Chavez Park Conservancy
Annual Report 2023
The Conservancy enjoyed a relatively quiet and constructive year, with some successes and some setbacks. We continued our successful stewardship in the Native Plant Area. We protected the native plantings we established in 2021 and 2022, and we planted a new set in November this year, just in time for the start of seasonal rains. At the other corner of the park, in the Burrowing Owl preserve, our recommendations were not followed, and as a result we are experiencing another no-owl winter, as we did in 2017. In the bigger context, the park continued to feature in City plans for the waterfront. Our victory over commercial development in the park last year has endured so far, and such plans are absent from current published planning. However, there are issues of concern that will require continued engagement with the City’s ongoing waterfront development processes.
I. Conservancy Work in Chavez Park
1. The Native Plant Area
The Conservancy has been engaged with the Native Plant Area since our beginnings. We raised the appeal for maintenance in this long-neglected development in 2018-2019, and in early 2020 we applied for and won a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Development Grant for an expert study of park restoration. Although the City vetoed that study, our initiative motivated the City to perform a long overdue rough cleanup of the area in November 2020. We then organized a squad of hands-on volunteers to take on more detailed stewardship work. We pulled small mountains of the invasive Kikuyu grass and other weeds, removed barrels of hidden garbage, and trimmed overgrown shrubs. In 2021, with grants from the County of Alameda and from the Community Development Corporation, and with help from Oakland’s Civicorps, we began the process of building a native plant pollinator habitat in the area. In 2022, we planted additional natives, and in November this year, we planted three dozen more, for a total of more than 200 new grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees put in the ground by Conservancy hands, sometimes with help from UC Berkeley students. We nursed our plant babies with regular weeding and watering. We acquired portable hose reels that allow us to bring water 500 feet from the source.
Heavy storms last Spring felled a number of trees in the Native Plant Area. Several were Monterey Pines of an advanced age. We have already planted Monterey Cypresses that will in due time replace them. Another storm victim was the healthy and thriving Guadalupe Island Cypress, one of a kind. At an estimated 80 feet tall, this was probably the tallest tree in the park. This was an irreplaceable loss.
Thanks to our diligent stewardship, more than 90 percent of the native plants we set in the ground in the past two years have survived, and many showed beautiful blooms and attracted pollinators already in their first flowering seasons.
In 2023 we completed fifteen stewardship work days:
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day January 27 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day March 16 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day April 15 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day May 28 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day June 10 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day June 25 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day July 16 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day July 22 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day August 12 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day August 19 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day September 30 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day October 18 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day November 4 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day December 16 2023
- Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Steward work day December 26 2023
In this entire planting and maintenance effort in the Native Plant Area, we enjoyed the invaluable support of the City’s Landscape Gardening staff, headed by Jacob Several. Staff installed a water spigot, provided a lockbox, tools, gloves, mulch materials, and in some cases five-gallon tree starters. Staff also hauled away the heaps of discards that our work generated. We could not have done it without them.
Major credit for conceiving, designing, and organizing the native plant pollinator habitat belongs to Jutta Burger and Bob Huttar, both members of the Conservancy Board of Directors. A professional botanist with a PhD in grasses, Jutta holds a day job as Senior Scientist with the California Invasive Plant Council. Bob is an ecology consultant and arborist with years of experience in field inspection and assessment. In his role as Volunteer Coordinator, Bob has been the spark plug, organizer, and lead worker in all of our stewardship work days. Among the volunteers who participated, in addition to UC Berkeley students, were Virginia Altoe, Rebecca Altoe, Karen Brusin, Jutta Burger, Helen Canin, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, Carol Denney, Bob Huttar, Nancy Nash, Martin Nicolaus, Lee Tempkin, Becca Todd, Kathy Turner, and Margaret Yang.
Our work in the Native Plant Area is far from complete. Now that we have grounds for confidence that our plantings are taking root and getting established, it’s time to let the public know what grows here. Public education was one of the key goals of the original Native Plant Area project in the early 1980s. It was out of reach at the time, due to budget limitations. Today we have another chance at it. This is especially pressing because the original sign put up in 1982 has fallen and is illegible. We need to develop new signage, for the area as a whole and for individual species, and we need to plan outreach to the schools so that kids can experience this wonderful area and learn the story of native plants in California.
