Knowland Park: the race to the finish

This has been a jam-packed month for the Knowland Park Team as we push hard toward the final vote by the Oakland City Council on whether to approve the Oakland Zoo’s proposal to take 22 more acres of Knowland Park land (and exclude the public from 52 acres) in order to mitigate for building on the most sensitive habitat in the park. This would clear the way for the zoo to begin construction. Here’s our recap.

Public Poll
A public poll we commissioned conducted by the highly respected national polling company, EMC, showed that a super majority of likely Oakland voters (75%) don’t want the zoo project on the Knowland Park ridge, despite the fact that the poll also shows that the zoo is a popular institution. 80% of those polled say that access to public open space is very important to them. The poll also showed that when voters are given more information about the fact that there are alternative sites beside high quality park land on which to develop, support for the current expansion project drops to 17%. In other words, getting the word out to the public about better options is key to our success. You can read the East Bay Express article on the poll (plus the zoo’s attempt to refute the findings) at

Response by the City
When the East Bay Express article on the zoo expansion was published in September (, we found changed attitudes in our visits with City Council members, with some expressing interest in finding a compromise solution. No sooner did these new attitudes emerge than the City suddenly held a closed session of the City Council to discuss the terms of the proposed conservation easement to take more park land and permanently remove public access. We wrote a letter to the City Attorney stating that closing the meeting violated the Brown Act (see letter on our conservation blog The City Attorney argued that she could close the session under the “real estate exception” to the Brown Act, which allows negotiations for real estate deals to be withheld from scrutiny to prevent potential price gouging efforts by competitors. But these conditions do not exist.

What’s worse, after the closed session, the City Attorney held City Council members hostage by threatening them with potentially having to recuse themselves from the future vote if they discussed their positions on the zoo expansion publicly. This issue is of obvious importance and interest to the public, and the attempt to gag CC members (three of whom are running for office) is a naked attempt to squelch public debate. The City Attorney now denies that she issued a gag order but continues to attempt to restrict City Council members in what they may consider.

Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission Vote
Despite these draconian measures, opposition to the zoo project is building. On October 22nd, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission (PRAC) held a meeting to consider whether to recommend to the City Council that it approve the zoo’s conservation easement proposal. The room was packed with about 50 park supporters and an approximately equal number of zoo employees and volunteers who took a charter bus to the meeting. After spirited public comments, the commissioners voted 5-2 in favor of recommending the measure, but the measure failed since 6 votes were required (3 commissioners were absent). The upshot was that the PRAC could make no recommendation to the City Council, a decided victory for us.

The two commissioners who voted against the motion were clear on why they opposed it: one said that she did not believe in taking away more city open space and that she liked the idea of wildlife living within the city’s borders. The other said that she felt that the issue was complex and that she hadn’t seen everything that she thought necessary to understand the issue, but that she was opposed to the practice of double-dipping (where already saved park land is used for mitigation land).

The Upcoming City Council Vote
While no date has yet been for the City Council vote, we have learned that zoo management has alerted zoo employees that the City Council vote will take place on November 18th so that they can sign up to take a charter bus to the meeting.

What You Can Do
We need to lobby the City Council members hard to convince them that there are better ways for the zoo to develop than on sensitive public park land. Our message has not changed, but the poll, public opposition, and the failed PRAC vote all show that our message is taking hold. If we are to save the park, every person must help because our experience over the past 3.5 years has shown that the City has stacked the deck against the park. We need to get through to those City Council members who require large, visible public support to vote down this blatant privatization of public land.

1. Write, e-mail, and call every City Council member with the message that you want them to vote down the conservation easement proposal and that you want Knowland Park protected in perpetuity. (City Council member contact information can be found at

2. Come to the City Council meeting (tentatively set for Tuesday, November 18 at 6:30 pm). City Council meetings can be long, so come prepared to be there the whole evening. Bring a book, knitting, your laptop, and friends: even if you do not intend to speak, you can cede minutes to those who need more speaking time, but you have to be there to do that.

3. Watch for action alerts posted by Martha Booz and on the website. Your volunteer time is precious to us. Contact Mack Casterman at or 510-734-0335.

4. Make a donation to the campaign through Paypal or check. We run on an amazing engine of volunteers plus help from our Conservation Analyst, Mack Casterman. But we are up against the deep pockets of the zoo board and donors, and our legal bills, the poll, and upcoming ads are expensive.

We know it’s been a long hard road, but whoever believed that we’d still be in this fight after all this time? Certainly not the zoo. Without the tenacity of many people, we could not have come this far. Norman La Force, who spoke at the PRAC meeting on behalf of the Sierra Club, reminded the audience and the commissioners that when environmentalist David Brower was told that a proposed dam in the Grand Canyon was a done deal because it had gotten all of its approvals, Brower said, “No it’s not. Not yet.” And he was right.

Laura Baker for the Knowland Park Team

Rare maritime chaparral in Knowland Park. Photo by Laura Baker. The entire stand of rare
maritime chaparral in Knowland Park
would be permanently off limits to the public if
the zoo’s plan were to be put into effect.


You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.

Henry David Thoreau


For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”