Lessons from a Sad History of a Santa Cruz Park

This is a story illustrating how nature is damaged by recreation focused parks managers, and how that focus creates unfortunate adversarial situations with their fellow citizen park stewards. Soon the managers are lashing out at the very conservationists who brought them this beautiful piece of nature to protect in the public commons.

This particular tale starts out typically—environmentalists successfully saving land threatened by development and establishing a public park. This victory evolved into a barely legal and cursory process to open the park to recreation and to expand recreational access to the maximum extent feasible. Opportunities for a more balanced approach to protect wildlife habitat while providing public access were missed. Organized opposition to this unbalanced approach led to a series of unpleasant altercations, minimal mitigation requirements, and, eventually, abandonment of most environmental protections. In sum, there was inadequate resolution of disputes between parks managers and conservationists, resulting in recreationists winning and wildlife losing. Many elements of this story are evident in most other parks in Santa Cruz County, but there is hope: working together, we can improve these situations. Perhaps you can help. Please read on.

The recent conservation history of the Gray Whale Ranch began in the early 1990s when a land developer purchased a working ranch, proposing a housing development. The developer’s plans envisioned an extensive housing subdivision: a private, gated paradise. Conservationists organized and created the group “Save the Gray Whale Parklands” to oppose the proposal. Behind the public battle, others organized politically to find funding to purchase the property. Negotiations and pressure eventually succeeded, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation added Gray Whale Ranch to Wilder Ranch State Park.

Conservation purchase of a property is like a wedding, where the real work comes afterwards…. The years that followed the purchase of Gray Whale Ranch have been at times tense and rife with unfortunate surprises. Directly after the celebration of park acquisition, there was pressure to open the park for recreation. To open the park to visitors, State Parks created an Interim Use Plan to adhere to legally required public and environmental review regulations. Park management policy requires managers to thoroughly inventory natural resources, identifying sensitive areas for protection from any potential recreational development—including the extensive trails, roads, and the parking lot envisioned for this particular new park. Instead, parks planners favored a streamlined approach that ignored the locations of sensitive natural resources, expediting recreational access on the “‘existing trails” of the former ranch. Surely, they proffered, using existing ranch roads would be better than creating new trails. Similarly, State Parks’ proposed parking lot was to be situated in a purportedly degraded site, where planners suggested previous use had destroyed any sensitive natural resources. However, these claims were not supported by rigorous analysis and seemed contrary to conditions observed in the field, so once again conservationists had to organize to protect the park from this new set of threats.

It became clear that State Parks’ streamlined planning process in effect ignored input, and that the agency would proceed apace with opening the park for recreation. Even so, opposition had gained some ground on stopping the new vehicular entrance and parking lot proposal since State Parks had suggested they be located in what was clearly sensitive habitat.

After failing to improve the Interim Use Plan through the initial public and environmental review process, the conservation community had four remaining avenues to pursue: political pressure, action by either the California Coastal Commission or California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), or perhaps a lawsuit. They dismissed the last option as infeasibly expensive and unpopular, turning their attention to the other possibilities. But first, more research was needed.

With the park now open to the public and with the blessing of State Parks ecologists, conservationists organized a more careful examination of the entrance and proposed parking lot location. They collected data on locations of mima mound-associated wetlands, mapped the state-listed endangered San Francisco popcorn flower, and inventoried locations of the federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle (OTB). All of these sensitive natural resources would be impacted by the proposed developments.

Armed with this information, conservationists first met with Assemblyman Fred Keeley, who was able to extract verbal assurances from State Parks that they would not impact rare mima mound habitat. To address concerns about enforcing resource protections, Keeley was also able to secure funding for an additional park ranger as well as establish a Gray Whale Advisory Committee to explore expanded public access while addressing resource protection. At the same time, conservationists were working with the Coastal Commission, resulting in direction that State Parks desist from developing the parking lot in sensitive habitat and instead explore other, less sensitive locations. The Coastal Commission also directed State Parks to develop an Ohlone Tiger Beetle Management Plan. Finally, upon notification of the parking lot location’s threats to the endangered popcorn flower, the California Department of Fish Game issued a letter notifying State Parks of a state law violation if they commenced with the proposed parking lot. Despite these seeming victories, State Parks proceeded with a series of unfortunate actions: developing the parking lot in sensitive habitat, ignoring the OTB planning process, destroying OTB habitat, and launching legal actions against conservationists.

