Chapter 5: Plans, Programs, and a New Park

Key Regional Plans

Key regional park plans include the Trails Master Plan, the park department’s Strategic Plan, and the San Toma Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail Master Plan.

Trails Master Plan

On November 14, 1995, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the final report of the Santa Clara County Trails Plan Advisory Committee. Titled “Countywide Trails Master Plan Update,” this hefty spiral-bound document was the first comprehensive trails master plan since the county issued its 1978 “Trails and Pathways Master Plan,” which in 1980 was incorporated into the county’s revised general plan.

The stated goal of the 1995 update, which took three years to complete, was to direct the county’s trail implementation efforts well into the 21st century—balancing the desire for a contiguous countywide trail network with the desire for privacy among those whose land the trails might border or traverse.

Honda Chosen to Lead

County Supervisor Mike Honda was chosen to chair the advisory committee, which also consisted of parks and recreation commissioners Pat Kammerer and Kitty Monahan; planning commissioners Edith Edde and Betsy Shotwell; Intergovernmental Council Trails and Pathways Committee member Richard Forst; and two appointees from each county supervisor to reflect a balance of trail advocates and private landowners—Garnetta Annable, Bob Benson Sr., Gordon Chan, Beez Jones, Roger Knopf, Tony Le, Rex Lindsay, Jerry Shrum, Nancy White, and Marilynn Woodcock.

The advisory committee began meeting in the summer of 1992, and in 1993 the county hired a team of consultants, led by Patrick Miller of 2M Associates, to help the committee in its work. The committee also had important assistance from Julie Bondurant, park planner, Lisa Killough, regional park planner, Alan LaFleur, deputy director of parks, and Cathy Ming-Hyde, board aide to Supervisor Honda.

In addition to regular meetings, the committee made nine site visits in 1993 to various county parks. The committee also held a number of workshops for the general public and for special-interest groups such as private landowners and trail users.

Former parks department director Paul Romero called the finished plan “outstanding” and the process used to create it “state of the art.” He also said LaFleur, whom he called “an outstanding and talented individual,” did not receive the recognition he deserved for his leadership and dedication. “Alan had produced many plans for the department and helped create well-thought-out policies and procedures, much to his credit,” Romero said.

The Committee’s Vision and Guiding Principles

The advisory committee’s plan envisioned a network of contiguous trails throughout the county that fulfilled the following objectives: connect the county’s cities to one another; connect the cities to the county’s regional open spaces; provide connections between county parks; and link the northern and southern urbanized parts of the county.

In order to meet these objectives in an area that was becoming increasingly more urban and more densely populated, the advisory committee recognized that “a significant portion of the proposed trail system” would impact private landowners, by passing through, along, or close to their lands.

The committee therefore recommended five guiding principles for the county to follow as it developed the proposed trail system:

  • Build a realistic trail system that effectively meets the needs of county residents.
  • Respect private property rights through due process in the detail planning and design of trails.
  • Provide responsible trail management which would instill respect in trail users for the rights of adjacent landowners
  • Accept responsibility for any liability arising from the public’s use of county trails.
  • Site trails on private property only with the willing participation of the landowner.

Changes Since the Last Plan

What had changed in Santa Clara County since the adoption of the 1978 “Trails and Pathways Master Plan” that made this update necessary? In a word—everything.

The county had become a world-renowned center of the computer and electronics industries. Development for housing, industry, and commerce was occurring at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, the demand for outdoor recreation was growing, based on an expanding population base attracted to the area for both jobs and quality of life.

In response to electoral victories in 1972, the county parks department had both a stable source of funding—the Park Charter Fund—and a partner in land acquisition, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Consequently, the acreage in the county devoted to parks and open space had grown.

Also new were three trail systems not envisioned in the previous trails master plan: the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the Bay Trail, and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. All three had proposed alignments that passed through parts of Santa Clara County.

The California Environmental Quality Act, passed in 1970, had evolved to the point where it mandated certain requirements for trail siting and construction. The impacts of trails on the environment were becoming better understood and appreciated—especially in terms of rare, threatened, or endangered plants and animals. New recreational activities, such as inline skating and mountain biking, created a need for different types of trails.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, required agencies overseeing trails to take into account people with various levels of mobility. Finally, several court cases, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994) introduced legal issues into the planning process for trails.

Three Categories of Trails

Although much had changed since 1978, the advisory committee was careful to point out that its charge from the county board of supervisors was to “prepare recommendations for additions, deletions and modifications to planned trail routes that would reflect current conditions.” In other words, the 1995 trails master plan update did not start from scratch—it took into account the many miles of existing trails that the county, the cities, and the open space district had already constructed.

The plan proposed more than 500 miles of off-street countywide trails, of which about 105 miles currently existed. The plan also proposed 120 miles of on-street bicycle-only routes. The plan sorted trails into three categories: regional trails, which have national, state, or regional recreation significance and extend beyond the county’s borders; sub-regional trails, which provide regional recreation and transportation benefits; and connector trails, which provide convenient access from urban areas to regional or sub-regional trails, or which connect county parks.

Based on criteria established by the advisory committee, the 1995 plan identified approximately 93 miles of trails as “high priority”—75 miles within the county’s urban service areas and 18 miles within unincorporated Santa Clara County. The advisory committee used a “three-tier system” to decide which trails made the cut.

The Screening Process

First, was the trail worthy of being included in the trails master plan at all?

Some of the criteria the advisory committee considered in this regard included: the trail’s status (national, state, regional, county, municipal/local, or private); how well the trail met existing county policy goals, such as leading directly into a regional park or open space preserve, or being adjacent to a scenic roadway; accessibility, or travel time to the trailhead from any city center within the county; and existing or potential use opportunities, such as being able to accommodate all types of trail users.

Second, could the trail route and its required staging areas realistically be established?

Criteria for this decision included: land ownership (public or private); current land use; cultural and historical resources; hydrology; vegetation; presence or likelihood of rare, threatened, or endangered species; opportunity for enhancing habitat diversity; typography, or grade along the trail bed; soils and geology; barriers to visibility along the trail; opportunities for open and panoramic views; proximity to schools, libraries, parks, open space preserves, staging areas, transit services, and employment, commercial, and retail centers; and cost of acquisition, design and construction, environmental mitigation, and annual maintenance.

Third, for the trails that passed through the first two tiers of scrutiny, which were the most important to acquire and develop?

Trail priority criteria were divided into three groups.


Group 1, the most important criteria, looked at the trail’s need, its compatibility with adjoining private property, and its usefulness.

Need was established through public workshops and other community forums; the number of already existing trails, their use, and projections of future demand; and the benefits to the county’s residents in terms of recreation, transportation, education, health, and safety.

Compatibility was determined based on existing uses of adjacent property and land-use designations on the county’s general-plan map.

Usefulness measured whether a trail connected two county parks, linked county parks with other public lands, provided a connector between two existing trails, extended or completed a current trail alignment, or diverted people from overused areas.

Group 2, the next most important criteria, considered the complexity of land acquisition, number of possible users, and safety.

Acquisition details included the number of property owners, the availability of public lands, the presence of existing easements, and any likely changes in land use that might enhance trail implementation.

Number of possible users took into account the trail’s accessibility to county residents, whether it was located parallel to a transportation corridor, or served schools, libraries, parks, or employment, commercial, or retail centers.

Safety involved visibility along the trail, separation from motorized traffic, ability to maintain and patrol, liability protection for adjacent landowners, and availability of emergency services.

Group 3, the last most important criteria, covered financial considerations, the need for a variety of trail settings, and opportunities for a sense of remoteness.

Financial considerations included costs for acquisition, development, operations, management, and monitoring, along with any opportunities for funding partnerships and revenue generation.

Trail settings took into account whether the trails were in urban, suburban, rural, or remote areas.

The sense of remoteness involved the perception that the hustle and bustle of daily life was far away.

Top Priority Trails

Among the top priority regional trails identified in the master plan update were the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the Monterey–Yosemite Trail, the Benito–Clara Trail, the Bay Trail, and the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Top priority sub-regional trails included the Matadero Creek/Page Mill Trail, the Stevens Creek Trail, the Guadalupe Trail, the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and Coyote Creek/Llagas Creek Trail, the West Valley Trail, the Morgan Hill Cross-Valley Trail, and the San Martin Cross-Valley Trail.

The plan identified some 34 top-priority connector trail routes, including the San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail, the Almaden–Hicks Road Loop, and the Uvas Reservoir to Uvas Canyon County Park Trail.

The plan also recommended guidelines for the design and management of the countywide trails, recognizing that other agencies besides the county parks department—including cities, open space districts, and California State Parks—would be involved in building and managing the trails.

The design guidelines set forth the best management practices for locating and designing trails, taking into account the fact that trails are often built in stages, with different segments being completed at different times. The advisory committee hoped a consistent set of design guidelines would ensure that each segment was sited and built to provide trail users with a safe and environmentally friendly experience.

