One Million Three Hundred and Twenty-One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Two

That’s the number of acres set aside for open space in the Bay Area—the most comprehensive land-conservation effort in the United States. And more is on the way.

Lin Celoni’s earliest memories swirl around family cookouts on her grandfather’s Dainty Ranch, an almost Golden Gate Park–size valley of grass and oak woodlands in the shadow of Mount Diablo. “Just being wild and free and fun,” Celoni says, recalling her days on the land her forebears settled in the rugged East Bay in 1872. “My brother and I, we knew we would never sell it.”

Years later, however, Celoni moved to North Carolina, and although her brother stayed in nearby Brentwood, only one of the siblings’ 10 children remained in California. With a heavy heart, Celoni called the East Bay Regional Park District hoping the publicly funded agency might want to buy the ranch. It did. Soon, according to the park district, the Celoni family had a $5.37 million deal, and the 960 acres of land they held so dear were permanently protected from development, banked for what one day will be a 3,100-plus-acre park next to the fast-growing cities of Antioch and Brentwood. “It made a really, really hard, life-changing decision easy,” Celoni says.

Thus did another piece fall into an interlocking puzzle of 1.32 million acres of open space—nearly a third of the entire landmass of the nine-county Bay Area—that government agencies and nonprofit entities, often working together, have managed to preserve in the region. While the Trump administration is busy dismantling environmental programs up and down the federal government, Bay Area park agencies are moving in the exact opposite direction, deploying local funding to help amass a metropolitan park and open space system that is unparalleled in the United States.

According to the Bay Area Open Space Council, this achievement is the result of both acquisitions and land easements (which let landowners get paid for giving up development rights while retaining private ownership). And the total acreage is continuing to grow as some 200 public and private entities push toward a two-million-acre goal that advocates say is critical for the survival of wildlife and the maintenance of the Bay Area’s storied quality of life.

“I have great hope for the future,” says Open Space Council executive director Deb Callahan, whose group coordinates with 65 public agencies and private organizations to protect open space. “You look around and you can see the fruits of our labor.”

Though Callahan is quick to caution against too much self-congratulation—citing remaining lands “at risk,” rising development pressures, increasing land prices, and a continuing lack of access to parklands in disadvantaged areas—she and others are heartened by the considerable legacy already locked into place. “If you look around the United States, you really won’t find a land conservation community that is as sophisticated and as comprehensive as the one we have here in the Bay Area,” Callahan says.

A longtime path breaker in the local conservation campaign has been the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which completed the purchase of Lin Celoni’s land in 2014. Founded by activists in 1934, it is now the nation’s largest regional park agency, controlling 120,000 acres in Alameda and Costra Costa Counties—about half of it acquired since the mid-1980s, including 18,800 acres since 2010. (By contrast, the federally run Golden Gate National Recreation Area, stretching intermittently from Tomales Bay south to San Mateo County, including the Marin Headlands, Ocean Beach, Fort Mason, Land’s End, the Presidio, and Crissy Field, covers just over 80,000 acres.)

The EBRPD is certainly not alone, and other regional agencies have followed its lead to great effect. In Sonoma County, for instance, the Agricultural and Open Space District has spent $303 million to acquire 111,000 acres since it was approved by voters in 1990. But the population density of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties translates into especially heavy use for the East Bay’s regional parks, particularly attractions like beaches and fishing lakes. The more than five dozen parks overseen by the district attract 25 million visitors a year, 6 million more than the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—more, in fact, than Yosemite, the Monterey Peninsula, and Napa Valley combined.

With 800 employees and a general fund of $136 million, the East Bay district, aiming to get out in front of rapid urban development, has been on a near-constant land acquisition spree since 1988, when voters passed a $225 million local parks bond measure by a two-thirds majority. That landmark bond was followed two decades later in 2008 by a $500 million bond measure approved by 72 percent of voters in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, giving the agency a sizable pool of cash through the ensuing recession. Of the nearly $375 million in bond money authorized for acquisition and park development costs by Measure WW, about $263 million remains to be spent. That money will also be used to draw far more in grants from many other sources.

Had that latter bond initiative not passed when it did, the district’s portfolio would likely be much smaller than it is today, says general manager Robert Doyle, a native of the East Bay and a 40-year district veteran. Instead, the district was ready to pounce after the 2008 market crash sent real estate prices plunging, which allowed deals like the $14 million purchase of a ranch near Mount Diablo that voters had once approved for a housing development around a golf course. In fact, the bonds enabled the district to accrue parcels faster than it has been able to make them safely accessible to the public, a definite sore spot for critics. More than 36,000 acres, about 30 percent of the district’s portfolio, is mostly off-limits, and some of it does not even appear on district maps. District officials won’t give a timeline for opening land-banked properties, saying that some may never be opened due to natural or cultural resource sensitivity (such as caves with Native American pictographs), funding shortfalls, or public safety issues.

