by Brian Sytsma
Tucked away in the western portion of the former McClellan Air Force Base, now known as McClellan Park, lays a unique natural resource area, called the “West Nature Area.” This 220-acre parcel of land is home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife.
With the exception of a small rice farming operation, the West Nature Area remained relatively undisturbed until the late 1980s. Around this time, the Air Force acquired the land and constructed a set of earthen ammunition bunkers in the central portion of the property. As a safety measure, the property surrounding the bunkers was designated by the Air Force as open space buffer.
“It’s pretty amazing to go out there and see the diversity of the plant and wildlife species in the West Nature Area, especially when you consider it’s on an industrial military base,” said Molly Enloe, the Air Force’s natural resources program manager.
Magpie and Don Julio Creeks meander through the area in a natural bed and bank, with thick stands of cattails, tules, and willows growing along the edges. White-tailed kites and red-tailed hawks nest in the few large trees that border the creeks, while dozens of red-winged blackbirds nest among the tules. Flocks of mallards and Canada geese are present year-round in the West Nature Area, along with pheasants, California quail, green herons, great blue herons, great egrets and many other species of birds.
The creeks are home to river otters, beavers, muskrats, garter snakes and western pond turtles. Surrounding grasslands provide habitat for mice, voles, black-tailed jackrabbits, gopher snakes and California king snakes.
The West Nature Area also supports habitat for three species listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – the giant garter snake, valley elderberry longhorn beetle and vernal pool fairy shrimp. Giant garter snakes prefer the aquatic and wetland habitats found in and around the creeks, while the valley elderberry longhorn beetle lives exclusively in the elderberry shrubs along the creek banks. Vernal pool fairy shrimp inhabit the small seasonal pools that are scattered throughout the adjacent grassland areas.
Since closure of the base, the Air Force has designated the West Nature Area as a wildlife conservation area and has implemented a variety of natural resource protection measures. Signs and fencing have been installed that prohibit visitors from leaving the road. This is necessary to protect the sensitive habitats from possible damage and to avoid disruption of important wildlife activities such as nesting and feeding. Hunting and fishing are also prohibited in the area.
The Air Force is currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formulate a plan for permanent preservation of the West Nature Area after the land is transferred to Sacramento County.
Sandwiched between North Highlands and Rio Linda, the West Nature Area is an island of natural diversity that provides a unique opportunity for local residents to learn about the native plants and wildlife of the Sacramento area. The Air Force Real Property Agency, which is responsible for base cleanup and property transfer, remains active in providing tours of the West Nature Area to schools, scouting groups, and other interested members of the public. If your group or organization is interested in visiting the West Nature Area, contact Brian Sytsma at (916) 643-1250 ext. 257.
This article originally appeared in our Winter 2004 Newsletter