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Zoo Gone Wild

The Oakland Zoo's expansion into Knowland Park would destroy rare habitat and cut off public access to open space. Can opponents stop the project before it's too late?

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The activists fighting to save Knowland Park also say the city has not only repeatedly failed to require meaningful environmental reviews of the expansion, but has continued to support the zoo's growth without proper assurances that the taxpayer-funded project is even financially feasible. In fact, activists say the limited records they have obtained raise a number of questions about the fiscal merits of the plan.

That means if the project advances as proposed, Oakland residents could lose more than just sensitive natural habitat.


With roughly four hundred acres of open space, Knowland Park is the City of Oakland's largest, and by some measures, most biologically diverse park. The western highlands of the park feature a rare type of vegetation called maritime chaparral, as well as grasslands and plants native to California, fields of wildflowers, and hundreds of lichen and fungal species.

The park's habitats support a range of plants and animals — including the threatened Alameda whipsnake and California red-legged frog — and make the area an important wildlife corridor for mountain lions, migratory birds, and other native East Bay species.

Government officials have long acknowledged the unique value of the land, which was designated a public park in 1948. That year, the park's namesake, Joseph Knowland (longtime editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune), who was then the chairman of the California State Park Commission, helped negotiate the purchase of the land from a bank that had a mortgage on the property.

Recalling Knowland Park's inclusion into the state park system in a 1972 interview on file at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, Newton Bishop Drury, who was director of the National Park Service in the 1940s, described it as "a wonderful piece of rolling land quite typical of the coast range." And state memos from the 1950s indicate that numerous officials, as part of a Knowland Park advisory committee, had discussed the importance of preserving the site's valuable natural habitat.

"Knowland Park spoke to people," said Laura Baker of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society, who recently obtained historical records from the state parks department. "They recognized it was a beautiful piece of land."

The park memos discussed conservation priorities and the importance of "protect[ing] the native areas so they could start the processes of natural renewal." Baker, one of the lead activists opposing the zoo's expansion, said that historical records indicate that "when Knowland became a state park, only a portion of it was supposed to be for the zoo."

And an early state parks "statement of purpose" for Knowland Park said the mission of the site was: "To supply day use park facilities and to provide for the development of an arboretum and botanical garden along with limited zoological exhibits."

The Oakland Zoo, which was originally founded in 1922, moved from its previous location in Joaquin Miller Park to Knowland Park in 1939. In 1975, the state transferred Knowland Park to the City of Oakland with an agreement that the site always maintain "public park" uses. If the city "ceases to use the property for public park purposes," the deed of transfer stated, the park "shall revert to the state of California."

Environmental activists are now citing this so-called "reverter clause" as a reason why the city should not approve the Zoological Society's proposal to eliminate public access to 21 additional acres in Knowland Park. And communications between state officials and Zoological Society representatives — which Knowland Park advocates have obtained through public records requests and shared with the Express — reveal that there have been recent internal discussions about whether closing off parkland would violate the terms of the 1975 deed.

But to understand how the Oakland Zoo got to this stage in its project, you first have to understand the history of how the city has given the Zoological Society increasing authority over the zoo operations and the park. In 1982, in what the zoo describes on its website as a "major turning point in the Zoo's development," the city gave the East Bay Zoological Society the responsibility of managing the entire zoo and all of Knowland Park. And soon after, both the city and the nonprofit began setting the stage for the zoo's expansion into previously undisturbed parts of Knowland Park.

In 1998, the city rezoned the park as part of a massive rezoning of thousands of acres of Oakland parkland — a process that was exempt from the state's primary environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, because the overall initiative was aimed at increasing protections and limiting developments on open space. Knowland Park, however, gained a "special use" zoning designation in that process, which set the stage for the zoo's expansion.

At around the same time, the Zoological Society brought forward a master plan proposal for the zoo's future, with the goal of making "optimum use of the unique combination of historic and native Californian landscapes in Knowland Park." That included a "California 1820" expansion project that would teach visitors about "California's rich, natural heritage" through a development on 62 additional acres of Knowland Park. The project would be an extension of the existing, roughly 45-acre zoo at the lower part of the park, making the zoo about 107 acres total.

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