SAN FRANCISCO—A 50-year recovery plan for San Francisco Bay and other coastal wetlands is being released Thursday by federal wildlife officials who say it would be the biggest tidal marsh recovery effort outside of the Florida Everglades.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said its $1.24 billion plan for the Bay and a patchwork of other tidal marshes in northern and central California covers wetlands projects along 500 miles of the state's 1,100-mile coastline.

The plan focuses on providing scientific research and recommendations meant to save 17 struggling species of plants and animals, including the endangered California clapper rail, that are in sharp decline.

"It's a road map to the future for those endangered species," said Cay Goude, an endangered species expert with the service. "The plan puts together in one document everything you need for their recovery."

Since the Gold Rush, 90 percent of San Francisco Bay's tidal marshes have been lost to development and contamination.

While not a regulatory mandate, the plan gives government agencies and private conservation groups the science-based guidance needed to help focus their efforts.

Marc Holmes, a wetlands policy expert at The Bay Institute, said the plan is historic because it marks a decades-long shift in focus by the service to large scale ecosystem restoration projects that can benefit many species, rather than targeting one at a time.

"It's a huge change of perspective in how government does business," Holmes said. "It's not about singling out actions for a particular species. The first objective should be to restore as much tidal marsh habitat as we possibly can."

About a third of the estimated cost, $426 million, is believed to be needed for land acquisition for future projects by local governments or conservation groups. Still, the service said it believes that cost estimate is high because some landowners will do their own conservation work.

"It's not necessary for lands to be acquired in public ownership," said Sarah Swenty, a service spokeswoman. "We will work with willing landowners to help them manage for the species."

Most of the rest of the cost is for the restoration work itself and research.

Much of the plan focuses on properties already acquired that are either available for restoration projects or already being restored.

More than 35 square miles of tidal marsh restoration has already begun, or is in planning stages around the bay, much of them heavily reliant on volunteer efforts.

Near the lush vineyards of Napa County, a 20-year restoration project returning industrial salt ponds to nature has already helped transform the area into a state wildlife refuge. And near Silicon Valley, the initial phase of a nearly 24-square-mile restoration of former Cargill salt ponds is also underway.

Fish and Wildlife will be forming a team to help coordinate and guide the patchwork of projects to ensure they are done properly, and will not affect or damage existing infrastructure like roads.

Yet, for it to succeed over the long haul, it will depend on a massive volunteer effort to maintain and monitor the newly restored areas.

"The species that depend on the San Francisco Bay are lucky that so many people and groups are dedicated to the health of this ecosystem; it is their deep affection for this place that will carry this plan forward and help recover our tidal marshes," said Jennifer Norris, the service's field supervisor in Sacramento.

———

Jason Dearen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen