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Could the ghost of John Muir save Alhambra Hills from development?

by on August 08, 2013

This Oak, known as tree #491 is 50 feet tall with a 50-inch diameter. Should the  development go ahead it is one of many that will be removed. Photo: AHOSC.
This Oak, known as tree #491 is 50 feet tall with a 50-inch diameter. Should the development go ahead it is one of many that will be removed. Photo: AHOSC.

Between Mount Wanda and Briones Regional Park, on a ridge surrounded by patchwork housing and home to the odd ranch or two, lies the Alhambra Hills.

Just minutes away from the Muir homestead in Martinez, it is easy to imagine John Muir himself traversing these undulating hills. And according to recent first hand accounts, it’s likely that he did.

For the past two years, a quiet battle has been unfolding in the council chambers, newspapers and farmers markets of Martinez. Led by the Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee (AHOSC), the group has been rousing community support to save this historically significant piece of land from development. Currently, the land is owned by developer Richfield Investment Corporation, whose plan to construct a 110-home subdivision was approved in 2011.

Committee member, Jamie Fox looks out to the Alhambra Hills and Mount Diablo  from the top of Mount Wanda. Photo: AHOSC.

Committee member, Jamie Fox looks out to the Alhambra Hills and Mount Diablo from the top of Mount Wanda. Photo: AHOSC.

“We came together around the concept of trying to find a way to buy these hills as open space because they’re so iconic,” said Tim Platt, a member of the Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee. “There’s beautiful wildlife up there, the oaks are tremendous, there are endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake and there is even talk about it being a pathway for mountain lions.”

More recently, the group found John Muir’s footprint on the land. First hand accounts from Ross Hanna, Muir’s grandson, and David Hanna, his great grandson, have confirmed that the family owned land on the hills. Conservationists are now hoping that a Muir family connection to the land would add further reason for its protection.

Dating back over 100 years, this photo shows the Muir homestead with the  Alhambra Hills and its wind sculpted oak trees in the background. Many of these trees, at risk of being  removed, still cover the hills today. Photo: John Muir NHS.

The Muir homestead with the Alhambra Hills and its wind sculpted oak trees in the background. Photo: John Muir NHS.

David Hanna’s home is nestled behind an overgrown garden on a quiet road on the outskirts of Mount Wanda. Seated upon a floral couch in a living room bedecked with family photos, Hanna explains how the Muirs and his wife’s family, the Strentzels, owned around 2,600 acres of land in the Martinez area. This included what they referred to as the “East Hill,” now known as the Alhambra Hills, which Wanda, Muir’s daughter, later inherited.

As Hanna explains, both he and Ross Hanna have fond memories of hunting and tramping around the hills, including the Alhambra Hills, as children.

“I’ve been all over those hills,” said David Hanna. “Like [roller] coasters we used to come down those fire trails as kids.”

John Muir, 1838-1914.

John Muir, 1838-1914.

First hand accounts and family records have offered the initial insight into the history of land ownership in the Alhambra Hills. The AHOSC is now searching for county deeds and official records that will help solidify their case and confirm the land’s added value.

“We’re on the hunt now for county records and the initial indication is looking for the probate package from Muir when he died which would show what he gave to his heirs,” explained Platt. “We’ve requested that but there’s a possibility that it’s disappeared.”

It has been a long battle over the development of the Alhambra Hills. In the early 1970’s a housing development was first proposed upon the ridge line, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Martinez city council finalized a plan. Over a decade later in 2011, the Richfield Investment Corporation Alhambra Highlands project was approved and sparked the creation of the AHOSC.

While the original 1990 plan included three separate subdivisions with a total of 216 units, the presence of the threatened Alameda whipsnake meant the proposal was downsized to include 218-acres of whipsnake habitat. The plan now includes a minimized 110- home subdivision with 10,000 square feet blocks along the ridge.

“They’re going to be large lots with a fair amount of landscaping and a lot of iconic trees will be gone. That’s a tough issue” said Platt.  “There are a lot of people in this town that understand the value of those trees, especially the oaks, and some of those have got to be at least 200 years old.”