The management guidelines set forth the best management practices for operating and maintaining the countywide trail system so that it would function properly and successfully.

Intense Public Debate

The update process generated intense public debate.

In its March 1996 publication, “Anatomy of the update process,” the county parks and recreation department described some of the opposition the advisory committee faced in its work.

Much of the opposition came from landowners who feared that new public trails would have negative impacts on their land and their businesses, such as disrupting farming and grazing activities. The Santa Clara County Farm Bureau opposed many of the trail proposals; some groups, such as the United South County Homeowners Association, opposed specific trails in their areas.

Other people were concerned that new trails would bring with them an increase in trespassing, vandalism, crime, litter, and wildfires. Some even voiced concerns that new trails would encourage satanic rituals.

Individuals and groups that opposed public trails easily exploited these fears, the department said. They used various methods of communication—including signs, flyers, newsletters, and telephone trees—to disseminate “inflammatory” materials that caused consternation and paranoia among many landowners, even those not affected by proposed trail routes.

However, the advisory committee took the issues of privacy and security seriously, trying to counteract “overblown claims” with factual evidence gleaned from surveys about the impacts of existing trails on nearby residents. Despite the fact that many fears expressed were “unjustified,” the advisory committee had to address them.

Additionally, public agencies in charge of trails were asked to recognize that some trail users do, in fact, cause problems for nearby landowners, and that public trails need to be managed in such a way as to minimize these problems.

The Controversial Map

The trails master plan update was accompanied by an oversized map showing the proposed trail routes. This was “the most controversial component” of the plan, provoking excitement from trail advocates and dismay from some landowners.

The map was the subject of “heated” advisory committee meetings and the source of much of the input from the general public. Ultimately, the map represented a compromise between the divergent interests represented on the advisory committee.

The map was not designed as a stand-alone document—the entire text of the trail policies contained in the master plan update appeared on the map’s reverse side. Nor was the map intended to show specific trail alignments; it was simply a planning tool showing proposed trail routes.

Ultimately, the master plan update became “a very controversial and political project” attracting close scrutiny from both the media and the general public, the department said.

One of the major obstacles to adoption was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in Dolan, which limited the ability of government agencies to require trail easements on private property in exchange for granting the landowner new development or land-use rights.

Not only did there need to be some connection, or “nexus,” between the impact the new development created and the solution provided by a new trail. In Dolan, the Court ruled that there also needed to be “rough proportionality” between the impact and whatever solution the landowner was being asked to provide. Otherwise, the government’s action amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of private property without just compensation.

A Public Process with Input Gets Results

The advisory committee struggled to overcome legal and other obstacles by crafting a plan through a transparent public process that included input from a wide range of interest groups.

Over the three-year period required to complete the plan, all 36 meetings of the advisory committee were open to the public. In addition, the committee held 15 public workshops at five different venues within the county.

There were two meetings with the County Bicycle Advisory Committee, one all-day workshop for trail users and property owners, and another all-day workshop solely for property owners who could potentially be affected by the plan.

In its “Anatomy of the update process,” the parks and recreation department said unanimous approval from the board of supervisors was the result of having multiple interests represented on the advisory committee, which presented a clear, factually supported case to the public.

Former parks department director Killough, who worked on the plan when she was a regional park planner, said completing the Bay Trail was one of the highest goals in the master plan, because of its importance as a nonmotorized transportation corridor in a heavily developed area and its status as a major regional trail with the potential to serve large numbers of people.

The plan also gave high priority to other urban trails because of their daily importance in people’s lives, Killough said.

The planning process was “divisive,” she said, because it pitted trail advocates against private landowners. Killough credited supervisor Honda with bridging the divide in order to make sure that the plan got done. For Honda, failure was not an option. The final public hearing before the county board of supervisors was “very controversial,” Killough said, with supporters and detractors vying for each supervisor’s vote. “But it got approved,” she said.

Strategic Plan

On August 5, 2003, the county parks and recreation department released a document called “Strategic Plan: Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation System.

In her June 19, 2003, cover letter to the plan, then director Lisa Killough said the regional park system had evolved from “modest beginnings” to now encompass approximately 44,000 acres with 27 parks. The department’s goal in the future, she said, was to balance high quality recreation opportunities with resource protection.

The plans mission and vision statements “state our hopes and ideals for the future of our County parks and recreation system,” Killough wrote. The strategic plan would provide “a solid framework” to accomplish the department’s goals.

Department’s Vision Statement

We create a growing and diverse system of regional parks, trails, and open spaces of Countywide significance that connects people with the natural environment, offers visitor experiences that renew the human spirit, and balances recreation opportunities with resource protection.

Department’s Mission Statement

The Mission of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department is to provide, protect and preserve regional parklands for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

New Challenges

Why did the department choose to create and publish its strategic plan at this time? Certain challenges had arisen since the creation of the department in 1956 and the passage of the Park Charter Fund Amendment in 1972, two milestones in the department’s history.

First, the county’s population—which was about 642,000 in 1960—now stood at more than 1.6 million. Over the next 20 years, this number was expected to grow approximately 23 percent, to about 2 million. Thus, the historic vision of county parks as pearls linked by a necklace of trails—a metaphor sometimes invoked—was now seen as “somewhat simplistic” and out of date.

County residents in the 21st century wanted a diversity of outdoor recreational opportunities. They wanted more parks, more park services, and they wanted to access those parks and services closer to home and to work. Their expectation was for first-class resources—both natural and developed—kept in tiptop shape.

Second, the income provided by the Park Charter Fund was not sufficient to meet the projected needs of the park and recreation system.

The department continued to supplement the Park Charter Fund with money from user fees, lease agreements, and grants. But additional funds would be needed, if only to catch up with inflation and growing park use—both on the rise over the previous five years.

New park and infrastructure improvements had been scaled back, and there was a backlog of approximately $60 to $75 million in capital improvement projects waiting to be completed. Over the next ten years, an additional $280 to $374 million would be needed to meet all of the strategic plan’s goals.

With these two challenges in mind, the department laid out the basic purposes of its strategic plan:

  • To identify and prioritize outdoor recreation values and needs.
  • To strategically direct department activities to provide for outdoor recreation needs in a way that respects fiscal, human, and natural resources.
  • To indentify how the department’s existing funding may be augmented to assure that the county’s parks system continues to be an important contributor to the quality of life for county residents.

In order to accomplish these purposes, a nine-member Strategic Plan Steering Committee was charged with developing a plan that “presents a road map to guide the acquisition, planning, development, programming, management, and funding of regional parks and recreation in Santa Clara County.”

The steering committee consisted of the following members: parks and recreation commissioners John Redding, Larry Ames, Gurdev (David) Sandhu, Bob Levy, Patty Ciesla, Jim Foran, and Fadi Saba; and parks and recreation department director Lisa Killough and deputy director Joe Schultz.

Serving on the committee for part of the strategic plan process and providing valuable guidance were Rhonda Scherber, former parks and recreation commissioner, and Paul Romero, former department of parks and recreation director, who had initiated the strategic planning process.

In addition, four technical advisory groups were formed: a Cities Group, a Regional Recreation and Open Space Group, a Stewardship Group, and a Land Partnership Group.

The Cities Group consisted of representatives from all 15 cities within the county.

The Regional Recreation and Open Space Group included recreation providers such as California State Parks, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Stewardship Group included agencies that either regulated recreation or focused on habitat and water quality, such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the San Jose Water Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Land Partnership Group included private conservation interests such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Clara County (now the Silicon Valley Land Conservancy), the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands, and the Silicon Valley Conservation Council.

The steering committee decided to organize the plan into three sections: Developing the Picture, Painting the Picture, and From Picture to Practice.

Developing the Picture

The steering committee and parks department staff relied on an extensive public outreach program, including workshops, focus groups, and a telephone survey to identify countywide regional park and outdoor recreation needs.

The 17 needs thus identified were sorted into five topical areas: population and growth, demand for recreation opportunities, equitable access, optimal park use, and partnership.

The committee and staff also identified five themes that reflected the core values of the county’s regional park system: quality of life, balance, experience, quality of resources, and community.

Finally, to express the future of regional parks in Santa Clara County, the committee and staff added five summary statements to the department’s basic vision statement:

  • The Emerald Web, consisting of a continuous, interconnected network of parks, trails, and open space area.
  • An Opportunity to Escape, that counterbalances the pace and technological atmosphere of Silicon Valley.
  • A Quality Park Experience, that begins at home and is composed of opportunity for the general public to safely explore the outdoors while renewing the human spirit.
  • A Seamless Program, that offers easy access to outdoor recreation and interpretation opportunities.
  • Resource Protection, that balances resource conservation, recreation opportunities, and park management to assure the existence of vibrant, quality parks for future generations.

