Santa Clara Parks History

In 2009, I was commissioned by Santa Clara County to write a history of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. After several years of research, interviewing, and writing, I submitted the completed manuscript, fulfilling all aspects of my contract.

For reasons unknown to me, and by all accounts having nothing to do with the quality of the manuscript, the work remains unpublished—despite having been thoroughly fact checked and edited by county park personnel.

This situation has nagged at me for several years—and not because I wanted to add to my collection of books in print. Instead, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to the many people who gave unreservedly of their time and expertise to help me create this book.

These included many of the venerable citizens who, in the 1970s, had the foresight to see what unrestrained development would do to the rapidly growing county and especially to its precious open spaces. These visionaries deserve to have their stories told.

I have therefore decided to publish the manuscript in my blog. The book consists of seven chapters plus front matter (acknowledgments, introduction, and a wonderful foreword by Congressman Mike Honda). You will find the book’s individual chapters as submenus under the Santa Clara Parks History menu.

Please note: the information herein was current as of 2009–2010; titles and positions of the people mentioned may have changed since then. The copyright to this manuscript is owned by David Weintraub. I invite anyone to comment, correct, or add to this wonderful story.


Writing this book was a collaborative effort involving dozens of people who gave generously of their time and their knowledge about parks and open space in Santa Clara County. I would not have been able to complete this project without their help.

The following people took time out of their busy schedule to participate in oral-history interviews for this book, and many of them also provided additional follow-up information via e-mail. Thank you, then, to Larry Ames, Don Amyx, Garnetta Annable, Jim Beall, Red Bell, Kathryn Berry, Craig Britton, Dominic Cortese, Mary Davey, Rod Diridon Sr., Felice Errico, John Falkowski, Rich Flores, Mark Frederick, Mike Honda, Dale Jones, Lisa Killough, Jane Mark, Dianne McKenna, Kitty Monahan, Phyllis Perez, Paul Romero, Audrey Rust, Sig Sanchez, Tom Smith, Robert Sorensen, Ed Souza, Don Weden, and Paul Yarborough.

Tamara Clark-Shear, the public information officer for the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department, was project manager and edited the manuscript. She was also my lifeline to the department, responding via e-mail to my numerous requests for information and assistance. John Dorrance, park interpreter, provided decades worth of newspaper clippings about the department and also edited the manuscript. Sabine Sander, the department’s ???, worked on the initial phase of the project and provided much-needed help.

Other department staffers, current and retired, who assisted with this project were Gloria Gill, John George, Tim Heffington, Kathleen Hooper, Dave Pierce, Don Rocha, and Robin Schaut. These folks went above and beyond the call of duty in swiftly providing me with information about department policies and programs.

Thank you, Kristi Britt, of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, for helping set up several interviews and also for providing comments and corrections on my writing about MROSD. Thanks also to Lark Burkhart and Lauren Monack, of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, for providing information and clarification about that agencies land purchases and legal battles. Thank you, Anika Campbell-Belton, assistant clerk of the county board of supervisors, for responding promptly to my requests for information. Thanks to Dr. Victor Duran, associate professor of Spanish at the University of South Carolina Aiken, for help with standardizing the spelling of Spanish names.

I was fortunate to have a leave of absence for fall 2010 from my full-time position as instructor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. This time away from the classroom allowed me to devote all my energies to completing this book. Thank you, Dr. Carol Pardun, dean of the school, and Vance Kornegay, associate professor in the school’s Visual Communications sequence, for arranging the leave.

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Dr. Maggi Morehouse, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina Aiken, for her love, support, and help with this project. It helps to be married to a historian.


As I look out of the window of my district office in Campbell, California, I marvel at the beauty of the lush Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and the dramatic Diablo Range to the east. As a Member of Congress, and a former member of the California State Assembly, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the interim Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and the San Jose Planning Commission, I watched this valley grow and change from an agricultural powerhouse to the center of technology, from the Valley of the Heart’s Delight to Silicon Valley.

It is with a mixture of both joy and nostalgia that I reflect on what this valley was and what it has become. My generation can easily recall the fields and orchards that characterized this region. Farmland dominated the landscape. Open space was abundant. But as innovation and progress flourished, this valley of delight began to fade. Left to urban developers and business interests, and without thoughtful intervention, park land and open space could easily have become an afterthought.

