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Theme: Parks with a Past

A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Space
   Pt. 1, 1840s-1950s

A Conservation Timeline
   Pt. 1, 1840s-1950s

Up and Down the Peninsula and South Bay

Names on the Land
   Pt. 1, San Mateo County

Other Features

Sudden Oak Death

Oak Mortality Syndrome

Grazing Through Huckleberry Heaven

Old-Fashioned Huckleberry Muffins

Wild Lit

Note from the Literary Editor

Blacksmith Fork and Fox - Megan E. Hansen

Down Harkins Fire Road (El Mar de la Purissima - Greg Dunn


From the Editor

Park News

Trail Center Notes

Upcoming Events

The Trail Companion

Fall 2000

Theme: Parks with a Past

A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Spaces
Part 1. From the 1840s through the 1950s

By Brian Kunde.

In an increasingly overcrowded Bay Area, privately held open space is disappearing at an alarming pace. Yet our region also boasts a greenbelt preserve unmatched in any other major metropolitan area and seemingly immune to the pressures of the Silicon Valley economy. This did not come about by chance, but much of the story behind it is invisible. Go to any park and you will easily ascertain its name, elevation, something of the natural history, some idea of where the good trails are. You may discover something of its cultural history such as early settlement, logging and mining, or importance in local events. But you will probably learn only a little of the park's own stories - why, when and how it was established - and those stories, as well as the larger story of how the greenbelt came to be, are well worth knowing.

Exploitation and Unintentional Conservation

The concept of resources existing and being treasured for their own sake is a relatively recent one in American culture. Far more basic seems to be the idea that they should be made property, exploited for whatever can be gotten from them. And for much of our history the proper use of public lands was held to be that they should be converted to private ownership as soon as humanly possible.
      So it was in California. Prior to European settlement, nearly all the native Californian tribes considered the land as being held in common, but once the Spanish, and then the Americans expelled them from their lands, ownership and economic exploitation came first, and preservation as an afterthought. Land was good for its minerals, its lumber, its pasturage, its water, its potential for farming and real estate. So it was mined, logged, grazed, drunk from, grown on and lived on. Only when those activities had been going on for some time was much thought given to saving it for recreation, or "future generations." In the beginning, the vastness of the land and the scantiness of the population did more to preserve it than any positive impulse in that direction.
      The impulse started small, when the residents of San Francisco and Oakland began to think that it might be good to have public parks in the early 1850s. The thought was immediately contested - real estate was real estate, and the public benefit of a city park was a tough sell to men more interested in immediate private profit. Parks on a grander scale were an even tougher sell. The dream of Golden Gate Park did not even begin to be realized until 1870, and then took a state act to push it past opposing interests. Oakland's park at Lake Merritt only took shape in the early years of the twentieth century.
      Meanwhile, less altruistic interests were shaping the future of the area's open lands. The need for water in San Francisco and the hope of a water monopoly lay behind the formation of the Spring Valley Water Company in 1860, but its stealthy buying up of the San Andreas valley watershed for reservoirs proved crucial in saving it from later development. Across the bay the East Bay Water Company played a similar role. Several competing companies, meanwhile, gradually diked off the wetlands ringing the bay, as salt ponds. While their activities drastically reduced the area's natural marshes, they also helped save them from filling and development, leaving open the possibility of later restoration.
      The early millionaires who built up vast personal estates on the Peninsula were another factor in limiting development, though in most instances they merely delayed the inevitable. A spectacular exception was the Stanford estate. Leland Stanford's inalienable bequest of his land to the university bearing his son's name in 1885 maintained a vast area of the Peninsula's foothills in their natural state right into the present. Only the recent emergence of the university itself as a major developer threatens its status.

Money-Making Scenery and the Yosemite Effect

Early appreciation of scenic attractions was reflected primarily in efforts to exploit them as such commercially. In the Bay Area, Mount Diablo was a particular target of such efforts, beginning with the building of a private toll road to the summit in 1874. New auto toll roads were constructed between 1912 and 1915 as part of a speculative resort development. Its subsequent bankruptcy provided openings both for preservation and further development efforts later on.

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