Painting the Picture

The strategic plan next tackled the issue of establishing criteria to guide countywide park expansion and facility planning. The plan also created a park classification system to organize park planning, development, and management efforts that would balance opportunities for public recreation with resource protection. Finally, the committee and staff developed eight strategic goals and 56 strategies for implementing the department’s vision, as expressed in its vision statement.

The committee defined seven criteria to determine the countywide significance of various regional park resources, facility improvements, and activities. These were divided into three groups: cultural characteristics, use characteristics, and physical characteristics.

The cultural characteristics group was solely devoted to historic value—was the park resource or facility associated with architecture, events, or persons that have made a significant contribution to the broad archaeological or historic patterns of North America, California, the Central California Regional, or Santa Clara County?

The use characteristics group included demand, accessibility, uniqueness of use, and regional appeal.

The physical characteristics group included the size of the area being considered (typically more than 500 acres) and its resources.

The park classification system established five categories of use in the county’s regional parks; these complement the trail classifications in the 1995 Countywide Trails Master Plan Update. The classifications could apply to an individual park or to smaller management zones within each park. The five categories were as follows:

  • Resource Bank. Land that has been acquired for future public use and will be reclassified during a site-specific master planning process.
  • Natural Area. An essentially undeveloped area generally managed for environmental and habitat protection; best suited for low-intensity, dispersed recreation needing few amenities.
  • Rural Recreation Area. Undeveloped land generally within an unincorporated area of the county, appearing natural in character and containing a wide variety of habitats; best suited for relatively moderate- to high-impact public recreation.
  • Urban Recreation Area. Land within or near an incorporated area of the county, natural in character or reclaimed to appear so; best suited for high-impact public recreation.
  • Historic Site. A district, site, or structure that possesses elements of countywide significance in history, archaeology, or culture; may be found in each of the above park categories.

Eight Strategic Goals

Strategic goal number one was to create a system of parks and trails of countywide significance sufficient to accommodate growth in both recreation demand and diversity.

The plan recommended improving and expanding the existing system by acquiring new parks, trails, and staging areas. The plan also recommended improving and expanding regional park, trail, and interpretive experiences by creating magnet attractions and special uses within parks or park areas.

Goal number two was to create a strategic plan that fits within the context of the countywide system, including parks, trails, recreation, and open space lands owned by others in addition to the county.

The committee and staff envisioned the county parks and recreation department taking the lead in enlisting partners to develop and implement urban and rural trail connections, and to create programs that preserve and protect open space and important habitats.

Some of the department’s partners in this endeavor might include the county’s cities, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the Land Trust for Santa Clara County (now the Silicon Valley Land Conservancy), and the Nature Conservancy.

Goal number three was to create an interconnected system of regional parks and trails that are accessible, of the highest quality, and community supported.

The plan envisioned a system of regional parks and trails that would serve the needs of county residents by being affordable, providing easy access via public transit, containing trails and facilities accessible to people with disabilities and other mobility concerns, featuring a range of activities, and maintaining convenient hours of operation.

Park staff should be well trained and well supported with adequate resources. Parks and facilities should be operated and maintained in accordance with best management practices. Community involvement in the park system should be encouraged through volunteer programs, public information and input programs, and programs to build and maintain support for the county parks and for the Park Charter Fund.

Goal number four was to create a system of regional parks and trails that would be balanced with resource protection.

Sometimes recreation conflicts with resource protection. A balanced approach would create a system of regional parks and trails that supported both active and passive outdoor recreation; conserved natural and cultural resources and interpreted them for the public; worked within jurisdiction rules, regulation, and management; and respected neighboring landowners and their concerns regarding privacy and liability.

The connection between people and their parks should be strengthened by providing volunteer opportunities. Park resources should be managed to encourage native biodiversity and provide long-term protection for important biological resources.

Goal number five envisioned a leadership role by the county that engages all potential partners in implementing the strategic plan, including public agencies, nonprofits, private groups, and parks and recreation staff.

This could be accomplished through memorandums of understanding with other public agencies; partnerships with private commercial enterprises that provide complementary forms of recreation, including horse stables, RV parks, golf-courses, and adopt-a-trail programs; and agreements with nonprofit and volunteer groups who have an interest in implementing the strategic plan.

Goal number six was to create a system of regional parks and trails that fostered education and research.

Educational opportunities within the county parks could be enhanced by institutional partners such as other resource agencies, water districts, schools, and foundations. The parks department could reap benefits in terms of planning and management by soliciting and supporting proposals for appropriate and compatible research projects conducted within the county parks.

The department should also develop training programs to educate staff, docents, and volunteers who interact with the public.

Goal number seven was to implement the strategic plan so it remained a dynamic guide for the growth of the regional parks, trails, and open space system.

A periodic review and revision of the strategic plan would ensure that it reflected current conditions, anticipated future needs, and took advantage of new opportunities.

Parks department staff should take the lead in implementing all action plans described in the strategic plan. The parks department should also involve the public and various interest groups in implementing, reviewing, and updating the strategic plan.

Goal number eight was to secure adequate funding to implement the strategic plan on a timely basis.

In addition to the Park Charter Fund, the plan advised identifying funding partners and developing a funding partnership to fund projects of mutual interest. Public and private nonprofit foundations supporting parks and recreation could be a source of additional funds. Volunteers should be enlisted for fundraising and developing grant applications.

From Picture to Practice

How to translate the vision and strategies into action? The committee and staff addressed that challenge by creating action tasks and organizing them into 12 action plans:

  • Partnership and Volunteers. Continue the department’s leadership role while working with other agencies and volunteers to implement its vision for a countywide system of regional parks and trails.
  • Natural Resource Management. Resources within regional parks and recreation areas should be sustained and, where possible, enhanced over time.
  • Countywide Trails. The policies of the 1995 Countywide Trails Master Plan Update should be implemented.
  • Outdoor Recreation Program. Define the program and create its vision and mission statements.
  • Interpretive Program. Forster an awareness and appreciation of the county’s natural, cultural, and historical resources by providing high quality interpretive programs, facilities, and services.
  • Marketing and Customer Service. Encourage greater awareness and use of the county parks; enhance visitor experience in the parks.
  • Operations. Park rangers and kiosk attendants have considerable contact with park visitors; ensure that these personnel receive the appropriate training; rangers should have more responsibilities in volunteer, interpretive, and resource-management programs.
  • Maintenance. Comply with regulatory requirements and provide park visitors with a positive outdoor recreation experience.
  • Capital Improvement Program. Park facilities should be planned and improved to accommodate public access, use, operations, and management; permanent capital improvements should be made according to approved park master plans.
  • Acquisition. Expand the regional park and trail system to accommodate the county’s varied park needs through a combination of the Park Charter Fund, state bond monies, grants, and gifts of property.
  • Staffing and Organization. Current staffing of about 200 full-time employees was projected to increase between 20 and 25 percent within 10 years because of additional staffing requirements.
  • Funding. For fiscal year 2003, the Park Charter Fund made up 80 percent of the total general sources of revenue for the parks and recreation department; grants and donations, park user fees, and property leases made up the remaining 20 percent. Revenues would not be sufficient to fund the backlog of capital improvement projects, the actions recommended in the strategic plan, or the timely implementation of the master plan for Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch without supplemental funding.

Funding the Vision

Looking ahead 10 years, the committee and staff realized that the Park Charter Fund, by itself, would be inadequate to fund all the action plans recommended in the strategic plan.

Additional sources of funding would have to be found if the department wanted to construct new facilities, expand the regional trail system, open new parks or park areas, perform overdue maintenance on existing facilities, provide new public programs, and protect natural areas and wildlife habitats.

The strategic plan recommended the formation of a working group of park and recreation interests—with the support of the county board of supervisors—to ensure renewal of the Park Charter Fund and explore supplemental sources of funding, such as general obligation bonds and the creation of benefit assessment districts.

Memories of the Process

Jane Mark started working for the parks and recreation department as a park planner in 2000. She is currently the department’s senior planner, supervising the other park planners and managing the geographic information systems unit. The strategic plan was one of the first projects Mark was assigned to work on.

“That was a project of a lifetime, to be able to work on where the future of this park system ought to be in the next 15 to 20 years—it was just an amazing project,” she said. “For a rookie like me to be assigned this project in less than a year’s time being here at the department was a dream job,” she said.

Mark said it was a “fantastic experience” to be able to go through the strategic planning process and reach out to, and work with, the county’s other regional parks and trail providers. She said it also made her realize how the county’s parks and open spaces related to the rest of the Bay Area.

“Making connections and understanding that the county park system is just a very small piece of this whole regional system that the Bay Area has to offer to the residents,” she said.

During the strategic planning process, Mark worked with many other recreational providers in the county, including California State Parks, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and representatives from all of the county’s 15 cities.

