27 October 2009

The Geography of Hope

Some months ago, I posted an essay about how a ranger scolded me for walking 10 feet off the trail at Palo Alto's Arastradero Open Space Preserve. This preserve is in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a wide-open place where one wouldn't expect the kind of "keep off the grass" rules associated with strips of city park. The title I gave the essay communicated my feelings on the matter ("Signs of The End").

But, I can admit now that I was of two minds on the matter. It still seems ridiculous to be told to stay on the trail in such a wild place. But soon after I wrote the piece, I felt a prick of conscience, and a sense of responsibility to tell the other side of the story. Why? Because I keep going back to Arastradero ... on foot, on mountain bike, alone and with my family. I find myself enjoying that same trail, and many other trails along the San Francisco peninsula again and again, and I began to have new thought share space with my semi-righteous indignation. I realized that I have very little to complain about. I live in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, in the high-tech center of the modern world, and yet ... I am surrounded by simply beautiful natural spaces, forever preserved against development or modification beyond the laying of trail. I have in fact enjoyed open space along the Peninsula for my whole life, in all four seasons, in rain and shine, day and night. I've slept under oaks, prayed on benches, sat writing in journals, and stared without a thought into wilderness ... all in settings that allow my heart and mind and soul to drop their guard and to breath.

Room to breath. This is one of the themes in the language of open space. You come across the phrase frequently in the history of one of the largest of the agencies that oversee open space in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. I wanted to get to know this organization, to meet the people who keep this land for me, and to learn what it takes to preserve open space in a region that the rest of the world associates with high home prices and high technology. How do they do it?

I confess that when I met with Leigh Ann Maze of the OSD, I was looking for dirt (no pun intended): I wanted to hear all about the fights over who gets the land and how it is used. I guess I imagined a great battle over each acre: developers and technologists on one side, and sandle-wearing soldiers in the open space army on the other. Maze couldn't satisfy my need for drama. She said it might get a little hot in the nitty-gritty negotiations over a particular parcel of land, but she's not really aware of any great philosophical divide on the Peninsula. The overall impression I got from talking to her is that the OSD enjoys a lot of favor in the Bay Area. She suggests that open space is a part of what attracts people to live here, and that even the developers recognize that being able to see trees on the mountains increases the value of the homes down in the suburban sprawl between highways 101 and 280.

So it may be that some experience it as a tension, and others as harmony, but either way, there's no argument over whether it is good to have open space here at the end of America's westward expansion. You might expect to see an insulting profusion of development here, in the same way you see great mountains of boulders at the terminus of ancient glaciers. After all, people keep coming .... Instead, land dedicated to open space is increasing, not as much as in the early days, but still increasing each year. Anne Koletzke writes in Peninsula Tales and Trails, a guidebook to the district, that the Bay Area has one of the largest systems of public open space to be found in any urban area in the United States.

But it wasn't always that way. Journalist Jay Thorwaldson, in the foreword to Peninsula Tales and Trails, describes looking down, as a youth on horseback, from the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains as the "valley's endless apricot and prune orchards [gave] way to homes and highways in a sad, but seemingly inevitable, roll of market demand and economic reality. Before silicon became the heart of computers," and a significant driver of development for the region, "this was called the 'Valley of Heart's Delight.'" In 1970, the threat was very real. But Thorwaldson was on hand to document a local, citizen-driven campaign to preserve open space. He himself influenced that campaign through editorials which urged these early environmentalists to find a way to buy the land they wanted to protect against development, a strategy also promoted by Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and novelist who contributed important ideology to the movement. If you want to preserve open space, the argument went, you have to own it, so that you can keep it open for ever.