Alhambra Hills Open Space Committee member, Jamie Fox has chronicled hundreds of these wind swept oak trees which rise from the long, sun kissed grass carpeting the hills. He refers to them as “majestic” and admires their knotted branches and curved trunks from his home at the base of the Alhambra Hills.

An avid hiker, Fox envisions the creation of a nexus of trails running from the Canal Trail and Mount Diablo through the Alhambra Hills and connecting to Briones Regional Park and Mount Wanda. He presented this idea at a Martinez city council meeting last year and proposed the trail be named after the late Hulet Hornbeck.

Possible trail connections running through the Alhambra Hills with links to Briones Regional Park, Mount Wanda and possibly Mount Diablo. Image: AHOSC/Google Earth.

Possible trail connections running through the Alhambra Hills with links to Briones Regional Park, Mount Wanda and possibly Mount Diablo. Image: AHOSC/Google Earth.

Back at Fox’s home he explains how his two year old son bears the legacy of Muir through his middle name and hopes that someday they will both be able to walk the Alhambra Hills as open space.

“John Muir’s enduring spirit, to me, is thinking differently,” Fox said. “During the industrial revolution he decided to go for a walk. Once he recognized the beauty of special areas, he helped others fall in love with the power of nature so that our children will have the same areas to fall in love with and be nurtured by.”

Richfield Investment Corporation president Ricardo Sabella promised he would forestall any grading or building until April 2014 — a fast approaching deadline for AHOSC.

“Visibility, which is a key part of what we’re trying to achieve, has risen to a level where everyone knows what the issue is, knows it’s there and knows someone is trying to do something about it,” said Platt. “And everyone agrees, lets buy the land, that makes sense.”

While Sabella has said he is willing to negotiate a price for the property, a figure has not been disclosed and according to Platt, the actual purchase of the land is beyond the capabilities of a citizen group such as the AHOSC. Rather, the committee hopes that in the coming months larger bay area organizations, able to broker a deal, will join forces to help save the hills.

This wind pruned oak tree is one of over 800 dotting the Alhambra Hills.  Many of these risk being removed should the development project move forward. Photo: AHOSC.

This wind pruned oak tree is one of over 800 dotting the Alhambra Hills.
Many of these risk being removed should the development project move forward. Photo: AHOSC.

“What we’re trying to do is build the fire, build the heat and build the public base of enthusiasm and knowledge about the land, and encourage the right people to get involved.”

In the front yard of David Hanna’s home there is a quiet stillness that makes the criss-crossing highways and Martinez’s Shell oil refinery seem light years away.

Having lived here for 67 years, Hanna is no stranger to the gradual development that has changed much of the land John Muir himself called home. And like his great grandfather, he enjoys a quiet life in the hills.

“It’s really peaceful out here,” says Hanna, “We like it that way.”

Alessandra Bergamin is a Bay Nature editorial intern.

See more articles in: Habitats: Land, Stewardship

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Tony Bergamin on August 11th, 2013 at 3:37 am

this is a well researched and informative article. well done. Hope they save the land from dvelopment.

Dorette on August 15th, 2013 at 8:22 pm

what about online crowdsourcing to raise funds and interest for this land? Would like to see this done. It is possible, but the clock is ticking…tick tock. Who’s on first?

Jamie Fox on September 4th, 2013 at 12:16 pm

This is a fantastic article! Nearly everyone agrees this historic and beautiful land should be protected. The late Hulet Hornbeck called the land, “perhaps more beautiful than Mt. Wanda”. Congrats to Alessandra and Bay Nature for taking a chance on history. I hope someday to walk my children from John Muir’s home at the National Historic Site up Mt. Wanda, down to Strenzel meadow, across Muir’s farmland, past his family gravesite in the fruit orchard, and up to the “Eastern Ridge” to look at 300+ year old oak trees illuminated by the setting sun. It would be a perfect addition to the National Historical Site. The ridgeline views and wildlife are truly unique to the Bay Area, with 360 degree views, heritage oak trees, birds combing the ridgeline, along with the spirit of John Muir walking the same hill, perhaps at each day at sunrise or sunset, in a winter storm, or a full moon.

