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A Conservationist’s Take on the Knowland Park Controversy

by on November 17, 2014

Knowland Park. Photo: Jason Webster
Knowland Park. Photo: Jason Webster

One of the Bay Area’s few remaining maritime chaparral plant communities would be changed forever if the Oakland Zoo gets its away tomorrow, as it may well do.

The Zoo aims to expand into the surrounding City of Oakland public open space, Knowland Park, for a new exhibit about locally extinct, California native wildlife. To offset the project’s impacts on the endangered Alameda whipsnake, the Zoo has applied for a conservation easement on 22 acres of parkland. This is one of the final regulatory hurdles it needs to overcome before breaking ground, as the Zoo hopes to do next year.

The Oakland City Council is scheduled to vote on the easement tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Critics, who plan to turn out in full force at the meeting, say the wildlife in Knowland Park would be better off with no easement, and no Zoo expansion.

In light of the significance of Knowland Park, which was off many conservationists’ radar until recently, Bay Nature caught up with Laura Baker of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society to find out why Knowland Park is worth knowing about and protecting. Note: Baker is a prominent critic of the Zoo’s expansion project.

For those of you who would like to attend, the Oakland City Council meeting begins at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, Nov. 18 at Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, in City Council chambers.

Laura Baker of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Photo: Beth Wurzburg

Laura Baker of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Photo: Beth Wurzburg

What’s in Knowland Park and why did it take so long for anyone to recognize its significance?

Knowland Park contains one of the most compact areas chock full of rare resources in the East Bay.  With three rare plant communities (two in the project area), two statewide rare plant species, several dozen locally rare plant species, and a listed wildlife species, the park is one of the California Native Plant Society’s high priority targets for conservation in our two-county chapter area. Knowland Park has been one of the best kept secrets from the public because there aren’t any signs to mark its location and because most people think that Knowland Park is synonymous with the Zoo.  Within the botanical world, a few people knew of some of the biodiversity, but the park was not fully explored and much of the existing information was not widely shared or dispersed until very recently.

What is Knowland Park’s contribution to the wider, Bay Area habitat conservation goals?

Knowland Park is the poster child for how city parks can be a repository for wildlife and native plant habitat, despite the massive development pressures of urban life.  It’s a living lab that contains exemplary stands of native bunchgrass, rare maritime chaparral, extraordinary lichen and fungi, and a host of other important natural features. These should be protected not only for their intrinsic value, but also for their ability to teach us about the wild within our midst.  Conservation principles today show us that we must save remote, large areas of the wild, but we must also preserve rich open space that is close to the mass of humanity.  City dwellers need to restore themselves in open space, and children need to learn the lessons that only direct experiences in nature can teach. For many children in Oakland, who rarely leave the City, Knowland Park is their Africa, their Amazon, and their Baja because it’s accessible to them.

How would the ecology of Knowland Park change if the Oakland Zoo project moves forward?

The Oakland Zoo project would take the heart of the park.  Much of the richness of the park is concentrated on the western ridge, which is where the Zoo wants to build.  Their plans would include grading native grassland and habitat for Alameda whipsnake, fencing maritime chaparral, removing heritage oak trees.  Fencing such a large amount of land blocks the movement of wildlife, especially through the chaparral, which is of key importance to wildlife moving through the park.  The notion that fencing off a plant community will protect it is a primitive one since a functioning ecosystem depends upon the flow of wildlife through it and even some of the disturbance that promotes adaptation. There are very few instances in conservation where fencing actually protects a resource.  And of course, one can never fully restore native grassland that has been graded since the soil profile is permanently altered and invasive plants take over.

What about public access? Can people visit the park now, and how would that change?

Public access would be blocked to a total of 78 acres:  the 56 acres that would be fenced and the additional 22 acres [under conservation easement] that would be signed off limits to the public.

Today the park is free and freely accessible to the public.  The vast majority of park visitors use the proposed project area because it sits at the western ridge with spectacular views of five counties. If the project is built, 100 percent of the maritime chaparral would be permanently off limits to the public along with most of the best hiking trails that lead to the ridge.

What do you see as the best outcome for Knowland Park from a conservationist’s standpoint?

The best outcome for Knowland Park would be permanent protection from development and the creation of a resource management plan implemented by wise land stewards who don’t have a conflict of interest regarding the use of the land.  None of these conditions exist today, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t in the future.

