Oakland Zoo expansion: The environmental impacts of environmental education

This post was originally about an item that was scheduled to come before the Planning Commission tomorrow, April 20th. I was just about to publish it when I was told that the meeting has been canceled due to lack of quorum. I have tried to go through and remove all references to April 20th and “tomorrow,” but it is possible I have missed some. The item will come back to the Planning Commission at some future date. When that happens, I will probably write about it again.

Yesterday, I wrote about how excited I was for the Oakland Zoo’s upcoming expansion and California project. For details on the project itself, go read that post or visit the Zoo’s website about the project.

The short version is that the Zoo wants to build an expansion in Knowland Park that would showcase native California animals. The expansion was approved by the City Council in 1998, but the Zoo has made some alterations to the approved plans (reconfiguring the animal exhibits and replacing a planned shuttle bus with an aerial gondola), and they have to come back to the City to get the revised plans approved.

The plans received the unanimous support of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission at their March 2011 meeting (PDF). Tomorrow At an upcoming meeting, the Planning Commission will be voting on whether to approve the Zoo’s amended plan and adopt something called a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the expansion.

The vote

The second part sounds boring, but it will be important later, so let’s take a second to understand what exactly it means.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that before anything gets built basically ever, you have to evaluate how it will impact the environment. Under CEQA, “environment” is used in a fairly broad sense, and can encompass everything from air quality and hydrology to traffic congestion.

The first step in the CEQA process is called an Initial Study. In an Initial Study, you describe the proposed project and the surrounding environment, then you go through a checklist of different ways the project could possibly impact the environment. Once it is complete, one of three things will happen.

First, if the project is anticipated to have potentially significant impacts that require further study, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will be prepared. An EIR takes a long time to complete and costs a great deal of money. Impacts are considered “significant” when and if they reach certain predetermined thresholds (PDF) — creating winds in excess of 36mph or resulting in a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

Second, if the Initial Study determines that the project can’t possibly have impacts on the environment that would rise to the level of being considered significant, a negative declaration is issued, which basically just says “This project is fine, there’s no need for an EIR.”

The third option is something called a mitigated negative declaration. What this says is essentially “This project could have significant impacts on the environment, but we already know what they are and don’t need more study to figure them out, and we have determined that all these impacts can be mitigated if the project applicant does x, y, and z.”

In 1998, the Zoo received a Mitigated Negative Declaration (PDF) for their expansion plans. For the amendments to the plan, an update to the environmental review has been completed, resulting in what’s called a Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration/Addendum (try saying that one five times fast!). It’s like 1300 pages long, but if you’ve got some time to spare and feel like reading it, here you go: Volume 1 (PDF) and Volume 2 (PDF).

“A classic NIMBYs issue”

At tomorrow’s meetingWhen this item comes up, the Planning Commission will be hearing about the zoo expansion for the third time within the past year (video of the informational update last April is available here, and last month’s discussion is online here).

So what this comes down to basically is that a group of people who live near the zoo don’t want anything built near them, and see these amendments to the original plan as another opportunity to stop the project.

A significant amount of public comment opposing the zoo expansion was submitted prior to last year’s meeting, almost all of it along the lines of this (PDF):

I urge you to stand with the citizens, the people, and not the business interests who have once again found a way to supplant the interests and will of the people in what is allegedly their government. I urge you to stand for the environment and wildlife, stand for peace and the true spirit of representative democracy. I urge you to work to decrease pollution that will be brought on by and expansion of the zoo and to respect the neighbors of Knowland Park who are being marginalized by the city.

We oppose the Zoo’s environmentally destructive plan to ignore the people and expand into the heart of beautiful Knowland Park. This is a land grab that fences off and destroys the most beautiful part of the park and reduces accessible habitat for existing wildlife. The expansion should be smaller and closer to the existing Zoo.

And (PDF):

Today I hiked through Knowland Park for the first time. I’m appalled to learn that the Oakland Zoo plans to expand into the open space of the park.

Please leave the zoo as is. Please leave the rest of Knowland Park as is. Once open space is developed, there’s no chance it will revert to open space at any time in the future.