Throughout this urbanization of the valley, as rural and agricultural lands were annexed and developed, it became apparent that sound environmental and conservation policies were needed to protect the aesthetic and biological treasures of our valley—a leadership role assumed by Santa Clara County’s Department of Parks and Recreation. As the Chair of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the head of the County’s General Plan Review Committee and later the Parks and Trail Master Plan Committee, I had the privilege of leading a committed and diverse group of individuals who represented the municipalities, environmental groups, park users, business interests and property owners. Together we forged plans that would shape and preserve the visual landscape of Santa Clara County for future generations.

Thanks to the efforts and stewardship of the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation, we have achieved much. Balancing environmental principles with issues like property rights, we were able to craft plans that withstood a multiplicity of challenges. During my years on the Board of Supervisors we extended the Park Charter fund several times, approved a sound General Plan review, drafted an award-winning Trail Master Plan, established an agricultural preserve near Gilroy, and discouraged premature development beyond the cities’ urban service areas. It was with the support of the County Parks Department that we were able to establish the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and the voter-approved funding mechanism.

The prudent planning by the County of Santa Clara and the financial support of its residents has made acquisitions like the Harvey Bear Ranch, the future development of the Martial Cottle County Park, and efforts to preserve significant properties like Mt. Umunhum possible. With the cooperation of the Santa Clara County Planning Department and Planning Commission, we were able to ensure that open space easements accompanied the approval of urban development proposals. Consequently, the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation was able to expand existing parks, construct new trails, support urban parkland, and develop new mixed-use opportunities within the park system.

Faced with the same budget constraints that dogged agencies for years throughout the State of California, the Santa Clara County Parks Department successfully supported historic preservation in areas like Almaden Quicksilver and Chitactac-Adams county parks, education and interpretive programs, niche recreation like Motorcycle Park and Field Sports Park, water-based recreation at reservoirs, equestrian and bicycle use at Grant County Park, and much more. The Department also supported initiatives outside the County, like the Bay and Ridge Trail systems, to create a regional trail system throughout the entire Bay Area.

This book, therefore, reveals more than the history of the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation. It is a tribute to those who have done so much to preserve parks and open space for future generations. This book should be viewed as a case study on how other communities can be successful in preserving open space. The success of the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation is the result of not only visionary public officials and environmental leaders, but also the taxpayers who supported their efforts through the renewals of the Park Charter Fund and the approval of the Open Space Authority special assessment. Additionally, credit must go to the community activists who served on committees and task forces that shaped our system of parks, trails and open space; the land owners who worked diligently to conserve, preserve and protect the land they have stewarded for generations; and the legions of park volunteers and open space users who keep, our system vibrant and accessible.

We have accomplished much, but our work is not done. There is no end to conservation; it is an ongoing process. The Santa Clara County Parks Department, their partner agencies like the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and Midpeninsula Open Space District, and private conservation groups like Peninsula Open Space Trust need our continued support. Threats to open space are more prevalent than opportunities for conservation. It is never too early to recognize the value of our open space and it is never too late to take action to preserve it. We must be ready to act quickly and decisively.

My congressional district spans from Milpitas to the north, San Jose to the east, Los Gatos to the west and Gilroy to the south. I cannot imagine this valley without the beautiful views that surround the County. Much of the remaining open space is in my district. What we have today is the result of a group of committed individuals, under the guidance of the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation, who took a stand. It is through the hard work and dedication of agencies like the County Parks Department and its staff that we are now able to fully enjoy the fruits of our collective labor.

Mike Honda, U.S. Congressman, 15th Congressional District, California

December 18, 2009


This book is about vision—the vision to create a regional park system in Santa Clara County, California. The vision can be traced back to 1956, when the county created its parks and recreation department to oversee the only county-owned parks open to the public—Mount Madonna and Stevens Creek.

In 1957, the vision became more clearly focused, when Bob Amyx was hired to become the first director of the county parks department. With savvy political help from his ally, county executive Howard Campen, and support from the county board of supervisors, Amyx and the men and women working with him in the new department began to assemble the framework of a county park system that today encompasses 45,000 acres, 28 regional parks, and hundreds of miles of trails. The history of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department is a history of vision.

