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  • marybarnsdale

How "the environmental community" lost touch

Some marvel at how “the environmental community,” as it calls itself, got itself at loggerheads with so many people who are staunchly pro-environment and should be natural allies.

Many of the organizations with the biggest brands in our area, such as Sierra Club, are volunteer-driven. They may have few or no staff scientists. The paid positions, if any, are mostly administrative, such as memberships, marketing, fundraising, media relations. They rely on volunteers to drive programs or fight for issues.

People eager to contribute thousands of hours of their own time often rise up the ranks, eventually wielding considerable influence. They are often more ideologically driven than your average person. That’s what keeps them going.

When these people band together, as in the case of Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), it’s ideology on steroids. They create their own echo chamber. The most rigid activists with Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and California Native Plant Society sit around the table and reinforce each other’s views.

These groups are genuinely committed to preservation and conservation. They helped prevent the development of the East Bay shoreline between Emeryville and Richmond, which is why we have McLaughlin Eastshore State Park today. That is a huge contribution.

When it comes to how parks should be used, though, their views are fringe. If they could set aside every square foot of every old landfill for mediocre habitat, they would.

There are three problems with that. One is that it ignores the big picture: If there are 250 thousand rafting ducks around the bay, is it critical to prevent the Berkeley High School women’s crew team from practicing twice a day on Aquatic Park, which has a scattering of rafting ducks? (Norman La Force of Sierra Club tried. He lost, but the fight was bitter.)

Two, people need parks. The shelter-in-place made that more clear than ever. And they need to experience the parks in their own ways, which are often active: cycling, kayaking, walking their dogs. It doesn’t work for everyone to admire protected areas through chain link fence.

Three, parks need people. If people aren’t connected to the parks, they won’t fight for them, steward them, or vote to fund them.

I’ve been struck that some of the people most committed to restricting public access to parks sometimes don’t seem to know much about them. A few years ago, I tagged along on a CESP tour of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park’s Brickyard area (near the Seabreeze Café, University Avenue, Berkeley). Half of the CESP board members on that tour had never even been there.

And I was at one of the trials in connection with the repeated lawsuits that La Force hit East Bay Regional Park District with, in an effort to ban people with dogs from Albany Beach. That lawsuit had been lodged by SPRAWLDEF, which La Force co-founded with three others. One of the SPRAWLDEF principals was there, and as we waited to be let into the judge’s chambers he was boasting that he never visits the parks. (I didn’t catch why this was a bragging point.) And yet his organization was suing to prevent other people from doing so. (They lost.)

These folks need to get out more. That would benefit all of us.

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