We’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years about all the money troubles the California state parks have been having—but not all state parks are starved for cash. Eight “off-highway vehicle parks” get a steady stream of gas-tax funds guaranteed by state law. These parks are a different breed from the rest. They’re even run by a separate division within the Department of Parks and Recreation. And in many ways, off-roaders struggle with Californians who have a very different idea of what a park should be. Take, for example, the story of Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area.
About an hour’s drive east of San Francisco, Carnegie draws motorcyclists from all over the western United States to tear up and down its hills. The challenge is pretty obvious—climb about 500 feet in a matter of seconds without losing control of your vehicle. It looks exhilarating—and terrifying.
An Outlet for Kids
Hamid Majidy of Piedmont loves to come here. He rides a Honda CR 250 dirt bike, and he notes many of the biggest names in the sport have come to Carnegie, too, including California-grown greats like Modesto's Kenny Roberts and Berkeley's Brad Lackey.
Like many parents who frequent Carnegie, Majidy says the promise of a weekend on dirt bikes is an excellent way to encourage kids (especially boys) to behave at home. "Even though we don’t come out here very often," Majidy says, "it just motivates them to have something to look forward to other than, you know, playing video games and watching TV all the time."
Although the Diablo Range park is most accessible to motorcycles, other four-wheelers such as sand rails, razors and military jeeps also ply Carnegie's territory. The state purchased this stretch of 1,300 acres from a private operator in 1979. In the years since, the Department of Parks and Recreation bought another 3,400 acres.
Clash Over Environmental Reports
But that property is still off-limits to off-roaders because the state didn’t do an environmental impact report first. Pre-purchase EIRs weren’t standard practice in the past. But then, most state parks involve a few hiking trails and a parking lot. Local environmentalists argue the need for an EIR at Carnegie should have been obvious from the get-go.
One of those environmentalists is Celeste Garamendi, the sister of Rep. John Garamendi. (She's quick to say he's not involved in this conflict).
Off-road riding damages the land, she says: "It erodes the hillsides. It destroys vegetation. It pollutes the water."
Garamendi married into a local ranching family with big holdings near both Carnegie tracts. She said state parks officials should lay off their expansion plans—and do a better job of caring for what properties it runs now.
Where some might see an endless range of undifferentiated rolling hills, Garamendi sees a delicate ecosystem deserving more respect than it gets. "When I first came here [in 1990], I certainly didn’t have an appreciation for what this is," she says. "Over the years, I’ve come to understand how very special this is.
"High ridge tops, cascading canyons, a wonderful riparian Corral Hollow creek, variation in vegetation from savannah grasslands to blue oak woodlands, chaparral, sage, pine forests: all of this is contained within Tesla Park," she continued.
Tesla Park? There is no Tesla Park, yet. But Garamendi wants to establish one on the very land the state bought to expand the Carnegie SVRA. (Why name it Tesla, you ask? The area is the former site of an industrial town named Tesla, once the site of the most productive coal mine in California. There's no connection between the proposed park and with Fremont's Tesla Motors--except for the fact the Teslas are named for the Serbian-American inventor and alternating-current pioneer Nikola Tesla.)
Marilyn Russell, an avid horse rider who taught biology at Livermore High for 33 years, would also like to see a park here. Russell says the hills are home to all kinds of critters, from spadefoot toads and whipsnakes to red-tailed hawks and golden eagles. She adds, with a wink in her eye, "It would be wonderful to connect trails from Yosemite to Mount Diablo and beyond. You know, that’s a vision I have."
It's not just a question of love for the flora and fauna. Backers of Tesla Park also argue more attention should be paid to the region's history. In Carnegie, a now-defunct mining site has been cordoned off to protect it from bikers. (The area has also been left free of signage to protect it from archeological poachers, a common problem in California.)
Over the last 13 years, the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of State Parks has launched and abandoned two EIRs for the Carnegie expansion. The division is working now on a third one, which is the first one to consider the old property as well as the new.
In an effort to counter accusations that Carnegie isn’t being run properly, park Superintendent Randy Caldera does a lot of monitoring.
"Every bare piece of dirt in this park has been GPS'ed, and it’s evaluated annually for soil loss. Pictures are taken," Caldera explains. "These all are required now to meet our resource code. You can have a denuded area, or an area that doesn’t have vegetation. As long as we’re monitoring it and identifying that, it’s sustainable."
Now, just to be clear, “sustainable” doesn’t mean sustainable for flora and fauna, so much as it means the soil isn’t eroding down the hillside.
As Caldera talks, there’s no escaping the visual of deep grooves worn into the hillsides behind him. But the hills outside the park also show evidence of human interference.
Diana Mead of Concord comes here on a regular basis with her family, including her 18-year-old son, Logan, who’s become a top competitor on the hill-climb circuit. She’s also an organizer with CORVA, the California Off Road Vehicle Association.
Impacts on the Landscape
She points out that ranchers have remade the local landscape. With the naked eye, you can see how nibbling grazers in the area have worn ridges of their own into the hills, (albeit soft horizontal ones that grass grows over quickly). Those small clutches of oak trees surrounded by green in winter, yellow in summer? That's a new vista, too.
"The wide open vistas are not indigenous to this area," Mead says. "They’re that way because of the cattle. It’s beautiful, but let’s understand: There’s all kinds of human activity that impacts our environment."
Yes, she acknowledges, motorbike trails tear up the hillsides and some of her fellow Californians might find that "abhorrent. I understand that when you see that trail, that that viscerally bothers you in the pit of your stomach."
But she pointed out that ranching carries a cost, too. "I find what cattle do to our water systems to be abhorrent," she said. "But I’m not a vegetarian, so I kind of understand we need to manage this."
Mead argues off-roaders are trying to operate inside the boundary lines set by the law, the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Act of 1988. Garamendi counters the law needs to be reassessed.
In the coming months, there will be a series of public meetings over Carnegie’s environmental impact report and general plan. The process is expected to wrap up by the end of the year—but that just means the state parks' Off-Highway Division will then be free to start the approval process with the general parks leadership, the state Finance Department and state lawmakers. That could take another three to four years.
Hear the story as it sounded on The California Report:
Funds for coverage of California state parks are provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.