Berkeley Meadow rebooted: The wildest place in town

By Jim Rosenau
Thursday April 14, 2011

Wildflowers in the Berkeley Meadow. All photos by Sean Gin

In 1961, the Oakland Tribune reported that the city of Berkeley planned to fill another 2,000 acres of shoreline for development, including building an airport. The story prompted Berkeleyans Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick to call a meeting with local conservation groups and found the Save San Francisco Bay Association (now Save The Bay), one of the earliest and most successful regional environmental organizations in the world. (For those of you keeping score on Berkeley innovations should note that this was a year before publication of Rachel Carson’s, “Silent Spring”.)

A gem of their efforts is now emerging. The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow (the land just to your right as you head west from Hwy 80) is to be dedicated this weekend at an event honoring both McLaughlin, now 95, and Dwight Steele, who died in 2002, two founders and stalwarts of Citizens for East Shore Parks. They, fellow co-chair Norman LaForce, and CESP deserve our thanks for the decades of work that went into protecting our waterfront land from commercial construction and creating the 8.5-mile long state park.

Even if you don’t attend the ceremony on Saturday, at least go out and stroll the Berkeley Meadow right now while its seasonal ponds are full and the native grasses are still green. You will see, ten years after the creation of the state park, a wildlife sanctuary fabricated from scratch. What you won’t see is more than a handful of the 2 million annual state park visitors, though this prime spot is just a short bike ride from West Berkeley. The adjacent, city-owned César Chávez Park on the north waterfront gets most of the visitors along its paved trail. But here, only a few hundred yards away, the Meadow, our state park managed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, is an almost wild place, trisected by two wheel-chair accessible paths.

Joggers on a path that runs through the Berkeley Meadow

Combine this walk with the César Chávez loop for a contrasting figure-eight walk, one heavily used, the other almost empty. In the Meadow you will find dry footing in most weather and, depending on wind speed and traffic, bird song louder than the freeway. It’s where I go to feel alone under a big sky without getting in a car. I often go to watch the sunset and then the full moon rise plump over the hills. And you can count on the freshest air in town coming through the Golden Gate.

This is a story of how a wasteland came to be and how, a half century later, it was reborn as a wildlife sanctuary in our midst. Yet the builders of this land did not have bucolic intentions. Like much of the bay shoreline, Berkeley’s waterfront lands are entirely fabricated, consisting of construction waste and municipal garbage. Beneath the Meadow lies 12 ft. of fill, placed there between 1953 and 1967. And, though humans built this land, it was privately owned until just ten years ago. The underlying bay floor was granted to the railroads in exchange for putting in the line just east of Hwy 80, along the historic shoreline. Once filled, planners floated a series of contested development proposals for almost 50 years.

Save the Bay’s first victory came in 1965 with state legislation placing a moratorium on new bay fill. Then, in 1969, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission was given a permanent mandate to ensure public access along all shoreline developments and restrict buildings within 100 feet of the water. These two legislative victories put an end to decades of dumping, but leaving the bay just a third for its original size. Only four miles of bay shoreline were held as public parks in 1965. The long work to create permanent, public open space in Berkeley and around the bay had just begun.

“Bird species of concern”, like harriers, kites and burrowing owls have all been observed on the Meadow

Santa Fe Railroad and a developer proposed a million square-foot shopping mall for the Meadow in 1971. Berkeley rejected the shopping center and was sued by the developers, the case going all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1980, where Berkeley prevailed. The mall was instead built at Hilltop in Richmond.

In the 1980s, Santa Fe’s real estate spin-off, Catellus, lobbied East Bay cities for development rights and was fought by Citizens for Eastshore State Park, founded in 1985 by Steele, McLaughlin and others. CESP lobbied against shoreline commercial development and for public ownership of the waterfront lands from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. They conducted both behind-the-scenes negotiations and public campaigns, winning elections in Emeryville, Berkeley and Albany to stave off development. On December 6, 2002, the State Lands Commission voted to purchase the land, ending a half century of contention.

But simply transferring ownership does not make a successful park. These lands, were left essentially unregulated for decades. Off-road vehicle drivers, illegal dumpers and urban campers along with a mix of opportunistic plants and animals made the most of these open spaces. If you visit the Albany Bulb today you can see a closer approximation of the landscape that had grown up on its own in the Meadow. Park planners were faced with competing user groups, advocating everything from organized sports to dog walking to bird watching. In the end, the Meadow was designated as wildlife habitat.

New land at Berkeley Meadow has been planted over with native grasses and shrubs, much of this from seed

Today, a three phase, $6 million re-planting of the Meadow has been completed. First non-native vegetation was scraped away, then the land capped with clean fill and contoured to form naturally filling seasonal ponds. The new land was planted over with native grasses and shrubs, much of this from seed. The plantings on the Berkeley Meadow are meant to create open habitat with long sightlines favored by nesting shorebirds. So called “species of concern,” like harriers, kites and burrowing owls have all been observed on the Meadow, though it’s likely they were there at times before the project. “It’s our best approximation of the historic landscape that might have been present a half mile inland,” explained Brad Olson, Environmental Programs Manager for EBRPD.

And, unlike any most of the local waterfront, the meadow was fenced to keep humans inside a few constrained pathways, dedicating the land to wildlife.

How should we describe this land ? It’s not the preservation of damaged habitat. Nor is it the a restoration of what was once there. It’s more like a form of restitution for decades of dumping. The Meadow, rebooted, is the wildest place in town.

The Berkeley Meadow Dedication takes place on Saturday, April 16, 2011, 11:30 am at the Meadow (take the Berkeley Meadow southwest entrance, along Marina Boulevard).

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