Chapter 7: The Future of the Santa Clara County Parks

Participants interviewed for this book were asked to describe what the county parks system would look like in 10 or 20 years—what challenges and opportunities were just over the horizon. Three common concerns stood out:

  • Fulfilling the Vision. What still needs to be done to fulfill the vision of a countywide system of regional parks, and where will the money come from to do it?
  • Engaging the Public. How can the county parks department better engage with the public, especially in terms of creating park users and advocates among young people?
  • Changing Demographics. What effect will the county’s increasing ethnic and cultural diversity have on the ways people use their county parks?

Fulfilling the Vision

The vision for the system of county parks and open space preserves that residents of Santa Clara County enjoy today was largely planned and created in the 1970s, said Don Weden, who worked as a county planner from 1969 until 2003.

Parts of the system were painstakingly assembled over the decades by various entities, including the county parks and recreation department, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, and the federal government.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to the coming decades raises a series of questions, Weden said. How will needs be changing? How will opportunities be changing? Do we have enough land protected now? How will all the agencies, nonprofits, and other stakeholders reach a consensus and work together?

Another legacy from the 1970s is a nearly sole focus on recreation as the main function of parks, Weden said. In recent years, it is true, habitat conservation has joined recreation on the park agenda, thanks in part to the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan. Weden said it might be time to expand further the vision of what benefits parks and open space can provide:

“As we look to the future and to a climate-changing world, do we need to be looking beyond simply recreation or habitat function? Should we be designing a system so that instead of having trail connectivity, we have wildlife corridor connectivity, for example? Should we also be thinking in terms of the sort of ecological services that those lands perform?”

Time for a Rethink

Weden called for a “big picture rethink” to replace the vision from the 1970s, which—although it has given excellent service to the county’s residents—was “getting a little threadbare.”

For example, the recreation needs of people living in the county’s urban areas have not been adequately addressed, he said. “The last regional parks plan, for example, paid little or no attention to the urban recreation needs. How do we bring nature closer to people’s daily lives, so they don’t have to get in the car and drive out to a regional park in order to experience wildlife, or nature, or some little solitude?”

Planning Shouldn’t Take a Backseat

With resources stretched thin, planning for the big picture sometimes takes a back seat to daily operational concerns. But it’s a mistake to neglect the big picture or postpone dealing with the tough questions, Weden said. “We could face some very negative scenarios if we don’t begin thinking of some of these big picture, longer-term things.”

Funding for parks and open space ultimately depends on continued voter approval for the Park Charter Fund and other ballot measures, Weden said.

That funding could be caught in a squeeze—between an increasing number of senior citizens living on fixed incomes, and a population of young voters who have grown up without much contact with nature and the benefits parks and open space provide.

“I think that’s going to be a challenge to figure out how do we get adequate resources,” he said. “Not only to do what we historically have done, but if you start looking at the other functions, how do we manage landscapes in a climate-changing world where looking at the resource issues may be more critical?”

Financial Constraints

Despite continued renewals of the Park Charter Fund by county voters, financial constraints are going to limit the future expansion of the parks and recreation department, said Ed Souza, the department’s former customer and business services manager.

Expenditure will exceed revenues, perhaps by fiscal year 2011.“So we’re going to be in a mode where we’re going to have to either find some new revenue sources, become more entrepreneurial, or considerably cut our budget, cut our expenditures,” he said.

Although the department receives about $6 million per year for parkland acquisition, property values in the county have skyrocketed, and the continued upswing in prices necessarily hinders the ability of the department to buy land on its own. “Unless we partner with other agencies, we’re just not going to have the funds available to make purchases and add to the department,” Souza said.

Expanding the Opportunities

Large and costly parkland acquisitions may be a thing of the past, but this certainly doesn’t mean the work of the county parks department is done, Souza said. “I really see the department working with the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and the De Anza Trail, and all those kind of things—expanding the opportunities for people to reach our parks through a vast trail system.”

The county parks are going to become more and more valuable to the residents of Santa Clara County as its urban areas continue to grow, Souza said. “They are going to be treated as rural oases within urban areas. Our largest recreation activity right now is walking and hiking, and I think people are going to be looking for more opportunities to hike and walk in our parks.

Protecting and Managing Natural Resources

The role of the county parks and recreation department in protecting and managing natural resources will become more important in the future, according to former department director Lisa Killough. She said one of the reasons for the increasing importance of resource protection and management is the department’s role as “a very active participant” in the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan.