Nevertheless, what started as a string of parks in the hills behind Berkeley and Oakland has become a vast network of properties linked by 1,250 miles of trails that run through three regional wildernesses and 14 shoreline parks. Within 20 minutes’ drive, 2.7 million East Bay residents can find themselves in exquisite natural settings ranging from bayfront wetlands to oak and redwood forests and vernal pool–studded grasslands overlooking the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. Those lands in turn provide habitat for wildlife that includes eagles, hawks, coyotes, mountain lions, deer, foxes, and special-status species like the California red-legged frog and the Alameda whipsnake.

“Not that many people locally understand how singular the district is compared with other park agencies around the country,” says Seth Adams, land conservation director for Save Mount Diablo, an influential land trust. “It’s one of the biggest forces for conservation in the Bay Area and California, let alone in the East Bay.” Since 1971, Save Mount Diablo has worked hand in glove with East Bay park agencies to fight development, manage properties, and buy land for later transfer to the district. It’s one of many private organizations scattered around the Bay Area—including the Save Our Redwoods League, the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—that have played important roles in preserving local lands.

Key to the
EBRPD’s strategy has been a vision of connecting parks and other public lands—like those held by water districts—into contiguous chains of habitat that allow for movement of wildlife and connection by trails. It is an approach that has gained vogue throughout the conservation world. To piece together parcels into something bigger is no easy trick, and the district maintains relationships with landowners throughout its jurisdiction, waiting patiently for opportunities like Dainty Ranch to appear. At times, however, the district has been willing to scratch and claw for land needed to protect species or facilitate public access. The district has been notable for using eminent domain at least a dozen times in its history and has threatened to use it on numerous other occasions. By contrast, open space agencies in Marin and Santa Clara Counties have never used eminent domain, and Sonoma County’s was specifically not given that power when created by voters in 1990. In December 2015 the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District authorized the use of eminent domain to secure public access across a road to a mountain that has been inaccessible, but it was the first time it had done so in nearly two decades.

In 2008, the EBRPD condemned and bought a 60-acre marsh in Richmond from a developer on the basis that the land was environmentally sensitive; it was needed for the San Francisco Bay Trail, and the open space had been promised long ago to buyers of homes in a nearby predominantly African American neighborhood. The district, along with 10 other agencies, is now spending $14 million to restore habitat there and create a park.

The district has also repeatedly gone to the mat to complete long-planned regional trails. It is now preparing to go to court to find out how much it will have to pay to the operators of the Golden Gate Fields horse racetrack for condemning several acres of bayfront land on the Albany-Berkeley border. The land, which includes a parking area and a small beach, will close a 1.5-mile gap in the San Francisco Bay Trail, which is planned to eventually connect all nine Bay Area counties. Doyle says the district negotiated with racetrack owners for close to 20 years before resorting to eminent domain. Bob Moore, a lawyer for the racetrack, says the issue now is compensation: The district wants to pay only $300,000, but his client wants approximately $12 million. A court date set for March was postponed and has been rescheduled for early July.

The philosophy underlying all of these maneuvers, and those of many other conservation entities in the region, is a sort of benign manifest destiny, a long-term pursuit of the vision that the great park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. sketched out in a 1930 survey of potential East Bay parklands, in which he postulated “a great circuit” around the bay that would provide “a varied playground which would be unsurpassed in all the land.”

That common vision has already borne fruit in huge swaths of publicly accessible lands across the region, and particularly in the East Bay, where parklands stretch from the wave-lapped beaches of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties up forested canyons to commanding mountain peaks. The result is that adventurers can walk for many miles at a time through stunning scenery that feels far from the nearby cities. So far, for example, 69 miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail on EBRPD lands have been constructed. Eventually, the trail will stretch 90 miles, from Mission Peak in Fremont to the Carquinez Strait.

Part of that route runs through nearly 1,000 acres of ridgetop land that were “donated” to the district by developers as part of a deal with the city of Hayward allowing up to 650 homes and a country club to be built on Walpert Ridge. That land hugely expanded the Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks area, which has spread across 5,841 acres since an initial 137-acre purchase in 1966. Those parks in turn now cross Palomares Canyon and almost touch the edge of Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park, which has grown from nothing in 1984 to more than 9,000 acres at a cost of $45 million.

Similarly, Dainty Ranch is integral to an ambitious and largely successful campaign by many entities to surround the entire 20,000-acre Mount Diablo State Park with an unbroken ring of protected and publicly accessible land. To the northwest, trails will connect with the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve; to the southeast, with Marsh Creek State Park, Round Valley Regional Preserve, and Los Vaqueros Watershed lands.

Thus, in the future, visitors will be able to traipse far across open country, just as Lin Celoni’s great-great-grandfather James Ball Dainty did on his way to and from work in now-defunct coal mines. “They would walk each day over the hills, five-plus miles to the mines,” Celoni says. “And then come back and try to farm all the food they needed.”