State Park Plan Is Conservationist's Dream. But Reformers Want Focus on Neglected Neighborhoods

N3 Cattle Company Ranch in Livermore, California. (California Outdoor Properties)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget proposal includes millions to buy land for a new state park, as well as an equal amount to increase park access for "underserved populations." Together, the funds address both traditional conservation priorities and those of a new generation of reformers.

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hen Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined his budget proposal last month, he included a tease for conservationists: a $20 million line item, stemming from a one-time budget surplus, to help pay for a new state park, a tantalizing prospect in an era when just one new park has been added to the system over the last 20 years.

Newsom hasn’t indicated where the park would be; he said the cost of the land might go up if he shared specific information. But the $20 million figure is exactly what a group of Bay Area lawmakers asked the governor to allocate toward the purchase of a sprawling 50,000-acre ranch for sale, spanning Santa Clara, Alameda, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands, two of the largest conservation organizations in the U.S., have secured $30 million to pay for the property in addition to the state’s proposed earmark.

The undeveloped land, owned by the N3 Cattle Company of Livermore, is a backpacker’s dream, but given that those 80 square miles abut Lake Del Valle State Recreation Area, a park with meandering hiking trails and bucolic swimming holes, the location will do little to expand access for the “park poor,” those without a convenient and quick way to get to a major public green area, which is a priority for reformers in the conservation movement.

However, Newsom’s proposal also includes a separate $20 million for a grant program established last year to “improve park access for underserved populations.” That would include investing in transportation and other programs to allow for more diverse groups of people to "participate in outdoor environmental educational experiences at state parks.”

The governor’s plan also includes $11.8 million to expand technological and physical access, as well as “culturally inclusive” programs and exhibits, at existing parks.

With these different line items, the governor is gingerly balancing the interests of two groups of environmentalists who hold competing visions for the state’s park system and are separated by geography, age and race.

On the one hand, the state’s older and whiter backpack-toting conservation groups value parks, in part, for their natural beauty, and they dearly want California to expand wilderness protections.

They say the Livermore ranch is an incredible opportunity that the state should seize.

But there's a new generation of conservation advocates who value the public health benefits of easily accessible nature over big-ticket parks like the acquisition of the ranch would represent. These younger and more racially diverse proponents assess the desirability of areas targeted for public access in part by their impact on community life. They favor cleaning up polluted areas and restoring smaller neighborhood parks and other local open spaces, and they generally do not advocate for the headline-grabbing establishment of large public parcels of land.

Many of these reform-minded advocates are Los Angeles-based veterans of a successful $4 billion ballot proposition in 2018 to improve smaller parks and green spaces, among other environmental projects, in mostly urban and suburban areas, with a portion of the funds earmarked for lower-income communities.

That measure, Proposition 68, appeared on the ballot two years after a Los Angeles County "parks and recreation needs" assessment found that 51% of residents lived more than a half-mile away from a local or regional park, too far to make an impact, according to some research. More than 80% of these residents were located in neighborhoods of color, and advocates argue the disparity resulted from decades of unequal land-use decisions that led to public neglect and disinvestment in nonwhite neighborhoods.

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Competing Visions

California last created a state park in Monterey County in 2009, when the state transformed a 4-mile sandy curve of the coastline donated by the U.S. Army into Fort Ord Dunes State Park.

The 10 years leading up to the park's opening marked the longest time without an addition to the state system since California created its parks department in 1927, according to data reviewed by the Mercury News. The current drought of new parkland has surpassed that period.

So Newsom’s proposal is enough to stir the dormant passion of Mike Lynch, president of the California State Park Rangers Association.

“If this thing goes, then the state is getting back in the park business again,” said Lynch. “We’ve had a huge, tremendous drought in new parks since the Great Recession.”

Lynch doesn’t disagree with efforts to increase access for park-poor communities. But even though the ranch doesn't fit that bill, he sees it as an opportunity that the state needs to jump on.

“Opportunities are of the moment, right?” he said. “You can either take it or leave it. But it's up for sale now.”

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, called the available land a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity, providing accessible backcountry wilderness and protecting a watershed.

Newsom’s budget summary acknowledges the gap in park access by framing the proposed millions of dollars of investment in the Department of Parks and Recreation as a “Parks for All” initiative. “Many Californians lack access to parks, open spaces, and natural and cultural amenities,” the section begins.

