Conservationists and Zoo Spar Over Knowland Park

It’s hard to know who to root for in the struggle over the park’s future.


New interpretive center.

Rendering Courtesy Oakland Zoo and Noll & Tam


After nearly 20 years, the Oakland Zoo is ready to break ground on a conservation exhibit in Knowland Park this fall. But it’s not even close to settling its fight with local conservationists.

Activists from the Save Knowland Park campaign and the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society claim the little-known and little-used park is being stolen, acre-by-acre, through a destructive, illegal development project. Zoo officials counter they are fulfilling the will of the citizens of Oakland as good stewards of the park and promoters of ecological conservation.

As with many development disputes, the devil is in the historical details, and a close look at them shows that both sides make some valid points.

Knowland Park is tucked away in the hills of Oakland, sandwiched between Interstate 580 and Anthony Chabot Regional Park. Most visitors are familiar with the 37 acres occupied by the Oakland Zoo. But uphill from the zoo are 450 acres of rolling grassland and oak woodland inhabited by 46 locally rare species of plants and numerous animal species, including the rarest reptile in the East Bay, the Alameda whipsnake.

“If you want to know what California looked like more or less before everything developed, Knowland Park is an excellent place to visit,” said Laura Baker, the former conservation chair of the East Bay chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

The dominant feature of Knowland Park is a hilly ridgeline that commands one of the most spectacular views of the Bay. On a clear day, a visitor is treated to a sweeping panorama of the Bay that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Mateo Bridge.

This view and the natural surroundings have been a long-standing source of interest to the East Bay Zoological Society, the private nonprofit that runs the Oakland Zoo and acts as the steward of Knowland Park through a management agreement with the city of Oakland. In 1996 the nonprofit proposed an updated master plan for the zoo, including new development projects that would affect 62 acres; 37 would be on ground already disturbed by the zoo, and 25 would be developed in the undisturbed part of Upper Knowland Park. The master plan also stated that 350 acres of the park would be protected as open space, while 118 acres—including the zoo’s existing grounds—would be open for zoological and recreational development.

After an initial study into the potential environmental impact of the project, the city of Oakland did not undertake an environmental impact report and instead chose a lesser process, drawing up a mitigated negative declaration for the project. Such a declaration essentially means that while no adverse impacts are anticipated, if they do occur, they can be mitigated or lessened. After the city council approved the new master plan in 1998, the zoological society began renovating and improving facilities within the existing zoo as well as planning the 62-acre development.

Neighbors of the park, however, were concerned about the prospect of noise pollution, increased traffic, and the presence of predatory animals in their backyard that they felt would come with the expansion. The zoological society assuaged community members’ concerns with a memorandum of understanding, attached to a city council resolution in 1998, that promised residents the zoo’s exhibits in Upper Knowland Park would largely be confined to land that was mostly down slope—or west—from the ridgeline in land already “disturbed” by zoo activity.

This memo became a thorn in the society’s side years down the line, along with the 25-acre project in Upper Knowland Park. This expansion was for an exhibit about extinct regional species, called California 1820. It stretched into the undeveloped land near the ridgeline—an area presumed excluded in the nonbinding memo—and threatened a type of grassland and a member of shrub community—native bunchgrass prairie and old growth maritime chaparral—that are listed as rare statewide.

Conservationists became alarmed after 2002 when the zoo secured $23 million from Measure G, a voter-approved city bond measure. Nik Dehejia, the Oakland Zoo’s CFO, said the measure gave the zoo a mandate to fund its expansion project, which included the California 1820 exhibit.

But some conservationists, like Baker, felt like the zoological society had pulled a fast one, convincing voters to approve public funds for the expansion of a private nonprofit into a public park.

“I had no idea it meant expanding into Knowland Park, because I didn’t know Knowland Park existed,” Baker said. “It [the expansion outlined in Measure G] was described as a 40-acre exhibit, and the total cost of it was something like $40 million, and the bond measure raised $23 million.”

In fact, the funding would be used for 56 acres of projects, including acres on undeveloped land. But Baker, like many Oakland residents, didn’t know this undeveloped land existed as a park independent of the zoo. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation only listed Knowland Park as a city park in 2012, and there are no official signs marking its entrances as a public space.

More concerns surfaced after the Oakland City Council approved the nonprofit zoological society’s new master plan in 2011. This updated proposal included quadrupling the size of the zoo’s Interpretive Center to 34,000 square feet, adding a new veterinary hospital to the zoo, and building seven 60-foot gondola towers. It also called for erecting a perimeter fence and a three-story structure on the ridgeline—expansions hard for Knowland Park visitors to miss. The council approved the master plan with an addendum environmental review rather than requiring further environmental studies, although the zoo contends the addendum sufficed for an existing project.

