Snakes, Lies, and Cutting Red Tape: How the Oakland Zoo is Gaming the System

Earth Day demonstration against the Zoo’s Proposal - Photo by Karen Smith

Earth Day demonstration against the Zoo’s latest proposal – Photo by Karen Smith

It is difficult to imagine the Oakland Zoo proposing anything more outrageous than their plan to build an environmentally destructive “conservation” exhibit on the richest and most sensitive lands in Knowland Park, but in their latest proposal the preposterous trumps the outrageous. The upshot of their bold move toward endgame is that not only would the public lose far more park land than initially approved, but all public access to the very best native plant habitat in the park would be legally barred forever.

To understand what is currently taking place behind closed doors, it’s necessary to recall that, when the Oakland City Council rubber-stamped its approval of the project in 2011, they did so with the assurance by the City Planning Department that there would be no significant impacts from the project – indeed the whole idea of using a Mitigated Negative Declaration was justified by that claim. But that was before other agencies outside the city had analyzed the project.

Enter the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. CNPS hoped that CDFW would take a firm stance on protecting the rare plant resources. The agency did suggest the zoo move its project away from the sensitive resources and put it in the abundant surplus land within the existing footprint, but the zoo refused. But when both wildlife agencies analyzed the expansion plan for impacts to Alameda whipsnake – a species listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts – they found that there were plenty of significant impacts not detailed or analyzed in the zoo’s environmental document and permit application. The zoo claimed, for instance, that many of the impacts to whipsnake habitat – much of which is rare chaparral and rare native grasslands – would be temporary. The agencies disagreed. The Zoo’s whipsnake consultant contended that the enclosures for the exhibit animals would remain viable snake habitat despite the fact that most of the exhibit animals are predator species that would readily prey upon the snake, should any venture into the exhibits. Again the agencies disagreed.

Impacts must be mitigated. Altogether, the agencies figured that the Zoo’s expensive tastes for building upon the highest and best quality whipsnake habitat would set them back about 52+ acres – an area almost as large as the 56-acre exhibit itself. What to do? Did the zoo adjust the site of the development to avoid impacts and the need to mitigate? Nope. What about buying mitigation credits from a mitigation bank? Nope. Instead, the zoo hit upon the brilliant scheme to cut through all the environmental red tape and take more free public park land with a little help from their friends in the city.

The latest maps
show that the zoo, with the help of the City Planning Department, is intending to place a conservation easement on 52+ acres of park land, some of which lies within the project area, with the remainder outside the project area and even outside the special zoned land for the zoo to develop. Normally, the wildlife agencies want to exclude the public from mitigation lands—either through the use of private mitigation banks or, if the development is on private land, to have a reserve set aside. But the zoo’s insistence on using public park land for its mitigation sites presents a dilemma, even beyond the fact that using already protected land is double-dipping. The expansion project is facing increasingly hostile public backlash as more people learn of the full range of impacts to the park and public access. Fencing off another 20 acres will be politically difficult, especially since the land in question is visible from Golf Links Road.

The zoo is arguing that the additional land won’t need to be fenced, claiming that the land is steep, inaccessible, and choked with poison oak. (A recent visit to the proposed mitigation site indicates that it’s no more inaccessible than off-trail areas of any other comparable park.) But blocking public access might well become a major stumbling block even if it’s done by signs (as the zoo suggests) stating that the mitigation lands are off limits to the public.

While there are numerous reasons why this form of mitigation does not meet the laugh test for the whipsnake, cheating the public out of an additional 20 acres of high quality park land is unthinkable. Worst of all, native plant lovers would now lose access to the rare maritime chaparral and the many acres of pristine oak woodland outside the project fence in addition to the proposed 56 acres containing native bunchgrass prairie, many species of locally rare plants, and two statewide rare plants.

We don’t know whether the agencies will accept this twisted plan enabling the zoo to virtually escape any authentic mitigation. We do know that negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, and CNPS has submitted a letter to the agencies detailing our concerns
We also know that the City Council will have to approve any alteration of the Deed of Transfer (such as a conservation easement) in which State Parks conveyed Knowland Park to Oakland. This vote could come as soon as within a month but before the end of the year.

We need your help! CNPS and Friends of Knowland Park are asking the public to sign letters to the Oakland City Council immediately to deny the bogus conservation easement
before the deal is cooked in private. We believe that this project can be stopped if the public is willing to convey its outrage to the city. We will be posting action alerts every week or so on the website. Please stay tuned to find out what you can do to help us turn the tide.

The Knowland Park Team

Act Now to Stop a Really Bad Project

Sign a letter to the Oakland City Council to stop the zoo’s destructive project (even if you don’t live in Oakland).

The Oakland Zoo is pursuing its plan to expand into Knowland Park. The project would greatly damage rare maritime chaparral, native grassland, and habitat for local wildlife, including the threatened Alameda whipsnake. The Zoo must provide mitigation for the land it is destroying, and it is proposing to take even more acreage in Knowland Park, much of which is not suitable habitat, removing even more of the park from open public use.

The Oakland City Council must approve this change. Please sign and send a letter to urge them to preserve the park from this development.

For a ready-to-go letter to the Oakland City Council (for residents and non-residents), go to

Print, sign and mail. Thank you!

Also, please sign the two petitions  to big donors and zoo management on the website. Visit the park now. The flowers are out!

Delia Taylor

The above two articles are from the May 2014 issue of The Bay Leaf, a publication of the California Native Plant Society, East Bay Chapter, republished with permission.

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