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Garden of the Gods

Hike to the crest of a ridge in any East Bay park, and you’re sure to find a stunning view. You might see rolling hills dotted with oak trees, golden eagles soaring through the sky, the imposing peak of Mount Diablo, or the Delta, where salmon begin their run up the powerful Sacramento River. It is a natural canvas so beautiful, with such bounty, that the first pioneers to arrive here dubbed it the "Garden of the Gods."


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Photography by Bob Walker, Collection of the Oakland Museum of California

In the rapidly urbanizing East Bay, one might say it’s a miracle that so much of this landscape remains unsullied. Calling this achievement a miracle, however, would shortchange the work of many organizations and people, particularly the East Bay Regional Park District and a photographer named Bob Walker.
 

The district has been working to preserve land for nearly 75 years, but its most important accomplishment came in 1988: the passage of Measure AA, a property tax that allowed the district to raise $225 million, a significant portion of which was used to buy and preserve 34,000 acres. The tax will expire this year, leaving the district without money for land acquisition. The district is asking voters to renew the tax for another 20 years to continue its campaign to preserve and maintain park land—Measure WW will be on the ballot next month.
 

The original measure, AA, was the culmination of years of hard work. The district was formed in 1934, when East Bay voters created a park system to give residents recreational opportunities during the Great Depression. By 1988, it had amassed 63,000 acres in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Still, the booming housing market threatened to gobble up huge swaths of unprotected land.Marsh Creek in Morgan Territory Regional Preserve
 

Polling indicated that locals would support a tax to help the district buy more land, but the measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass, and the district had little money to campaign.
 

Enter Bob Walker. A freelance photographer from San Francisco, Walker had fallen in love with the East Bay hills in the early 1980s while he was looking for a place to walk his dog. Bob Doyle, currently the assistant general manager for the parks’ land acquisition division, hired Walker to photograph land that the district wanted to acquire, and throughout the 1980s, he did just that.
 

Storm clouds over Arrowhead Marsh in Martin Luther King Jr. Regional ShorelineWalker went to countless community meetings and gave slide shows of his photos to illustrate the beautiful places that Measure AA could help save. “What he was able to do was bring all sorts of people together,” says Doyle, who co-authored the measure. “He had the ability to disarm people and encourage positive cooperation.”
 

Measure AA got the number of votes it needed—barely. Still, at the time, it was the largest local park bond measure ever passed in the United States. Doyle leveraged the bond money by applying for additional grants, eventually doubling the portion of the money the district used toward land acquisition (as well as park development and renovation) to a grand total of $318 million.
 

Measure WW, the proposed tax extension, would raise $500 million, much of which is earmarked for 67 expansion and improvement projects throughout the East Bay. The annual tax rate would stay the same—at around $10 per $100,000 of a property’s assessed value—but would bring in more money because property values have greatly increased since 1988.
 

Park officials say they need the money for a variety of projects, such as completing 86 miles of the San Francisco Bay Trail from Fremont to Martinez, creating a park on the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, acquiring more land to preserve open space on the Pleasanton and Sunol ridges, and improving access to Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, between Livermore and Brentwood. Mount Allison in Mission Peak Regional Preserve
 

Unfortunately, Bob Walker won’t be able to help with the campaign this time around. He died of AIDS in 1992. However, all it takes is one look at his photos to remind us that the natural landscapes of the East Bay are worth saving.
 

“The variety of the parks we have in the East Bay is unparalleled,” Doyle says. “We’re still trying to preserve the last, best places.” 

 For information on Measure WW on next month’s ballot, visit www.ebparks.org.
 
Justin Goldman, a former Diablo editor, is pursuing his MFA in creative writing at Mills College.

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