“Out of my work on the strategic plan at that time, it really brought to light the amazing resource that we have protected for our residents,” Mark said. “There was a lot of discussion in our strategic plan preparation on how, as a park system, part of our mission is to continue acquiring lands and protecting these resources. That is just instrumental to providing areas that people can go recreate. If you don’t have the land, how you can provide those types of amenities?”

As an example, Mark mentioned the Town of Los Gatos, which doesn’t have a lot of land on which to provide recreation opportunities for its residents. Partnering with the county provided a wonderful trail system with park facilities along the way—the Los Gatos Creek Trail, with Vasona and Los Gatos Creek county parks.

Mark called the strategic plan “a living document” that directly relates to the department’s annual plans and day-to-day work. It includes plans for visitor centers, bridges, trail improvements, and the restoration of historic buildings at county parks such as Almaden Quicksilver and Joseph D. Grant.

The strategic plan covers 20 years—from 2003 until 2023—and will be reviewed and updated in 2014. Mark said developing the strategic plan was done through a very public participatory process.

“We had forums, round tables for discussion,” she said. “We engaged our recreational interests—folks like the mountain bicycling organization, hikers, equestrians and other recreational users, where they envisioned which types of additional recreational amenities could be provided in the future.”

In addition to reaching out to other recreational providers and trail interests, the strategic planning process also engaged local communities, Mark said. “We did public opinion surveys through the process to get a polls on how the community felt about their regional parks—whether they used them, and what would invite them to increase the frequency of their visitation.”

Mark said the steering committee guided the discussions on how the vision was developed and the goals and strategies for implementing this vision for our park system. “Through our discussions, we understood that the values that this park system offered really tied into where the community’s lifestyle was, and what they envisioned for their quality of life.”

Three requests topped the public’s wish list: swimming opportunities in a natural setting, more group areas for families, and more areas for off-leash dogs. “We have lakes and reservoirs and ponds in our park system, but because of state health regulations, we’re not allowed to provide full body contact—meaning you can’t just jump in and swim in these reservoirs,” she said.

Instead, the community requested an artificially created swimming lake in a natural setting, similar to Lake Anza in the East Bay’s Tilden Regional Park.

Family get-togethers, cultural events, and festivals have a place in the county parks, Mark said. “There’s a diversity of cultures and ethnicities, and we understand family get-togethers are really important, and some families do not have the capacity at their home to provide a venue for birthday parties and such. So they desire, in a natural setting, large group picnic areas that they could have these birthday parties and celebrations.”

Leashed dogs are allowed in most county parks, but pet owners wanted more areas where their dogs could run free, Mark said. “There have been so many dog advocates who come to all our public meetings.”

One of the goals of the strategic planning process was to balance recreation with resource protection, Mark said. Allowing unleashed dogs, or humans for that matter, in sensitive habitat areas would upset this balance.

“Part of the values of our park system are the natural resources: our creeks, our streams, our plants, our animals, habitats, and the wildlife quarters that these park systems provide,” she said. “We had to be good stewards of the land. So we do provide recreation, but we also have to protect these resources and provide recreation in a responsible manner.”

The need to strengthen resource protection while providing more opportunities for public access to recreation was one of the take-away messages of the strategic plan, Mark said.

The plan is a forward-looking tool the department can use to classify the county’s regional parks into zones for recreation and zones for resource protection. “We also acknowledge we have historic resources that we need to protect,” Mark said. “There’s lots of cultural and archeological resources within our park system that we need to protect and use possibly as part of our interpretive and educational programs.”

Mark said the county parks can play a vital role in educating young people about the environment, natural resources, and the history of the Santa Clara Valley.

The strategic planning process was important within the department as well, Mark said. “We had lots of participation internally within our department, because it really was important to understand how staff felt about providing this type of recreational service to the community. Did they take pride in it? Did they feel it was important to provide professional and courteous customer service? And how can we all work as an organization to continue in providing these types of services and parklands to the public?”

San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail Master Plan

The San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail Master Plan was released on June 29, 1999. The plan was prepared by Sokale/Landry Collaborative for the county parks and recreation department, in conjunction with the San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Streamside Park Committee.

Streamside trails have played an important role for many years in the county’s planning process for its trail system. The regional parks, trails, and scenic highways element of the county’s general plan, adopted in 1980, included a proposed park chain along Saratoga Creek.

The 1995 Countywide Trails Master Plan Update recommended a connector trail along San Tomas Aquino Creek.

In the early 1990s, City of Santa Clara residents and members of the city’s parks and recreation commission formed the Santa Clara Education and Nature Trail Committee to advocate for a trail along San Tomas Aquino and Saratoga creeks.

The committee took its case for a trail to the county board of supervisors in 1993. The board agreed that year to form a 15-member committee, the Streamside Park Committee, to determine whether a creekside trail was feasible.

The result was the 1996 San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail Feasibility Report, funded by Santa Clara County and prepared by the Sokale/Landry Collaborative under the direction of the county parks and recreation department and the Streamside Park Committee.

Two years later the Streamside Park Committee reconvened and worked with parks department staff and consultants to create a master plan for the proposed trail.

The goals of the plan were to design a trail that would blend with the natural environment and create a scenic open space experience for visitors; to provide an alternative, nonmotorized transportation route to serve businesses, schools, and neighborhoods; and to enhance the habitat along the creek corridor to benefit wildlife.

The Proposed Trail

San Tomas Aquino Creek has its headwaters in the Santa Cruz Mountains at El Sereno Open Space Preserve, west of Monte Sereno and Highway 17. From there the creek flows northward through the cities of Campbell and Santa Clara, reaching the southern end of San Francisco Bay at Guadalupe Slough.

Saratoga Creek, a tributary of San Tomas Aquino Creek, flows generally northeast from Sanborn County Park, also in the Santa Cruz Mountains, through the Town of Saratoga and the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara. Saratoga Creek joins San Tomas Aquino Creek just west of the intersection of Monroe Street and the San Tomas Expressway in Santa Clara.

The area under study for the trail master plan paralleled the creek corridor from Guadalupe Slough, just north of Highway 237, to Prospect Road at the border between Saratoga and San Jose.

Total length of the proposed trail would be 12.28 miles, including 5.19 of paved asphalt pathway bordering the creeks, and another 7.09 miles aligned on city streets via bicycle lanes, bicycle routes, and sidewalks.

The trail corridor was designed to pass through four cities—Santa Clara, San Jose, Cupertino, and Saratoga. Located in the busiest areas of Silicon Valley, the trail would connect residential neighborhoods with high-tech campuses, thus providing a way for people to walk or bicycle to work.

The City of Santa Clara took the first step. While the feasibility study was in progress, the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District jointly agreed to allow public access to the levees bordering San Tomas Aquino Creek between Old Mountain View–Alviso Road and U.S. 101.

When completed, the proposed trail would provide links to three regional trails, 16 bus routes, and all South Bay passenger rail lines. The trail would also pass close to such attractions as Sunnyvale Baylands County Park, the Santa Clara Convention Center, the Santa Clara Golf & Tennis Club, and California’s Great America amusement park.

At the trail’s northern end, trail users could join the Bay Trail just east of Sunnyvale Baylands. From there, they could travel east on the Bay Trail to access the Guadalupe River Trail, Alviso County Park, and the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Master Plan Goals

The master plan for the San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail established five goals:

  • Build a constituency among those cities and agencies with jurisdiction over the creek corridors, who will ultimately implement the trail plan.
  • Develop “reaches,” or buildable trail segments; identify intersections, staging areas, and other access points to the trail.
  • Prepare development guidelines to help cities implement the trail.
  • Obtain environmental clearance through the California Environmental Quality Act; enhance the potential for obtaining external funding through grants.
  • Provide the respective jurisdictions with a master plan and environmental documents to help them implement the trail.

In preparing the master plan, the county parks department and Streamside Park Committee held public meetings and met with various agencies and their staff, including the Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Commission, the City of Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Commission, the City of Santa Clara Planning Commission, the City of San Jose Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

From various trail alignment alternatives under consideration, the committee chose a preferred alternative that met the goals of the feasibility study and the master plan.

Currently, all four reaches of the trail are open, providing a route for walkers, runners, and bicyclists between the Bay Trail and Pruneridge Avenue in Santa Clara. The off-street part of the trail, a little more than 5 miles, is between the Bay Trail and Cabrillo Avenue in Santa Clara. The rest of the trail follows city streets; bicycle lanes are being designed.

New Public Programs and Services

New public programs and services include the park department’s Interpretive Program, the Natural Resource Management Program, the Outdoor Recreation Program, and the Volunteer Program.

Interpretive Program

The county parks interpretive program got its start in 1993, when the department’s Interpretive Task Force drafted a document called VISTA.

Under the direction of then department director Karen Foss and the leadership of Ray Garcia, park manager, a team of park staff—Becky Black, Michael J. Bomberger, Chuck Coleman, Lauren Harvey, Kelly Klett, David Pierce, and Pat Silva—developed the following recommendations: a primary interpretive goal, seven interpretive objectives, and a five-year work plan, covering the fiscal years 1995 through 1999.