The plan provides a recipe for how lands should be managed to both protect sensitive species and enhance their population growth. “Our resource-management wing of the department is going to definitely increase in importance and stature as time goes on,” she said.

Despite various changes over the years, the department has not strayed too far from its central principles, Killough said.

“We are here to protect those beautiful, natural lands and make them available to the public. We’re also here to provide those kinds of regional recreational experiences that you’re not going to find in the city, things like our velodrome, hang gliding, or fly-casting ponds—the list goes on. We’re here to provide the kinds of things that have more of a regional draw too. And we’ll continue to do that.”

Every survey conducted by the department has shown that people value their park experience as a personal journey through nature, Killough said. The department’s accomplishments over the past three decades have helped open accessible avenues between people and nature.

“I do think that our efforts to create these avenues—through the streamside trails, through the urban parks and trails that connect up into these natural areas—are still going to be a major focus as we go forward,” she said.

More Parks, More Trails

More parks, more trails, and a focus on regional trail connections are all part of the future of Santa Clara County, according to Jane Mark, the county park department’s senior planner. Families without vehicles, along with people who have a car but want to cut down on their driving, will continue to access trails close to home.

The department hopes to close some of the gaps in its regional trail system, such as missing sections of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Bay Trail, Mark said. Trails will also increasingly be used for alternative transportation, as a way to get to work, to shopping areas, and to entertainment venues.

“We work closely with the Valley Transportation Authority on their bicycle network and how that integrates with the county trail system,” she said. “We’re working closely with the cities, because each of them have their own network of citywide trails.”

New Issues

Climate change, water conservation, sustainability, and green building principles are among the new issues the county parks department will be wrestling with in the future, Mark said.

A new visitor center being planned for the Coyote Creek Parkway in Morgan Hill will be certified via the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“This park will be in the forefront of sustainable design and building practices,” she said. “So we are very conscious of our role in understanding climate change, and also how we can incorporate that into park development—certainly with any new visitor centers and park offices and landscapes that we create.”

The department is looking into ways to cope with drought through more effective water conservation, especially in terms of the irrigated turf areas at the county parks. Recycled materials will play an important role in the construction of parking areas and trails, and the department is even considering the use of recycled rubber as mulch, rather than wood.

Eliminate the Gaps

If voters continue to support the Park Charter Fund, an expanded county parks system will eventually eliminate many of the gaps between parks that currently exist. At least that’s the hope of Jim Beall, a former county supervisor and current member of the California State Assembly.

“I think in the east foothills, all the ridges should be part of the system,” he said. “In the Santa Cruz Mountains, I think there’s a way we can connect Sanborn and Almaden Quicksilver park. And then we should have trails that go from the bay all the way to the ocean, over the top of the mountain. We can do that in Saratoga. We can do that in Los Gatos Creek, combining the parks in other counties. In the south county, I think we can do that through Uvas and Mount Madonna parks.”

Beall said he would like to see large developed parks in the county’s urban areas, similar to the planned Martial Cottle Park, a joint county and state park in South San Jose. All the salt ponds at the southern end of San Francisco Bay should be turned into a shoreline park featuring restored salt marshes, Beall said. He also said the size of the current county park system is too small.

Dynamic Tension

A “condition of dynamic tension” currently exists between the county parks department and the environmental community, but it is a tension that exists between friends and is not antagonistic, said Rod Diridon Sr., a former county supervisor.

This tension arises from the desire of many in the environmental community to see the department spend more of its Park Charter Fund money on land acquisition, even to the extent of sacrificing some of the budgets for maintenance and operations.

“The price of land is going up and up and up,” Diridon said. “Consequently, a dollar’s worth of government funds buys less and less in the future. I’d much rather devote that reduced value—that dollar which is going to have a reduced value—to buying the land as inexpensively as we can, right now, especially with the down-turn in property values.”

Diridon said he realizes that shifting money away from maintenance and operations might put parklands at risk of being abused. However, to accomplish the twin goals of stopping urban sprawl and providing the largest possible amount of parks and open space, acquisition must be accelerated, he said.

Other entities, public and private, are buying land in Santa Clara County and protecting it as open space, Diridon said, and this may lead people to conclude that the park department’s role should be more custodial—as good stewards of the land already within the county park system.