The vision of a thriving county parks system—as an antidote to the urban sprawl rapidly engulfing the orchards and farms of the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”—won widespread support among county residents.

In 1972, they approved Measure C, the Park Charter Fund amendment, which set aside a small percentage of each dollar in the county’s general fund to pay for acquisition and development of new regional parks.

That same year, county voters also approved the creation of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which became an effective partner in making sure the foothills and ridgelines surrounding Silicon Valley stay forever green. The Park Charter Fund has been renewed by the voters six times since 1972, with the latest renewal extending the set-aside through fiscal year 2021.

It is no accident that the vision of acquiring and protecting parklands and open space was so readily embraced in Santa Clara County. The county is one of nine that make up the San Francisco Bay Area, and it is in the Bay Area that the American environmental movement sunk deep roots and brought forth some of its great champions, including John Muir, Wallace Stegner, Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, the Committee for Green Foothills, the Greenbelt Alliance, Save the Bay, Save the Redwoods League, the Sempervirens Fund, and the Sierra Club.

The vision was seen clearly by residents of Alameda County, who voted during the height of the depression to tax themselves a nickel per $100 valuation to create a regional park district, which today protects more than 100,000 acres of land in the East Bay.

The county is home to Silicon Valley, which has attracted the world’s most creative innovators and a highly skilled workforce in part because of the quality of life this area offers. Acquiring and protecting parks and open space helps preserve this quality of life.

The county parks department has been fortunate over the years to find like-minded partners and allies who share its vision, such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

Working together, the department and its partners have made great strides to create a permanent greenbelt encircling the county’s urban areas. Pieces of the puzzle are still missing, so the job is not done yet. When Silicon Valley’s boom-and-bust economy begins to heat up, pressures to develop available land will mount, and the supporters of parks and open space will need to be especially vigilant.

This book explores the history of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department, from its early days as a fledgling department in the late 1950s to the present day.

It tells the story of the men and women who shaped the county parks system, including department directors, park rangers, maintenance workers, other department staff members, county parks and recreation commissioners, county supervisors, county executives, county planners, and members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

Many of these people participated in oral-history interviews to enrich this book. Along with their stories come the stories of the parks themselves—how lands that once belonged to Spanish colonists, Mexican ranchers, American settlers, entrepreneurs, and immigrants were transformed into the county parks that we cherish today.

Although this is a history book, part of the vision it describes looks to the future.

The department’s 1995 Countywide Trails Master Plan Update envisions a network of walking and bicycling trails for both recreation and transportation, linking neighborhoods, parks, schools, businesses, and shopping districts, and thereby helping to alleviate traffic congestion and pollution.

The 2003 Strategic Plan sets out goals and priorities for fulfilling the vision described in the department’s mission statement: to provide, protect and preserve regional parklands for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

The county parks department is a key participant in the Santa Clara County Habitat Conservation Plan, which brings together cities and land-management agencies with federal and state agencies in charge of protecting threatened and endangered species.

The goal of the plan is to minimize impacts on these species while aiding their eventual recovery. This 50-year plan expands the department’s vision into the realm of managing its lands for both people and nature over the long term.

There is another vision that informs this book—the vision of what Santa Clara County would be like today if the voters had rejected the Park Charter Fund amendment and other steps to acquire and protect parks and open space in the county. Here is what some of the participants interviewed for this book had to say about that vision—which, fortunately, did not come to pass:

I’m convinced we would have ticky-tacky houses right up to the top of the ridges on both sides of the valley. And we would be a bowl where any direction you’d look you’d see a house. And the watersheds, the viewshed, the trail opportunities would be gone. Remember that San Francisco is built on seven hills, all of which were covered by foliage at one point—none of which have any foliage on them now, unless it’s a street tree. And I think we would have replicated that disaster if we had not had the Park Charter measure. (Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, governor’s appointee to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board, and former Santa Clara County supervisor.)

I think definitely one of the special features of Santa Clara County is how well its parks department has created this feeling that we’re not crowded in, such as you feel in Los Angeles, and it’s because the people who early on saw that we needed to do this or we were going to look exactly like Los Angeles. Every single inch would have a condo on it. I think that what you would see is when you go up Highway 80, and you see the development that’s up in the hillsides. This whole county would look like that. And it just wouldn’t be as nice a place to live, I’m convinced of it. It just would not be Santa Clara County. (Kathryn Berry, city attorney, City of Sunnyvale, and former deputy county counsel, Santa Clara County.)