Pat Corr on February 28th, 2014 at 8:18 am

East Bay Regional Parks has in recent years put a lot of money into Black Diamond park but I keep hoping they can, if the will is there, acquire the Alhambra Hills property and add it to Briones. Parking on both west and east sides, simple trails but no facilities (water, bathrooms, picnic tables etc.) Tearing out old, gnarly oaks so they can replant something else in front of mega-mansions makes no sense!

Local Martinez Group Needs Help to Save Alhambra Hills | Martinez Environmental Group on March 18th, 2014 at 10:37 am

[…]      As Martinez residents know, the Alhambra Hills is a stunning natural expanse dotted with hundreds of heritage oaks. It offers a home for native wildlife, including endangered species like the alameda whipsnake (Masticophis lateralis). John Muir owned land in those hills, according to an August 2013 article in Bay Nature (http://baynature.org/articles/could-ghost-of-john-muir-save-alhambra-hills-from-development). […]

L.Beauchemin on April 9th, 2014 at 9:49 am

Has anyone contacted Seth Adams or The Save Mount Diablo organization? These folks have been quite successful with this kind of open space land acquisition.

Also what about contacting Congressman George Miller’s office, for possible federal funds to augment any local/state funds that are available.

Mary Bloxham on May 6th, 2014 at 10:28 am

This attempt to bring history into our lives should be applauded.Let’s find a way to save our beautiful hills for posterity.

Ling on November 29th, 2014 at 8:51 am

Look at that oak tree there and there’s another one behind it & the tree John Muir stood behind so gigantic. We don’t have anything like that in Malaysia and I bet we won’t have chance to enjoy that view if someone keeps hvg the idea to conquer the place. Such beautiful place must be preserved. Developments are everywhere. How else are we doing to thank mother earth and its nature? What else humans haven’t gotten into their hands? Enough is enough. I guess not only this park that people are trying to save. All over the world people from different parts of the countries are trying to do something. Voices from different levels of the world must be recognized & heard. We must work as one!

Pat Morgan on January 17th, 2015 at 11:40 am

Save the land. People need more trees and open space not less. They help Balance the impact of refineries and climate change. Part of what makes Martinez desireable is the small town community feeling and quaintness that currently exists because of the surrounding green open space. Developments will ruin it.

Joan Engelbart on January 31st, 2015 at 1:30 pm

We have been enjoying the new Carquinez Strait Shoreline Trail (thanks to recently retired Senator George Miller), as well as the Fernandez Ranch (part of the Muir Heritage Land Trust)with its majestic oak trees and beautiful views of open space in all directions. I always try to view it as the Ohlone People did. I also think of how John Muir walked these hills — and how he would actually walk from Martinez to Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valley and back!

Sara Orrick on April 21st, 2015 at 10:19 am

This is worth fighting for! I love living in Martinez and hiking the Alhambra Hills and Mt. Wanda. We need all the trees and open space we have to balance the poor air quality from refineries and keep this place livable!

ann wulff on April 1st, 2017 at 10:55 am

Save any and all land from development at this point. My first hiking experience was in Muir Woods at age 10. It started my love of the outdoors which has spanned 52 years and going strong In the Oregon Cascades! My kids all hike as well, next gen, and I see parents with babies in backpacks all the time…what is wrong with good clean, healthy living? Congress? any hikers amongst you? Come to Oregon and check it out and then see how you dare to support business and development. YOUR kids and grandkids and great grandkids depend on having an earth worth living in. Why build up a military to protect the US when you are wanting to slash all that is worth protecting in the first place.. the arts, OPB,education,the environment,medical research for pete’s sake. The list goes on…do what is right and save open spaces…for all people world wide…

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