December 16, 2002
Against the odds, local forces unite to preserve
open space in California
By Jennifer McNulty
Since the 1920s, residents of the Golden State have organized locally
to preserve more than 1 million acres of open space--an amount that
rivals the 1.3 million acquired during the same period by the California
Department of Parks and Recreation.
Open Spaces looks at how
various alliances have formed to protect land from development.
Photo: Courtesy Peninsula Open Space Trust
Unlike the ubiquitous forces of the multibillion-dollar development
industry--construction and attendant industries like finance, insurance,
and real estate--land preservation at the local level takes place in
a piecemeal, incremental way that has not been documented until now.
The new book Saving Open Space: The Politics of Local Preservation
in California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002)
provides the first-ever statewide analysis of the patterns of open space
acquisition efforts in California.
"The growth machine in California is unequalled in the world,
so this is really a story of David versus Goliath," said author
Daniel Press, associate professor of environmental studies at UCSC.
"The resources that are available for preservation are dwarfed
by what's available to developers."
The pace and cost of development are evident. Since 1964, California
has lost more than 8 million acres of farmland to development. The state's
population jumped from 20 million in 1970 to 32 million in 1995, and
the number of automobile miles traveled more than doubled during that
period. In 1980, 28 of 58 counties failed to meet federal ozone standards
for air quality; in the late 1990s, 40 counties were unable to meet
In Saving Open Space, Press unveils the alliances of city and
county politicians, small-time environmental activists, local parks
officials, and nongovernmental organizations such as land trusts that
have banded together in the absence of state or federal leadership to
rein in urban sprawl, provide watershed and habitat protection, set
aside recreation areas, and protect productive farmland.
"National organizations like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society
get all the attention, but it's people working much closer to home who
are making a difference," said Press. "It's so dispersed that
it's easily overlooked, but the total acreage they've saved is having
major ecosystem impacts. It's really quite remarkable." The cumulative
impact of local efforts adds up to significant benefits in air and water
quality and protection of wildlife corridors.
In his book, Press profiles the historical record of 80 years of land
preservation efforts in 47 of California's 58 counties (federal ownership
of large portions of the remaining 11 counties limit opportunities for
local preservation). In compiling the county profiles, Press was struck
by the variation in amounts of protected acreage: As a proportion of
a county's area, local open space ranges from much less than 1 percent
(Los Angeles) to more than 12 percent (Alameda); on a per capita basis,
the range is from about zero acres per thousand residents (Madera) to
about 200 acres per thousand residents (Humboldt, Marin). The more urbanized
coastal counties of Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda, and Orange have the
strongest track records of protecting open space near their big cities,
while the inland northern counties of Sutter, Glenn, and Madera, with
Kings County in central California, have the weakest records.
Five factors are present in local preservation efforts, according to
- A compelling local landscape, whether foothills, forest, coastal,
- A politically engaged public that expects and demands open space
- Political entrepreneurship in the form of leaders who are willing
to raise funds, network, and bring in the necessary outside legal
and fiscal expertise to acquire land
- Fiscal resources
- Perception of runaway development
Although the elements are the same, the balance varies from county
to county, which affects the overall success of land preservation efforts,
said Press. "Each county has the same tool kit, but they don't
necessarily have the same size hammer," he said.
In researching Saving Open Space, Press conducted dozens of
interviews with local planners, open space activists, elected officials,
and park agency staff. He also surveyed 4,100 California residents by
phone to assess their views about their local government, parks and
open space, and their civic behavior. Finally, he combed through countless
records to measure fiscal and administrative resources, environmental
policy support, local development pressure, and landscape features.
Land preservation efforts in other states will likely follow California's
lead, said Press, who believes other highly discretionary local policy
issues, including water conservation and waste management, could be
shaped by local alliances in the absence of state and federal regulation.
With the largest population and fastest growth, California is often
a trendsetter for the rest of the nation.
"From a democratic perspective, it's desirable to have a lot of
people involved and to foster local ownership of the process. After
all, these are our landscapes," said Press.
"What's not rational is to have the state and federal governments
being obstructionist or minimally involved. Ideally, you'd give the
locals more muscle with support from Sacramento and Washington, D.C."
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