In the current edition of the newsletter of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Club explains why it doesn’t like the revised Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan. The Club has a long list of complaints about the new ROSE, but the one that caught our eye was this particular criticism:
“The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.”
– The Yodeler, June 29, 2011
In the same article, the Sierra Club redefines “recreation” as follows:
“…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing… The document does not talk about the one thing that only parks can provide, the experience of nature.” Ibid.
In other words, in the opinion of the Sierra Club, public parks are for the benefit of plants and animals. The public is welcome to look at the plants and animals, so long as they do not disturb them in doing so. However, if the public seeks more active forms of recreation, such as playing ball, hiking, or riding a bike, the Club invites them to take to the streets or join a gym.
Having debated park issues with the leadership of the Sierra Club many times and observing their advocacy closely, we are well aware of their rather narrow view of the purpose of parks. However, we think it is unlikely that most Sierra Club members realize that their organization is actively trying to prevent all traditional forms of recreation in their parks. We therefore shine a bright light on the role that the Sierra Club plays in turning urban parks into native plant museums. In “Fortress Conservation: The loss of recreational access” we described three specific examples of parks in the San Francisco Bay Area in which recreational access has been restricted as the result of advocacy and lawsuits by the Sierra Club and other organizations which share their view.
“Active” vs “Passive” Recreation
We were originally introduced to the Sierra Club’s objectives for our urban parks in the Bay Area with the terms, “active” and “passive” recreation. The Sierra Club advocates for “passive” recreation, which it defined in its article about the ROSE as “respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing.”
We visited a park today which is an example of what the Sierra Club has in mind. The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow at the foot of University Ave in Berkeley is one of many parks in the Bay Area that reflects the wishes of the Sierra Club. The Berkeley Meadow is part of the Eastshore State Park that is owned by the State of California, but operated by East Bay Regional Park District. The Berkeley Meadow was at one time part of the San Francisco Bay, until it was created with landfill and used as a city dump until the 1960s. The East Bay Regional Park District “restored” the meadow over a period of 5 years at a cost of $6 million. It is now a huge fenced pen with a fenced trail running diagonally through it. Bicycles and dogs on leash are both prohibited from using this fenced path. One wonders what harm could come to the plants and animals that reside on the other side of the fence. The meadow is predominantly non-native annual grassland, with willows in wetter portions of the meadow and some coyote bush scrub in the grassland. (see video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow: “Grandpa takes the kids to the plant zoo.”)
Cesar Chavez Park due west of the Berkeley Meadow provides a multiuse contrast. Cesar Chavez Park is a Berkeley city park, NOT a park owned by East Bay Regional Park District. This 90-acre park provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including a popular kite-flying area, an off-leash dog park, a restricted “natural area” (predominantly non-native plants), and a fenced area in which burrowing owls nest half of the year. The unfenced paths are used by bicycles, joggers, people walking, some with dogs on leash. Cesar Chavez is a successful park, enjoyed by a wide variety of visitors every day. The Sierra Club made every effort to prevent this multi-use park from accommodating all forms of “active” recreation.
Environmentalism has been hijacked by extremists
Let us be perfectly clear about our opinion of “active” vs “passive” recreation. We do not object to parks such as the Berkeley Meadow in which human access is severely restricted. What we object to is that the Sierra Club wishes to turn all parks in the Bay Area into native plant and animal reserves in which humans are not welcome, except as passive observers. This is an example of the extremism that has earned environmentalists the reputation of being unreasonable.
In 2004, the authors of the controversial paper entitled, “Death of Environmentalism” reported that “The number of Americans who agreed that, ‘Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,’ leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.” Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, in his recent talk in San Francisco sponsored by the Long Now Foundation (a summary of this talk is available on the Save Sutro website), reported that over half of those surveyed in 2011 now agree that “environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.” This loss of support for environmentalism is a great tragedy, for there is much legitimate work to be done by environmental organizations which are now distracted by tangential issues such as creating native plant museums in our urban parks.