And, of course, my favorite (PDF):

Dear zoo opportunists,

My first scary thought on reading this was: The Oakland Zoo is taking new ground, literally. Unfortunately, I fear that you may accomplish just that, and that you may never cease taking new ground.

I decided to test your real intentions with the help of simple questions: are your intentions altruistic or not. My answer is they are not. Altruistic intentions and actions are usually modest in their manifestations and strong in results. The selection of your words is typical for propaganda cases, in short — brainwashing. For example, you tout an energy-efficient gondola in your plan to prove that you know how to conserve the energy, but if you were really so intent on Conservation and saving energy, you would not expand at all. I do not believe that through your actions the Oakland Zoo and Oakland will become a center of the universe as you are presenting it. And for Goodness sake, it should not be that way.

Public comment at the meeting went much the same way — leave Knowland Park the way it is, the Zoo shouldn’t expand at all, the expansion will be a disaster like the Coliseum, we don’t want to live near grizzly bears, people will get stuck on the gondola if there’s an earthquake, and so on.

When asked by Commissioner Vince Gibbs to articulate their specific objections, the representative of Friends of Knowland Park failed rather spectacularly, and started muttering about the size of the gift shop.

The meeting ended with the Planning Commission reminding the expansion opponents that it has already been decided that the Zoo is allowed to expand, and the only thing in question here is the changes to the original plan.

Plus, Commissioner C. Blake Hunstman called them NIMBYs. Ha!

Basically, the message was “Opposing the expansion because you don’t want any development in Knowland Park is not going to get you anywhere — come up with something better.”

And now they have. They have come up with the best anti-development response there is: the project can’t proceed without an EIR.

CEQA: A NIMBY’s best friend

So. This is just kind of the way these things go.

When you’re against a project or whatever, the first time it comes up, you kind of throw out everything you can think of. There are a million reasons why this or that is terrible, and then you get to see which ones have traction.

As time goes by, and a final vote gets closer, you hone your arguments, and you have to think of a good, specific reason for people to say no, especially when you have been unable to sway general popular opinion against the project.

Conveniently, California law provides anyone and everyone with a handy argument against any development: the aforementioned California Environmental Quality Act.

Preparing an EIR costs a tremendous amount of money and takes a tremendous amount of time. Forcing an applicant to complete one could in some cases render a project infeasible, thereby killing it. At worst, it stalls things for a while, and gives you another bite at the apple later.

So if you don’t want something to be approved, your best argument is usually to say that it requires an EIR. If you say that and then it gets approved anyway, you can sue to say that it requires an EIR. And if you don’t actually have the money to sue, you can still threaten to when it comes to a vote. They don’t know, right?

And CEQA is the gift that keeps on giving. If you get an EIR, when it’s completed, you can argue that it is inadequate. If the project gets approved anyway, you sue that it’s inadequate.

I swear, sometimes I think the only people who read EIRs are the people who want to find a way to use it to stop a project. If you’re really committed, you will read every line of that sucker looking for anything that can help your case.

Like I said before, this is just how things work. There’s nothing wrong with it. I mean, it’s annoying, but it’s what everyone does. I’ve done it. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate, sometimes they’re stupid. Regardless of the actual merits, I’d guess that the people who make CEQA threats actually honestly believe they have a case about 50% of the time.

An EIR for the Zoo

So in keeping with this kind of standard process, opponents of the zoo expansion have settled on a CEQA argument. The rambling, angry public comment of before has now been replaced with a more polite objection:

The Oakland Zoo has long served as a wonderful local conservation site. Unfortunately, the planned California Project will undermine what has made the zoo great–its commitment to protecting nature and wildlife.

Fencing off more than 60 acres of land will rob the region of a natural oasis that’s been called “Oakland’s Crown Jewel.” But more than that, it will keep native animals out of one of the few areas they have left to roam in urban Oakland. This could hinder their migration patterns and, eventually, their very survival.

This petition is not demanding that the project be cast side, but simply that it be reconsidered following an Environmental Impact Report–a standard review required by the California Environmental Quality Act. A project of this scope should not move forward until it is clear that it is being done in the most responsible way possible–and as of now, that is not the case.

