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A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Space
   Pt. 2: From the 1960s through the Present Day

Names on the Land
   Pt. 2, Santa Cruz County

Education Stations "Smooth" the Trails

"Dish" Argument Continues on New Terrain

Sudden Oak Death: New Victims


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The Trail Companion

Winter 2001

A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Spaces
Part 2. From the 1960s through the Present Day

By Brian Kunde.

As detailed in Part 1, interest in setting aside parklands in California took hold in fits and starts during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in a diverse series of preservation drives. In the 1920s these separate efforts coalesced into a broad-based movement, sparking a period of intensive park-building activity lasting into the early 1940s. Afterward development interests came to the fore, as preservation gave way to the postwar housing boom. The 1960s found people waking up to the consequences of this neglect.

Vanishing Farms

One early concern centered on the disappearance of regional farmlands. In a response characteristic of previous years, local agency formation commissions were established in each county to maintain the integrity of agricultural areas while promoting orderly development. A later step was the passage of the Williamson Act of 1965, allowing farmers to contract with counties for lower "agricultural reserve" tax rates in place of the higher rates assessed on potential urban land. Such efforts did some good, but then as now, "orderly development" often meant little more than a delaying action when there was profit to be made. What was perceived as a problem then only deepened and worsened with the passage of time.

Saving the Bay

A greater concern was the fate of San Francisco Bay itself. A century of dredging, filling and diking for salt extraction had already reduced the natural wetlands ringing the bay to a fraction of their original extent. Salt production, consolidated by 1920 under the Leslie Salt Company, at least forestalled more intensive development in the area under its sway. One of the region's leading industries, by the 1960s Leslie owned 50,000 acres of salt ponds around the bay. But areas outside its control were clearly threatened, as shown by the explosive growth of San Francisco Airport in the decades after World War II. Equally worrisome was Leslie's increasing willingness to sell off peripheral tideland holdings to developers, notably Brewer's Island east of San Mateo in 1959, which was transformed over the following decade into the new urban community of Foster City.
      To many, these and similar projects seemed the beginning of a systematic assault on the estuary, reminiscent of the widely derided Reber Plan of the late 1940s. A huge bay fill proposal in Berkeley proved the flashpoint for reaction. Organized by some University of California faculty and their wives, local conservationists founded the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1961. Within the year the movement had spread to the west bay, and soon it was urging the University of California's Institute of Governmental Studies to do a study on public interest in the bay and possible solutions to its environmental problems. The institute's report, released in fall of 1963, proposed a bay conservation and development commission to make and implement a comprehensive bay preservation plan.
      Ultimately, Save the Bay's efforts resulted in the state legislature passing the McAteer-Petris Act, signed into law by Governor Pat Brown in June, 1965. This act created the Bay Conservation and Development District, and set up the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to regulate development while formulating a comprehensive plan for the bay, which it was to submit by 1969. The BCDC was the first coastal protection agency in the country. In the same session, the San Francisco Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Program was created to study ways of avoiding large-scale pollution of the bay and delta.
      The need for bay protection was further highlighted by a 1965 proposal to remove about 200 million cubic yards from the top of San Bruno mountain to provide fill for expanding San Francisco International Airport. This plan triggered formation of the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain, which helped defeat it. But as with the struggle for the bay itself, the effort to preserve San Bruno Mountain would be a long and hard one, having to be refought each time some new developer entered the fray.
      In 1969 the BCDC submitted its comprehensive plan for the bay to state legislature and recommended its own continuance. The legislature responded with the Knox-Petris bill, enacted in August, which made the commission a permanent agency with the power to control future bay development. Its authority was enhanced by a grant of stronger environmental enforcement powers a few years later. Meanwhile, Save the Bay directed its attention to the decline of the bay and delta fishery resources and related issues. The early struggle for the bay culminated in the creation of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge by Congress in 1972, which with subsequent extension has become the largest urban wildlife refuge in the nation. With its establishment, many participants in the cause considered the bay "saved." To them, later events revealing the battle far from over came as a series of unpleasant surprises. Human pressure on natural systems does not simply end with greater safeguards and land set-asides, nor are proponents of greater exploitation forever beaten by a few reverses. Government in particular can hinder as well as advance preservation, depending on the beliefs and agenda of those controlling it at a given time.

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