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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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Since 2011, the Zoological Society has continued to argue that its new project plan was legal and environmentally superior to its approved 1998 plan. Notably, Zoological Society and city officials said, the total expansion site has decreased from 62 acres to 56 acres, giving the zoo a total size of about 101 acres rather than 107. The Zoological Society had also abandoned a plan for an environmentally harmful road loop and shuttle system, replacing it with the aerial gondola, which would require no tree removal. And the reorganization of the exhibits will help better preserve grasslands and trees, they said.

During our interview, Parrott — darting back and forth between a 1998 master plan map on one side of the zoo's conference room and a current project map on the other side — said: "It is the same project. Here it is, and here it is. ... That was a conceptual plan. So we went onto the next level of design and development."

Dehejia further noted that the Zoological Society has established a long-term "Habitat Enhancement Plan" as part of the project, aimed in part at eradicating invasive species and replanting native ones: "The project itself is an improvement to the habitat. There's a whole plan that's going to be implemented as a result of this project."

And in June 2012, the Zoological Society got additional good news when an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the updated project was simply a modification of the original plan — striking down a lawsuit that the expansion opponents filed against the city after the council approved the new master plan.

Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, couldn't afford to appeal the decision, and at that point, the California Trail project seemed inevitable.

But over the last year, as the project has inched closer to breaking ground, the Zoological Society has run into a new set of obstacles — and this time it isn't just neighbors and environmentalists raising objections.

Before Joel Parrott became the director of the Oakland Zoo in 1985, the Humane Society had named it one of the worst zoos in the country for animal welfare. Parrott, who was previously a consulting veterinarian for the zoo, made it his mission to turn things around.

He started improving exhibits one by one, elevated the institution's animal care standards, adopted more progressive zookeeper training policies, and launched a multi-phase renovation of the zoo that continued for the next twenty years. And he established a number of conservation initiatives at the zoo.

"Dr. Parrott's vision is why we are here," said Amy Gotliffe, the zoo's director of conservation. "To make the animals have a better life and a safe future — that has filtered down to every last person who has worked at the zoo."

Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which has partnered with the zoo on a condor recovery project, said zoo officials were immediately excited about the opportunity to collaborate: "It was not only a 'yes,' it was, 'What else can we do?' That was really refreshing. ... And they're providing a tremendous amount of support for condors."

This commitment to conservation, zoo officials say, extends to the expansion project. "It's not honest to say that the people associated with the zoo don't care about conserving the natural environment," said Jim Wunderman, a member of the East Bay Zoological Society board of trustees and president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group. "The California Trail project ... has been done very thoughtfully and artfully."

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, has questioned the Zoological Society's approach to conservation and mitigation. State Fish and Wildlife is responsible for enforcing the California Endangered Species Act and issuing permits for projects that may harm threatened species — in this case, the Alameda whipsnake. Scott Wilson, the department's acting regional manager, wrote a letter to Parrott in 2012 expressing concerns about the location of the interpretive center building and recommending that the Zoological Society move it to a different spot, 200 yards south. "This effort would leave the rare and high-quality maritime chaparral habitat intact [and] better conserve the Alameda whipsnake population," Wilson wrote, later recommending something activists had long suggested: "The Project footprint could be further reduced by locating other facilities within the current Zoo footprint."

The Zoological Society, however, has not acted on those recommendations.

Andrew Hughan, spokesperson for the state Fish and Wildlife Department, said in a recent interview that the agency has had extensive communications with the Zoological Society since Wilson wrote that letter, and that his agency plans to issue the zoo's permit in the near future.

However, because of the serious impacts of the project, state regulators and officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces federal endangered species laws, are requiring that the Zoological Society set aside a total of about 52 acres for mitigation. In its most recent proposals, the society has suggested setting aside 31 acres within its current expansion site for mitigation and closing 21 acres of open space outside the project perimeter.

However, activists contend that a substantial portion of the additional 21 acres of parkland that the Zoological Society wants to set aside for mitigation is unsuitable for the threatened species and that areas within the proposed expansion that the society plans to set aside for habitat are disconnected from nearby wildlife corridors. Environmentalists further argue that the idea that the zoo is actually protecting any land in the first place is something of a farce, given that Knowland Park is already a designated open space park and therefore effectively protected from harmful development projects.

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