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Riders head out from the Tilden Park Equestrian Center in Tilden Park near Berkeley, Calif., on the first day of the Tilden-Wildcat Horsemen's Association's Labor Day Week Five-Day Ride on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005. Proceeds from the ride will go toward the formation of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. (Mark DuFrene/Staff Archives)

It was 1928 and Robert Sibley, an engineering professor at UC Berkeley, stood overlooking a stretch of huckleberry bushes, red-skinned madrone trees and rolling hills that stretched from Wildcat Canyon to Lake Chabot.

Improbably, given the dire times, Sibley would help turn those 22 miles of surplus municipal property into the basis for the East Bay Regional Park District -- today the largest such agency in the nation and the first of its kind.

The district now covers 100,000 acres of open space from Alameda to Contra Costa counties, earning it a place in the book "Lasting Value," which celebrates planning that has successfully preserved open land.

Those successes highlighted in the book also include Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, as well as nearly every corner of the Bay Area including Marin and the Sonoma wine country.

The book, to be released in April, was written by Rick Pruetz, a former Burbank city planner who now works as a consultant specializing in open space planning. It is more a road map to successful strategies used by 24 communities across the nation than a glossy travel guide. But it adds drama to the bureaucratic back story by talking about the planning process, which few people stop to consider when they hike up the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Tilden Park or the Ardenwood Historic Farm.

"A planning study can be a revelation to the uninitiated and a wake-up call for those who assume they know the score," Pruetz wrote.

Contrary to what might be supposed about civic involvement, Pruetz said there is more public involvement than in years before.

Development often poses a pressure on open land conservation no matter how well preservation works, he said by telephone last week. That can propel people to get involved.

Websites have been key to getting out the word that there is something to get involved in, he said.

Alameda County landed in "Lasting Value" because of an aggressive campaign to permanently preserve open space despite economic ups and downs since 1934, when the voters of seven cities decided to tax themselves in order to create the East Bay Regional Park District.

During a bad economy, people often just go the other way," Pruetz said.

"But the people of Oakland and Alameda County stepped up to the plate and said, 'This is a golden opportunity.' "

In Contra Costa County, one-fifth of the total land area is preserved by parks, watershed lands and conservation easements, according to the book. Pruetz called that "a remarkable achievement" considering its location in a booming nine-county region with a population of more than 7 million people.

Mount Diablo overlooks much of that booming region, making it and 50,000 acres of East Bay Regional Park District land in the county emblematic of the achievement Pruetz discusses in the book.

Santa Clara County's conservation efforts took off in the 1960s with plans for a "necklace of parks," Pruetz explained. The pearls would be made up of mountain and valley regional parks strung together on scenic roads and recreational trails.

Today, more than 160,000 acres in the county are permanently preserved. It's a surprising figure for an area that proudly calls itself Silicon Valley and whose population has grown 600 percent since 1950, according to Pruetz, who marvels that just 15 miles from San Jose stand the Sierra Azul, more than 17,000 acres of rugged mountains and wilderness.

San Jose's necklace of parks evolved into an "emerald web" and preservation efforts continue there and across the Bay Area and nation. Santa Clara County recently created a conservation plan for the east sector of the county, Pruetz said.

"So they have not ratcheted back at all."