Conservancy Annual Report

The Chavez Park Conservancy has released its Annual Report 2019. A PDF copy is attached. The report covers activities by Conservancy members before the official launch on Labor Day, as well as work done post launch. Topics include

  • Victory Over the Cannabis Circus
  • Protecting Low-Nesting Birds
  • Peace Symbol Restored
  • Burrowing Owl Stewardship
  • Berkeley Project Wildflower Seeding
  • Growing Botanical Inventory
  • Native Plant Communities Restoration
  • General Stewardship
  • Conservancy Launch
  • Looking Ahead
  • Conclusion’

Here is an online edition of the report, formatted for the web:

Chavez Park Conservancy

Annual Report 2019

The Chavez Park Conservancy officially launched on Labor Day 2019. However, Conservancy members already played an active role in park stewardship before the launch date. Here is an overview of the main events during the calendar year.

Victory over the Cannabis Circus

Early in February, Conservancy Board Member Carol Denney discovered fine print in a City Council proposal that would close the entire park to the public and set up a high-price marijuana promotion circus run by High Times magazine, the organ of Big Cannabis.  Carol quickly alerted friends, printed and distributed flyers, and organized an impromptu coalition to save the park. She and other Conservancy activists spoke at City Commission meetings in opposition to the cannabis promotion scheme. The chavezpark.org website supported and publicized the campaign to save the park. The Sierra Club’s Conservation Committee, on the motion of Conservancy Board Member Norman La Force, joined the opposition. In early April, at the last procedural moment, in the face of mounting opposition, proponents of the cannabis scheme withdrew the proposal. An ethnically masked revival of the same scam arose from the grave in July, but could not prevail and was dropped for the year. 

Protecting low-nesting birds

In late April, it looked like low-nesting birds were breeding in a grassy area on the east side of the park just south of the flare station, where vegetation had grown tall. Parks management had mowed the adjacent area and was set to mow this area as well. Expert birder Rusty Scalf of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, who had performed numerous breeding bird surveys, volunteered to come to the site, and wrote a report confirming that Savannah Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds were nesting in the tall vegetation. This was conveyed to Parks management with a request that this area not be mowed until breeding was complete and fledglings had departed, around the Summer Solstice.  Parks management complied and delayed mowing the area. Our intervention saved the lives of the birds nesting there. 

Peace Symbol Restored

At the end of May, a small group of volunteers again restored the Peace Symbol on the northwest hill, obliterated by weeds, same as last year. This year, we put down weed block fabric under the red mulch in the hope of keeping the iconic symbol visible longer. This informal art work is occasionally vandalized, but volunteers are alert and quickly restore it. 

Burrowing Owl stewardship

Burrowing Owls, once abundant, are in trouble in California, largely due to destruction of their breeding habitat by suburban development. In recent years, a very small number (sometimes none) have come to spend the winter in the park.  Because of their fragile numbers, their unusual habits and their lovable appearance, Burrowing Owls have a special place in the hearts of park visitors.

Owl stewardship in the park involves (a) reporting and documenting owl appearances and, importantly, (b) protecting owls against their principal nemesis, irresponsible dog owners who allow their animals to harass and attack the birds. 

This past year, two widely distributed videos (along with almost daily posts on chavezpark.org) promoted public awareness of Burrowing Owls.  The 24-minute documentary, The Owls Came Back by Conservancy organizer Marty Nicolaus achieved relatively wide distribution through networks of friends and social media. Then wildlife filmmaker Max Brimelow, on commission for Berkeleyside, issued his short film, The Edge of Extinction, featuring Marty’s commentary and owl footage.  This film was shown to a packed audience at the Brower Center in downtown Berkeley in early November. Both videos pointed to the problem of uncontrolled dogs in the park. A lengthy article by Berkeleyside reporter Stuart Luman in March also discussed that issue. 

As a result of this publicity, Park management inched forward toward improved dog signage, announced a coming belt of plastic poles to mark the bounds of the dog park, and a much-needed screening fence between the northern edge of the dog park and the adjacent Nature Area.  As this is written, there has been some new signage and we have heard a promise that the screening fence will be installed before the end of January.  The boundary poles remain in limbo. There has also been zero progress on installing a backup fence around the Burrowing Owl sanctuary; the existing ornamental fence, as several videos have shown, is no barrier to dog invasions. 