Well, the same thing that’s happening in Los Angeles County. We’d have homes scattered throughout the rural areas among the beautiful oaks and wildlife. We’d have geologic problems. We’d have fires. We would have had large-scale abuse. In times like this, when things are slow, you’d say, well who’s going to build a house on 150 acres anyway? But when things are booming and rolling—when highways are being built and annexations are taking place and there’s monetary benefit, financial gain—anything happens. (Dominic Cortese, former Santa Clara County supervisor.)

Los Angeles just built right up over the hills and kept on going. And Houston has unlimited sprawl. If it wasn’t constraints put by the city and the county and the parks department buying up the land, I could see them building cottages up in the redwoods. Just keep on cutting down half the trees and building housing areas up the side, up the hills. That could easily have happened. It did happen up in Oakland, didn’t it? In fact, they built all the way up to the top of the hill there. (Larry Ames, former Santa Clara County parks and recreation commissioner.)

You would probably see more of the built environment—more houses and more buildings, where there is now open space. A real key area that touches a lot of people’s lives, you don’t think about it too much, but I always go back to the county’s leadership in buying a lot of property from Cal Trans when they were building Highway 101. And all that land along Coyote Creek—if you think about in many of our urban areas in the valley, how houses just go right up to the creek or almost on top of the creek—thank goodness somebody thought to protect Coyote Creek, which is the most significant watershed in the whole valley. You would see houses right up to that creek. You would see more development in the hills, next to the creeks. People like being close to nature and so those are the areas that command a real premium. (Lisa Killough, former director, Santa Clara County parks department.)

Well, it wouldn’t be Santa Clara County. The quality of life would just drop significantly for everybody who’s here. There are so many things that would not occur in people’s lives if they didn’t have the parks. What makes me think about staying here and living here and retiring here is he parks system. That’s a major component. If I didn’t have that, then this wouldn’t be a place that would be attractive for me to stay in. I say that from a personal perspective, and I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. (Dianne McKenna, former Santa Clara County supervisor.)

The Los Angelization of Santa Clara County seemed a real possibility during the decades following World War II, as the electronics industry sent sparks through the local economy, and San Jose began its unabashed quest for urban dominance under the leadership of city manager A. P. “Dutch” Hamann.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, opposition to unbridled growth came from a coalition of environmentalists and young politicians, who began to replace the old guard on local city councils and on the county board of supervisors.

Some business leaders in Silicon Valley, fearful that overcrowding, traffic congestion, and pollution were diminishing the quality of life that had attracted a superior workforce to the area in the first place, joined the fight.

Together, these groups shared a vision of a county where parks and open space could coexist with a thriving business community.

The county parks themselves create their own vision—it lingers in the mind of anyone who has visited them.

Consider the variety of terrain, from the shoreline marshes of Alviso Marina to scenic Antler Point, high atop the oak-studded ridges of Joseph D. Grant County Park. Trails wind among fog-shrouded redwoods on the slopes of Mount Madonna, while at nearby Chitactac-Adams County Park, you can peer at ancient Native American petroglyphs beside the rushing waters of Uvas Creek. Enjoy a lakeside picnic at Stevens Creek County Park, the oldest county park, acquired in 1924.

Walk, jog, or bicycle on the Coyote Creek Parkway or the Los Gatos Creek Trail. Travel back in time at Almaden Quicksilver County Park, where miners in the 19th century dug cinnabar in tunnels deep underground, and fiery furnaces distilled the ruddy ore into mercury, an essential element in the purification of gold. Photograph dazzling spring wildflowers decorating serpentine outcrops at Calero County Park, or discover the county’s ranching past at Harvey Bear-Coyote Lake County Park.

Finally, there is a personal vision at work here, because I spent many happy hours exploring the parklands of Santa Clara County as part of a multiyear book-writing odyssey that took me to all nine counties of the Bay Area and produced five guidebooks for Wilderness Press. I hope this book will inspire its readers to get outside and enjoy the Santa Clara County parks, and then work diligently to help protect and expand them for future generations to enjoy.



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