Despite pressure to abandon the proposed parking lot development, State Parks started development with cement pouring for a foundation for the restrooms as well as placement of logs outlining the parking lot. Discovering the parking lot development, conservationists quickly worked to follow up on the assurances given to Fred Keeley and the Coastal Commission. Further investigation revealed a curious situation: an unprecedented hand-edited backtracking on the CDFW’s original letter to State Parks striking and replacing language, thus green-lighting the parking lot. Investigations concluded that a State Parks staff person had approached a high level CDFW staff person “friend” to achieve this result, favoring State Parks’ plans. Shortly thereafter, a State Parks staff person wrote a very threatening letter (on State letterhead) threatening one of the conservationists with legal action. This was a commonly employed strategy at the time called “Strategic Legal Action against Public Participation” or a SLAPP suit. Shortly thereafter, higher level State Parks administrators distanced the agency from this individual’s actions, but the staff person went on to file the lawsuit as an individual citizen. Amazingly, this individual’s complaint was supported by testimony of two of their subordinate employees. The lawsuit dragged on, costing thousands of dollars and untold stress; the matter was eventually settled though not before frightening other conservationists working on the issue.

Fortunately, through all of this, the Coastal Commission maintained its pressure on State Parks and was experiencing some success. Whether it was Fred Keeley or the Coastal Commission, or the embarrassment of the legal actions of its employees, State Parks eventually abandoned work on the ill-advised parking lot and turned its attention to the potential expansion of recreational trails through the work of Fred Keeley’s Gray Whale Advisory Committee (GWAC).

The GWAC’s first meeting was an unveiling of a polished plan presented by Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz for an extensive new trail system throughout the park. In a well-orchestrated maneuver to establish the basis for group’s focus, the biking community had been working with State Parks’ permission, surveying areas of the park for potential trail development. Meeting after meeting, the outnumbered conservationists on the committee repeated their testimony from earlier in the planning process: the right way to do recreational trail planning was by inventorying natural resources and subsequently planning for recreation where impacts to the most sensitive resources could be minimized. Parks administrators, clearly inexperienced and unprepared for group process, failed at any progress from the group, which eventually stopped meeting. State Parks presented the Fred Keeley with the report of failure to find a way to expand trails and eventually stopped organizing meetings. Fred Keeley had failed at his venture to secure both increased natural resource protection alongside increased public access. In one small way, this outcome might be seen as a conservation success, but in many other more significant ways it was a terrible failure. Conservationists had succeeded in stopping an expansion of official, State Parks-sanctioned trails through the many sensitive areas on the property, and yet, proposals to move existing and ill-designed access out of sensitive habitats had failed. Gradually, mountain bikers built and currently use the expansive trail system they had originally proposed with no consequence from State Parks’ enforcement staff. And so, mountain bikers got what they wanted while conservationists got little: wildlife lost habitat, and future generations have lost the chance to experience a more intact version of nature within the park.

To complete this story, we must explore two remaining legacies of the Gray Whale planning process: the outstanding Ohlone Tiger Beetle Management Plan and whatever planning process State Parks would initiate to take over where the Interim Use Plan left off.

Gray Whale Ranch is home to one of four populations of the very endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, and State Parks management of the species has been mixed. State Parks never submitted the required Ohlone tiger beetle management plan that the Coastal Commission had required for opening the park to recreation. Instead, sometime in late 2006 or early 2007, State Parks staff spread tons of gravel over very large areas of recreational trails, including in areas previously occupied by the Ohlone tiger beetle. To survive, these beetles create burrows in certain types of native soil: their larvae develop in those burrows, feeding on invertebrates passing within the reach of the burrow entrances. Adding gravel destroys Ohlone tiger beetle habitat. Gravel placement skipped the largest known area of beetle burrows: somehow, State Parks had decided to limit the species to a single area, perhaps in an effort to simplify their management and oversight. But, management at that now single site has seen some positive results: that population at times has been quite successful and healthy. Also, to State Parks’ credit, recreational users of the trails are at times able to learn about the species (when interpretive signs are maintained and legible). State Parks ecologists have even managed trail use to create additional habitat for the beetles. And yet untold but large areas of the beetle’s habitat have been destroyed and there is no published comprehensive plan for mitigating that destruction nor the ongoing destruction of their habitat throughout the park.