“Well, that’s a viable position to be taking, and I guess I shouldn’t be so hard-headed about saying, ‘Put more money into acquisition.’ At the same time we don’t have enough to buy the land that needs to be purchased, that would become buffer land.”

A Barrier to Urban Sprawl

Diridon said he is especially concerned about the Coyote Valley Development Area—land between San Jose and Morgan Hill owned by Cisco and a handful of other companies. Development in that area was stalled by an economic downturn, but California’s history suggests boom will follow bust.

The next time business in Silicon Valley begins to sizzle, pressure will mount for that land to be developed, Diridon said. If that happens, the potential exists for San Jose and Morgan Hill to blend into one large city, and for urban sprawl to extend all the way from San Francisco to Hollister and perhaps Monterey.

A publicly owned swath across the Coyote Narrows would help complete the encirclement of Santa Clara County’s urban areas envisioned by the early environmentalists of the 1950s and 1960s, Diridon said. Government needs to step up to the plate and not rely on private land trusts and environmental organizations to stem the tide of development.

Engaging the Public

The future of parks and open space in Santa Clara County depends largely on the willingness of the county’s residents to vote to renew the Park Charter Fund, said Paul Romero, a former director of the county parks department. The department needs to make sure it knows what county residents want from their parks, and whether or not they are satisfied with the way things are going.

“In a sense, this system is like a politician,” he said. “You’ve always got to get reelected when you’re a politician. Well, in this system, you’ve always got to get that money back in, and you’re not going to get it unless the voters are happy. So you’ve got to keep measuring that and doing surveys to find out where your voters are at, and if you’re doing the right job.”

Opportunities to Learn

The department needs to try various methods to engage the public, said Lisa Killough, another former department director. “At a certain point, you have to give people opportunities to learn about how to use their parks. Maybe we have to provide classes or events that teach people how to actually camp, because for a lot of folks that’s an art that’s been lost.”

Although the county parks have much to offer, Killough said the most recent survey conducted by the parks department showed that there is a growing segment of the county’s population—about 20 percent of those responding—who say they never even think about going to parks.

Stiff Competition

Parks and outdoor recreation in Santa Clara County may be facing increasingly stiff competition from the very force that brought so many people here in the first place—the high-tech industry.

“People are tied to their computers,” Killough said. “They’re tied to their Blackberries. They’re tied to electronic communications. We haven’t gone in this direction yet, but we’ve talked about, well, if we can’t beat them, maybe we need to join them. So maybe we need to provide more wireless hot spots in our parks, so that if people want to bring their computer to the park, so be it.”

Bind People Together

An aging population presents the county park system with challenges and opportunities. One of the ways the parks department provides social connections for people is through its Volunteer Program, Killough said. “We have 2,000 active volunteers. A lot of them are in the retirement category who want to give back. They want to do something meaningful.”

Killough said the Volunteer Program was not specifically created with the needs of senior citizens in mind, but it has turned into a win-win situation for both the department and its volunteers, whatever their age.

Retirees also tend to have extra time on their hands, Killough said, and this makes them more likely to come to meetings and provide input on a variety of park-related topics, including park master plans. “So they’re definitely out there supporting us,” she said.

A New Generation of Young People

The department could do a better job of bringing a new generation of young people into the parks, Killough said. She talked about “the golden age group,” children between the ages of 6 and 10, who are curious about the world, happily interactive with adults, and free from the cynicism that often plagues teenagers.

“We’ve talked about doing activities that would be more attractive to a younger crowd,” she said. “I think that’s an area that we could probably learn from what other agencies are doing.” The department does have its Jr. Ranger Program, which focuses on kids between the ages of 9 and 11, but Killough said that only touches a very small group of young people.

Part of the idea behind the Jr. Ranger Program is to get kids interested in professional opportunities offered by the county parks, such as becoming a park ranger, Killough said. “So get them in that age where they’re starting to think about ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?’ We introduce the concept of the parks profession. But we also invest the kids in nature and what nature is all about—respecting nature and protecting the resources that we have.”

If young people are introduced to nature and to parks at a young age, that appreciation will carry forward, she said.

Put Them to Work

Another way to interest kids in the outdoors is to put them to work on a park project, which not only gives them pride of ownership but also helps conquer their fears of being in an unfamiliar setting.

The department has organized labor contracts with the California Conservation Corps and a local conservation corps called San Jose Conservation. Young people in these groups work on small projects for the department, such as building a fence or weeding—tasks that can be accomplished without a lot of expertise.

