The Bay Area’s Solar Salt Industry: An Unintended Conservationist

Now part of a 15,100-acre restoration project, the salt ponds of the southern San Francisco Bay have a long history of industrial use and management. Early developers of these lands in the late 1800s modified the marshy tidal margin of the bay to be productive and profitable; wetlands were not valued for their own sake or for ecological values, but were considered wastelands until they could be “improved” for human utilization. The land barons behind what became the Leslie Salt Company created an elaborate landscape of dikes and ponds, but producing solar salt was considered an interim use, while the owners aimed for further, more lucrative possibilities: first planning a heavily industrialized manufacturing and distribution center, and later considering filling the marshlands to create residential developments. Ironically the vision of a filled-in Bay helped to trigger a wave of environmentalism in the 1960s and ‘70s, resulting first in the creation of a wildlife refuge and later this ambitious restoration project, circling back toward the tidal marshes’ earlier form and function. Examining their history helps us to see not only the potential conservation value of lands previously used for industrial purposes, but also to help us understand that we can live side by side with conservation lands, that their ecological or wildness values are not necessarily diminished by human presence or past.