My grandmother Dorothy Lee, a lover of open space, rescued the land that is now Foothills Park from becoming a development that would have turned the Palo Alto hills into a suburban landscape with no parks or trails for the public. She was a force to be reckoned with and put her foot down with my grandfather Dr. Russel Lee (founder of PAMF) and refused to sell her share to developers in the 1950s. They ended up giving about 1,000 of the park's 1,400 acres to the city for $1,000 per acre. Palo Alto voters eventually passed a measure to create the park, including a provision that the park be for their exclusive use. This exclusionary policy was never my grandmother's intent.
Neighboring cities (Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills) were approached and asked to help purchase land for the park, but they, being less than five years old and poorly funded, declined. Palo Alto was in the unique financial position to purchase the property because it incorporated early enough to buy into income-generating hydroelectric and water projects in the Sierra Foothills.
I worked as a ranger at the park for seven years, and to my dismay, I frequently was required to turn away eager potential visitors. I grew up on Boronda Farm, which was incorporated into Foothills Park, and was saddened that the greater public could not enjoy my childhood home. I saw the anger and disappointment on the faces of the thousands I turned away. Families could not eat their picnics on the many picnic tables. Couples could not enjoy the trails. Every look I received underscored my desire to change this policy.
As my wife and I volunteered with children from East Palo Alto, I realized that they were being deprived of opportunities to be educated about the natural world. On my days off, I took less privileged children on hikes in Foothills Park, and if the entrance policy had been different, they also could have gone on their own with their families. The staff of Palo Alto's Division of Parks and Open Space are dedicated to helping people understand nature. Opening Foothills Park will provide more opportunities for them to do so.
During my time working at Foothills Park, some persons close to me experienced mental health crises. Although a walk in the park will not cure an acute mental health episode, studies have shown that spending time in a beautiful outdoor setting is beneficial to one's mental health. During stressful times, like the one we are experiencing now with this pandemic, opening Foothills Park will help more people benefit from the healing powers of nature.
A common myth about the environment
Visitors do not cause the majority of environmental damage, since most of them use a very small part of the park.
As a park ranger, I learned that it was the park's construction and operation — not its visitors — that have done most of the environmental damage:
Soil and rock from a ridge were bulldozed away and used to fill a valley to make a shallow lake, which leaked. During a drought, it was secretly filled with Yosemite water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir at night, so no one would see.
A valley with magnificent bay trees was overwatered, killing the trees. During a drought, it was "watered" with green dye from a former military tanker truck.
A huge concrete water tank up on Page Mill Road was emptied rapidly and recklessly, creating a huge hillside erosion scar, which is now hidden by poison oak but continues to threaten downstream salmon habitat with silt.
As the one responsible for re-introducing controlled burns to the park, I saw how excluding these burns modified the ecology and created wildfire hazards.
The time for change is now
When the citizens of Palo Alto voted to buy Foothills Park in 1959, lynching was still a frequent practice in the United States. People of color had no protection under the Civil Rights Act, nor were they covered by the Voting Rights Act. The poor and elderly had little access to health care, and the disabled had no protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Times have dramatically changed in my lifetime.
As a child, I found a Native American grinding pestle on Boronda Farm. When I hold that pestle, I think about how Foothills Park's original habitants were forced off the land. This followed the same pattern of injustice as when African Americans were told by Realtors that there were no homes available in Palo Alto. Injustice follows injustice.
We have a responsibility to exercise justice. The time is now — there is an outcry in our country for justice, as seen every day over the past three weeks in the protests for Black Lives Matter. To reference Dr. Martin Luther King, the long arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice.
Please stand with the many community leaders who are working to break an unjust pattern of the past. Please encourage the Palo Alto City Council to open Foothills Park to the diverse Bay Area community.
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