Trail building might also be on the agenda, Killough said. “We’ll get some kids who literally have never been out in a wild area—they’ve lived in San Jose all their life, but they’ve never been out in nature,” she said.

Creating Advocates for Parks

If today’s young people eventually become advocates for the county parks, the way their parents and grandparents did, it may be thanks to special efforts undertaken by the county parks department, said Kitty Monahan, a former member of both the county’s historical heritage commission and its parks and recreation commission.

Schools and 4-H groups are getting involved. “We’ve been getting them to help us build trails,” she said. “The school districts are pretty good about that, assigning them a number of hours they’re supposed to spend through their four years of community service. The science teachers always call us—‘When are you building trails? These guys need some hours.’ The kids love it once they’re here—we’ll get them away from their iPods and their Tweeting.”

A Constituency for the Future

The department needs to both learn and teach: learn what the county’s residents want, through surveys and other methods, and teach people about parks and their value. In this way, the department can build its constituency for the future, especially among young people, said former parks department director Romero.

“I think the biggest challenge we have today is building the future constituency,” he said. “I think that getting kids outdoors is probably one of the most important things that we do as professionals. We have kids less interested in going outdoors, because they can get everything they want indoors.”

Cultural changes, combined with the fact that in many families both parents working and have little free time, mean that young people today are not being introduced to the outdoors through time-honored family activities such as camping and fishing, Romero said.

“When I grew up, in my generation, that was all we did, because that’s what we could afford to do,” he said. “We didn’t have an affluent society, and we didn’t have the technology that we have today.”

Fears about safety in the parks and other social issues may also be preventing some people from taking their kids outdoors, Romero said. “Fishing used to be something my dad and I did every weekend. It’s not prevalent today. We’re going to find our constituency supporting what we do challenged—that’s why I said it’s so important that you build a constituency in parks.”

Changing Demographics

Park visitors reflect the changing demographics of Santa Clara County, with greater visitation from Asian populations and an expected rise in park use by the county’s Hispanic community.

Reaching out to these diverse communities involves publishing park information in a variety of languages, but also teaching cultural sensitivity to the department staff, said Souza, the department’s former customer and business services manager.

Hellyer County Park, in central San Jose, is located in the midst of a community that is largely Hispanic and Vietnamese. One of the favorite park activities for Hispanic families is to have large picnics and barbecues on the weekend with groups of up to 50 people, Souza said.

Park rangers wanted to reduce the number of people able to use each picnic site to 20, because larger groups were harder to manage.

“This was a part of our visitors’ culture, this was why they came to parks—to be in large groups,” Souza said. “They weren’t coming to cause problems or start riots. They were coming to have fun with their families. So that’s something I think eventually will have to change—make larger group picnic areas that accommodate 30, 40, 50 people.”

Souza’s research for his master’s thesis investigated the importance of outdoor recreation for Vietnamese people. “Hiking and walking is a huge recreational activity for Vietnamese people—it’s one of their favorite activities to do for exercise and for their health,” he said.

“We’re seeing that in all of our parks—greater visitation from Asian populations. As the population changes, as the ethnic diversity in Santa Clara Valley changes, we’re going to see that in our parks. We’re seeing a very rapid growth in the Hispanic–Latino community in Santa Clara County.”

Meeting Different Recreational Needs

Change is coming to the county parks because of what former department director Killough called the county’s “demographic footprint.” She said it would not be too long before the county’s population becomes evenly divided between people identifying themselves as Asian, Hispanic, and white. Parks provide a wide range of experiences that meet the recreational needs of different groups.

“While we do see that between the different ethnic and cultural groups there are a lot of values held in common that are universal, there are some differences in how people like to use their parks,” Killough said. “The urban parks are much more important to the Asian and the Hispanic communities.” The classic open space experience is a little bit more important to the white community, Killough said.

For many communities, parks provide a way for extended families to gather and celebrate in an outdoor setting. The department’s Festival in the Park, held annually at Hellyer County Park, is a way to introduce people to their county parks in a setting that includes entertainment and information about health and fitness.

“We went out of our way to attract as broad as base as possible, getting different cultural acts to provide entertainment,” Killough said. “We have various booths that are mostly aimed at health and wellness and recreation, but really with an eye to making sure that we’re as inclusive as possible with all the different folks in our community. We’ve been really successful on that.”

Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan

In 2004, the City of San Jose, Santa Clara County, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Valley Transportation Authority jointly agreed to prepare the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan. In 2005, the cities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill agreed to join the planning process. California State Parks and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority were also involved in the plan’s preparation.

The plan “provides a framework for promoting the protection and recovery of natural resources, including endangered species, while streamlining the permitting process for planned development, infrastructure, and maintenance activities.”

The Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan totals more than 2,000 pages in four volumes. Its purpose is to allow what the plan calls “Local Partners” to obtain permits under the federal Endangered Species Act and California’s Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) program “for activities and projects they conduct and those under their jurisdiction.”

The Local Partners are Santa Clara County, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the cities of Gilroy, Morgan Hill, and San Jose. The wildlife agencies involved are the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In return for receiving the required permits, the Local Partners commit to mitigating impacts to land and water and to provide “additional conservation enhancement efforts” within their jurisdictions.

The plan’s benefits include the protection, enhancement, and restoration of natural resources within Santa Clara county and the recovery of endangered species.

The plan’s creators said their ecosystem-scale conservation strategy is “more efficient and effective for at-risk species and their essential habitats” than a program that would separately permit individual projects and determine the appropriate mitigation requirements for each one.

Given the number of public development projects going on in the Santa Clara Valley, it made sense to adopt a regional approach to planning that brought cities, land-management agencies, and government departments overseeing fish and wildlife under one umbrella, said Jane Mark, senior planner for the county parks department.

“So why not do a comprehensive plan that addresses species, impacts, and conservation measures, and recovery of these species? How can all the agencies that are involved with development put together a plan, such as a habitat plan that deals with these conservation measures? And then plan where future lands could be acquired and protected for habitat reserves.”

The plan’s conservation strategy was designed with two goals in mind: first, mitigate impacts on covered species, and second, aid the recovery of covered species in the plan’s study area. The strategy has five major components:

  • Acquire land and create a Reserve System, including regional connections between protected areas.
  • Manage, enhance, and, in some cases, restore the Reserve System over the long term.
  • Develop a comprehensive conservation strategy to meet the needs of fish, amphibians, and aquatic reptiles covered by the plan.
  • Implement a comprehensive, long-term adaptive management and monitoring program.
  • Implement avoidance and minimization measures on covered activities.

Creation of the Reserve System in Santa Clara County, which is the core of the conservation strategy, involves acquiring approximately 48,000 acres of land to be protected and managed “for the benefit of covered species, natural communities, biological diversity, and ecosystem function.” (By way of comparison, this is about 3,000 more acres than is currently in the county parks system.)

Additionally, the plan would incorporate into the Reserve System another 12,500 to 15,000 of existing open space, bringing the total size of the system to more than 60,000 acres. The county parks and recreation department is expected to acquire more than 8,000 acres as part of the Reserve System, according to Mark.

Former county parks director Lisa Killough called the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan “a multi-jurisdictional approach to protecting the most important habitats and listed species in our area.” The Reserve System would take one step further what the county parks department has been doing all along, she said.

“You need to protect these lands because these are important species and habitats within these lands. And then it gives the recipe approach for how you manage those lands to not only protect the species but to enhance their population growth.” The resource management wing of the department is going to definitely increase in importance and stature as time goes on, Killough said. “That’s definitely a trend that you’re going to see in the future for the department.”

Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Commission

The Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Commission is an advisory board made up of seven commissioners appointed by the county board of supervisors. The commissioners’ job is to advise the board of supervisors on ways to aid, encourage, and conduct public recreation.

This includes giving advice on acquiring and developing park and recreation facilities and programs. All recreational areas and facilities owned, controlled, or leased by the county fall under the purview of the commission.

There is one parks and recreation commissioner for each of the five county supervisorial districts, plus two commissioners representing the county at large. A commissioner’s term lasts four years, and no commissioner can serve more than three consecutive terms. The commission meets monthly. Its meetings are open to the public.

Advocates for Parks

Although the parks and recreation commission is the citizen arm of the county board of supervisors and is purely advisory in nature, former parks department director Paul Romero said he always found the commissioners to be strong advocates for the county parks.

“I think the key to a commission is keeping them informed and being up front and honest with them. I know some of my colleagues see their commissions as an albatross around their neck. I never saw that as a problem with us. Our commissioners were quite good, and they were very dedicated and very committed and quite effective,” Romero said.

