Sunday, March 15, 2009

Farallon Islands: a structural history

by Shari Faye Dell, Bodega Bay, West Marin Citizen Staff
and Charles Whitefield, Bolinas, Farallon Island Volunteer

The article “Strange balance in the Farallones” published a few weeks ago (Thursday, February 26) in the other Point Reyes Light misrepresents Southeast Farallon Island facilities and practices. 
There are records of a human presence on the Farallon Islands beginning around the turn of the 19th century.  First came fur traders followed by eggers, harvesting island wildlife. The North and Middle Farallons were designated a National Preserve by order of Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.  In succession the Lighthouse Service, US Navy, and the United States Coast Guard maintained a presence on the island with little regard for their effect on resident populations.   In 1969 the South-east Farallon Island garnered protection as the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge following the installation of an automated solar lighthouse.  Management was transferred to Fish and Wildlife who then contracted Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) to maintain a protective human presence, oversee stewardship of the islands, and monitor wildlife. Due to the thirty years of protection biologists are now seeing a resurgence in the number of animals and the variety of species, a testament to the success of this protection. 
Before arriving at the island, visiting ships communicate with PRBO biologists via maritime radio.  Upon arrival, vessels tie to an offshore buoy where they are met by the island safe boat.  Weather permitting, biologists, workers, and supplies are then taxied to and from the island.  Resident biologists must gauge timing between swells to attach the twenty foot craft to cables suspended from a boom crane.  The boat and occupants are lifted to East Landing thirty feet above.  Pinipeds or seals inhabit the waterfront areas of the island, there are no beaches or docks, therefore, for tactical reasons, the crane, powered by diesel generator, is the only access to and from the island.
A set of rails stretch west from the landing and allow supplies to be pushed by trolley to and from the mainhouse. 
Halfway between the main house and east landing a cinderblock powerhouse is home to renewable energy storage batteries, back up generators, and a machine shop.  The roof is outfitted with a solar array that provides all of the island’s 110v. electrical needs. 
Churman’s claim that researchers built several new structures including a house is incorrect.  Historical photos show many structures that no longer exist. Many buildings and structures have been dismantled since the 1950’s.
A pair of identical Victorian houses were built in 1878 and 1880 by the governing Lighthouse Board to accommodate lighthouse keepers and their families.  PRBO’s managing biologist, and depending on the season, 2 to 4 interns occupy the western or mainhouse.  Fish and Wildlife retain the other for maintenance personnel visits and project crews.
A few hundred feet of rail, formerly known as the Farallon Midland, is the last vestige of a trolley system that nearly circled the island during the fur trade.  The Russians, trading at Fort Ross, were not the first to harvest Farallon bounty–seals, for their fur, meat, and oil; sea birds for eggs, meat, and feathers–nor were they the last.  By 1837, diminished seal populations made trade no longer a viable enterprise.  Today, the level path where the rail previously ran allows biologists to move around the island without traveling into bird and seal colonies.
Several circa 1900 photos published in “”The Farallon Islands: Sentinels of the Golden Gate”” written by Peter White, published in 1995 (p. 69-70) show the North landing much as it stands today.  Modifications and new materials have been employed over the years, but the elements remain the same: boathouse, derrick or boom, and a stairway over steep rock bank to and from the water.
A path heading Northeast from the powerhouse leads to a century old (1905) stone duplex housing a carpentry shop and a pipe shop.  Originally a Navy bunkhouse, the building now houses island maintenance materials.
Beyond the shop building, a large cement surface installed by the Navy during the WWI era as a water catchment pad is still in use as the islands only source of fresh water.  A partially submerged cement cistern, built in conjunction with the water catchment pad is capable of holding seventy thousand gallons.
Another large cement paving or water catchement pad built pre WWII, referred to by Churchman as “the new helicopter pad”, was part of a military fog-horn-station annex.  Under current island management, helicopters are only used during the non-breeding season (Sept.-early March) when there are few birds on the island and then sparingly for major construction projects such as the re-roofing of the powerhouse,  and the transporting of old 1600 pound solar batteries back to the mainland.
PRBO uses three bird blinds, two of which were built in the early 70’s.  The “new” bird blind on the windward side, mentioned in Churchman’s article as “a perfect getaway for a VIP researcher and friend” is the only new structure to be built on the island since the 70’s.  Known to researchers as the copper blind, the 10 by 7 foot shed was built and donated to facilitate the study of a developing colony of Murres who have taken up residency on the edge of a Cormorant colony.
Awarded Refuge of the Year in 2008 by U.S.F.W.S for Environmental Leadership.  The award recognizes the accomplishments the Refuge has achieved in recycling, reducing consumption, and environmental stewardship of the islands. It also highlighted the partnership with PRBO and other groups to implement creative recycling efforts including: recycling concrete foundations into bird habitat; re-vamping historic water catchment systems with a small business to become self-sufficient in water; building boardwalk bird habitat from recycled materials; and recycling gray water to flush toilets.
The award also emphasized the huge efforts made to reduce reliance on petroleum, specifically mentioning the solar photovoltaic system, and long-time contributions of PRBO's volunteer Farallon Patrol skippers, who "sail with a purpose" to get personnel and supplies to the island.
PRBO states, “We strive to understand and protect the birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife that inhabit this amazing natural resource.”