Berkeley Project Wildflower Seeding

On October 26, eight UC Berkeley undergraduates came to the park and enlisted in the Conservancy’s first formally sponsored project, planting wildflower seeds.  The students came under the auspices of the Berkeley Project, which every semester sends students into the community for a variety of improvement efforts. This past June, contractors had scraped bare portions of the shoulder between the paved perimeter trail and the shoreline rip-rap (rocks) on the east side. Under the direction and with the active physical participation of Conservancy Board Member Jutta Burger, the student crew sowed a mix of California poppies and other native wildflowers into the southernmost of these scraped areas. As this is written, the rows of seeds have sprouted and, if all goes well, park visitors may be greeted with an amazing abundance of native wildflowers come Spring. All kinds of pollinator insects could also find a feast there. 

Growing Botanical Inventory

On this subject, it’s worth noting that the botanical inventory of plants in the park reached 143 species by summer’s end. This is an order of magnitude greater than any previous effort at counting plants in the park.  Ninety percent of the credit belongs to Jutta, who with her partner Bob Huttar systematically combed the micro-habitats of the park. Jutta, who is Science Program Director with the California Invasive Plant Council, has an eagle eye and is an all-around naturalist who knows her bugs and birds as well as her botanicals. She believes that the Chavez Park plant inventory will top 150 species and might approach 200.  Separately, the count of birds photographed in the park and in the surrounding waters has reached 95.  Educating the public about the wealth and diversity of natural life in the park is an important part of the Conservancy’s work.

Native Plant Communities Restoration

In the mid-1980s, native plant gardener Charli Danielsen, on a contract with the City of Berkeley and with additional funding from the California Coastal Conservancy, planted a barren western hillside in the park with a demonstration project of native plant communities.  Park visitors today know this as a lush and densely forested grove, the only place of its kind in the park.  The project has been an abundant success, featuring a great diversity of native species, some of them rarely seen locally. 

However, after Danielsen’s contract expired, the area fell into deferred maintenance, and unknown parties introduced a number of aggressive, invasive exotic species. Some of the area is inaccessible jungle, and danger from broken branches lurks overhead. There is zero educational component.  This urban greenspace sorely needs restoration. 

Toward that end, we have filed an initial application for a UC Chancellor’s Grant. Conservancy Board Member Santiago Casal, founder and curator of the Cesar Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar, and himself a successful Chancellor’s grant recipient, has been pivotal in facilitating this application.  Thanks to the intervention of Ruben Lizardo of the Chancellor’s office, we succeeded in enlisting and walking the area with Cal professor emeritus Joe McBride, who has led a number of major park restoration projects.  We also met and walked the area with landscape architect Chris Kent of the PGA Design firm.  We will know in mid-February whether we made the first cut for the grant application.    

General Stewardship

As Conservancy members, it’s our practice when walking the park to pick up litter, when possible, and deposit it in the trash barrels provided. We encountered one difficult situation this year with a young man who repeatedly trashed a spot in the forested grove with alcoholic beverage cans and cigar butts, and became aggressive when asked to clean up. The Berkeley Police Department, after several requests, eventually intervened, and the individual did not return to the park.

We have seized on every  occasion to praise park staff and others for acts of stewardship in the park. We lauded the Thin Green Line of maintenance workers who pick up trash and empty the barrels. Volunteers who came to fight foxtails and remove deadwood came in for kudos. Staff got pats on the back for saving bird lives by delaying mowing, fixing a leaky hydrant, prepping the owl area, and covering up graffiti. We praised a sorority that donated its time to pick up litter.  We had praise for the Hyphae Group for its ongoing study of citywide restroom needs, which included a recommendation for permanent restrooms in our park. 

These and similar works remind us that the Conservancy is only one part of a broader effort that embraces staff, other city and private agencies, and other volunteer service groups in the joint venture of park stewardship. 