Maritime chaparral at Knowland Park. Photo: Mack Casterman

Maritime chaparral at Knowland Park. Photo: Mack Casterman

Grasslands and woodland ecotone at Knowland Park. Photo: Mack Casterman

Grasslands and woodland ecotone at Knowland Park. Photo: Mack Casterman

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Terry Sayre on November 17th, 2014 at 1:09 pm

The zoo has reached this point by a well planned and consistently implemented series of obfuscations, blatant lies and buzz words such as “we (the zoo) are a conservation organization ” and this project will help us to “educate the public about conservation.” The city of Oakland has been completely complicite in this. They refused to do a full Environmental Impact Report on this, which would have forced them to look at alternatives and for many years, despite repeated requests from concerned citizens, refused to list Knowland Park on the list of city parks. They only did so after many requests and a blog written on the http://www.saveknowland.org website. Even with this the address given is that of the zoo. See today’s op-ed in the Chroncle for more info and come out and be a part of the fast growing groundswell of public opinion denouncing this land grab. Keep it free-Keep it open to all!

Karen Smith on November 17th, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Thank you for publishing this wonderful interview. Laura Baker brings the highest standard of integrity to a controversy that has been mired in misleading statements and obfuscation in support of this unnecessary Zoo expansion onto the most valuable native habitat in Knowland Park. This ridge land is spectacularly rich. Only the uninformed (intentionally or not) would say losing these 77 acres is not that much of a loss.

Nancy Taylor on November 17th, 2014 at 3:39 pm

This article gives a point of view that the Oakland Zoo and the City of Oakland don’t seem to share. The zoo and city have many reasons to move ahead and approve the “conservation (oxymoron) easement”, most of which seem purely political (so what else is new?) but none of their reasons put preserving nature and true conservation as a priority. So sad. Their idea of conservation is what Joni Mitchell sang about in 1970:
“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em”
What happened to THOSE values/priorities? Keep it free, keep it natural!

ned bennett on November 17th, 2014 at 3:56 pm

It is not too late to stop the project from being built on the ridge. Despite the zoo’s claim that they cannot build the project below the ridge, and in spite of rejecting an Environmental Impact Report that would have required an independent assessment, the council could vote to reject the conservation easement for now and request an independent assessment of the feasibility of building below the ridge. Why cannibalize this natural treasure if it isn’t necessary?

Lee Ann Smith on November 17th, 2014 at 4:01 pm

I agree 100 per cent!

Kitty Whiteside on November 17th, 2014 at 4:12 pm

It is so important for the physical and mental health of city dwellers to take solace in the serenity and beauty of nature. In our busy lives having a wild and natural place nearby makes this possible. We must preserve what is left of urban open space both for our sake and for the sake of the special plants and animals that thrive there. How ironic that the Oakland Zoo would destroy California native habitat in order to showcase California native species that have become extinct because of destruction of habitat. Please expand the Zoo within the 99 acres of Knowland Park already within the Zoo’s domain, only half of which has been used!

Maryam Shansab on November 17th, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Knowland Park is one of the most beautiful parks that I have seen. I visit the park often and each time I go there I see something new. It would be a huge loss to both local wildlife and the public if the zoo succeeds.

Allison M. on November 17th, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Commodifying the open space doesn’t reflect an ethic of conservation; it reflects the capitalistic ethic of an urban growth machine. It’s hypocritical to destroy local habitat to put up cages and signs outlining what once existed here. The integrity of the park as it is is an Oakland treasure. Lead guided tours but don’t destroy what exists and call it “education”.

Stefanie Yellis on November 18th, 2014 at 12:11 pm

The saddest thing is that the City of Oakland has essentially buried Knowland Park — it’s most beautiful feature — alive all these years. It was not even listed on the city park and recreation department’s website until a few years ago, when park advocates made a stink about it, and there’s still not one street sign directing people to it. This, together with the zoo’s publicity budget, has made it possible for most people, including most Oaklanders, to assume that all there is there is the zoo. In turn, the zoological society, which manages the zoo — and supposedly the park itself — for the city, has grown this sense of manifest destiny to take and use the park for its own glorification and gain. Oakland desperately wants to enhance its image and become a destination city, and it has latched on the zoological society’s nature theme park notion as the way to accomplish that. Had the city instead promoted the park for itself, and invested a modicum of money putting up signs, improving trails, publishing trail maps, and installing a few benches and a water fountain, people would come from all over to see the 4-bridge view from the ridgeline in Knowland Park the same way they now make the laborious drives to the top of Mt. Tam or Mt. Diablo. And it’s only 10 minutes from downtown Oakland with Jack London Sq., the sports arena, the Paramount Theater, and scores of other venues where tourists can spend money. Instead it’s being given away to what is, in reality, corporate lust. What a waste. What a shame.

Ellen Gierson on November 20th, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Oakland Zoo’s encroachment onto undeveloped parkland in Knowland Park will be a forever tragedy. The effects on wildlife, rare plants, and animals will be irreversible. How incredibly ironic that the Oakland zoo claims to be a pro conservation organization! Shame, shame, on the majority of the Oakland City Coucil for being so cowardly by voting for the “easement” and giving away publicly owned land to the privately owned zoo! What a terribly misguided
Thanks to Council members Kalb & Kaplan for voting no on the easement!

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