create a communications and listening post simply known as Skaggs Island. From the winter of 1941 to 1993, Skaggs Island was a Naval facility complete with a small town of 250-400 people, an elementary school, tennis courts, movie theater, gymnasium, convenience store, baseball diamond, and single family and barracks housing. It was a self-contained community that supported military cloak and dagger activities, although more cloak than dagger.

Upon closure of the Skaggs Island Naval Facility, efforts to convey the naval portion of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were put in motion. Other uses were considered but the idea to convert the former naval facility to a unit of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge received better traction. On March 31, 2011, signatures were put to paper documenting the transfer of Skaggs Island to San Pablo Bay NWR.

EgretFor decades the island was farmed, even while as a spook center for the military. Today, deer, birds of prey, coyote, egrets, herons, and assorted other wildlife use the various grasslands, shrub stands, ephemeral pools, old drainage channels, and nonnative eucalyptus trees as habitat. We live in a very different world today and turning the clock back to 200 years ago may not be the best provision for wildlife of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Indeed, the human population has grown substantially, and the surrounding lands have other uses to meet the demands of that population. Perhaps the Skaggs Island Unit can be shaped to provide a range of habitats that support a rich array of wildlife. In the coming months, San Pablo Bay NWR will explore the numerous possibilities of providing, maintaining, and showcasing what Skaggs Island can become for wildlife and their habitats. 

If you would like a group tour of Skaggs Island, call Manager Don Brubaker at 707-769-4200. 

By Don Brubaker, Updated January 2016