Ancient oak within the proposed Oakland Zoo expansion area
On November 18th, the Oakland City council voted 6-2 to approve the Oakland Zoo’s proposed conservation easement – taking the final step in approval for the Zoo’s proposed expansion project that would remove public access to roughly 77 acres of public wildland in Knowland Park. With this vote, the Oakland City Council sent a message that public land in Oakland is up for grabs to any private entity that wants to profit from it.
The most heartening part of the challenging night was that supporters of the park packed the council chambers and were eloquent to a person in their support for protecting the park. It was clear that had the audience voted, the easement would have been crushed. And the divide between what the public wants and what it got from this city council is manifest. On the zoo’s side I can recall only zoo staff, a few zoo volunteers, and zoo board members speaking. We also know that hundreds of e-mails were sent to CC members, and one of our petitions hit 17,000 signatures. So, the outpouring for the park, for the native plant and wildlife resources was overwhelming. Four reps from Sierra Club spoke, one from Defense of Place, and letters came in from the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organizations. Not a single local environmental organization supports the Zoo’s project.
Councilmembers Councilmembers Kaplan and Kalb were the dissenting votes. Kaplan gave no reasons for her vote (although we know from our talks with her that she is a park user, was deeply offended by the removal of public access to benefit a private entity). The person who nailed the reasons for opposing the conservation easement was Councilmember Kalb who made it clear that the easement on already protected public park land is double-dipping–regardless of what the zoo’s paid biological consultant said–and that easements like these shouldn’t be used. He also made plain that the city—regardless of whether it was a successful legal strategy–should have required the Zoo to complete a full EIR with the implication that the mess that the city is facing is because it never did the Alternatives Analysis which would have been required in an EIR document. Although Dan doesn’t lose his temper, he scolded the city and the Zoo for dodging this critical step. “It’s not something that a good nonprofit should’ve done,” Kalb said to Zoo representatives, adding, “The city made a mistake in not pushing you to do it.”
While we obviously failed to win the vote (which we knew was a long shot), we succeeded in getting this issue out in front of the public after a long uphill fight. Those of us who remember the meetings in 2011 recall the challenging efforts to inform decision makers and the public about the native plant species and communities in the park. CNPS was often cited in the discussions and certainly vilified by the opposition, which if anything has helped us in the eyes of the public. I don’t think we’ve ever had more media attention, and the environmental community did join our cause in full force.
The Knowland Park Team will be de-briefing and assessing next steps, so stay tuned. We cannot adequately thank those who have poured their hearts into this effort. For now, let’s get out to the park and continue to enjoy and learn from it while we can.