“They’re the public voice. They’re the front guard, if you will, to the public and the professional staff. They should be the ones that hear the public comments at hearings, listening to any public issue that may come forward, and exchanging ideas and thoughts there. I took them as a valuable tool and asset to the organization.”

Controversy and the Commission

One of the more controversial issues to come before the commission involved the Casa Grande building in the New Almaden Historic District. The county parks department bought it for use as a visitor center and mining museum for Almaden Quicksilver County Park.

Casa Grande was built in 1854 and served as the mine manager’s residence. In the early 1900s, a ballroom called the Opry House was added to Casa Grande.

When the department began applying for grants to restore Casa Grande, the question of what to do with the Opry House became a hot-button issue before the commission. Many New Almaden residents wanted it preserved.

The granting agency, however, would only provide funds to restore Casa Grande to its period of historical significance, which was the late 1800s, when mine operations were at their peak.

Larry Ames served as a parks and recreation commissioner from 1995 through most of 2004, having been appointed as a result of his work as the Willow Glen representative on the Los Gatos Streamside Park Committee. Ames was the swing vote on the commission on this issue of what to do with Casa Grande.

“The original plan was to tear down the ballroom,” he said. “I had always seen it as kind of a shed on the side, so I was willing to have it torn down. But when I heard that it was a ballroom, then I started asking details as to whether—underneath the plywood scaffolding that’s in there now—there actually was a ballroom floor. So rather than voting to have it torn down right then, I asked them to investigate further, to make the recommendation that we try to preserve the ballroom floor too if it was worthwhile and if it was feasible.”

As it turned out, there was no ballroom floor, just more plywood, Ames said. “So it wasn’t worth saving, but at least I got to have the park department do a little bit more research into it and also made the public happy that it had been considered.”

Mountain Bikes, Off-Leash Dogs, and Paintball

In June 1990, the county parks department opened about 100 miles of trails in Alviso, Ed R. Levin, Joseph D. Grant, Santa Teresa, Stevens Creek, and Upper Stevens Creek county parks to bicycling, with trails in Motorcycle County Park available by special permit.

Prior to then, most of the county parks were closed to mountain biking. This policy change came about during the time Garnetta Annable and Kitty Monahan served on the county parks and recreation commission.

Annable was invited to become a parks and recreation commissioner in 1988, in part because of her work on the campaign to renew the county’s Park Charter Fund. She served on the commission through 1997.

One of the reasons she was excited to accept the appointment was her newfound love of mountain biking. At the time, Annable said, “I’m pleased to report back that during the course of my service, we had the right leadership within the department, we had the right leadership on the board of supervisors, and that we were able to then successfully open about seven more parks for mountain biking.”

Particularly contentious was the issue of whether to allow mountain biking in Almaden Quicksilver County Park.

Representing the mountain bicyclists was an organization called Responsible Organized Mountain Peddlers (ROMP). The parks and recreation department was preparing a master plan for the park, and the bicyclists wanted to be allowed to ride on some of the trails.

“It was an equestrian and a hiking park,” said Monahan, who was a parks and recreation commissioner from 1990 until 1998. “It had all historic structures in it, and it was a history park. So we did a lot of meetings on that one. It took us almost a year to come out with that plan, and the bikes are there.”

Because of the park’s steep terrain and challenging trails, only accomplished cyclists ride there on a regular basis, Monahan said.

The parks and recreation commission acts as a liaison between the board of supervisors, the parks and recreation department, and the general public. The commissioners are supposed to be representative of various segments of the community who have an interest in the county parks.

“When our elected officials and our paid professionals want to undertake something, they create a commission that encompasses a wide variety of people,” Annable said. “They have a diverse community at the table to work on a project. So a project that comes out of it is something that everyone who has a stake in the community is supportive of.”

Commissioners may be tasked with reviewing the department’s budget one day and looking over a specific park’s master plan the next. The commission makes recommendations to the board of supervisors, who have the final say.

In addition to mountain biking, other issues brought before the commission during Annable’s tenure included the creation of off-leash dog areas, and the use of county parks for disc golf, geocaching, and paintball as organized sports. Paintball was denied for aesthetic and safety issues, Annable said.

Acquisitions, the Strategic Plan, and Volunteers

The parks and recreation commission also looks at proposed acquisitions for new parks, park additions, and trails.

“I was on the acquisition committee,” said Monahan, who has also served on the county’s historical heritage commission. “We met to see which properties we wanted to purchase, and how would they connect up to make this ribbon of trails connecting up all of our county parks that existed at that time.”

