Saving Knowland Park, an Oakland Treasure

By Paul Belz

Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra). California's state grass!  The root system can be 20 feet deep, making the plant very drought resistant. Photo: Constance Taylor

Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra). California’s state grass! The root system can be 20 feet deep, making the plant very drought resistant. Photo: Constance Taylor

“’Subtle’ is a good word for Knowland Park,” Laura Baker told a group of Saturday explorers. “It’s not in your face.” She pointed at purple needle grass, one of fourteen native grass species that grow in this little known preserve. The fact that only 1% of California’s native grasslands remain is one of many reasons to preserve this hidden gem

Wildflowers and shrubs dotted the Park’s steep green slopes as they rolled towards the Bay. Knowland Park lies above I-580 and the Oakland Zoo. It includes five native plant communities: native grasslands, oak woodlands, coastal scrub, riparian corridors, and coastal chaparral. While chaparral that grows near the Pacific is protected from development, inland communities such as Knowland Park’s are vulnerable.

 “The first thing a lot of people say when they first encounter chaparral is, “Ewww!” Laura chuckled. “There’s lots of dead wood, and plants are twisted. This is how they adapt; they twist to capture sunlight. Areas that are overgrown and shaded die off.” Lichens of all colors engulf the shrubs’ stems. These mazes offer fine habitat to thrashers, wren-tits, California towhees, spotted towhees, California quail, and many other birds. They hide and blend in with the chaparral, but their dawn chorus can be deafening.

The City of Oakland technically owns the Park, but it grants administration to the East Bay Zoological Society. This private group plans to expand Oakland Zoo into the Park. A gondola will bring visitors up the hillside to an exhibit on wolves, grizzly bears, and other California animals that have gone extinct due to habitat loss.

Standing in an area that would be developed under the expansion plans. This area would no longer be accessible to hikers or other wildlife. Photo: Constance Taylor

Standing in an area that would be developed under the expansion plans. This area would no longer be accessible to hikers or other wildlife. Photo: Constance Taylor

A fence will block hikers’ access to the coastal chaparral community, which will be paved and covered with forty buildings. Most of these will be the size of single story houses; a visitor’s center and interpretive center will each cover 10,000 square feet. The visitor’s center, which may be three stories tall, might include a restaurant and a gift shop.

Nest of a dusky-footed woodrat high in an oak tree.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Nest of a dusky-footed woodrat high in an oak tree. Photo: Constance Taylor

Laura, who works with Save Knowland Park, suggested that the East Bay Zoological Society feels the exhibit’s educational value will outweigh its environmental impact and that the project will generate income for the Zoo. However, the California Native Plant Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Save Knowland Park argue that the expansion is being planned on the most sensitive and biodiverse area of the park- not only are there rare plant communities and threatened grasslands, the preserve is home to the endangered Alameda whip snake. Dusky footed wood rats, which are a species of special concern, also depend on the rare plant communities. The proposed development lies between wildlife migration corridors; gray foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and other species use this this area to find food, mates, and new territory.

The project’s critics feel that there is enough undeveloped area in the current Zoo to give the exhibit a home. One of the hikers commented that she is an enthusiastic zoo member and supporter. Still, she mentioned that ecological models recommend that development be limited in space, and discourage sprawl. She hoped the East Bay Zoological Society would take this recommendation to heart.

Oakland’s City Council must approve the project before it can go forward. Laura commented that many city council members do not know that this issue is unresolved. She recommended that Park supporters contact their representatives. Save Knowland Park and its allies will use hikes and other strategies to educate citizens about the Park.

The hikers discovered native plants such as Indian soap root, sticky monkey flowers, blue eyed grass, and Indian warrior. Pocket gopher mounds covered the grasslands. “We love them!” Laura laughed. “They support enormous diversity. Lizards, salamanders, and snakes live in their burrows. Hawks, coyotes, opossums and others prey on them.”

Left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is actually an iris, not a grass!  Right: Sun cups (Taraxia ovata) are also native to California and only found in western North America. Photos: Constance Taylor

Left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) is actually an iris, not a grass! Right: Sun cups (Taraxia ovata) are also native to California and only found in western North America. Photos: Constance Taylor

Laura suddenly stopped to point out large puffball fungi that release clouds of spores. These ball shaped mushrooms sometimes create circles called “fairy rings” when the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) grow on the perimeter of the underground mycelium mat. The puffballs die and decay, fertilizing the soil so grasses can increase their range. Mycologists believe one of the fairy rings in Knowland Park might be the largest in the East Bay, and is possibly over one hundred years old, and is the largest !

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma) Left: intact puffball.  Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia pachyderma)
Left: intact puffball. Right: open puffball with billions of powdery brown spores. Photos: Constance Taylor

Laura concluded, “We feel the authentic thing is to see the animals’ habitat, catch a brief glance of a coyote chasing a brush rabbit, to know they are here, and to know they are protected.”

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