According to the VISTA document, the primary interpretive goal developed by the task force was “to assist the public in developing a keener awareness, appreciation, and understanding of Santa Clara County’s unique natural environment, including biologic, cultural, geologic, scenic, and historic resources and their global interrelationships, thereby arousing the public interest in participating in the protection of these resources.”

Seven Objectives

From this goal came seven interpretive objectives, which were to enhance public safety within the parks, resource protection and appreciation, recreational benefits, education, law enforcement, maintenance, and public relations.

To implement these objectives and achieve the primary interpretive goal set forth in the VISTA document, the task force proposed a five-year work plan, which included basic resource development, training, education and outreach, a quality review, and integrating the interpretive program into the rest of the department’s activities.

The VISTA document began with a simple statement: park resources can and should convey their meanings in a multitude of ways.

For some types of park resources, simply experiencing them by taking a hike, riding a bike, or quietly contemplating nature can be enough. Other resources, however, require more active interpretation through what the document calls “on-site interpretive media.”

This kind of active interpretation might be useful to explain the unique ecology of a redwood forest, the special benefits of marshes and wetlands, or the earthshaking forces waiting to be unleashed by the San Andreas Fault.

Primary Mission or Luxury?

A primary mission of the county parks department, the document said, should be to communicate to the county’s citizens the value of their county’s natural, cultural, and historical resources.

But over the years, the parks and recreation department had failed “to commit to a mission of proactive interpretation,” relying instead on individual park rangers to help visitors understand their parks.

The document blamed this failure partly on budgetary constraints and partly on “a lack of commitment” to make interpretation a core objective of the department.

Without an interpretive mission, the parks department was in danger of becoming “merely a provider of picnic tables and parking lots,” with rangers acting as “picnic police,” stationed at scenic or historic sites.

In short, interpretation up to now had been viewed as “a luxury” rather than as a core objective of the parks and recreation department. The goal of the VISTA document was to change that perception.

The network of county parks had the potential to serve as a vast outdoor interactive classroom, bringing a diverse population in contact with a highly varied landscape with rich natural and cultural resources.

Each park guest, the document said, should have access to information that would allow them fully to appreciate that park’s “unique features and significance.” If you want the public to support parks, shouldn’t you use all the tools at your disposal to arouse their interest?

Meaning of the Interpretive Objectives

The VISTA document went on to explain the seven individual interpretive objectives.

Public safety meant creating a safer, more enjoyable setting for park visitors and staff. The task force did not want a heavy-handed approach involving rules and excessive signage. Rather, the recommendation was to warn park visitors of dangerous situations, such as the presence of poisonous snakes, and encourage visitors to spread the word to others.

To encourage resource protection and appreciation, the task force agreed that education was the most effective method. By learning how different uses affect resources, park visitors could be enlisted to help protect them.

Among the challenges addressed by this section of the document were unauthorized collecting, defacing park resources, misuse of roads and trails, having unleashed pets, and introducing nonnative plants.

Most people visit parks for their recreational benefits, but the public is sometimes unaware of all the recreational opportunities available. Also, some park visitors need to be educated about the proper use of park facilities, such as who yields to whom on multiuse trails.

Activities that result in environmental degradation, such as cutting switchbacks, are often the result of ignorance, not malicious intent.

With education, the task force said, will come attitudes that support the acquisition and development of more parks. It is never too early to start this educational process, and the VISTA document recommended providing educational outreach programs to schools and local community groups.

The task force also suggested adding park-related topics to the school curriculum, thereby perhaps inspiring the next generation of park professionals and environmental leaders.

Park rangers perform law-enforcement duties in the county parks, and sometimes a visitor’s first contact with park personnel is during an enforcement contact. The task force recommended finding a way to supplement enforcement with education, so enforcement contacts are more effective and less confrontational.

Among the enforcement situation park rangers encounter are people defacing park property with graffiti, off-leash pets, and misuse of alcohol and fire. Even legal activities can have adverse impacts, and the public’s increasing use of its parks taxes facilities such as restrooms and litter receptacles.

The VISTA document recommended a recycling campaign for the county parks, and a program to encourage visitors to participate in park stewardship.

Effective Public Relations

None of individual interpretive objectives can work without effective public relations, the task force said. By providing opportunities for positive media coverage, such as Arbor Day, Earth Day, Parks and Recreation Month, and other special events, the department could get its message out and foster a spirit of cooperation with the general public, schools, other resource management agencies, private corporations, and other organizations.

If the county parks department is to fulfill its objectives of interpretation, the task force said, “it must invest in understanding the resources it protects and the constituencies that it serves.”

Program History

According to Robin Schaut, the current manager of the department’s interpretive program, the first interpretive program coordinator position was filled in 1995. Two years later, the department hired its first park interpreter.

In 2002, the coordinator position was eliminated and replaced by an interpretive program supervisor. In 2009, the department added an interpretive program manager and seven park interpreters, located at interpretive facilities in various parks.

The department’s first interpretive facility was at Chitactac-Adams Heritage County Park, near Gilroy, which opened to the public in the mid 1990s. The second interpretive facility was the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum, acquired in 1999 and opened to the public in 2000. The third interpretive facility, opened to the public in 2002, was the Bernal-Gulnac-Joice Ranch in Santa Teresa County Park’s historic area. More than 10,000 school children annually attend formal programs and tours at these three interpretive facilities, Schaut said.

A grant in 1996 from the California State Park’s Habitat Conservation Fund provided seed money to establish the county park’s Jr. Ranger program, which is open to children 9–11 years old. The program runs for four weeks each spring and fall. The Jr. Rangers meet one day each week for two hours.

Each session is devoted to exploring park resources through hands-on activities and outdoor adventures, such as hikes and games, with park staff. Jr. Rangers receive a T-shirt and a logbook; badges and certificates are awarded based on attendance and good behavior. Funded since the late 1990s by the county parks department, the Jr. Ranger program serves about 150 kids each year; since its inception, more than 1,800 Santa Clara County youth have officially become Jr. Rangers.

As part of the department’s interpretive program, the “Play Here” brochure was developed and printed in 2003. The purpose of the brochure is to advertise formal interpreter-led programs at department facilities and ranger-led programs in parks. In addition to announcing interpretive and ranger-led programs, “Play Here” is now also used to market the department’s volunteer events, outdoor recreation programs, and other department-wide family oriented programs and events that are open to the public.

The department’s 2003 Strategic Plan identified specific strategic goals, actions, and priorities for the Parks Interpretive Program, thus giving it more visibility and a place alongside other longer-standing department-wide programs such as park operations, maintenance, and planning and construction.

Shortly after the Strategic Plan was completed, the Parks Interpretive Program and staff were moved out from under park operations and reassigned to report directly to the deputy director of maintenance and operations.

Natural Resource Management Program

The county parks and recreation department strives to understand, maintain, restore, preserve, and protect the integrity of natural resources, processes, systems, functions, and values.

The department recognizes that natural processes and species are evolving and should allow these processes and functions to continue. Human impacts on the natural resources should be managed with the least environmental impact possible.

  • Natural resources, functions, processes, systems, and values found in the county parks include:Physical resources, such as water, air, soils, topographic features, and geologic features.
  • Physical processes, such as weather, erosion, wildfires, and tectonic activity.
  • Biological resources, such as native plants, animals, and their communities.
  • Biological processes, such as photosynthesis, plant succession, and evolution.
  • Ecosystems, or dynamically functioning bioregions, habitats, and food sources.
  • Park intrinsic values and external factors, such as visual aesthetics, noise pollution, the feeling of escape, community enhancement, and educational values.

The department’s goal for resource management is to maintain the natural resources within the county parks to maximize the health and vitality of their ecosystems vitality, health, and management goals. This includes managing for a reversal of human impacts, which would led the parks to revert to a more natural state.

External activities sometimes penetrate park boundaries and cause negative impacts. The department believes these activities should be managed through collaborative efforts with affected and interested parties, including federal, state, and local agencies; user groups; landowners; interested groups and organizations; and academic institutions.

The mission of these collaborative efforts would be to identify and achieve broad natural-resource goals. By working cooperatively and building partnerships with affected parties, the department may better achieve successful management and community objectives with broad-scale support.

Natural Resource Management Program Mission and Goals

The mission of the Natural Resource Management Program is to ensure the preservation of natural systems that will provide a living legacy for the current and future generations. This mission drives the program’s twin goals:

  • To protect and preserve natural systems, biodiversity, and species of special status, and to restore degraded or deteriorated habitats by making resource management decisions and plans using scientific information and methodology.
  • To promote an awareness of the importance of park resources—and the balance between public use and the protection of natural systems and biodiversity—by involving the public, resource agencies, and adjacent landowners in resource management efforts.

