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The future of East Bay parks

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The Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, a 6,000-acre park North of Mount Diablo, is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. (Courtesy Ray Bouknight/via Flickr)
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The East Bay Regional Park District, which manages 73 parks in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is a recreational wonderland. On its lands, you can hike, bike, ride a horse, walk a dog, kayak, fish, camp and swim.

Mary McAllister, a longtime park, recreation and tree advocate who frequently walks in East Bay parks, feels the district has a “sincere goal of serving a wide range of recreational activities.” But she worries whether that commitment will continue into the future.

Next year, East Bay voters will be asked to renew a Park District parcel tax, originally passed in 2004, for another 15 years. The Park District used most of the $47 million generated by the 2004 measure for a variety of projects that increased public access and recreational opportunities for park visitors, including repairing trails, building new bathrooms and improving picnic areas.

The Park District has also used about 30 percent of the parcel tax money for programs to restore native plant grasslands and thin trees. Some groups — notably, the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club — argue that is not enough.

The local Sierra Club leaders have said the Park District should allocate half of any new parcel tax money to native plant restoration. That would mean significantly less funding for the “hardscape” projects that support public access and recreational activities.

But perhaps more troubling is the insistence by leaders of the local Sierra Club that the Park District abandon its policy of thinning trees to address fire concerns. Instead, local Sierra Club leaders want the Park District to cut down all non-native trees. In a letter that McAllister obtained through a public records request, the local Sierra Club leaders make thinly veiled threats that the organization may not support the parcel tax renewal unless all the trees are removed.

The local chapter even sued the Park District to prevent it from using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, granted as part of a wildfire protection plan, for thinning — but not clear-cutting — trees. The Sierra Club lost the suit but has appealed.

So far, the Park District has resisted this extreme demand for clear-cutting, choosing to continue their policy of thinning trees. McAllister views the current Park District position as a compromise between those who want no tree removed and those who want all the trees cut down.

McAllister — who blogs about tree and park issues at www.milliontrees.me — also questions the Park District’s use of parcel tax money for native plant restoration. She points to the Park District’s experiences trying to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass from its properties, a project paid for by the 2004 parcel tax.

In the first few years of the project, the Park District sprayed hundreds of gallons of herbicides from helicopters. Now, they hand-spray about 25 gallons each year.

But the non-native spartina removal has decimated the population of the endangered Ridgway rail, a bird that used to be called a clapper rail. The non-native grass grows taller, more densely and doesn’t die back in the winter, as the native species do. Unfortunately, native spartina provides little cover for the bird at the beginning of its nesting season, allowing the rails’ many predators to kill them.

In addition, non-native spartina provides better protection from winter storm surges than native species; its removal will become increasingly problematic as sea levels rise.

McAllister would like to see the Park District acknowledge climate change as the overriding environmental issue of our time, not give in to demands to destroy non-native species, especially when they are better at helping us deal with our warming planet.

The language for the parcel tax renewal has yet to be written. McAllister hopes the district fully consults with a wide variety of park users and advocates before deciding on priorities for the tax measure, not just groups who share a limited view of our parks as primarily native plant gardens.

“People love their parks. I hope the East Bay Regional Park District will continue its emphasis on public access and recreational opportunities,” she said. “If they do that, the parcel tax renewal will pass overwhelmingly, even if the local Sierra Club opposes it because the Park District won’t clear cut its forests.”

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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