Knowland Park. It’s a place that many people think of for a moment as they pull into the Oakland Zoo. I never really understood what Knowland Park was all about, why it was part of the zoo. It is really the other way around; the zoo became part of it. It’s ironic that as the largest public park in Oakland, it is one of the least used. It is acreage named for a man who once owned our beloved Tribune, who built its tower, and who served our state parks for over twenty years. Knowland Park came to be as a way to honor a man who worked so hard to protect state land. As someone who loves to spend time in nature, my visit to this wild and open public space within our city limits was long overdue. As an Oakland Zoo member, I have been feeling conflicted about the hand it has been dealt as the zoo expands up the hillside, further into Knowland’s wild side. I thought my early morning visit to the hilltop would give me clarity, but as I have continued to read I still don’t seem to have it. I do know I have another place to visit when I need to take time to look for it further, on this issue…or any others that life hands out.
Knowland Park was originally a state park, named after Joseph R. Knowland. A Bay Area native born in Alameda in 1873, Knowland pursued interests in politics, journalism, history, and the outdoors throughout his life. In his younger years he was active in establishing California’s historical landmarks, with a special interest in restoring the California missions. He entered politics via the California State Assembly at the age of 26, and went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1904-1915. After his time in Congress, Knowland purchased the Oakland Tribune in 1915. He moved the newspapers offices to an old furniture showroom at 13th and Franklin Street, later contracting Edward T. Foulkes to design the iconic clock tower as an addition which was completed in 1923.
From 1934-1960, Knowland served on the California State Park Commission. Four years into his service he was named chairman, a title he held until 1960. In the late 1940’s, Knowland pushed for the state to purchased 453 acres of Oakland hillside, with the property officially becoming a California state park in 1948. Just one year later, the state leased the park to the City of Oakland, with the caveat that the land always be used as a public park. It was at the same time that the agreement was made for the Oakland Zoo to move onto 100 acres in the western lowlands of the park. In 1951, the park land was dedicated to its advocate, renamed as the Joseph Knowland State Arboretum and Park. Twenty-two years later the park was given to the City of Oakland, and they took over management in 1975.
I chose to visit the park early in the morning a couple of weeks ago. The fog was in which I always enjoy on an early morning trek outdoors. I followed advice from another local blogger about where to enter the park. I took Malcolm Avenue up the hill and turned on a quiet cul-de-sac which looked out onto an expansive open area. With a banana and granola bar on hand for breakfast, I headed out to wander the hillsides, to check out the views, and see what would be visible of the zoo’s expansion up the hill.
While quiet and peaceful, I was a bit out of sorts without trail markings. It was a tricky to tell which way was which and exactly where I had entered. I had a map on hand that is available through the Save Knowland Park website; the City of Oakland does not offer a trail map of the area. It was also clearly evident that I was a guest shortly after the goats had been there for a productive visit. I kept my eye out for poison oak and hopped around goat droppings and pine cones. I couldn’t help but take a peek at photos online after I returned to see what the park looks like in spring, full of grasslands and wildflowers.
As I wound my way around the trail on the eastern edge, I came to the view of the bay, and of the structures being built atop the hill by the Oakland Zoo. The Oakland Zoo was started by Henry Snow in 1922, and originally sat on parcel of land by Lake Merritt at 19th Street and Harrison, now called Snow Park. The zoo found its permanent home in Knowland Park and has since gone through many growth spurts as the East Bay Zoological Society (EBZS), started in 1936 by Henry Snow’s son Sidney, has become more involved in its development. Improved exhibits and animal habitats, the Children’s Zoo, and the Education Center have been made by EBZS. However, all of those changes have remained within the original 100-acre parcel. The zoo began proposing plans to expand its borders in 1998, and controversy ensued as local and environmental groups fought tirelessly to keep the zoo from expanding into 50 acres up to the ridge line to build their proposed California Trail exhibit.