Managing Biological Resources

The department is committed to maintaining the natural ecosystems of parks, including the biological resources of native flora and fauna. To do this effectively, the department has developed inventory, survey, and monitoring programs based on individual parks and what are called “management zones.”

To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of management strategies, large parks are divided into smaller units that share similar resources, threats, and other issues. The inventory, survey, and monitoring programs represent the first step in preserving and restoring ecosystem function and health.

Other methods of maintaining the parks in prime ecological condition include preserving and restoring native genetic diversity to mitigate loss and enhance population recovery; restoring native flora and fauna affected by human impact; creating partnerships and collaborative efforts with affected or interested parties to expand cross-boundary land stewardship and high quality habitat for species survival; and understanding climate and meteorological data for establishing short- and long-term management goals.

Impacts that are created outside park boundaries may have significant effects on the survival of native species and the success of management projects inside park boundaries. Therefore, the department is committed to maintaining and improving cooperation and trust with affected parties adjacent to or outside park perimeters.

First, the department will participate in local and regional environmental and resource-management planning efforts.

Second, the department will develop cooperative strategies for cross-boundary land stewardship.

Third, department staff will work to identify ranges of populations of native plants and animals.

Fourth, department staff will document and present findings and information through park interpretive programs and public awareness projects.

And fifth, the department will work to prevent and manage invasive nonnative species introduction and expansion on a regional scale. To do this, knowledgeable staff will provide assistance and training to land managers regarding ecosystem and species health, and preservation and restoration of natural systems.

Program History

The individual county-park units were responsible for natural resource management prior to the development of the system-wide Natural Resource Management Program, which began in 1996.

According to Don Rocha, parks natural resource program supervisor, the department’s early years saw an inconsistency of preservation and protection of natural resources, because knowledge and experience among the individual park staff varied from park to park.

In 1996, Rocha, who was then a park ranger, was temporarily assigned to implement the natural resource plans for Joseph D. Grant and Ed R. Levin county parks. His duties consisted mostly of managing the grazing program established by those plans.

Some of the challenges Rocha faced were managing cattle grazing for the benefit of the natural resources, and ensuring public access to the park’s trails through monitoring and rotational grazing practices.

The success of cattle grazing as a land-management tool at Grant and Levin parks has led it to be adopted also at Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park, Rocha said. Advances in resource management led to the hiring of specialized staff to develop and implement the system-wide Natural Resource Management Program.

Rocha now supervises three parks natural resource management technicians, one senior park maintenance worker, and three park maintenance workers.

The program has expanded beyond the use of cattle grazing for vegetation management, Rocha said, and now includes many other subprograms, including other forms of vegetation management, wildlife and fisheries management, inventory of natural communities, tree safety, habitat restoration and enhancement, rare species management, and trails. The program also includes training for park rangers.

Vegetation Management

In addition to cattle grazing, the department uses a variety of other techniques to control invasive nonnative vegetation, Rocha said.

For example, manual and mechanical brush cutting can remove unwanted plants from particular areas, as can the selective application of herbicide. Goats and even beneficial insects are sometimes used.

For larger areas, prescribed fires are often the answer. Before the advent of aggressive fire-suppression policies, wildfires historically swept through many parts of Santa Clara County. These fires performed many useful functions.

First, they periodically removed the dead brush and timber that supplied fuel for the fires. This prevented a build-up of the fuel load, and thus made catastrophic fires unlikely.

Second, some native plants require fire for their seeds to germinate and the plant community to thrive.

Third, fire can control the spread of invasive nonnative plants.

Fourth, periodic fires can help maintain a more open forest understory, providing habitat for a wide variety of animals. In fact, there is some evidence that Native Americans used fire as a land-management tool before European settlement.

Wildlife and Fisheries Management

This program involves the management of habitat and nonnative wildlife populations to minimize impacts to native habitats and species, Rocha said. An important part of the program is educating the public about the impacts of nonnative wildlife, such as wild pigs, on parklands.

The program also includes the stocking of fish in permitted waters for recreational fishing in certain parks.

Inventory of Natural Communities

During the early years of the Natural Resource Management Program, the department completed an inventory of the various natural communities found within the county parks. This provided the background information needed to direct the department in its management activities. “You need to know what you have before you can manage your lands,” Rocha said.

Tree Safety Program

All trees in developed areas of the county parks are surveyed for defects that may impact the integrity of the tree and cause it to be at risk of failure, Rocha said. The trees are tagged and treated by the park’s maintenance staff.

The program also looks at overall health of the arboreal communities within developed areas, with the goal of managing those communities so that they represent as closely as possible the natural communities found within the park. Thus, park visitors who may never leave the developed areas still get to experience some of the park’s natural environment.

Habitat Restoration and Enhancement

Human use of the landscape has impacts, despite the best intentions of the users. Habitats can become degraded, with negative consequences for the plants and animals that depend on them. The department developed its program of habitat restoration and enhancement to address impacts on native habitats and communities within the parks, Rocha said.

Projects have included enhancement of riparian habitats and restoration of freshwater wetlands. This program focuses on processes that are impacted either through past practices or management of park operations.

Rare Species Management

Some of the county parks are home to rare, threatened, or endangered species, such as coyote ceanothus, Mt. Hamilton thistle, Loma Prieta hoita, California red-legged frog, California tiger salamander, and bay checkerspot butterfly.

These plants and animals are at risk of disappearing forever, unless active steps are taken to ensure their survival.

Some of the tactics used in this effort include reducing immediate threats to the species’ well-being and preserving the habitats in which they thrive.

The parks department manages its natural resources through an adaptive, multispecies approach, Rocha said. The department obviously focuses on rare, threatened or endangered species as they are in peril of loss, but the department also looks for opportunities to approach management of those species while benefitting many other species as well.


Trails that wind through the county parks provide a wonderful way for people to experience the varied backcountry landscape and the surrounding natural environment. Many of the trails are former ranch or mining roads, which were built without regard to their impact on the nearby plant and animal communities.

For example, erosion from poorly sited roads can wash into creeks and rivers, degrading the water quality and impacting fish and other aquatic animals. Roads and trails may pass through environmentally sensitive habitat that is home to rare, threatened, or endangered species.

Due to the impacts trails have in the backcountry, it made sense to integrate the goals of the department’s Natural Resource Protection Program with those of the department’s Trails Program, Rocha said. Thus, the Natural Resource Protection Program now involves the supervision and management of the department’s Trails Program.

“This creates a win-win situation for parks and park users, as experiences are enhanced and natural and cultural resources are protected and preserved for public enjoyment,” Rocha said.

Outdoor Recreation Program

Despite the fact that the Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation has been in existence since 1956, the recreation aspect of the department’s work was sometimes overlooked in favor of the huge task of acquiring and operating a countywide network of regional parks.

It was not until mid 2003 that the department created a unit of service dedicated to the planning and implementation of department-organized outdoor activities and special events for the people of Santa Clara County.

At that time, the department began developing a strategic, long-range plan for the inclusion of outdoor recreation programs and services within the department.

Many parks department staff thought the best approach would be to offer neighboring municipal-recreation and park agencies the opportunity to bring visitors to the parks through a fee-based partnership, said Kathleen Hooper, manager of the department’s Outdoor Recreation Program.

In essence, the department would charge a fee to let other agencies run outdoor recreation programs in the county parks. After 17 months of being told “Thanks, but no thanks,” the department decided to set up its own program.

Docent Advisory Group and Outdoor Recreation Classes

The first step in the process was to enlist the help of five long-term park volunteers with an interest in developing programs for outdoor recreation. The five-member Docent Advisory Group assisted the outdoor recreation program manager in the planning and implementation of the department’s first outdoor recreation classes, which began in 2006.

The volunteers who made up the advisory group became instructors in a variety of activities, including bicycling, nature photography, and wildflower scavenger hunts.

The department’s strategic plan for outdoor recreation placed a heavy emphasis on enlisting volunteers from the public, private, education, and nonprofit sectors, such as Geocachers of the Bay Area, Recreation Equipment Inc., San Jose State University, and the Wild Bird Center.

With these added partners, the program grew from the few initial offerings to a wide range of activities, including camping, mountain biking basics, birding, kayaking, and GPS navigation.

Fantasy of Lights

The popular Fantasy of Lights, created in 1998, was reassigned to the Outdoor Recreation Program in 2005. Fantasy of Lights is a drive-through holiday lights extravaganza held at Vasona County Park.

For most of its history, the Fantasy of Lights was the only drive through holiday-lights show offered in Northern California. In 2009, nearly 85,000 visitors and more than 24,000 vehicles took part in the annual event, which usually runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving through the end of December.

Festival in the Park

During 2005, news media began to report on a nationwide epidemic of obesity affecting children, youth, and adults alike. In response to this unhealthy trend, the department’s Outdoor Recreation Program decided to establish an annual county-wide event, first presented to the public in June 2007, to share resources and information that could inspire families from diverse backgrounds to take charge of their health and become physically active.