Ruth Malone, the director of the Save Knowland Park campaign, said she was shocked the city didn’t require the zoological society to perform a more thorough environmental impact report for the new master plan and accused the city of allowing the zoo to shirk its responsibility to vet a proposal with severe new impacts.

“They started out saying it’s just going to be this little expansion right behind the zoo on disturbed ground,” Malone said. “And now it’s wrapped up clear over the ridge and become this huge thing with 50 structures.”

However, Dehejia pointed out that many of the changes were mitigations designed to avoid environmental disturbance. For example, an electric gondola system was included to replace diesel-fueled visitor shuttles. According to Dehejia and an Oakland city planner, the zoo also reduced the proposed size of its expansion site from 62 acres to 56, and the conservation exhibit—now renamed California Trails—from 25 acres to roughly 20.

Still, the project doesn’t sit well with all residents: “When you come over the knoll, you’re going to be looking straight into the zoo,” said Thomas Cieszynski, a local activist raising awareness about Knowland Park. “You’re going to hear the zoo sounds, smell the zoo smells. You’re still going to be impacted by it before you even get close to the zoo.”

Shortly after the master plan was approved, the California Native Plant Society got involved and sued the zoological society, accusing the nonprofit of performing an inadequate environmental review. The plant society filed an injunction to stop the construction of the zoo’s veterinary hospital. In 2012 a judge ruled against the plant society's position and said that the new expansion plan was just a modification of the 1998 master plan and therefore didn’t require an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act.

While the zoological society has leapt through that one major legal hurdle, it still must determine how much land will be set aside for the mitigation for the native grasses and whipsnake. The zoo, Dehejia said, has suggested a conservation easement of 53 acres, 21 acres of which would lie outside the perimeter fence that the zoo proposed erecting along the ridgeline. The acres outside the fence would be made inaccessible to the public—either with signs or more fencing—for the protection of native flora and fauna.

Dehejia said this land is already virtually inaccessible to the public, because it’s steep and overgrown with dense vegetation. But some activists consider the fencing off of parkland tantamount to illegally sealing off land that was guaranteed for public use by the state when it transferred Knowland Park to Oakland in the 1970s.

“To try to put a conservation easement on an already protected park is called double-dipping,” Baker said. “If they want the city to approve conservation easements, that requires altering the deed of transfer.”

The zoological society also still has to secure the proper permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to modify habitat occupied by the Alameda whipsnake.

According to Andrew Hugh, a public information officer with the state fish and wildlife agency, the agency wrote a letter in 2012 recommending that the zoological society move part of the California Trail exhibit to a different location to avoid habitat loss for the Alameda whipsnake.

The zoological society has so far not adopted these specific recommendations, which conservationists like Malone cite as proof that the zoological society cares more about attracting visitors than protecting native species.

“At every step they have tried to act as though there is nothing there, as though it was just a bare lot in their backyard,” Malone said.

Dehejia strongly protested this characterization of the project, noting that the zoological society has developed habitat enhancement programs for chaparral and the Alameda whipsnake and that volunteers are already removing invasive species like French broom from the lower park.

The zoological society also isn’t lacking in defenders from the environmentalist community. Zara McDonald, executive director of the Bay Area Puma Project, said she supports the zoo’s efforts to promote conservation education in the region. She also said that while she can’t speak to other species in Knowland Park, she believes conservationists are incorrect in their assertion that the expansion will harm puma habitat. After monitoring the region for years, she said it is safe to say pumas don’t live in the park.

“Any puma passing into that park would have passed our cameras,” McDonald said. “We get a puma movement every eight to 14 months, and that’s just one. I don’t think there’s any cats living in there at all based on our camera activity.”

For Baker, it’s difficult to get past the irony of the zoological society constructing an exhibit dedicated to conservation that would destroy irreplaceable native species. She said it is clear evidence that the zoological society is unfit to be a steward for Knowland Park.

“These are people whose specialty and expertise lies in keeping captive animals,” Baker said. “They have no experience in land management, and that’s becoming clearer and clearer.”

Yet Jim Wunderman, a board member of the zoological society, said that it’s been difficult finding a compromise with activists who consider any development in the park tantamount to environmental ruination. He observed that the zoo requires change to survive.

“The zoo can’t always be what it was,” Wunderman said. “It has to reinvent itself; it has to be different over time—it can’t just stand still.”

Laura Baker wants to protect the native animal and plant species in Knowland Park from development by the Oakland Zoo.

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