It has been many years since the publication of the Gray Whale Ranch Interim Use Plan, but there has been no progress on creating a longer-term plan for managing the park. According to State policy, State Parks must create a General Plan for each park. And, each General Plan is to include a carrying capacity analysis that outlines ways to balance recreational use with protection of natural resources. General Plans are subject to public review and concurrence by other agencies charged with protection of public trust resources (wildlife, clean water, plants, soils, etc.). Without further planning and improved management, the future of Gray Whale Ranch is in some ways certain and in other ways unknown. Without major changes in management, there will be continuing but gradual and severe habitat degradation from ill-planned recreational use and management. Trails have already eroded with the loss of hundreds of tons of soil that has been washed into surrounding habitats, filling wetlands and degrading streams. Unplanned and unregulated trails bisect sensitive wildlife habitat, degrading it and spreading diseases and invasive plants. The park ranger position that Fred Keeley helped to fund has long since evaporated and one very rarely sees any ranger presence at the park. Families with small children and horseback riders report feeling displaced from using the park, which has been overrun by fast moving mountain bikers on the shared trails. And yet, a small but very dedicated cadre of State Parks ecologists do what they can to restore portions of the park when they have the time.

On face value, this story is all about one place, but every element of the story has been and is currently being repeated in every park in our area. Public parks planning processes in our area are always done in contravention to best practices, failing to analyze the park for opportunities and constraints to recreational use with natural resource inventories. Parks planners point to limited resources and a rushed timeline to complete such inventories and yet reject offers by volunteers to complete those—suspect of these meddlers as “biased” and “unscientific.” As with this story, when presented with data, parks personnel ignore it. As with this story, parks planning processes are driven behind the scenes, outside of public process, by the mountain biking community in close partnership with the public parks agencies. Like the example given in this story, conservationists who actively participate in parks planning processes and attempt to increase natural resource protection are reviled by parks managers and face personal attacks and punishing retribution. When other agencies attempt to influence conservation outcomes, their work is stymied and ultimately abandoned. Sometimes, too few staff manage well-designed conservation successes but addressing only a tiny fraction of the need. Finally, parks planners who promise the necessarily ongoing and subsequent planning and monitoring fail to deliver, making temporary plans permanent, follow-up plans never materialize, and monitoring very rarely occurs.

In closing, I want to give some means of action for those who care about wildlife, clean water, and the ability for future generations to experience the wonder of nature in our parks. First, we badly need a more organized constituency for nature. The California Native Plant Society needs funding, more members, and more active members; this group offers a science-based and collaborative approach to conserving native plants including in our parks. The Wildlife Society might also benefit from increased funding, membership, and participation— this group might one day become more active in parks management planning for wildlife conservation. The Xerces Society has resolutely been protecting insects everywhere they can- including by advocating for sound public land management. Second, everyone should express concern about parks management often to their elected officials, who should be pressured to increase funding for the natural resource/ecologist positions for parks agencies. Third, people could monitor parks resources and report their findings to the agencies, perhaps even using the popular iNaturalist application during organized bioblitzes: long term monitoring of trends using the same methods could be powerful. Fourth, assisting volunteer groups in removing invasive species from parks would have very direct positive impact: there are regularly organized opportunities throughout our area. Fifth, following up on any aspect of the above story in any park would be useful—ask questions, investigate, document, and stay involved … that attention could garner results. And, finally, participation in the public processes for planning in parks; learn from others about how to do this effectively and teach others what you’ve learned. Though my story seems grim, together many conservationists have accomplished much. There are many others working on these issues right now. Every success to protect nature in parks means a better chance of a child a hundred years off experiencing natural wonder on their visits to parks. I hope you will help.


  1. Grey, thank you for this detailed, heart-rending story.

    Yes, this is the way it happens, from local city and county parks, to national parks and internationally “protected” natural areas. We conservationists never win, we only delay the inevitable, at best, under current management regimes that favor public recreation over conservation.

    Thanks for the list of things to do. Jean and I have used these actions to good effect over the years, even though our efforts are frequently opposed or ignored by parks officials. It would be good to have more involved in saving what little is left of the natural world. We’ve found that when the public is mobilized, the officials are forced to pay attention, even if it is only to forestall public embarrassment or maintain support for reelection. The squeaky wheel and all that.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Michael! I appreciate your and Jean’s work to help public parks. I understand that others are involved, including volunteer rangers who text enforcement personnel when they see wrongdoing.