The initiative has been championed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California’s first partner and the governor's wife.

But José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, a group that advocates for diversifying parks, argues that California should prioritize creating parks around low-income communities of color whom the state has neglected in the past. He says public funding should “ensure that the parks do not perpetuate historical inequities.”

González says he values the “conservation opportunity” of the ranch and appreciates that the proposed budget includes equitable funding for park access. But he says the state should bring “diverse communities into the decision-making process."

“The fact is that those who have held the land will continue to benefit through these deals,” he said. “These are not black and brown families that are getting millions of dollars” in state money, he said.

Urban Initiatives

Ramya Sivasubramanian, deputy director of the Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that initiatives like the ones included in the governor’s budget to increase park access do provide good opportunities to “connect people in park poor communities to state parks." But she said these alone are “insufficient.”

“We need some of those closer-to-home opportunities as well. Otherwise we're not redressing the inequities that exist in the current distribution of our system.

Sivasubramanian pointed to several locations around Los Angeles that advocates would like California to purchase and run as a state park. The proposed areas include neglected 28-acre Griffith Park along the Los Angeles River, a concrete-slab that's partially cordoned off with a chain-link fence and is covered in construction debris.

In Redondo Beach, a city of 68,000 in the L.A. area, Mayor Bill Brand’s two-decade crusade to transform a waterfront power plant into a public park has hit a snag. The plant, surrounded by one of the most densely populated neighborhoods along the entire coast, was set to close at the end of this year. But in November the California Public Utilities Commission voted to keep the plant running through 2022 amid concerns over the reliability of the state’s power supply.

Sivasubramanian says advocates want the state to intervene in order to get the park built.

“There's an even broader opportunity, too, which is not just looking at these places in a vacuum, but at where we can leverage park funds, affordable housing funds and other funds to meet multiple needs in a community,” she said.

Accessibility to Quality Parks

Advocates like Sivasubramanian argue that California should evaluate park projects in terms of public health.

Researchers have found strong evidence for quality-of-life benefits from spending time in nature. This is especially true for children, who score better on tests, exhibit improved emotional well-being and self-discipline, and are more attentive and physically active when they live within a half-mile of a park and spend a couple of hours a week there, one study out of the University of Southern California found.

Other research in recent years has illuminated a disparity in the quality of parks in different neighborhoods.

While low-income people of color may have access to nearby parks, those green spaces tend to be smaller, dirtier, more crowded and in worse condition. They are also subject to more criminal activity than parks in affluent white neighborhoods.

One study that looked at urban parks across the U.S. found that “inequities also emerged for park coverage, park spending per person, and park facilities, with majority-Latino cities being particularly disadvantaged.”

As the Wilderness Society’s Urban to Wild director, Yvette Lopez-Ledesma says her job is partly to build a bridge between "nontraditional conservationists" concerned with these type of inequities and “traditional conservation groups."

“The experience of the nontraditional conservationists hasn’t been valued,” she said. “But people are starting to listen. We are getting closer to — not a middle ground yet — but an awareness that we have to do something. We can’t just be the same conservation movement.”

The Ranch Land

Though the N3 ranch isn’t in the center of an urban area, it is within driving distance from most major cities in the Bay Area, which a slickly produced video presentation of the property highlights.

California Outdoor Properties lists the property for sale at a cost of $72 million.

Broker Todd Renfrew said he’s been inundated with calls from reporters asking about the ranch, a property larger than the city of San Francisco.

“A piece of land for sale that’s more than 50,000 acres so close to the Bay Area is unheard of,” said Renfrew. “It is really unique.”

The largely untouched land is habitat for tule elk, deer, quail and other animals, as well as, evergreen and native oak trees, bay laurel, California buckeye, and gray and coulter pine, according to the listing.

The property also includes 200 miles of private roads that could be used for hiking and mountain biking, and 14 hunting camps with cabins that could be transformed into backpacking huts.

“Having partners like the Trust for Public Lands is the kind of thing that makes projects like this work,” Lynch said. “Most new parks must have this kind of collaborative approach.”

Latino Outdoor's González said the ranch is "an opportunity to protect and preserve as much of the ecological diversity of the landscape... and that's fantastic."

"We have an opportunity for a transition period," he said.  "As we continue to do traditional — quote unquote — land acquisition deals. It can't be the same process of 50 years ago. What's different now is what does this mean in the lens of equity."

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