There also remains the unfinished work of completing the native planting process in the area. As we learned in reviewing the history, the pioneers who established the Native Plant Area faced hard core resistance from City bureaucrats. City management controlled the budgets, and forced the early planters to install conventional urban planner darlings like the Australian Myoporum laetum tree and the Australian Acacia bushes instead of natives. Ultimately, these have to go, and should be replaced by native trees such as Coast Live Oak, California Buckeye, and Toyon, and native shrubs like Lemonadeberry, Coffeeberry, and Sugarbush. This can’t be achieved in a short time, but it’s a goal that needs to be on the strategic agenda.
2. Grassland Habitat Conservation
As is well known, birds that nest and/or forage in grassland habitat have suffered the largest losses of any avian species. Our park has tens of acres of grassland, and a number of grassland birds have been seen here, notably Savannah Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks, as well as Song Sparrows, American Pipits, Lapland Longspurs, and others.
We have had inconsistent results in advocating for grassland preservation. In 2019, Park management agreed to delay mowing a portion of the east side meadow near the Flare Station to permit Savannah Sparrows to finish breeding there. See “Saved From Mower.” But this act of grace was not repeated in later years. We appear to be stuck with a 1950s businessman’s vision of making the park resemble a golf course.
There is a growing movement in this country and elsewhere away from the golf course model. The new vision is to restrict mowing and to permit grasslands to develop naturally. Natural grasslands, with expert help, display great beauty and foster abundant wildlife development. They provide park visitors with the experience of being in nature.
Native grasslands are also the most effective and enduring remedy for the spread of noxious foxtails, which only multiply the more they are mowed. The natural landscape movement, although it has wide support, has not yet penetrated Parks management. We need to engage in discussion with the appropriate decision makers to move the park toward a more natural grassland aesthetic.
3. The Burrowing Owl Sanctuary
We had Burrowing Owls come to the park to spend the winter months every year since the park opened, except for the winter of 2017-2018, when there were none. As I write this in late December 2022, it appears that we again have no Burrowing Owls in residence in the park this season. One owl was seen and recorded on video during a short visit in dense fog in the morning of December 4, but it did not stay and has not been seen here since.
The reason is not clear, but there are clues. In September, Parks management clearcut practically all vegetation in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary, including the thriving Fennel bushes on the perimeter of the area. The area looked devastated, with nothing but stumps where there had been blooming plants. Even the California Poppy where owls had perched habitually was topped and mauled. Fennel’s vertical structure and spreading crowns provide cover that protects ground-dwelling birds from raptors flying overhead. It’s conceivable that the owl that had resided in the reserved area here in the three previous winters was shocked at the devastation and at the loss of protective cover this year, and went elsewhere.
In recent years, one Burrowing Owl has spent the winter at Pt. Isabel on the rocks outside the fence around the dog park there. This year, there are two owls at Pt. Isabel. It’s likely that the second owl at Pt. Isabel is our Chavez Park owl, which would be here for us to admire, if we had not destroyed its customary habitat.
It’s ironic that the birds may actually be safer at the Pt. Isabel dog park than here. They perch outside the fences surrounding the dog area. Those fences are effective dog barriers, unlike the low-rise ornamental rail here. What we have is a meaningless symbol that loose dogs easily and frequently cross to invade the owl area.
The decision to clearcut the perimeter of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary was directly contrary to the advice given years ago here in chavezpark.org. This bad decision was based on the recommendation of an outside organization to which Parks administration has mistakenly given credence.
4. Other Areas of Activity
Santiago Casal, the founder and curator of the Cesar Chavez / Dolores Huerta Tribute Site (Solar Calendar), accomplished major upgrades to the signage and outreach of the site this year. A major addition is the new Mobile Tour, a smartphone app that guides you to the Tribute Site with professionally produced audio guidance. Casal, a member of the Conservancy’s Board of Directors, organizes the seasonal gatherings for the Equinoxes and the Solstices at the site. Educators and astronomy buffs Tory Brady, Alan Gould, David Cooper, Lori Lambertson, Bryan Mendez and Vivian White take turns making presentations that explain the movements of the sun and planets and the reasons for the seasons, on these occasions. A team of site stewards, including Conservancy Director Sheila Jordan, attends to site maintenance.