Conservancy Launch

The Conservancy formally launched quietly on Labor Day, saving trumpets and fireworks for a later date. The chavezpark.org website was reformatted to feature the Conservancy.  We published an inaugural 8-page newsletter for hand distribution to friends and interested parties, including members of the Parks and Waterfront Commission.  We welcomed Mark Friedman and Carl Anthony to the Board. We are fortunate that Lana Lew, a retired senior Kaiser administrator, joined the Conservancy as our Treasurer. We are grateful to Richard Healey, trustee of the One World Foundation, for channeling a substantial monetary grant to help the Conservancy on its feet. We are grateful also for a significant donation from EthiCal Apparel, the UC Berkeley student group that helped us plant wildflower seeds in October.  In recognition of the Conservancy’s activism, the Berkeley Partners for Parks nonprofit, which provides us with initial 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsorship, elected Marty to its Board.    

All in all, the new Conservancy has had an active pre-launch and post-launch year.  We scored a big win in defeating the Big Cannabis scheme for now.  We saved the lives of ground-nesting birds, restored the Peace Symbol, raised public awareness of Burrowing Owls and the dangers they face, seeded an abundance of native wildflowers, compiled formidable inventories of botanical and avian species, laid the foundation for a possible restoration of native plant communities, supported park stewardship by others, and began to get our organizational and financial act together.  Not a bad year. 

Looking Ahead

The to-do list for next year contains some obvious points.  We have to complete the unfinished formalities of our organization and fiscal status.  If we pass the first cut of the Chancellor’s Grant, we need to bring the Parks administration into the much more demanding second stage of the application process.  More broadly, we need to cultivate a closer working relationship with Parks management so that there can be further progress on Burrowing Owl stewardship, the future of the dog park, and other concerns cited in the Conservancy’s ambitious and far-seeing Vision Statement.

A novel and much-needed development awaits the park this coming Spring: a Mobile Tour of Chávez Park and Homage to César and Dolores.  Conservancy Director Santiago Casal, who is Founder, Director, and Curator of the Cesar Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar, reports that thanks to the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, the Solar Calendar project is embarking on a museum-like tour of the park.  It is called:  “My Docent – Giving César Chávez Park a Voice.”  It consists of a series of highly produced 60-90 second audio vignettes dramatizing the benefits of immersing oneself in a Chávez Park visit via one’s smart phone. This GPS-based 12-15 stop museum-like mobile tour involves recordings of notable scholars, educators, poets, & community activists who will serve as digital personal docents accompanying visitors. They will join the voices of César Chávez & Dolores Huerta whose labor & environmental advocacy are honored at the park (Memorial Solar Calendar). The aim is to engage visitors in a sense of discovery and wonder as they are exposed to story-like themes of appreciating nature, saving the earth, social & environmental justice, and diverse cultures.  Our overall aim is “creative placemaking,” re: the ways in which a design or the enhancement of a landscape affects how we feel, how we behave, and ultimately what we walk away with after experiencing that space.  We expect to launch this in prototype form in the Spring along with a new design for the Solar Calendar.   The tour will be accompanied by an illustrated map of the park as a learning landscape.

Conclusion 

Cesar Chavez Park is a manufactured landscape imposed on the Bay.  Forty years ago it was the dump; about a million and a half tons of garbage lie buried here. This environmental atrocity cannot be reversed. What we can do is to assist Nature in taking it over and making it her own.  We can work to mitigate the vestiges of the trashmound legacy: the porta-potties, the irresponsible dog owners, the drones, the vandalism.  Above all, our efforts are positive.  We aim at conserving, protecting, enhancing, and educating about the area’s numerous points of beauty: its scenic vistas, its enormous diversity of botanical life, its birds on land and water, its numerous other wild creatures. In so doing, we join hands with the many park visitors and with governmental, private, and nonprofit agencies, who see the park as a refuge from stress and who come here for healing, restoration, and cleansing of the body and spirit.  In so doing, we fill a big gap in the park’s circle of caring and answer a long-standing need.  We are the Chavez Park Conservancy: dedicated to the whole 90 acres.  

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