The event, called Festival in the Park, was designed “to help families take a bite out of the obesity epidemic,” Hooper said.

Healthy Trails

In a similar vein, the Outdoor Recreation Program decided to create its Healthy Trails fitness challenge, with the goal of encouraging individuals to become more health-conscious as they explore the county parks.

Gifts were provided as an incentive to jump-start participant activity, and rewards would be given after participants had walked, ridden, ran, or rolled along a minimum of five county park trails.

Launched in October 2007, Healthy Trails became a nationally award-winning program, and by mid 2010 more than 9,500 people had already joined. Kaiser Permanente’s San Jose Medical Center and Santa Clara County Department of Public Health Chronic Disease and Injury are partners in the department’s Healthy Trails program.

Increased Demand for New Programs

The Outdoor Recreation Program continued to promote its programs and services though outreach activities, informational booths and program advertisements at community events, health fairs, corporate gatherings, and educational training sessions.

The number of outdoor recreation classes offered by the department continued to multiply over the years, and in July 2010, the department hired a permanent full-time outdoor recreation coordinator to make sure classes kept up with demand.

According to Hooper, the Outdoor Recreation Program is expanding services to include new initiatives that seek to acquaint diverse ethnic populations with the county parks, to increase the number of registered Healthy Trails participants from lower-income communities, and to design new opportunities for ethnically diverse populations to become outdoor recreation docents.

Among the new programs are Staycations, featuring overnight camping in a county park; Daycations, a one-day organized park outing; both luxury and school-bus tours of Fantasy of Lights; a college docent exchange program; and a wide array of new class offerings, from rowing and stand-up paddle boarding to night photography, stroller and family hikes, and dirt-bike riding.

In May 2010, the second edition of the Healthy Trails guidebook was issued, featuring new eligible trails, more guided hikes, health tips, and better access for individuals with disabilities. And in June 2010, the fourth annual Festival in the Park drew one of the biggest crowds in the event’s history, with about 5,000 people attending.

Volunteer Program

The department’s Volunteer Program can trace its history back to the 1970s, when the county’s first master plan for trails and pathways was being developed. At that time, local citizens—some of whom were members of the San Martin Horseman’s Association—provided public input during the planning process.

Several members of the association had come into contact with volunteer groups when they visited other parks in the Bay Area and also across the county. This served as an inspiration to form a volunteer group for the Santa Clara County parks, said Joan Throgmorton, a longtime member of the San Martin Horseman’s Association. “We realized that if they can do this in other places, why can’t we here?”

Mounted Patrols at Mount Madonna

Milan Wasick, supervising park ranger at Mount Madonna County Park, was a staunch advocate of mounted patrols. In 1983, Wasick coordinated the initiation of volunteer mounted patrols at Mount Madonna by the newly formed Santa Clara County Department of Parks and Recreation Equestrian Volunteers.

Members of the new group were issued maps and blue vests with patches identifying them as volunteers in the county park. Also, volunteers did not have to pay the normal riding fee that other equestrians were charged.

New Almaden Quicksilver County Park Association

Another early volunteer group, the New Almaden Quicksilver County Park Association was started in 1980, at the recommendation of Don Weden, a county planner who wrote the master plan for Almaden Quicksilver County Park. Kitty Monahan, a member of the county’s historic heritage commission and later its parks and recreation commission, worked with Weden to set up the park association.

The association’s mission, said Monahan, was to preserve the historic and archeological sites in the New Almaden Mines site, which is part of Almaden Quicksilver County Park. The park opened to the public in 1975, and the New Almaden Mines site, about 800 acres, was purchased by the county in 1976.

“Don and I contacted historians, runners, hikers, equestrians, geologists, environmentalists, and anyone else we knew who was interested in Almaden Quicksilver,” Monahan said.

Among the people they recruited were Virginia Hammerness, a historian; Peggy Melbourne, president of the New Almaden Community Club; Bob Meyer, a runner; Mike Cox, a geologist; Dick Forst, a businessman and runner; John O’Toole, a certified public accountant; and Kay Carmody, an equestrian.

The association accomplished a lot during its first year.

Volunteers contacted experts in the fields of mining and local history to learn more about the area’s past as the site of the most productive mercury mine in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They also began working on the park’s trails, produced the association’s first newsletter, and organized the first Pioneer Day in 1981.

Since then, membership in the association has grown to nearly 400 members from all over the United States—and even a few from Cornwall, England, which was home to many of the miners who worked at the New Almaden Mines.

The association took over operation of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum in the 1980s, after the county parks department purchased the museum’s collection of historic artifacts from Constance Perham, a local collector.

The association ran the museum until 1998, when the department purchased Casa Grande and opened a new museum there with the Perham collection.

Now more than three dozen docents from the association help out at the museum. Other accomplishments of the association include helping to build some 150 miles of trails, providing monthly trail maintenance, and publishing two coffee-table books, five brochures, and a wildflower book.

A Formal Departmentwide Program

In 1990, regional park manager Ray Garcia implemented a formal departmentwide volunteer program using interns, a part-time employee, and assistance from field staff.

During his tenure as senior ranger at Santa Teresa and Hellyer county parks, Eric Goodrich met Mike and Dorene Boulland, a local couple who were obviously passionate about their regional parks. Eric assisted the Boullands to form the Friends of Santa Teresa County Park.

“We did a lot of trail work back then, including building the Rocky Ridge and Fortini trails,” Goodrich said. Today Friends of Santa Teresa remains one of the program’s most active Park Friends of groups.

Park Friends and Adopt-a-Trail

Some of the county parks have volunteer Park Friends groups, which act as advocates for their park and also perform some public outreach and interpretive functions, such as setting up telescopes for astronomy programs at Joseph D. Grant County Park.

The county parks department also has an Adopt-a-Trail Program, which lets individuals and groups pick a specific trail in a county park to regularly check and help maintain.

Both the Park Friends groups and members of the Adopt-a-Trail Program work closely with the county parks and recreation department.

Trail Watch

Chris Crockett, a senior park ranger, began serving as volunteer coordinator in 1993, and two years later he assumed that role full-time. Crockett developed and launched the department’s Trail Watch program in 1994.

This program relies on hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians to patrol trails on a regular basis and assist the ranger staff by providing information and assistance to park visitors, reporting safety concerns, and aiding with emergency response.

Candidates complete a 16-hour training academy and then a checkout hike or ride before they can be issued a uniform and begin patrolling. Volunteers are asked to provide a minimum of 48 hours of service annually.

Regional Programs and Events

In 1995 the department began its long-standing participation with South Bay Fishing in the City. This program provides more than a dozen learn-to-fish trainings for schools and families in the Santa Clara Valley. It is a joint effort by the county parks and recreation department, the California Department of Fish & Game, the City of San Jose, and local Rotary International clubs.

County parks volunteers participate in this program, which makes fishing, outdoor recreation, and educational experiences available to children and their families at no charge.

County parks volunteers have also been active since 1996 in the annual California Coastal Cleanup Day, and since 1999 in the annual National River Cleanup Day. The county parks Volunteer Program cosponsors both events and acts as a host for cleanup sites.

Into the 21st Century

Bill Ventura and Matt Anderson, both chief park rangers, shepherded the Volunteer Program into the 21st century, with the help of volunteer coordinators Chris Crockett, John George, John Heenan, Heidi McFarland, and Sabine Sander.

“As existing programs grew and new programs and events were added, volunteers were increasingly recognized departmentwide as an invaluable resource to help keep the county parks a clean, safe and friendly environment,” said John George.

In 2008, Gloria Gill became the department’s volunteer program manager. Under her guidance, the program took several strides forward: outreach efforts to the local business community expanded; Park Friends groups and Adopt-a-Trail programs increased their recruitment; and cleanup days, nonnative plant species mitigation, trail building, and trail maintenance became regularly scheduled events.

Martial Cottle Park: The First Combined County and State Park

Three decades is a long time to negotiate for piece of parkland. But in the end, it was worth it. Martial Cottle Park, acquired in 2004, is a unique venture involving both the State of California and Santa Clara County. Consisting of 284 acres of prime ranchland in an unincorporated area of the county south of San Jose, the park will be a living memorial to the county’s agricultural past and an ongoing tribute to four generations who continued their farming way of life from the 1850s well into the 20th century.

The Cottle and Lester Families

The man responsible for establishing public ownership of his family ranch for future generations to enjoy is Walter Cottle Lester.

Born in 1925, Lester is the last living heir of the ranch, inheriting his share when his mother died in 1977. Walter’s sister, Edith Ethel Lester, who lived from 1915 until 1999, owned the remaining share of the ranch.

Once part of Rancho de Santa Teresa, the Bernal family’s 9,647-acre land grant, the property that became the Cottle Ranch was purchased in 1864 by Edward Cottle. Cottle was a Vermont native who had arrived in California by wagon train from Missouri 10 years before.

