Land Where Birds Are Grown

Remaking California’s Central Valley wetlands was a complicated project that took much of the 20th century. Resurrected from degraded farmland and cash-strapped gun clubs, assembled by bulldozer and backhoe, the current patchwork of national wildlife refuges, state wildlife areas, and county preserves is much diminished from the four million acres of primeval wetlands that spanned the Central Valley before it was farmed. Nevertheless, these habitats are ecologically significant on a hemispheric level, serving 60 percent of migratory waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway, including three million ducks, two million geese, and a half million shorebirds. Their restoration has lured hungry birds away from agricultural fields, created wilderness access for rural communities, and returned endangered species to viable numbers. Decades before the spread of concepts like the Anthropocene and reconciliation ecology, refuge managers were devising ways to sustain ecological systems that had been dramatically altered. 1

Decades before the spread of concepts like the Anthropocene, refuge managers were devising ways to sustain ecological systems that had been dramatically altered.

Today there are about 206,000 acres of actively managed wetlands in the Central Valley, a third of which are publicly owned. Some, like the Sacramento and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges, are popular with urban tourists, featuring visitor centers, well-maintained auto tours, and interpretive signage; others, like the state-run Mendota and Volta Wildlife Areas, are managed for hunting rather than wildlife observation. Roadside wilderness zones, irrigation canals, and levees along the refuge boundaries provide opportunities for unsanctioned recreation and foraging. 2

Maintaining functional wetlands in a 21st-century landscape dominated by agriculture and cities requires a host of hard and soft infrastructures. Canals, pumps, and sluice gates provide critical life support, and the lands are irrigated and tilled in seasonal cycles to essentially farm wildlife. 3 Reams of laws and regulations scaffold the system. The federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act (1992) — perhaps the most critical of these laws — establishes a minimum water supply for nineteen valley refuges, though this water can be unaffordable, undeliverable, and politically contested. 4

The videos published here record seasonal shifts at thirteen managed wetlands in the valley’s major drain basins — the verdurous Sacramento River Valley, the extensively re-engineered San Joaquin River floodplain, and the agro-industrial Tulare Basin. My ongoing documentary project Cultivated Ecologies observes interactions between humans, wildlife, and infrastructure in these novel ecosystems.

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