Concern about this expansion has been passionate and valid. Open, public space is encroached upon; neighborhood views to become comprised. Native and rare plant species disrupted; heritage oak trees cut down. The Save Knowland Park Coalition was created, which includes groups such as the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, to try to protect the remaining open space in Knowland Park as it was intended to be, wild and untouched. Knowland Park is home to dozens of rare plant species such as the Oakland star tulip, and is home to a unique stand of the coastal shrubland known as maritime chaparral. The land supports the life cycle of numerous mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles.
The battle has officially been won by the Oakland Zoo, and construction is in full swing. The interpretive center that now sits atop the hill will be reached by a gondola system; 60-foot towers are being installed up the hillside. According to the Oakland Zoo’s California Trail website, animals such as grizzly bear, grey wolves, bison, and mountain lions will live in open habitats. Birds such as the California condor and the bald eagle will also be living in the new exhibit area. The zoo is touting disabled access as one of their key selling points; the gondola system will allow those in wheelchairs to come to the top of the hill to experience the new, expanded areas. A restaurant and “outdoor overnight experience” are also mentioned on the interactive map on the zoo’s website. Conservation intentions are highlighted in relation to California wildlife and native ecosystem preservation.
The battle is over and construction is underway, and I have found myself at odds on how I feel about it. I normally er on the side of conservation, quick to vote to preserve nature. A staunch opponent to an entity coming in and taking away green space, disrupting historical landmarks and public land; little thought being given to the impact. What I struggle with is what appears to be the zoo’s mission and intent: to educate, to bring people outdoors, to enjoy expansive views, to teach them about vital parts of our state’s environment and wildlife. I am fearful that so many kids these days are endlessly lost to screens. As the mother of a two-year-old and four-year-old, our zoo membership has been vital to us getting outside to visit animals, to learn, to play. To have such a place ten minutes from our house is invaluable. While going outside to enjoy the wild beauty of open, public space is something I and so many others value, I increasingly think we are no longer the norm. A place like the Oakland Zoo invites people who may not typically chose to explore outdoor space to come and learn while enjoying a beautiful outdoor setting on an Oakland hillside.
Knowland Park is, and always will be, beautiful. Yet it hasn’t been “promoted” and maintained as a valuable asset to Oakland, as it should be. Without trail markers, bathroom facilities, and regular maintenance, I don’t see the city offering an invitation to its people to come and spend time on this open land. There is no signage to teach people about the vital landscape; no information supplied about the plant species and wildlife that thrive here. So, maybe the city should be the bad guy, not the zoo. There is no doubt that harm was done to part of this land to allow the zoo to expand. I am certainly not happy about that, but is its expansion going to result in more people learning about the land it sits on, about our state’s wildlife and ways we can preserve it? Would those people come to this land to learn if it is wasn’t accessible by gondola and required them to wander on unmarked trails with no signage to help guide and teach? I just don’t know. I’m torn. I thought a visit would give me the clarity I hoped for, but I remain undecided.
My hope is that both the Oakland Zoo and the City of Oakland can strive to educate people about this open space. Groups such as Save Knowland Park have done a wonderful job through volunteer effort to publicize information about the vital features of this park as it fought to protect portions of it. Since that battle has been decided, it is up to those who dealt the hand to ensure that visitors who come to wander its grasslands and ridge, whether through a chain link gate on a quiet cul-de-sac or via a gondola ride, know how important this wild land is to its resident species and wildlife. Joseph Knowland fought to protect it as open space for people to enjoy nature…so whichever way you travel here, I invite you to appreciate its wildness.
NOTE: I barely scratched the surface on the vital wildlife that lives and thrives in Knowland Park. There is also much more to the controversy and the many stages fought by the Save Knowland Park Coalition. I invite you to visit their website below for more information, as well as the California Trail website to understand what the zoo has planned for the expansion.
Black & white image of the tribune tower – Aidan Wakely-Mulroney via flickr
Image of Joseph R. Knowland – sourced via Wikipedia
California State Parks Logo (edited to black and white) – sourced via Wikipedia
Four images of Knowland Park in the springtime – Mack via flickr
All other images by Adrienne Schell
Save Knowland Park website, www.saveknowland.org
Oakland Zoo’s California Trail website, www.californiatrail.org
Joseph Knowland State Arboretum and Park Wikipedia page
Joseph R. Knowland Wikipedia page