by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 8/17/17
Have you noticed all the mountain bikes strapped on cars traveling over Highway 17, especially on weekends? Demand for biking and other forms of recreation in the public spaces of Santa Cruz County is steadily increasing and much of that demand is coming from “over the hill” in the San Francisco Bay Area. Apparently, people increasingly need to escape from the stress of living in Silicon Valley.
At the same time, California State Parks has cut way back on acquiring new parklands in Santa Cruz County and throughout the state, following a complete reorganization of state parks beginning in 2013.
As demand steadily increases for recreation, sometimes people forget that state parks — as well as county and city parks and other public spaces — were originally set aside to do more than provide trails for public recreation. They were also established as natural areas to preserve habitat for other lifeforms and to ensure that natural processes — part of our planet’s life support system — function properly.
The eminent conservation biologist E.O. Wilson has recently written a book “Half Earth” in which he argues that we need to protect half the planet’s land mass in order to save Earth’s natural life support systems.
Santa Cruz County’s water supply comes entirely from local watersheds and aquifers. We are indeed lucky to have heavily forested watersheds. If protected from commercial logging, development and intensive recreation — these forests can sustain this local natural life support system. An abundance of scientific research demonstrates that relatively undisturbed watersheds provide the best natural water storage, flood control, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat. So I celebrate our local parks and water district lands for protecting large stands of mature redwood forests and grasslands from development and commercial timber harvesting.
As recreation and other human activities increase, impacts to the land’s natural processes start to take a toll. Too many trails — in addition to too many rural roads — compact the soil, increase erosion and add sediment to creeks and streams. Too many people on trails scare off wildlife.
Now that climate change is upon us, we have witnessed a prolonged drought followed by an extremely wet year — a year that demonstrated just how fragile and vulnerable our forested hillsides are. The way we manage parks and forest land must take climate change into account. We can’t continue to expect natural areas to adapt to the extremes of climate change, while at the same time exposing them to more and more human impacts.
Now that State Parks has slowed down its acquisitions of new parklands, while demand for recreational use continues to increase, how can our forests and grasslands be protected? Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MidPen) provides a wonderful example of a public agency preserving and protecting natural areas in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, but MidPen does not extend into Santa Cruz County.
Conservation easements — agreements negotiated with landowners to restrict land uses — may be the last resort here in Santa Cruz for protecting more land. Land trusts typically purchase these conservation easements from willing landowners, but the deals worked out between land trusts and landowners can vary enormously in terms of what is to be conserved and what land uses are to be limited.
Land trusts might tell their donors that they “preserve” and “protect” land, but the big question remains, “What is being preserved and protected?” Water supply? Public access? Scenic values? Biodiversity? Old-growth trees? Does the deal limit development or mining, but “preserve” the landowner’s right to log the property? And how will these agreements be monitored to ensure that landowners comply with the terms? Best to read the fine print before donating money.
Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council and the Center for Farmworker Families. She is a former board member of Sempervirens Fund. You may contact her through her website at www.betsyherbert.com.