    2. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments and thanks for your and Jean’s work on these issues- we need more people paying attention and working for conservation in our natural areas!

      At the core of this problem, as with so many other problems in the USA, is the control that the owners have on everything. The game is rigged against us. The Outdoor Industry Association and many businesses are constantly lobbying to open every inch of natural area up to as many visitors as they can get away with…for the rich profit awards they will reap as visitors buy outdoor equipment and purchase goods and services on their way to their outdoor adventures. The politicians they buy change the laws that regulate conservation, and the citizens lose while a few get rich. More people are catching on- change is in the air…we just need more people paying attention the conservation side of the issues.



  2. Thanks for providing an insightful history/overview. It is disheartening to those who have lived in this mountainous area for many, many years, to witness the deterioration – even though we’ve spent countless hours trying to work towards a solution that benefits us all. For the last 4 years, mountain bikers have extended their trails throughout the ranch area and into many areas off the Empire Grade – with very devastating effects: severe soil erosion, near accidents bowling over hikers, and all the fees associated with rescuing these “daredevils” when they crash and burn somewhere in the landscape. I’ve seen trailers hauling 20 mountain bikes and their riders – offloading them at turnouts on the Grade – and they’re making substantial $ providing this recreational “service”. None of that goes into any fund that helps protect our environment. Indeed, there are now books that are published touting all our mountain bike trails. Also, we taxpayers pay for the search and rescue missions that seem to go out daily over weekends. I’ve seen 2 firetrucks, 1 rescue vehicle (ambo), and 2 sheriff vehicles – not to mention whatever vehicles and manpower was directed off road to reach the “victims”. Now, the bikers are trolling thru the burned areas – BAH!


  3. Grey,

    Great article. Not the way to run a park. Recreation for off road biker running amok. I agree with Linda Levy’s response.

    Publish it again and again and give it widespread attention.



    1. Hi Bernard,

      Thanks for the comment. I hope you will also share the essay around and encourage others to get involved in the ways I outline. Parks agencies need to get a large uptick in complaints from people like us who see problems.



  4. I worked at a land trust in the Tulare Basin. The director wanted to let dog walkers into the land. While many opposed it, the more money crowd pushed it through. After a year of finding dead and dying vertebrates affected by parvo I quit in disgust. Coyote, bobcat, ring tailed cat, raccoon were wiped out.
    Today, feces litters the trails. It’s disgusting. Wild places are most valuable as wild places.


    1. Thanks for the comments. I am saddened by your story, which is too typical. Land Trusts are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of their donors and, unfortunately, don’t have the level of public trust resource protection regulation that public agencies have…so, they are less accountable.


    1. Thanks for the encouraging words. I don’t relish this task, but feel it important that I share what I’ve learned in hopes of improving things. So far, I’ve heard no dispute of the history I outlined but many people sharing similar situations. I appreciate your sharing a link to the essay via the CNPS, a group that is making a real difference on these issues.


  5. I think that the problem is that although environmental consciousness has spread far and wide, for most people it is really a very shallow and superficial awareness. There is a distressing lack of understanding of both the science and ethics of conservation biology. So if you ask a person who claims to love nature to do a simple thing like not let their dog run off-leash, they throw aside any concern they have for wildlife, and start demanding that their rights are being trampled. There are many examples of this shallowness and selfishness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, John! That’s why enforcement is important in natural areas. State Parks has taken it a step too far- their rangers are peace officers with an obligation to respond to non-park related issues such as drug busts in homes, etc. They also get very little ecological training and apparently, from a recent piece of intel, aren’t aware of the restrictions in the parks’ general plans…and so won’t be enforcing those!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is shameful how few rangers and ecologists we have in our parks, another symptom of claiming to love nature, but not wanting to pay enough taxes to pay the people who defend nature.

        One thing I want to start doing is photographing some of the problems, erosion, invasive plants, bike tracks in restricted areas, and sending the photos to the park administration. Documenting this stuff is important.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I encourage that. It would be good to follow up with specific individuals who are responsible for those things and see how to make your documentation fit what they need. There are websites to submit invasive species locations.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Documentation is necessary, especially if put under the noses of Parks managers and staff, and if they are also made available to the public.

        Only public pressure can steer professionalized staff out of their self-serving torpor, toward their responsibility to conserve and preserve the lands in their charge.

        Liked by 1 person

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