After establishing his ranch near Coyote Creek, Edward gave his son Martial 350 acres to grow grain and row crops and raise cattle and horses. Martial also ran a small dairy on the property until 1885, selling the butter he produced to stores in San Jose.

Martial and his wife, Edith, had five children, including Ethel, their youngest daughter. In July 1914, on the eve of World War I, Ethel married Henry Lester, eventually inheriting the Cottle Ranch from her father, Martial. Henry owned several properties nearby, on which he grew prunes and pears. Eventually, Henry amassed more than 860 acres, planted mostly in prunes, making him one of the Santa Clara Valley’s most successful orchardists.

During World War II, Henry and his son Walter became partners, with Walter taking over operation of the Cottle Ranch. Walter planted sugar beets and tomatoes on the property and continued to grow grain, mostly barley; he also added beef cattle in the 1950s.

Henry Lester died in 1960. The original ranch was pared down to about 290 acres to pay inheritance taxes when Walter’s mother, Ethel, died in 1977. Both Walter and his sister, Edith, stayed on the ranch, and neither ever married.

According to the park’s draft master plan, it was their mother, Ethel, who first had the idea to honor her father, Martial Cottle, by one day turning the ranch into a public historical agricultural park “to promote, educate, and sustain farming traditions in the Santa Clara Valley.”

The Park’s Acquisition: Twists and Turns

The story of the park’s acquisition involved many twists and turns, said Kathryn Berry. When she first began working as deputy county counsel in the early 1990s, Berry learned that Lester might be interested in donating his property to the county. Around the same time, Lester’s sister had a stroke, making him solely responsible for the ranch.

Berry said Lester had no interest in leaving the ranch to the City of San Jose, because of some ill will in the past regarding property condemnation to build Highway 85 and other projects. But Lester was also adamant about the conditions for transferring title to the county. He did not want the property to later be sold. He also wanted a say in the development of a park on the land. “He had a dream or an image or a vision of how he saw the property, and he wanted to make sure that that got done,” Berry said.

One of the first steps toward acquiring the property, Berry said, was a resolution passed by the county board of supervisors. The resolution said that if Lester donated his ranch to the county, the county would explore ways to incorporate the area’s farming and ranching past into any future park. Then the meetings began, Berry said.

There were two houses on the property—a large ranch house and a little house. Lester lived in the large house. The meetings were always held in the little house. Each time they seemed near an agreement, Berry said, Lester would voice some additional concerns. The discussions dragged on. “Since the beginning of those discussions, we had about four different park directors and we never got the park,” Berry said.

In the process, everyone involved in the discussions became very fond of Lester, Berry said. Everyone, that is, except perhaps his lawyers, whom he hired and fired on a regular basis. Eventually, the chemistry clicked between Lester, Lester’s attorney, Berry, and Lisa Killough, who was then director of the county parks and recreation department.

Unfortunately, Lester’s sister died in 1999, and the inheritance taxes Lester owed on her share of the ranch presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the pending donation. Was there a way to navigate through the tax maze?

With help from local politicians, including Congressman Mike Honda, a deal was worked out.

In 2004, the State of California used some of its park funds to purchase 131 acres of the Cottle Ranch, giving Lester the money he needed to pay the inheritance taxes. Lester donated the rest of the ranch, 153 acres, to the county. In return, the county granted Lester a life estate to 31 acres of the property, where he still lives in a little white house on Snell Avenue.

After Lester dies, his 31-acre life estate will become part of the park. Some of Lester’s goals for the property, such as having a demonstration farm where local school children can learn about the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” will be incorporated into the future park.

Open Space and Educational Resource

Honda, who served on the county board of supervisors and in the state legislature before being elected to Congress, said he worked with Lester for many years to honor Lester’s desire to maintain the property as open space and an educational resource.

“It’s having that working farm as a park, that kids can see,” he said. “How many kids in urban areas ever see a working park? When it’s fully developed, they’ll be able to walk through it and understand and appreciate the history of this area.”

Honda grew up in the area and his family sharecropped nearby. Coyote Creek was a place kids could fish, when they weren’t roaming through the fields and orchards. “Children can’t do that anymore. It’s all urbanized,” he said.

According to an inventory of features prepared in 2008 for California State Parks, the site is “one of the few remaining examples of the Santa Clara Valley’s rich agricultural heritage that sill exists in what is now an almost entirely urbanized portion of Santa Clara County.”

Martial Cottle Park will have a great cultural and historical value, in part because of the heritage that Walter Cottle Lester represents.

“He is probably the last living person of that long line of folks who have owned land in that area,” Honda said. “The Cottles, the Snells, the Lesters, the Hayes—they all owned land in that area. And it’s a legacy that would have been lost if we allowed it to go into developers’ hands. I guess it’s like finding the diamond and being able to hang on to it and pass it on to the next generation.”

The Future Park

An aerial photograph of the future park shows a greensward bordered by housing developments, retail and commercial sites, and roads. The landscape is flat and open, consisting mostly of fields still in agricultural production.

Views from the property extend eastward to the Diablo Range and westward to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Canoas Creek flows northward through the southwestern corner of the property, eventually joining the Guadalupe River in a nearby neighborhood. The creek is channeled in concrete to meet the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s requirements for flood control.

Valley oaks, fruit trees, and ornamental plantings are the main nonagricultural vegetation, but these are limited in number and distribution on the property. However, the trees do provide habitat for a number of bird species, including American kestrel, great egret, hooded oriole, house finch, red-tailed hawk, white-breasted nuthatch, white-tailed kite, and woodpeckers.

Other bird species observed on the property include American robin, Anna’s hummingbird, barn swallow, black phoebe, California towhee, cliff swallow, lesser goldfinch, northern mockingbird, peregrine falcon, and turkey vulture.

The property supports some common mammals, including bats, California ground squirrels, California meadow voles, and red foxes. The parks wet areas, which include Canoas Creek and seasonal ponds on the fallow fields, may provide habitat for Pacific pond turtles and Pacific tree frogs, as well as for shorebirds and waterfowl.

The historic buildings on the property, dating mostly from the mid-1800s, are within the area reserved for Lester as his life estate. These include the large ranch house, an office, two barns, a greenhouse, a granary, a blacksmith building, a mill, a milk house, a buggy shed, a shanty, two garages, two oil storage sheds, and three buildings used for equipment, supplies, and vehicle storage. The pump house for the well sits on state-owned land.

The only current public access is to a produce stand in the life-estate area, which sells fruits, vegetables, and Christmas trees grown on the property. A commercially operated pumpkin patch, open in October of each year, is a popular attraction for local school children.

A Whole New Era of Planning

Jane Mark, a planner with the county parks department, called the hybrid state-county planning process for Martial Cottle Park “a whole new era of planning.” Even though there is dual ownership of the park, Mark said the decision was made early on to plan the park as “a whole unit.” She said the county would take the lead in creating the park’s master plan and also securing the funding to develop, operate, and maintain the property.

The park will become a unit of the California State Parks system, but it will be developed, operated, and managed exclusively by the county parks department. Mark said Martial Cottle Park would be the first historical agricultural park in the county, similar in some ways to the East Bay Regional Park District’s Ardenwood Historic Farm in Freemont. And the park has statewide significance, she said, being the first of its kind in terms of a joint partnership with the county.

Also significant will be the park’s attraction for local residents, Mark said. “The local community around this entire park has absolutely embraced this park and is just waiting for the day to be able to step onto this park and use it.” The county parks department also is breaking new ground, literally, incorporating new types of uses, such as farming, that do not exist in other of the county parks.

Other ideas for Martial Cottle Park include a farmer’s market, community gardens, a café serving locally grown food, and a visitor center, along with typical park amenities such as trails, picnic sites, and day-use areas.

Mark said recreating history seasonal wetlands and revegetating Canoas Creek will help educated people about the history of the landscape and the ecology of the Santa Clara Valley.

According to the deed granting the property to Santa Clara County, the land will be used “exclusively as a public historical park that informs and educates the public about the agricultural heritage of the Santa Clara Valley.” The deed rules out high intensity, organized recreational uses such as athletic fields, playgrounds, and public swimming pools; historical structures from other sites may not be relocated to the park.

Following more than a year of public outreach and agency coordination facilitated by the county parks department, the county board of supervisors on August 12, 2008, approved the planning document laying out the vision, goals, and objectives for Martial Cottle Park. The planned opening of the entire park is in late 2014.


One thought on “Chapter 5: Plans, Programs, and a New Park

  1. Not certain how you are gaging the uniqueness of the State/County partnership at Cottle. San Bruno Mtn is a joint State/County Park in San Mateo. I am sure it predates Cottle, but you may have other criteria you’ve focused on.
    Thanks for putting all this together – I’ll be plowing thru the rest of it as time allows.
    Cheers –

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