Eighty years have passed since the founding of the East Bay Regional Park District.

It was the height of the Great Depression -- 1934 -- when the people of East Bay cities, undeterred by hard times, approved a special district to integrate public recreation and the experience of nature. By a margin of 71 percent, the East Bay created the first regional park system in the country.

And for the next 80 years, public enthusiasm and support, even in the aftermath of tax revolts, Prop. 13 and recessions, never waned. Measures and bonds were passed in 1971, 1988, and 2008, and today, the EBRPD is the largest regional outdoor system in the United States -- 65 regional parks, 1,200 miles of trails, 40 miles of shoreline and 114,000 acres of parklands throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Spurred by the growing environmental movement for which the Bay Area is now known, the EBRPD founded urban environmentalism and set precedents for the rest of the country. The East Bay is more open space than skyscraper and asphalt. Stitched from fields and farms, woodlands and creeks, it's a green quilt tucked under the folds of a great metropolis.

The ability of the park district to win public support cannot be understood apart from citizen advocacy, the grass roots conservationist Bay Area movements that created a climate for parks and nature protection.

Three women who saved the Bay

The Save The Bay campaign of the 1960s and '70s, backed by the EBRPD, reversed a century of environmental degradation of Bay Area waterways.


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Bulldozers leveled trees along the shoreline. The harbor at Point Isabel was filling up. The City of Berkeley published plans to build 2,000 more acres of landfill out into the Bay. Ninety percent of the tidal marshes of San Francisco Bay were already destroyed by industrial development, and 270 miles of the shorelines were inaccessible for public activity. The bay was choking with raw sewage and pollution.

The Save The Bay campaign was one of the first, and one of the most successful, movements on behalf of nature conservation in the United States. The campaign began quietly in the El Cerrito and Berkeley homes of three women -- Kay Kerr, Esther Gulick and Sylvia McLaughlin.

It was an era when women were still identified by the names of their husbands. There was no Wilderness Act or environmental impact requirements, and Earth Day was a decade away. Yet, all three women felt passionately about preserving open space and the right of the public to enjoy the solace and beauty of nature.

"You shouldn't have to get into a motor vehicle to see the bay, obscured by a wall of buildings," said Kerr, reflecting on the movement's early years. "From our living room windows we began to see garbage fills in Albany and Berkeley encroaching in open waters."

The three women were especially upset when they saw a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illustration in the Oakland Tribune, depicting the bay as it might look in 2020 -- reduced to a mere shipping channel.

Representatives from the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, among many other groups, attended living room meetings. By 1970, membership in Save The Bay grew to 18,000.

To their credit, East Bay Regional Park leaders participated energetically in the grass roots campaign to preserve and restore the bay. And over time, EBRPD played the leading role in acquiring shoreline property, making the bay -- formerly privatized and polluted -- available for public enjoyment.

William Mott simultaneously served as president of Save The Bay and general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (1962-67). Mott convinced the board to implement a grand vision of hilltop and shoreline parks. And the combination of citizen advocacy and the political savvy of park leadership made all the difference. Marshes and wetlands were gradually restored. The filling of the bay for development was halted.

Of all the enlightened policies of the Mott era, none improved the quality of Bay Area life more than the Save The Bay campaign and the subsequent establishment of shoreline regional parks -- from the awesome cliffs by the pier at the end of Point Pinole to the bird-busy mud flats and marshes and to the swimming beaches off Alameda, San Leandro and the Hayward shorelines.

It's not simply the protected habitats, lakes, forests, hills and internal beauty of the parks; it's the proximity of nature experience to urban living that makes EBRPD so special. When EBRPD "turned to the water," it democratized recreation and outdoor experience. By the 1970s, the EBRPD was not only green; it was blue.

Inspired by Mott's vision, EBRPD acquired shoreline property, created a swath of parks with hiking trails, restored marshes, swimming beaches, piers, fishing access, centers for instruction and wildlife preserves -- all to complement the vast acreage and recreational facilities in the hills and inland valleys. The shoreline regional parks also included Big Break in Oakley, Antioch Regional Park and Pier, Martinez and Carquinez Strait.

The East Bay Regional Park District's blue revolution democratized environmentalism in the Bay Area because it expanded the park system to many ethnic minorities, to immigrants, laborers and the poor, who tended to be cribbed, crowded and confined in cities along the water -- along the very shorelines from which, before the 1960s, they were denied access.

A personal tribute

As a fisherman -- a seeker of salmon, sturgeon, stripers, halibut, perch and a lover of marsh and mud flats -- I am a longtime beneficiary of East Bay Regional shorelines. I have seen the primordial sturgeon breaching in moonlight off the end of Point Pinole pier. Every summer, I catch halibut in my float tube off the Berkeley flats, sometimes off Alameda beach near Ballena Bay. At Big Break in Oakley, I watch sea lions hurl stripped bass 5 feet into the air and position themselves to catch the falling fish by the stomach, a delectable dinner.

Point Pinole, with 2,000 acres of regional shoreline, is my favorite park. True, it is surrounded by populated cities, and Richmond is one of the most industrialized cities in the country. But its meadows are breezy, the eucalyptus woods through which I walk to get to the pier are aromatic, wildflowers raucous in spring, and there's a friendly skunk that follows me at twilight to the pier in hopes of scavenging one of my fish. A lean fox works the 5-mile shoreline at low tide when people are absent.

Atlas Munitions, which manufactured gunpowder and dynamite, once owned the land. When the plant closed down, Bethlehem Steel took over with big plans to produce steel for export. The City of Richmond sided with Bethlehem in hopes of expanding its tax base and raising revenue. I remember when the area was surrounded by barbed wire, patrolled by guards.

A Save Point Pinole campaign, led by Will and Jean Siri, of El Cerrito, changed the climate and made it possible for EBRPD to acquire and manage the land after years of deal making and negotiations. Conservation prevailed over development. And it is said that one of the developers, with no sense of irony, called the victors "greedy conservationists."

Today, Point Pinole is a magnificent parkland, a magnet for fishing, hiking, birding, all with spectacular views of Mount Tamalpais and Marin. It's the largest undeveloped shoreline in the Bay.

The regional shorelines represent one of the most definitive achievements in the history of open space protection. The EBRPD created a kind of recreation harmonized with nature even in the midst of the most industrialized, urbanized centers of the state.

The practical visionaries, the politically savvy leaders of the EBRPD, never achieved personal fame like mountaineers and adventurers, but they always kept faith with the teaching of John Muir: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul."

Happy 80th birthday, EBRPD!

Paul Rockwell, a Montclair resident, is the former children's librarian with the Albany Library. Rockwell can be reached at gonetubin2@gmail.com.