If you live in the Bay Area, Suisun City seems one of those places you pass on your way to somewhere else. Located within three miles of Interstate 80, halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, it sits at the edge of the labyrinth of waterways that make up the western portion of the California Delta.
Established during the gold rush, Suisun City grew to be a major transportation hub due to its proximity to shipping links and rail lines. The diking of Suisun Bay shortly after the founding of the city created agricultural opportunities. Over time, increasing salinity and land subsidence caused farms and ranches to fail. In the 40’s and 50’s, the construction of I-80 and nearby Travis Air Force Base, known as the "Gateway to the Pacific", diverted transportation activities northward. Growth in the 70’s came in the form of suburban subdivisions and strip malls at the edge of the city, catering to the auto era. Trapped on three sides by marshland and 6,400 acres of air force base, the Suisun City waterfront was left isolated.
In the 1980’s a survey of San Francisco bay area communities listed Suisun City as the least attractive place in the region. Crime and gang activity became prevalent. Newspaper articles from the time variously describe the city’s Crescent apartment complex as “crime infested”, “rampant with crime”, “racked by crime”, “crime-plagued”, and the “drug capital of Solano County”. Redevelopment plans eventually did away with the Crescent, and the city reclaimed and rebuilt the waterfront. Over the last twenty-five years it’s main challenges have remained questions related to growth- how to get people to stay in a place with a history of coming and going.
Suisun City lies at the northern edge of Suisun Marsh, a critical component of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary ecosystem. The marsh provides a critical stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway, which runs from Alaska to Patagonia.
The land and waterways that make up Suisun Marsh are managed collectively by federal and state wildlife agencies, land trusts, and over 150 privately owned duck hunting clubs. Each of these landowners has an individual objective, but are in agreement that restoration of wetlands and conservation of waterfowl accomplishes the shared goal of keeping residential and commercial development away.
Grizzly Island Wildlife Area encompasses 12,900 of the 88,000 acres that make up the marsh. Scattered along the sloughs, its combined areas provide habitat for more than 200 species of birds and is home to a variety of threatened or endangered plant and wildlife species. Managed by the state of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Grizzly Island's tidal marshes yield one of the greatest densities of nesting mallards in all of North America. The Wildlife Area is open to the public for hiking, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing.
The Potrero Hills rise out of the northeastern quarter of the marsh. In 1864 Hiram Rush began acquiring land in the hills for what would become Rush Ranch, eventually acquiring over 5,000 acres there. Hiram, born in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio and Indiana, purchased a small herd of cattle in 1849 and headed west with his family, settling in Sacramento and then Solano County. His business endeavors proved successful and his land holdings throughout California grew to be over 50,000 acres.
Rush contributed many things to Solano County, including the design and construction of the Suisun City Masonic Lodge No. 55, now on the Historic Register of Solano County. After Hiram died in a horse and buggy accident on the property in 1869, his son Benjamin took over running the ranch. Benjamin was equally as successful as his father. He went on to become Solano County sheriff, and following, a California state senator. Another valued contribution of the Rush family was in their land stewardship. They practiced rotating their livestock in an effort to make grazing sustainable long term, in effect reducing wear and tear on the land. The tidal marshes on the property were left in a natural state, unusual for a time when many Bay Area tidal marshes were lost due to diking and filling. Tidal marshes prevent flooding and provide habitat for important sensitive species. They are among the most productive habitats on the planet. Only five percent of the San Francisco Bay’s original wetlands exist today. They include ten square miles of tidal wetlands in the Suisun Marsh. Since 1988 the Rush Ranch property has been managed by the Solano Land Trust, and makes up the Rush Ranch Open Space. The Ranch offers educational and recreational activities, providing access to one of the country’s best remaining examples of tidal marsh habitat.
As another major property owner, the 150 privately run duck hunting clubs around Suisun Marsh have collectively played an important role in preserving the land from development. The first clubs were established in the late 1800’s, flourishing after the Southern Pacific line connected to Montezuma, Goodyear and Cordelia sloughs. The earliest clubs were the Hardland, the Cordelia, The Teal Club and the Tule Belle. They catered to the elite of the growing Bay Area, providing fine dining and private quarters. The Teal Club still runs out of its original clubhouse today. Despite the long history, older members worry younger generations are not interested in rural traditions such as duck hunting.
The future of Suisun Marsh is uncertain. The diversity of objectives among land use stakeholders has increased, resulting in a complex, highly regulated environment with ongoing and sometimes conflicting restoration and land management projects. In 2014, The Bureau of Reclamation together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the The Suisun Marsh Habitat Management, Preservation and Restoration Plan. It involves the restoration of 5,000 to 7,000 acres of the marsh back to tidal wetlands, as well as the enhancement of more than 40,000 acres of managed wetlands. Maintaining the heritage of duck hunting is included in the plan, as is providing other recreational opportunities. Implementation will span a 30 year period. Also in the planning and design stages, The Pacific Flyway Center will include a 125,000 square foot educational facility at the edge of the marsh, close to the I-680 freeway. The project includes restoring a portion of the wetlands. It will also provide an exhibit hall, a 3,800 square foot theater, a restaurant, event space, and a gift shop.