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Field trip

The restoration of San Francisco's Crissy Field is good news for wildlife, plantlife and all who study them

The San Francisco shoreline around Fort Point, where the Bay meets the Pacific Ocean, is a popular place for an afternoon out. The views from here are spectacular: the village of Sausalito on the horizon, the island of Alcatraz over to the east, and the Golden Gate Bridge a few hundred yards away. There are picnic areas by the water, and a nature reserve among the marshes and sand dunes. Surprisingly, though, this area is one of the city's newest attractions.

The Bay area was occupied by the Ohlone Indians for several thousand years before the Spanish arrived to establish their most northerly New World colony in 1776. These European explorers built a fort on the high ground just above Crissy Field and established their presidio (a Spanish militray post); the area has been known by this name ever since.

Troops were stationed here for the next 200 years. Mexican soldiers gained control after independence from Spain, but were defeated in their turn by American troops. Throughout this period, the land immediately below the fortress, part sand dunes, part marshland, was used as a supply centre for goods arriving by sea and, later, by air.

In 1915, the marsh was filled in as the site prepared to host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a celebration of the city's recovery from the earthquake and fire of 1906. At one end a racetrack was built, and when the exhibition closed, it was used as a departure point for aircraft trials. The test pilots were led by Major Dana H Crissy, whose plane crashed on the first day of the trials; when the landing strip officially became an airfield in 1921 it was renamed in his memory.

Crissy Field is not intended to be a historical exhibit, although there are a few traces of the more recent past: both the Warming Hut café and the Field Center were once army buildings.

The restoration of Crissy Field to its natural state began in 1998, with a donation from the Haas family, local philanthropists. The aim has been to restore the tidal marsh and recreate the wetland habitat that once covered this coast. The marsh channel, connecting the Crissy Field marsh with the Pacific Ocean, was opened up in 1999, and since then the number and variety of birds seen there has increased dramatically.

Further information from The Crissy Field Center (001 415 561 7690; www.crissyfield.org) and National Park Service (001 415 561 4323; www.nps.gov/prsf/index.htm)