The parks and recreation commission played a key role in the park department’s 2003 Strategic Plan. “They really did a comprehensive look at where are we today, and what are our goals that we want to achieve in the next 20 years,” Annable said.

“That was a project that was introduced by the department, and it was the commission that was the primary sounding board to go through and develop the mission statement, the values and goals, and then what are the strategies that we’re going to need to follow in order to implement the Strategic Plan.”

The commission was also a strong supporter of efforts to enlist volunteers to help with various duties in a few of the county parks in the 1970s and early 1980s.

By 1990, the parks and recreation department had a formal volunteer program in place, which now includes Park Friends groups, Trail Watch, and the Adopt-a-Trail Program.

“We thought it would be wonderful to have a volunteer program for county parks, to get in and help them open trails, build trails,” Monahan said. “Because our volunteer group was doing that in Quicksilver, and we wanted a massive volunteer program. We now have it.”

Two Parks: One New, the Other Reborn


Chitactac-Adams County Park, a 4.3-acre site on Uvas Creek in Gilroy, was dedicated on September 12, 1998, with members of the Amah Mutsun tribal band of the Ohlone people in attendance for the ceremony and a traditional Native American blessing.

The park has a self-guiding interpretive trail and an interpretive shelter with information about Ohlone culture and the schoolhouse that once stood here.

The park site was used for thousands of years by Mutsun Ohlone people, who gave a village here the name Chitactac. The village was probably one of a number of habitation sites in the area of Uvas and Little Arthur creeks.

Ohlone villages may have contained from several families to hundreds of individuals. The Ohlone lived in houses constructed from tule reeds and tree bark, which could accommodate up to a dozen or so family members.

In addition to family homes, the village probably contained structures for meetings, granaries for food storage, places for ceremonies, and ramadas to shade workers during the summer months.

Within the park are many petroglyphs and more than 75 bedrock mortars. Petroglyphs are inscriptions made in rock, usually abrasions, grooves, incisions, or pick marks. Two types of petroglyphs found here are called “cupules,” meaning a depression, and “cup-and-ring,” a center depression surrounded by concentric circles.

Dating and interpreting these petroglyphs is problematic, but in other areas of northern California, similar designs have been associated with rites of puberty, fertility, rain-making, and shamanism.

Bedrock mortars are depressions in rock outcrops that were used with stone pestles for grinding acorns and other nuts, seeds, meat, and fish.

As early as 1987, when the area along Watsonville Road was known as the Adam’s Picnic Site, experts in Native American rock art and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park expressed concern that natural processes, combined with vandalism and graffiti, would soon destroy the petroglyphs, a valuable cultural resource.

Unlike pictographs, which are made by painting on rocks, petroglyphs are quite rare on the San Francisco Peninsula and along the central California coast.

The issue of how best to protect the site bounced back and forth between the county board of supervisors, the historical heritage commission, and the parks and recreation commission.

“In the summertime you’d get itinerant families moving through the site, doing their wash in the creek,” said Mark Frederick, park development manager for the county parks department. “You’d get kids drinking beer and smashing bottles, road paraphernalia, all kinds of stuff going on in this park, plus the graffiti that was occurring.”

Once the petroglyphs were discovered, there was a public outcry that the department needed to establish protective measures to ensure that nothing more was lost or destroyed, Frederick said.

“So we worked with the American Rock Art Research Association, and petitioned the historical heritage commission for money to pay for a master plan. We did a master plan in the nineties and we moved into construction documents in the mid-nineties, and by 1997 we built what is here today.”

Alviso Marina

On June 5, 2010, Alviso Marina County Park celebrated a rebirth, and once again lived up to its name as a place where the public can launch a boat and access the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Use of the marina, which the county built in the 1960s, was discontinued in the 1980s, when the silt-prone boat launching area and Alviso Slough, the 4-mile winding channel to the bay, became too expensive to dredge and maintain.

The 18.9-acre county park, which serves as a gateway to the 30,000-acre Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, was renovated in 2005, when new picnic areas, hiking trails, and flood-control levees were built.

A new boat ramp and two new piers at the marina were supposed to have been installed by 2007, but environmental concerns, funding, and negotiations over land use delayed the project for three years.

