On December 9th, by a vote of 5-2, the Oakland City Council approved a conservation easement on 53 acres of Knowland Park—public parkland—to provide “mitigation” land for the damage the Oakland Zoo’s controversial expansion will cause. On December 16th, the Friends of Knowland Park announced a referendum drive to try to put that decision to a vote of the public.

While acknowledging that the daunting nature of the task—the signatures of more than 21,000 registered Oakland voters would need to be collected in 30 days—members from the Friends of Knowland Park wanted to pursue every chance to save the heart of the park. More than 65 people volunteered to help collect signatures over the holiday season, and money was raised to pay some professional signature gatherers. Unfortunately we were not able to make our goal in such a short time. However, we were able to collect approximately 8,000 signatures—quite an achievement for an almost all-volunteer effort. Many volunteers said that although asking for signatures was outside their comfort zone they felt that it was a positive experience and that strangers thanked them for what they were doing. Because of the efforts of our volunteers, we were able to raise awareness among the public about development threats to our public parkland.

While we were disappointed that we weren’t able to get the required number of signatures to place the easement ordinance on the ballot, we were proud to speak up for our native plant communities, wildlife and public parkland. We wanted our effort on the official record, and so we brought our signed petitions to the Oakland City Clerk’s office on January 9th. There, the City Clerk’s assistant informed us that the City Attorney, Barbara Parker, had sent a letter the previous day, advising them not to accept our petition! She claimed that the City Council’s vote to approve an ordinance granting the easement in Knowland Park was an administrative act, not a legislative one. Our lawyers disagree. We’ve heard of cities trying to get around public referenda in this way before, only to have their actions thrown out in court. Because we didn’t have the number of votes we needed to get our petition on the ballot, we did not pursue legal action against the city. However, we question the actions of the Oakland city attorney in this matter, as well as in her calling a closed-door meeting of the city council in October to discuss the terms of the easement. It’s a very strange thing to find our city attorney working so hard to protect the interests of the Oakland Zoo instead of the public interest.

The Oakland Zoo plans to break ground in Knowland Park this spring. Will they begin grading and construction, despite their saying that they’re $10 million short of the $62 million they need for the project? This leaves open the possibility that they won’t make their goal and the park will be ruined.

The Friends of Knowland Park remain committed to saving Knowland Park and to increasing public awareness of the threats to our parks. We will keep CNPS informed of our activities and events.

We want to thank the many CNPS members who have donated their time and money to the effort to protect Knowland Park. We’d also like to thank Mack Casterman, the Conservation Analyst of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, as well as the many members of the conservation committee who have worked so hard over all these years to document, protect and preserve the natural resources of Knowland Park.

Beth Wurzburg for the Knowland Park Team