San Luis refuge gets big chunk of federal stimulus dollars

WASHINGTON -- The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex is getting a new headquarters and visitors' center courtesy of a big economic stimulus package.

A $9.8 million grant will enable the Los Banos-area network of refuges to build the long-deferred project. The newly announced grant is also making the San Luis refuge complex the nation's largest single recipient of new Fish and Wildlife Service economic recovery funds.

"This will provide for a much more welcoming opportunity for visitors," Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Alexandra Pitts said Monday.

The San Luis refuge complex funding is part of $280 million in Fish and Wildlife Service grants being spread nationwide. Other Central Valley refuges are getting a share, though the San Luis refuge is receiving more than any of the other 770 projects funded from coast to coast.

The money is new, billed as a way to support local jobs. The idea is familiar. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have been talking publicly about a new San Luis refuge center since at least 2002.

Once completed, the new center will host refuge visitors as well as Fish and Wildlife Service administrators currently stuffed into uninspiring quarters on West Pacheco Boulevard in Los Banos. The federal agency employs 30 full-time and 20 seasonal workers.

"They're in a strip mall," Pitts said. "They're not in a particularly functional space, because it was designed for retail."

The San Luis complex spans nearly 45,000 acres and includes the San Luis, Merced and San Joaquin River wildlife refuges as well as the Grasslands Management Area.

Migrating waterfowl love the region, as do endangered species including the San Joaquin kit fox. In the mid-1980s, the refuge complex also became notorious as the location of the since-drained Kesterson Reservoir, where selenium-tainted irrigation runoff accumulated and poisoned thousands of birds.

An estimated 120,000 visitors now come to the refuge complex annually. Officials estimate this could eventually triple, with the help of an attractive new interpretive center. The new center would be built on a two-acre site off Wolfsen Road, close to Los Banos and the southern entrance to the San Luis refuge.

"There would be increased opportunity for interaction between visitors and personnel, and increased environmental interpretation by refuge staff," an environmental assessment states, adding that local schools and colleges will also benefit.

The current leased facility in Los Banos costs more than any other Fish and Wildlife Service field office in California. The environmental assessment called this facility "inadequate for a large refuge complex" and one beset with "inherent problems" including poor communications, high energy and travel costs and undermined public safety.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge, which is administered as part of the overall San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is separately receiving $25,000 for work on a canal. The Kern National Wildlife Refuge is receiving $67,000, and two refuges along the Sacramento River are receiving a total of $1.5 million.

All told, California refuges are receiving $22.3 million. This is considerably more than any other state. Texas refuges, which are second in funding, will receive $16 million.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Fish and Wildlife Service grants Sunday, rolling out the latest wave of funding provided under a $787 billion economic stimulus package. National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation grants have already been announced.