The City received an impressive 96 copies of this exact letter (PDF), thanks to change.org. It is touching to see how far the love of Knowland Park’s beauty spreads — letters were received from such distant locales as Sweden and New Zealand (total breakdown for this particular letter: 8 from Oakland, 13 from elsewhere in California, 57 from out of state, and 18 from other countries).

Friends of Knowland Park now argue that due to the tremendous scope of the project changes compared to what was approved in 1998, a full EIR (or, as one of the speakers put it, a “full IRA”) must be completed.

Again, I covered the scope of the proposed changes to the project yesterday, but for those who want a reminder:

Oakland Zoo expansion plans, 1998 and 2010

As always, some of the specific CEQA arguments are more persuasive than others. They break down basically like this:

  • Too many changes to the project: Friends of Knowland Park say (PDF) that the project has changed so dramatically since 1998, that an EIR is required for approval. This argument is unpersuasive at best. CEQA does not require an EIR because the specifics of a project change, it requires an EIR when the changes to the project would create significant new impacts that the old project would not have. A reduction in the amount space being fenced off and a road being replaced with a more environmentally-friendly alternative clearly don’t meet that threshold.

  • Loss of open space: Some, including the Sierra Club (PDF), object generally to the fencing off of open space. However (see here (PDF) and here (PDF), the Zoo’s plans are in conformance with the City’s General Plan, including the Open Space, Conservation, and Recreation element. Additionally, they are certainly no more impactful in this area than they were in 1998, an approval that is still valid, so I don’t see much of an argument there.

  • Alameda Whipsnake: Others object to the proposal on the grounds that it would imperil the threatened Alameda whipsnake, which has been found on the site (PDF). After two years of trapping, the study concluded:

    Based on current findings, it is unclear whether the project area of Knowland Park does or could support a viable long term population. The project area includes large areas of physically suitable core type habitat, but two years of trapping only resulted in a single capture of an adult male. When high quality core habitat is present and Alameda whipsnakes are detected they are usually relatively abundant and the dominant snake species.

    The original amendment plans were amended again to remove a planned amphitheater, in order to minimize potential impact on suitable habitat for whipsnakes.

  • Bristly Leptosiphon: The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society objects to the expansion on the grounds (PDF) that it would native plants in Knowland Park would be threatened. Specifically, they are concerned for the wildflower Bristly Leptosiphon, a species which is not on Federal or State protected lists, but which the California Native Plant Society considered a priority. They argue that the Zoo’s wolves would eat or dig up all the flowers. Staff argues that (PDF) although the plant does exist in Knowland Park, it has no protection under CEQA and therefore does not merit an EIR. Additionally, they point to the Zoo’s Habitat Enhancement Plan, which they will be providing annual updates on to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, as sufficient mitigation to any potential impact. That’s one response. For my part, I think I prefer the take of this young man, a zoo employee, offered at last month’s Planning Commission meeting.

  • Views: Of course, right? You know what, the views up there are beautiful. They really are. But hey, I bet I’d like the view from up there better if I didn’t have to look at all their houses.

    Knowland Park view

    Additionally, staff observes (PDF) that the impacts the proposed project would have on views do not meet the City’s thresholds for significance under CEQA.

The arguments for an EIR all just seem flimsy to me. I strongly agree that it’s important to care for existing species and habitat, but as far as I can tell, the Zoo’s efforts to be good stewards in that regard are more than sufficient. The area will benefit from the removal of invasive species and replanting with native ones. One woman who spoke at last month’s meeting called the environmental review that had been completed “cursory,” but after reviewing 1300 pages of documents, such a suggestion seems preposterous.

The Zoo expansion & Conservation

In the end, it seems to come down to one issue — the people opposing the zoo expansion simply don’t want it there at all because they want the park to remain open. Regardless of that argument’s merits, the issue is moot. It was decided in 1998 that the Zoo has the right to expand in this area, and should the amendments be rejected by the City, the Zoo will still be allowed to proceed with the expansion as originally planned.

Even if this were not the case, I find the argument unpersuasive. The vast majority of Knowland Park will remain public open space under the plans. And the presence of the Zoo’s California exhibit will bring far more people to this beautiful place than would ever see it if it were to just remain as is. We should be jumping at the chance to show more people this amazing thing Oakland has to offer! What an incredible opportunity!