In late 2020, the Conservancy mobilized UC student volunteers to renaturalize the unused dirt road that bisected the Protected Nature Area on the north side of the park. We scraped and planted seeds of native grasses and wildflowers. Three years later, nature has almost healed the wound that trucks cut across this natural refuge. The road is gradually ghosting. In another year or two, it will be just a memory.
On top of the northwest hill sits the Peace Symbol, a guerrilla artwork put together around the turn of the century by anonymous artists. Conservancy activists dug it out of a heavy blanket of weeds in 2018, and have maintained it every year, recently with the help of family and friends of the young man whose memorial bench faces the artwork. Conservancy funds have donated the decorative mulch that distinguishes the piece.
In the fall of 2019, the Conservancy led a team of UC students in a project to establish native wildflowers on a strip of land then scraped bare by construction in the southeast corner of the park. This led to a rewarding bloom the following Spring, but then came weeds, Ground Squirrels, and the mower. What survived this year, ironically, are two species not native to this area: Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata). How these got into a mix of “native” seeds remains a mystery. The lesson of the experiment was that establishing native wildflowers in this habitat takes more than scraping seeds into the soil. You have to protect the plant babies from predators, and you have to give them mulch, and keep weeds and mowers away. We’ve learned that lesson and applied it successfully in establishing the native pollinator habitat in the Native Plant Area, see above.
5. Outreach and Education
In March this year, the Conservancy resumed participation in the annual Spring Festival in Shorebird Park, following a three-year break for the pandemic. Our kiosk featured a participatory game that asked visitors to tag photos of eight creatures seen in the park with their common names. This simple game engaged players of all ages. It was amazing to see kids too young to read the labels instantly attach them to the correct picture when the labels were read to them.
The local chapter of the Audubon Society changed its name to Golden Gate Bird Alliance in August. The membership, to which I belong as an individual, voted overwhelmingly to drop the name in view of the man’s history as a buyer, seller, and owner of enslaved people. A book I published in mid-summer, Audubon’s Rifle, added substantial evidence drawn from Audubon’s autobiography that he was also a large-scale bird murderer with next to no conservation impulses. The national Audubon organization retains the name.
On October 15, I led a bird walk of our park, organized by the Berkeley Bird Festival. Some twenty park visitors braved the fog, saw a selection of birds, and learned about the history and features of the park, and the work of the Conservancy.
The chavezpark.org website switched to a mainly weekly blog format from a daily schedule in March this year. Regular publication occurs on Fridays at 5 pm. Special events are published promptly. Birds and other wildlife, blooming plants, park gatherings, and stewardship work are among the regular features.
A highlight this year was a video interview with Marge Ellis, who with her family worked at the bottom of the pit during the decades when the area was the city dump. Berkeleyside picked up this historical feature and expanded it.
Videos taken in the park are posted to YouTube on an as-ready schedule, without the text commentary that usually appears on chavezpark.org. The YouTube channel now contains more than 1,200 videos, most of them featuring birds in the park, with 443 subscribers. The chavezpark.org blog at year end has 366 subscribers with average single-post readership in the hundreds.
Thanks to contributions from photographers Cat Chang, Jack Hayden, and Louis Swain, the list of birds photographed in the park has reached 128 species. Added this year were the Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Red-necked Grebe, American Robin, Red-breasted Merganser, White-throated Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Harris’s Sparrow, Glaucous Gull, Bewick’s Wren, and Common Murre.
The list of plants identified in the park stands at 186 species. The list of “bugs” photographed and identified in the park stands at 35 species, with many more to come. The photo contributions of park visitors are an important source for expanding the assessment of nature in the park.
