The 126-acre Byxbee Park, located at the center of the Palo Alto Baylands Preserve, is perhaps the most emblematic of the question of how the Baylands should be managed.
The park formerly the city's landfill has taken shape in stages. As parts of the landfill closed, levees and trails opened up, providing visitors with roughly 1 mile that connected the Palo Alto Duck Pond, Lucy Evans Baylands Interpretive Center and Harriet Mundy Marsh with the Adobe Creek Loop Trail that leads to Shoreline Park in Mountain View.
But the closure of the last 51 acres of landfill in 2011 has raised questions regarding whether the Baylands should forever be a dedicated open space, or if other uses can be factored in. Open-space proponents, including former City Councilwomen Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel, who were instrumental in preserving the land in the 1960s, fought hard to prevent the 2011 initiative Measure E from passing. The initiative reserves a 10-acre portion of the park for 10 years while the city considers if an energy/compost facility should be built there.
Voters approved Measure E, and a final decision by the City Council on proposals for the facility is expected in February 2014, according to Daren Anderson, Palo Alto's manager of open space, parks and golf.
Eventually, additional trails will open, and the elevated area will afford a panoramic view of the bay, Shoreline Park in Mountain View, the East Bay hills and all of the surrounding Palo Alto Baylands.
Large graders are currently preparing the site, rumbling over mountains of dark brown soil. The earth will create a foundation, and a protective cap will keep hazardous landfill materials from seeping into the marshes.
Nearby, pickleweed and cord grass, used by the endangered California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, cover the landscape in large swaths broken up by water channels that wind toward Mayfield Slough. On a recent afternoon, flocks of ducks and geese, disturbed by some marshland denizen perhaps one of the native gray foxes created a raucous rush across the water.
When capping is completed in a year, the city will seed native grasses over the area, providing cover and food for insects and small animals.
Anderson is also spearheading a new "vegetation island" concept native flora planted in low mounds that would help a variety of wildlife.
The area won't serve the clapper rail or harvest mouse, which stay in the tidal salt marshes and are not attracted to the drier upland area. But the city is looking at ways to welcome the scarce burrowing owl, a small bird that lives underground. Two birds previously inhabited the Baylands, but now they are gone. Only a few of the owls remain in Mountain View, Anderson said.
The Palo Alto Baylands and the rare creatures living there exist today due to the perseverance of several residents dating back to 1960. Pearson, Renzel and the late Harriet Mundy and Lucy Evans all have played prominent roles. Pearson and others launched a lawsuit that stopped a massive commercial development in 1961 and prompted the council to develop the Baylands Master Plan.
But the Baylands' future is not secure, Pearson and Renzel say. Despite climate change, the marshlands' fate lies largely with the will of the people to support keeping wild places wild, Renzel said.
"In the 1970s, there was a new appreciation of wildlife habitat. There was a huge movement to protect open space and wildlife," she said. But generations change, and with them, their priorities, she added.
Perhaps ironically, human progress did help create a greater appreciation for the Baylands. When Pearson first walked there in 1952, the marshes were not easily accessible, she said. But when the city knocked down 101 homes to make way for Oregon Expressway, it used the concrete and other debris as fill for paths and levees along the Baylands' perimeter trail, she said.