Finally, I fervently believe that an important element of environmental stewardship is education and exposure to children in urban environments. I spend probably a total of around four weeks a year in the mountains in Colorado. I consider myself very lucky to have this opportunity. It is incredible to be in such an visually arresting place. Exposure to that kind of environment, whether it is being surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, or walking through the State and National forests there, engenders a love and appreciation of nature that you can’t get through pictures or videos or books. One of the reasons I love living in Oakland so much is that I can have an urban lifestyle and still have easy access to natural beauty, through the wonders of the East Bay Regional Park system and other local and regional parks. That’s something that’s really important to me.

But (and I’ve written about this before) I worry that even with all the resources available, many children growing up in the East Bay are not exposed to nature. So I think it is fabulous, and tremendously important, that the Zoo will be bringing more people to Knowland Park. Education is one of the most essential elements of environmental stewardship. This exhibit, which will bring more people to Knowland Park specifically so they can learn about what was once there, and what’s been lost, is an extraordinary opportunity to expose generations of East Bay youth to the natural world and educate them on the impacts, bad and good, that humans have and can have on it. We would be crazy to pass that up.

12 thoughts on “Oakland Zoo expansion: The environmental impacts of environmental education

  1. Karen Smulevitz

    Funny how someone takes their first hike and becomes an instant expert on the park. We’ve been hiking with our dogs there for years, and recently revisited it with a map of Knowland Park showing the proposed expansion. We stood at the marked points where the fencelines would be, and the views were exactly the same as always. Plenty of room to enjoy a walk with the puppies and the kiddies and check out the wildflowers. Now, I love this open space, and I rather like the fact that the changed plans mean less road building and leveling. I also love the zoo, and it pleases me to have the best of both worlds. We’re lucky to have open space close by, and when EBRPD gets the funds together to build the trail over the ridge above Dunsmuir, I’ll be in floppy hat heaven. For the time being, I appreciate the oaks and blue rye and whipsnakes, which met their greatest threat when the houses across Gold Links Road and up Malcolm and Grass Valley were built.

  2. gregory mcconnell

    V, thank you for this analysis of the issues and the “controversy.” I agree, there really is nothing here. The Zoo has done all that it needs to do and it is time to get this expansion done. It will be great for the city and the region.

    The opponents, especially “the 57 from out of state and the 18 from other countries”, will have to share this piece of heaven with all the rest of us. Maybe, if we can get young students up the hill to the Zoo and the park, they can learn about something other than despair and violence.

    It is time to move this along!

  3. ralph

    After listening to that young man, I think the zoo should should be required visiting for the young people. I enjoy zoos as I find them to be relaxing. I can’t help but think that more frequent zoo and park visits by some young people might bring a calming force in their lives and reduce the violence.

    And Greg, it was I who ran past you on Monday aftn in front of Lake Chalet.

  4. Erica

    This reminds me of an old joke:

    Moses is sitting by the riverbank, all despondent over the oppression of his people, when suddenly God appears before him and says, “Moses, I have good news and bad news.”

    “Give me the good news first,” says Moses.

    “All right. I will turn the waters of Egypt to blood and you, Moses, will take the credit.”

    “I will send a plague of frogs upon Egypt and you, Moses, will take the credit.”

    “I will send a plague of locusts upon Egypt and you, Moses, will take the credit.”

    “I will part the waters of the mighty Red Sea and you, Moses, will lead your people to freedom!”

    Flabbergasted, Moses blurts out, “That’s wonderful, Lord, but what’s the bad news?”

    “You, Moses, must write the Environmental Impact Report…”

  5. Dax

    I am neutral on the project.

    Still I find some of the above comments to be absurd.

    Several people saying that this will harm the area far less than those adjacent houses both to the south and up Golf Links Rd.

    Those houses were 98% built prior to 1965.
    In fact over 90% were built prior to 1960.
    For those of you too young to remember, Oakland was still taking ALL of its garbage, household and industrial, and FILLING the bay with that material in 1960.

    For you folks to compare actions taken back in 1960 with actions under consideration in 2011 is just the worst kind of discourse.

    . Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick only started Save The Bay in 1961.
    Save The Bay ONLY won a legislative moratorium against placing fill in the Bay in 1965, the McAteer-Petris Act.

