More visitors — regardless of ZIP code — and the behaviors they exhibit would affect the health of Foothills Park, a panel of five experts said Tuesday before the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission, which sought a deeper understanding of the impacts of opening the 1,400-acre preserve to residents from other cities.
The City Council is set to consider on Aug. 3 a yearlong pilot program the commission has proposed that would allow 50 passes per day to nonresidents to access the park, which since the 1950s has been the exclusive domain of Palo Alto residents. Opening the park would allow access to a diverse pool of people of all cultures and races, which advocates said is long overdue.
While the panelists said a wider opening would likely have impacts on the land, it would not be due to who comes to visit but rather on an increase in the number of people and their behaviors.
Wildlife would likely become less evident and native vegetation could be damaged if there were an unlimited number of users rather than the current limit of 1,000 visitors. But even with the current cap, a 136% increase in usage by Palo Alto residents in June during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the same time last year is having some negative impacts. The way Palo Altans use the park, including playing loud music in the meadow area while having a picnic and leaving dog waste behind along trails, is making for a less enjoyable experience for both its animal denizens and human visitors, panelists and some community members said.
To manage more visitors and their behaviors, more money should be put into infrastructure, staffing, habitat restoration, monitoring and other mitigations to maintain the park and to enhance it, speakers said. The city should carefully consider the steps it takes in allowing greater access, but at the same time, there would be many benefits to the larger community and ultimately, to the park and open spaces as people develop a stronger sense of belonging to the wild places and support to protect them, they said.
The five panelists brought a range of expertise in social justice, habitat and wildlife sustainability, park support foundations and park management. They included Lester Hendrie, a former Foothills Park supervising ranger who worked at the preserve for 30 years; Stanford University Professor Nicole M. Ardoin, director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Alex Von Feldt, executive director of Grassroots Ecology; Roger Smith, co-founder and director of Friends of the Palo Alto Parks; and Taylor Peterson, director of biological analysis with MIG, an environmental consulting firm.
Hendrie said he has noticed that wildlife becomes more afraid on weekends when there are more people around in the lawn area, for example, and significant erosion can be found in areas such as Vista Hill where people sometimes go off trail. Those impacts can have a long-lasting effect if not managed, he said. Citing an extreme example, he said fire breaks made by bulldozers years before still scar the land and cause erosion.
Antiquated restrooms are strained during the weekends and asphalt breaks down as cars hug the road's edges on slopes, he said. The biggest problem, however, is staffing. As it is, staff is only at the entrance checking cars on weekends. Additional duties such as more staffing at the entrance; more garbage and restroom cleanup; more patrols; and handling the proposed online registration for nonresidents would strain existing employees, he said.
But the park also has benefited from a robust volunteer program that has brought hundreds of young people to revegetate areas of the park with native plants, Von Feldt said. Hendrie acknowledged that Grassroots Ecology has worked on multiple plant restoration and habitat enhancement projects that have made the park better than it was before.
Giving the public a stake in open spaces, which can in turn instill a love for the land, is an important consideration when thinking about opening the park beyond Palo Altans, some of the panelists said.
Experiencing a special place such as Foothills Park and building in programs to educate the public can make people want to leave the preserve better than when they came, Von Feldt said. She spoke about the excitement of young people who visit the park for volunteer projects. About 80% of them are under the age of 18, and many are not Palo Alto residents, she said. They start out saying "this is amazing," she said, but "it takes the air out of it when they realize they are doing work on a park that isn't that public," she said.
Ardoin, who studies the interaction of people and the environment, said people are more likely to partner in environmental projects if they have access to Foothills.
Von Feldt said that opening Foothills, even with a limited number of people, would help take the pressure off Palo Alto's other open space in the foothills, Pearson-Arastradero Preserve, which is experiencing a huge influx of visitors due to increased usage during the pandemic. The park has had to hire more security personnel to handle the traffic and parking issues, she said.
Expanding access to Foothills Park also would provide great psychological and physical advantages to children who have been cooped up indoors. Von Feldt said children who are now taking part in volunteer activities and other events through Grassroots Ecology are showing the effects of being cooped up, stumbling on trails from being weakened by being indoors for so long. After a few weeks, she has seen significant improvements in their motor skills and outlooks.
Ardoin said early childhood education studies show the importance of having open places where children can go with caretakers. Having a place such as Foothills Park, where people can safely keep social distance, get out amid the pandemic and stay close to home is important to well-being, she said.
Increased usage doesn't have to mean the park will decline, the panelists said. Peterson said impacts are not only quantitative, but perhaps more importantly, qualitative. Two people being loud at a picnic site can have greater negative impacts than five people walking quietly in a trail, for example.
Hendrie said the length of time doing an activity also impacts the environment, such as preventing the return of wildlife to a grazing site.
Peterson said the city should undertake a baseline study to understand the existing conditions within the park and its current usage, then monitor the space regularly so that any negative impacts can be quickly addressed.
"Spend the time and money to do this right. Have a program of adaptive management so you can reverse issues right away. I think you could open (the park) to nonresidents and still keep a nice preserve. I don't think where somebody comes from impacts the park," she said.
Von Feldt said she is supportive of opening Foothills if the city decides to, but she also wants to have support for the rangers.
"We believe opening Foothills Park will have an overall positive effect. We need our wide, open public spaces now more than ever and this would be a really great time to do it," she said.
Smith, who has for decades spearheaded fundraising for the city's parks, said opening the park would increase costs to do all of the necessary mitigation and staffing improvements. To his mind, the most important consideration is the health of the park.
City Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who is the council liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, said further discussion must also include the funding for infrastructure and staffing to ensure the environment is going to be intact. Considering the city's nearly $40 million deficit, that could be a difficult prospect.
Commissioners largely supported the idea of opening the park to nonresidents, while some had reservations. Commissioner David Moss said the city should pursue the pilot study, but he acknowledged that a broader opening would impact the city's budget. He also expressed concern that there could be a great interest in visiting the park if the number of entrants isn't controlled.
"You know the power of social media. The minute this gets out, social media will take it and run with it," he said.
Commissioner Jeff LaMere said it's important to remember "that what we are doing is for a pilot program. We're not talking about opening the park and trying to reach limits of 1,000," he said.
Commissioner Jackie Olson said she would be comfortable if the council would choose to eliminate the ZIP code requirement while limiting the number of visitors.
Resident Winter Dellenbach also supported that idea, but she had strong words for the commission moving toward any expansion of visitors. She doesn't care if the visitors are from Palo Alto or out of the city as long as there are limits, she said.
"I've heard a litany of mitigations that would need to be made to protect the wildlife and plants," she said.
The $40 million budget shortfall is already causing cutbacks to libraries and many other types of services residents have relied on.
"Keeping the regulation of the numbers of people seems like a no-brainer to me," Dellenbach said. "Time will tell, but I'm not sure we have money to test it in a rational way. I think the 1,000 person a day (limit) should stay in place. It's vital — the wildlife and vegetation comes first before human beings."