Today the OSD owns over 55,000 acres of land, most of which can be explored by anyone who lives in, or visits, the Bay Area. When land is purchased, the first goal of the OSD is preservation, ensuring that the environment in and around the land is protected. These concerns always extend beyond the boundaries of purchases. Wildlife (from ubiquitous deer and squirrels to endangered red-legged frogs) pass through open space preserves and policies within the boundaries must account for the through-traffic. The course of streams in preserves can affect local watersheds and species (including our own species) many miles downstream. At times, early 'improvements', such as logging roads (called by the OSD, 'cultural resources'), need to be reversed to halt the pernicious effects of erosion on the ecosystem.

A very few times, the OSD closes a preserve to human visitors. But the "goal is to keep them open," says Maze, though always with limited provision for human comforts. "We set ourselves apart from other parks: we like to keep the infrastructure to a minimum. ... You'll see dirt parking lots and pit toilets, but no barbecues, play structures, or picnic tables ... the whole system only has one overnight campsite. ... We call what we do ecologically sensitive recreation and education." This emphasis on letting nature be, and not filling it with soccer fields, golf courses, or other recreational infrastructure, is summed up by Wallace Stegner in his Wilderness Letter, who asserted that preserving natural open space has "no more to do with recreation [than] churches have to do with recreation." We need, he says, to learn the "trick of quiet" that our ancestors knew from time spent in the big empty plains. "We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses ... all the wild that still remains to us."

Adding to the delicate balancing act that is managing a piece of nature, the OSD is a public agency and so is accountable to local public opinion, state and federal governments, policies including the Endangered Species Act, and other rulebooks overseen by agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "There are a lot of layers," says Maze, "even for one little project of putting in a bridge ... we have to get permits from cities, counties ... and the public always want to weigh in. ... Ultimately it's the public's land; it's your land, your trails."

With all these obligations to balance, the OSD seems to work really well. They do a great job communicating to the public -- they have a quality website, good-looking publications, and were willing to talk to a snarky blogger like me (that "end of the world" post was not much of a calling card). And, of course, they do a very good job stewarding the land. My experience of the preserves is that they are consistently clean, accessible, and well laid-out. I know that takes work, even when the bulk of the land is trusted to natural processes. Finally, and maybe most impressively, from what I've seen, it appears the OSD manages and spends their considerable budget wisely.

It doesn't mean it's all sunny skies over the preserves though. The downturn in the economy has affected the OSD, like it has every other business. Grants and private donations have dropped, and to add insult to injury, even though the District manages it's budget very well thank you, the State of California is exercising it's "emergency right" to take money from "special districts" to deal with it's own budget shortfall. They are borrowing roughly 2 million from the OSD, "which legally they need to pay back," says Maze (uh ... good luck.) When I asked if the money taken from the OSD would at least go to save some of the state parks that are expected to close (again, good luck), Maze couldn't say, and she showed a remarkably goodnatured attitude towards Sacramento. "We look at it as an investment in the state."

For all this organizational complexity, federal policy, resource managment, state budget trouble, and, yes, the threat of development on currently un-preserved land, the OSD does an amazing job of giving the people exactly what was hoped for some thirty years ago: room to breath.

And though I don't like fences in the wild, I recognize the difficulty of protecting land, especially when the land in question is surrounded by forces hostile to it. Regardless of the relatively harmonious relationship between open space and ... crowd-space on the peninsula, I know that if the fences came down, the land would be lost. So I'm thankful for the activists who fought to purchase land to preserve it, and I'm thankful for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and other powers that protect land for me, even if it means there are some views I have to enjoy from the trail.

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. -Wallace Stegner, The Wilderness Letter

A (low) tech writer principle: invest in the things you love. If that loose community of nature lovers back in the 70s had only come together to complain and had not put their money where their collective mouth was, the land between San Jose and San Francisco would be very different today, and we would all have a lot more to complain about.

http://www.openspace.org/ (be sure to look at their Google Map mashup: the Preserve Finder, on the front page). And get your copy of Peninsula Tales and Trails at the OSD's website to support their work. It's a classic guide book.

A snapshot from space of the Regional Open Space District (with the open spaces labeled nicely, thank you Google):


Photography by Karl Gohl and used by permission of the photographer and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.