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A patron leaves the Oakland Zoo after having fun during the annual ZooLights attraction at the Oakland Zoo in Oakland. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

A recent news report about the successful move to preserve 362 acres of natural parkland in the East Bay hills could almost have been about Knowland Park.

The land is described as a collection of steep hillsides spilling down from the ridgeline, with a mix of bays, oaks and native grasses, streams, and abundant wildlife -- mountain lions, coyote, deer, hawks, snakes and other creatures -- taking advantage of the open-space corridor, along with 360-degree ridgetop views for human visitors.

But it is not in Oakland; it's in Richmond.

After a planned housing development fell through, the tract was purchased by the East Bay Regional Park District. An EBRPD board member who grew up in the area and learned the value of natural open space explained: "Housing is important, especially in Richmond, but open space is more important."

In urban areas all around the Bay Area (including recently in El Cerrito and San Jose), remnants of natural open space are being preserved as an important natural resource.

Oakland can do the same for Knowland Park, and at no cost: the city already owns it. Knowland Park, like the Richmond property, has a mix of oaks and native habitat, including quality California native grasslands and rare plant communities, mountain lions, coyote, deer, hawks, snakes (including a state and federally protected species) and other native creatures, with panoramic views of the Bay Area.

Yet the city is willing to let Oakland Zoo developers bulldoze it for a zoo expansion, destroying this natural parkland as permanently as any housing development or mall would.


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The question that has never been asked is: Why is a zoo expansion more important than Oakland's natural parkland? Zoo executives have traded on the zoo's popularity to push through this expensive and environmentally destructive project.

The City Council has given the zoo a pass, without examining the project's potential financial burden on Oakland's taxpayers. Big corporate donors have accepted at face value the zoo's claims that this is a conservation project.

With help from pro-zoo media sources offering unquestioning support and publicity (including support for county parcel tax Measure A1 in the November 2012 election, which would have added $125 million to the zoo's coffers), the zoo has put substantial effort into selling the project: It spent $1 million on its Measure A1 campaign, and is actively courting wildlife and conservation groups with donations and financially beneficial partnerships, boosting its conservation image and conveniently reducing resistance to its anti-environment plans.

But as the real costs of the expansion are brought to light, the zoo's PR has faltered. Measure A1 was defeated. Public support for saving Knowland Park is growing. It's time our elected officials took off the blinders to see this misguided project for what it is.

We all, children and adults alike, will benefit from the chance to enjoy Knowland Park's open space and scenic beauty, discover its secrets, take a walk, relax and enjoy the quiet of the natural world. Will Oakland allow this living natural resource to become another display in the Oakland Museum's "Lost Landscapes" exhibit?

Karen Smith is a resident of Berkeley.