by Dick Schneider
The Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders and the recent increase in COVID-19 case numbers have revealed something nature lovers have known for a long time: Local open space for walking, hiking and nature contemplation is at a premium.
One place that easily could be opened soon to provide more hiking and walking space is known as Tesla Park. It’s 3,100 acres of pristine land located outside of Livermore, in eastern Alameda County.
Tesla is beautiful, with panoramic views of Mount Diablo, the Central Valley and the Sierra mountains. It has abundant wildlife, including a variety of rare, threatened and protected species (the California red-legged frog, Alameda whipsnake, and Golden eagle are three examples, in addition to many rare native plants).
Tesla is so rich and biologically diverse that, for decades, it was a nature study area for University of California professors. Some of California’s earliest naturalists, including John Muir and Joseph Grinnell, recognized the conservation value of the area.
It’s also already owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. So why isn’t it open to the public?
Unfortunately, since the late 1990s, Tesla has sat unopened behind locked gates. The state parks department is hanging tight to irrational plans to open Tesla to damaging off-road vehicle recreation, a plan that faces intense local opposition. Such use would destroy Tesla’s ecological value and limit its recreational value to all but a relatively limited group of off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Anyone else trying to enjoy the area would be assaulted by noise, dust, vehicle exhaust and the destruction of natural scenery.
An increase in air pollution is a significant and unavoidable impact of opening the area to off-road vehicle use. In our new normal of physical distancing, that likely will require park officials to offer access to the park only on a limited basis. Not that this will matter for those seeking a hiking respite — the last place where most people will want to recreate is in a hot spot for air pollution, with visibly scarred hills.
The COVID-19 crisis has presented an opportunity to rethink how we do things and reveals what is most important.
The state parks department can re-designate Tesla as a non-motorized park and preserve. This decision would solve two problems at once: The department could end the ongoing dispute over Tesla’s future, and provide more hiking and walking space close to the Bay Area population. This would increase access for a much larger number of people, and preserve a biologically rich and scenic gem for all time.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed AB1086, a bill that would have allowed the sale of Tesla to a local agency for conservation. The parks department opposed losing any of its acreage.
But Newsom has the power to act without legislation, and with full reimbursement to the state. With the stroke of a pen, he can — and should — administratively designate Tesla as a non-motorized park and preserve within the state parks system.
The coronavirus pandemic will ease eventually. But designating Tesla Park as non- motorized open space now ensures that it will always be here when we need it.
Dick Schneider is chair of the Sierra Club Tri-Valley Regional Group, which covers eastern Alameda County. He co-authored Measure D, the Save Agriculture and Open Space Lands Initiative, passed by Alameda County voters in 2000.
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