    ALL those homes were built before ANYONE in the Bay Area was organized to do anything regarding the environment.

    Look at the Zoo history back then. A few ugly cruel cages down in the lower area near the entrance with the elephant having only a few feet to roam.
    Highway 580 wasn’t even there when those homes were built.

    So damn silly to be interjecting the point about those homes being a greater insult to the environment than the Zoo expansion.

    Heck, if you had asked anyone back then about the “environment” not 1 person in 1,000 would have the slightest idea of what you were talking about.
    Environmentalist, Environmentalism, endangers species, native plants, renewable energy, air quality, ….. NONE of these were ever discussed by anyone.

    So enough of these silly comments about the nearby houses being more of a problem or being at fault for disturbing the views.

  6. nick

    What qualifies anyone here to dismiss scientific arguments made or supported by environmental organizations as merely obstructionist? I’d be curious to hear. And are you so eager to discredit people you demonize as NIMBYs that you would sacrifice a full and complete review of the environmental impacts of a project taking place in one of our region’s last unspoiled open spaces? How short-sighted and sad; how indicative of the mindset that got us where we are today. I fully support the expansion, but only in the context of a full review, and supported by mitigation measures that are more stringent and specific than those currently proposed by the zoo.

  7. Chris Kidd


    I wouldn’t dismiss scientific arguments as obstructionist; after all, I’m not expert. I would, however, dismiss the scientific arguments provided *within the context of CEQA law*, in which I am fairly versed – or at least more so than a non-planner.

    CEQA law provides very clear thresholds that must be met to trigger environmental review. Within the context of CEQA law, I’m not convinced that any of the scientific arguments measure up.

    I’m not sure why people keep saying it needs “full review”. It got full review already. If people don’t think an acceptable full review took place already, they should attack the validity of the original EIR and not bring up new complaints that aren’t legally convincing.

  8. Naomi Schiff

    Chris, I have read hundreds of EIRs. I hope you will walk around that land on the hill and think about its best use, and about what the east bay hills offer in the way of indigenous wildlife and plants. Whether inside a fence or outside, there is a rich resource that the zoo should be considering, within or without ceqa, as part of its effort to preserve species diversity. In designing whatever they are going to build, is there a way to further minimize intrusions? Is there a way to use less concrete rather than more (concrete contributes to global warming!). Can surfaces be permeable? Can plants be native plants? Can native oaks be encouraged? Can drainage be improved? Can native bees and birds be fostered rather than driven out? Habitats are under serious pressure and we should be seeking to work together rather than have black-and-white arguments about let’s build let’s don’t. Minimizing impacts is reasonable and should be a common goal. To me, this is not about views or house lots. It is about a precious resource, the open land that makes Oakland liveable, and how best to keep it that way.

  9. Chris Kidd

    Well, yes. Of course we should always want the best project possible. We should want the most thoughtful development and want mitigated impacts. Who wouldn’t? To me, that’s like saying you like “Sustainable development”; who would favor unsustainable development?

    But the fact of the matter is, if you want to compel the zoo to engage in further mitigation or study of their proposed development, it is incumbent that you find a valid argument or concern that will stand up to CEQA law. That’s just the way it is. This isn’t about what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s about how you get there.

    And I’d hardly characterize the history of the zoo expansion, the environmental review that’s already taken place, the design concepts created for the new expansion, and the dialogue that’s taken place between all parties involved as a “black-and-white argument about let’s build let’s don’t”. That’s a shockingly reductionist interpretation of a very long process that has been improved multiple times compared to the original project proposal.

  10. ralph

    Probably the easiest and first thing to do to preserve natural habitat it to kill all the people.

  11. Dax

    Ralph, No need to preserve natural space by eliminating people. The scientific skills are already here that would allow us to create smaller people.
    In just a few generations we could have people of half the height and about one quarter the mass.

    Open space would effectively be doubled.

    Along with that comes a host of other “green” advantages for having smaller people.

  12. Naomi Schiff

    Ralph, people are part of the natural world too. And we are dependent upon the rest of the ecological context to sustain our lives. Chris, it’s some of the comments above I thought of us “let’s build let’s don’t” oversimplification.