A popular movement to preserve nature turns 50 | News

When you see the peninsula’s foothills, mountains, and baylands, you might think of the hiking, biking, or horseback riding trails waiting to be explored. But behind much of the peninsula’s access to nature is one overriding organization that shapes this landscape: Midpen.

It’s the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the state-funded open space district responsible for protecting and managing public access to more than 65,000 acres of undeveloped land spread across 26 reservations — all but two of which are accessible to the public – from Half Moon Bay and Redwood Ville in the north to Los Gatos and San Jose in the south.

Midpen turns 50 this year, and its leaders are using the milestone to celebrate the district’s accomplishments since its formal establishment through a campaign initiative in the November 1972 ballot. Measure R, an initiative called “Room To Breathe,” passed “overwhelming” 67.7%.

“I think it can be easy to take these open public spaces for granted, but they’re here thanks to a lot of foresight and hard work,” said district spokeswoman Leigh Ann Gessner.

What would become Midpen began in the late 1960s, when Palo Alto resident Nonette Hanko became involved in local government to raise concerns about how quickly local open spaces were growing. After a Palo Alto Times op-ed by Jay Thorwaldson suggested adopting an approach used by East Bay to create a regional park district, Hanko launched a grassroots campaign to pass the “Room to Breathe” initiative.

In 1973, Midpen’s board of directors hired its first chief executive, Herb Grench. The following year, the agency purchased its first land, 90 acres which became the Foothills Open Space Preserve. He later purchased 760 acres that would become the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve and received his first land donation, 136 acres that would become part of the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve.

Then, in November 1976, voters agreed to annex the southern portion of San Mateo County—Atherton, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, Woodside, San Carlos, and East Palo Alto—to the district. Around this time, Grench proposed the creation of a separate nonprofit land trust to raise funds and work with landowners to secure land purchases. This organization became the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), established in 1977.

Over the years, the district continued to both purchase land and receive land as gifts. In 1980, Midpen purchased the 537-acre Windy Hill property from POST, representing the first of many public-private partnerships developed between Midpen and POST.

By 1992, the agency had protected approximately 35,000 acres. He had added another 12,000 acres by 2002. He continued to expand his land holdings, creating the Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in 1999.

In 2004, Midpen expanded its boundaries to coastal San Mateo County and has since protected over 11,000 additional acres of natural and agricultural land.

Then, in 2014, voters approved the AA measure, providing a general obligation of $300 million to the district to purchase open space, expand access and improve existing reservations. Hanko retired in 2019 after serving on the district board for 46 years.

In recent years, Midpen has also opened the summit of Mount Umunhum and La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, adopted a Climate Action Plan and Wildfire Resilience Program, and developed a program to protect watersheds and provide grants to support conservation, education and access.

Over the past five decades, the district has not only acquired more land, but has invested more resources in restoring the lands under its care, according to Gessner.

The district has three main objectives within the framework of its mission: to preserve the territory, to restore its original function and to promote its accessibility.

“It’s a lot of the work we do that isn’t as visible to the public as preserving the land and opening it up for public enjoyment,” Gessner said.

Almost all of the land Midpen has acquired over the years is not considered “pristine wilderness”, she said. The lands have been used by different groups in different ways over the centuries – they have been logged, turned into motorcycle parks, or subjected to unnatural fire suppression tactics.

“We have challenges that are different today than 50 years ago,” she said. “For example, climate change and wildfires probably weren’t as big a deal as they are to us today.”

This year the district has a number of projects it is working on.

Midpen is in the midst of a redistricting process to draw new electoral boundaries for its seven seats, each of which represents a geographic area called a “ward”. The district board has already selected a preferred map for the new boundaries and is expected to consider approving it at its March 23 meeting. The proposed changes push the boundaries of Ward 6 north, consolidate Wards 2 and 5 into less interlocking forms, and push the proposed boundaries of Ward 3 further south.

Access an interactive map here showing current boundaries versus those proposed for more details, or to search by address.

Midpen is also stepping up its approach to wildfire management and working to manage vegetation on several reserves, developing fuel cuts – gaps in vegetation designed to slow the spread of a fire – in fire areas. Skyline and Monte Bello reserve parking lot. The agency is also working to reduce fuels in Thornewood Preserve in Woodside.

Additionally, staff are working to remove dead, broken and diseased tree branches and a few laurels around Deer Hollow Farm at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino. Midpen recently created a fuel cut in the Pulgas Ridge and Coal Creek reserves.

According to the district’s website, Midpen field staff receive annual training as fire first responders.

The Open Spaces District is also in the midst of a pilot program to assess whether e-bikes should be allowed on trails where other bikes are allowed at Rancho San Antonio Preserve and County Park and Ravenswood Preserve, and results are expected. be reviewed by the District Planning and Natural Resources Committee on March 8.

To celebrate the district’s 50th anniversary, district staff are planning a number of community programs, according to Gessner.

“We invite the public to join us in 2022 to celebrate how united we have come together as a community in achieving our vision, sharing the stories of the past half-century of perseverance and recognizing the contributions of people past, present and future,” Ana María Ruiz, Midpen’s chief executive, said in a press release.

Among the planned activities are a family celebration scheduled for April 30 at Ravenswood Open Space Preserve along the bay in East Palo Alto and a coastal community celebration at Johnston Ranch near Half Moon Bay in the fall. Throughout the year, Midpen will also offer hikes and other activities led by docent naturalists, including a series of hikes to visit all 26 reserves.

People can also participate in the celebration through online and social media programs. MidPen is giving participants of a program called “Open Hearts” a memorial gift if they share their stories and talk about what they love most about their favorite open space reserves. People are also encouraged to post photos to Midpen’s stashes and tag their post with the tag @MidpenOpenSpace and the hashtag #SpottedAtMidpen. Each month, one winner will be chosen to receive a prize. The district also plans to hold pop-up events in open spaces throughout the year, visiting a different reserve each month.

“Time and time again, I have been so impressed with the passion, dedication and care that the people of Midpen bring to their work,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said during a recent midpen meeting. “They roll up their sleeves and they do the hard work. That’s what it takes to protect the natural resources of our region.”