The park is wedged between salt evaporation ponds and tidal flats on the north and the community of Alviso, which is part of San Jose, on the south. To the east is the New Chicago Marsh, a wetland named for a get-rich-quick scheme to sell housing lots during the 1890s.

For thousands of years, the Ohlone people used the extensive marshes that fringed the southern end of San Francisco Bay to fish and to hunt.

During the 18th century, a boat landing called the Embarcadero de Santa Clara developed along Alviso Slough at the mouth of the Guadalupe River. This landing facilitated trade in cowhide and tallow by Spanish settlers.

In 1838, Ignacio Alviso, who came to Alta California with his parents as a member of the Anza colonizing expedition, was granted Rancho Rincon de Los Esteros, or “Corner of the Estuaries,” by Juan Bautista Alvarado, the Mexican governor of Alta California. Bordered by the Guadalupe River and Penitencia Creek, the rancho consisted of more than 6,000 acres.

The Port of Alviso was established in 1840. Alviso had married into the Bernal family, prominent citizens of what became Santa Clara County. When he died in 1848, he left his heirs a sizable estate.

The following year, surveyor Chester S. Lymon laid out the town of Alviso, which received a city charter in 1852 and was incorporated in 1856. The town served as a maritime gateway between San Francisco and San Jose, which for a few years was the capital of the new state of California.

Alviso prospered for a while, during the Gold Rush and immediately after, as shipments of redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains, agricultural products from the Santa Clara Valley, and mercury from the New Almaden Mines passed through its port.

The town wharves bustled with activity, as did its hotels, taverns, stores, and warehouses. Passengers rode steamboats from Alviso to San Francisco for many years.

Perhaps the most successful Alviso business was the Bayside Canning Company, reputedly one of the largest in California, which perfected a way to keep canned asparagus crisp and fresh. The cannery also processed a wide range of other vegetables and fruits grown in the Santa Clara Valley.

The business was owned by Sai Yin Chew and his son, Thomas Foon Chew. The Great Depression, along with Thomas’s death in 1931, took its toll on the Bayside Canning Company, and it closed in the 1930s.

In 1986, town residents voted narrowly to join San Jose. A 60-acre part of Alviso is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places and a California Point of Historical Interest.

The county park was created through the acquisition of two parcels, in 1964 and 1966. The county parks department completed a master plan for the park in 1997.

At that time, the park consisted of an abandoned marina, a boat launch ramp, a parking lot, a restroom building, and trails. The plan noted that although the levee-top trails within the park are limited to about half a mile in length, they connect to a 10-mile trail network in the adjacent wildlife refuge, a mecca for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

The park is a planned stop and staging area on the Bay Trail, a proposed 400-mile route around San Francisco and San Pablo bays.

The park master plan recommended the following goals and objectives.

First, provide facilities for regional recreation that take advantage of the site’s characteristics and resources. The park has “sweeping views” and is a prime wildlife habitat, sharing some of the characteristics that attract huge concentrations of migrating and nesting waterfowl and shorebirds to the nearby wildlife refuge.

Second, enhance the park’s identity by restoring the existing facilities and creating signage and a defined park entrance.

Third, protect and enhance the park’s natural character and scenic quality, by preserving sensitive wildlife habitat and providing interpretive material explaining the site’s natural and human history.

Fourth, improve the recreational facilities to enhance visitor experience, including a new boat ramp, expanded and improved picnic areas, parking, and restrooms, and disabled access. Other suggestions included trailhead improvement, directional signs, and a pedestrian boardwalk into the marsh.

Finally, the plan recommended improved safety at the site, easy and cost-effective maintenance, and improved flood control for the park and for the community of Alviso.

An estimated 80 percent of the salt marshes that once ringed San Francisco and San Pablo bays are gone, having fallen victim to diking, dredging, and filling for housing, transportation, and industry. Salt-marsh restoration is underway in the South Bay, with some of the commercial salt-evaporation ponds being returned to tidal marshes.

Visitors to Alviso Marina County Park may see American avocets and black-necked stilts guarding their nesting colonies in spring and early summer, and, if lucky, may spot the elusive and endangered clapper rail or salt-marsh harvest mouse skulking in the salt marsh.

The park welcomes hikers, bicyclists, bird watchers, and picnickers. Several boardwalks and an observation deck provide overviews of the park’s wetlands. Expansive vistas from the park take in San Francisco Bay, Mission Peak, Mt. Hamilton, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The marina’s boat-launch ramp allows access through the salt marsh to the bay.


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