Against the odds, local forces unite to preserve open space in California

Since the 1920s, residents of the Golden State have organized locally to preserve more than 1 million acres of open space--an amount that rivals the 1.3 million acquired during the same period by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Total exceeds 1 million acres, rivaling that acquired by state parks
Unlike the ubiquitous forces of the multibillion-dollar development industry--construction and attendant industries like finance, insurance, and real estate--land preservation at the local level takes place in a piecemeal, incremental way that has not been documented until now. The new book Saving Open Space: The Politics of Local Preservation in California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002) provides the first-ever statewide analysis of the patterns of open-space acquisition efforts in California.

"The growth machine in California is unequalled in the world, so this is really a story of David versus Goliath," said author Daniel Press, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "The resources that are available for preservation are dwarfed by what's available to developers."

The pace and cost of development are evident. Since 1964, California has lost more than 8 million acres of farmland to development. The state's population jumped from 20 million in 1970 to 32 million in 1995, and the number of automobile miles traveled more than doubled during that period. In 1980, 28 of 58 counties failed to meet federal ozone standards for air quality; in the late 1990s, 40 counties were unable to meet ozone regulations.

In Saving Open Space, Press unveils the alliances of city and county politicians, small-time environmental activists, local parks officials, and nongovernmental organizations like land trusts that have banded together in the absence of state or federal leadership to rein in urban sprawl, provide watershed and habitat protection, set aside recreation areas, and protect productive farmland.

"National organizations like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society get all the attention, but it's people working much closer to home who are making a difference," said Press. "It's so dispersed that it's easily overlooked, but the total acreage they've saved is having major ecosystem impacts. It's really quite remarkable." The cumulative impact of local efforts add up to significant benefits in air and water quality and protection of wildlife corridors.

In his book, Press profiles the historical record of 80 years of land preservation efforts in 47 of California's 58 counties (federal ownership of large portions of the remaining 11 counties limit opportunities for local preservation). In compiling the county profiles, Press was struck by the variation in amounts of protected acreage: As a proportion of a county's area, local open space ranges from much less than 1 percent (Los Angeles) to more than 12 percent (Alameda); on a per capita basis, the range is from about zero acres per thousand residents (Madera) to about 200 acres per thousand residents (Humboldt, Marin). The more urbanized coastal counties of Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda, and Orange have the strongest track records of protecting open space near their big cities, while the inland northern counties of Sutter, Glenn, and Madera, with Kings County in central California, have the weakest records.

Five factors are present in local preservation efforts, according to Press:

  • A compelling local landscape, whether foothills, forest, coastal, or desert

  • A politically engaged public that expects and demands open space

  • Political entrepreneurship in the form of leaders who are willing to fundraise, network, and bring in the necessary outside legal and fiscal expertise to acquire land

  • Fiscal resources

  • Perception of runaway development

Although the elements are the same, the balance varies from county to county, which affects the overall success of land preservation efforts, said Press. "Each county has the same toolkit, but they don't necessarily have the same size hammer," he said.

In researching Saving Open Space, Press conducted dozens of interviews with local planners, open space activists, elected officials, and park agency staff. He also surveyed 4,100 California residents by phone to assess their views about their local government, parks and open space, and their civic behavior. Finally, he combed through countless records to measure fiscal and administrative resources, environmental plicy support, local development pressure, and landscape features.

Land preservation efforts in other states will likely follow California's lead, said Press, who believes other highly discretionary local policy issues, including water conservation and waste management, could be shaped by local alliances in the absence of state and federal regulation.

"From a democratic perspective, it's desirable to have a lot of people involved and to foster local ownership of the process. After all, these are our landscapes," said Press. "What's not rational is to have the state and federal governments being obstructionist or minimally involved. Ideally, you'd give the locals more muscle with support from Sacramento and Washington, D.C."