II. Chavez Park in City Politics This Year
The park got a breather this year from the aggressive commercialization push that we saw and fought against last year. A branch of City management this year issued a series of drafts of what they are calling a “Waterfront Specific Plan” (WSP). Separately, the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission worked up a set of waterfront recommendations covering the same subject matter as the WSP. Both documents expressly reject commercial development in Chavez Park. The ideas for an amphitheater in the central grassland and a ropes course and zipline concession in the Native Plant Area are dead, for now. That’s a big vindication for the work that the Conservancy and its friends and allies led last summer. We spoke up loud, clear, and strong, and the City got the message. If you want a review of that movement, have a look at the “Love Letters to the Park” book.
However, there are still some troubling dark clouds. The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission’s document recommends an annual Superbloom Festival in Chavez Park. This event has nothing to do with wildflowers. It’s the name of a giant rock music event held in Munich, Germany. This is a second edition of the monster concert venue that the City proposed last year. It would devastate the central grassland and destroy the peace and quiet of the entire park and its environs. The Commission made a mistake endorsing this proposal and ought to withdraw it.
Similarly, the City management’s WSP contains language favoring large, noisy ticketed music events. The authors (the same Hargreaves Jones consulting firm that wanted the amphitheater, ropes course, and zipline) did not do their homework, which would have told them that big events of this kind end up costing the City money, not to mention their environmental impact. As in the past, the consultants don’t endorse bird-safe glass, don’t show concern about the peril of night lighting to wildlife, don’t call for recyclable waste containers, and seem unaware of other ecological and environmental issues in the park. They don’t take advantage of the tremendous amount of research and fieldwork that Conservancy members have done to explore the park, and they don’t credit the Conservancy with even existing. But they’ve freely pirated and republished a number of park photographs that appeared in chavezpark.org, without asking permission or giving credit.
Speaking as an individual, I reviewed the third WSP draft in writing here. Many of the WSP ideas, particularly as concerns the former fishing pier and the ferry project, are remote from the park and needn’t engage the Conservancy as an organization. However, we should take note that the WSP proposes killing off the Marine Center boatyard and replacing it with a hotel and an outdoor tavern. The hotel would only have parking for half the rooms, and the tavern would have none. These proposals would sharply reduce available parking along Spinnaker Way for park visitors.
There is nothing concrete in the WSP drafts about replacing the pedestrian/bicycle trail between the University Avenue bus stop and the Virginia Street Extension. This was a passable if not wonderful passage before the big roadwork project in 2021. The construction trucks destroyed it, and today pedestrians, wheelchair users, and bicyclists trying to access the park from University Avenue have to navigate the no-shoulder two-lane Marina Boulevard roadway. It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed there.
There is also nothing in the WSP about fixing the eroded seawall that allows the dirt trail between the Virginia Street Extension and the park entrance to flood with saltwater whenever the high tide reaches 7 feet, which it does with predictable regularity. The consultants don’t assign a high priority to park access for pedestrians, wheelchair users, and bicyclists. These are equity issues.
There are also some positive developments on the distant horizon. One of the park’s porta-potties, the one near the Spinnaker Way parking circle, is due to be replaced by a permanent bathroom in 2025. One real bathroom in a park of 90 acres is far below standard, and Berkeley will remain the only East Bay city to condemn park visitors to porta-potties. But it’s progress. In 2015 I went to City Council with a petition to replace all the porta-potties. Winning one out of three after ten years is about average speed for progress in Berkeley politics, old-timers tell me.
Also in 2025 we should see a complete replacement of the paved perimeter trail. Apart from a brief stretch on the east side that was replaced after the rip-rap job in 2019, the perimeter trail has seen no maintenance for nearly 30 years. Everyone who has walked, run, wheelchaired, or bicycled this path knows that it’s in bad shape. Replacement will be very welcome.
The WSP drafts do mention a proposal to work on the interior trails in the park, and there is talk of a park “Master Plan.” No details of these ideas have been published. These are matters that require transparency and a public process.
In summary, the Conservancy can note with satisfaction that the destructive plans for commercial development of the park, advanced in last year’s Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP) are dead, for now. However, the same brains that conceived those schemes are still on the City contractor payroll, and we need to stay awake and organized to prevent their efforts at comeback. We stand for an asset far more valuable to the people of the City than commercial development. We stand for Nature.
— Martin Nicolaus, CEO