As the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District continues work on the extensive environmental clean-up of the iconic peak of Mount Umunhum near San Jose, the government agency has also been busily acquiring more land and expanding the area of public open space in the vicinity.
Last week the district’s board of directors unanimously approved the purchase of nearly 176 acres of open space below Mount Umunhum’s summit, near Guadalupe Reservoir and Almaden Quicksilver County Park in southwest Santa Clara County.
The $1.4 million purchase from private landowners expands the Open Space District’s holdings in the area and will be incorporated within the existing Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve on Mount Umunhum. According to the district’s press release, the purchase was “made to protect scenic views, biodiversity and critical wildlife linkages.” The area sits in the Hicks Creek watershed, which is the last tributary before the Guadalupe dam, and is regarded as key potential habitat for steelhead and the endangered California red-legged frog. The Bay Area Open Space Council’s Conservation Lands Network also identified the property as “Essential to Conservation Goals,” indicating its important role in “increasing biodiversity and preservation as part of a network of conservation lands.”
In addition, The Open Space District, commonly known as “Midpen,” has identified potential future trail connections on the property linking the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve to the Bay Area Ridge Trail near Mt. El Sombroso. The property will remain closed to the public while Midpen “secures the site, conducts resource management activities, removes structures, and implements its preliminary use and management plan to restore and maintain the area’s natural condition.”
This purchase comes at a time when the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is facing growing financial challenges. Since 1972, Midpen has bought and protected nearly 60,000 acres of open space for the Bay Area public. Their mission is to “acquire and preserve a regional greenbelt of open space land in perpetuity, protect and restore the natural environment, and provide opportunities for ecologically sensitive public enjoyment and education.” But unless the financial climate changes, within the next ten years Midpen may be faced with the very real prospect of not being able to fund the acquisition of more open space for the public.
By 2017 it is estimated that Midpen will have less than 10% of the $13 million budget they have today to acquire real estate. Now, for the first time, it’s been reported Midpen officials are considering charging user fees, like state and county parks have already implemented. And there may be a return to the ballot box to ask voters to pass a new parcel tax. There are multiple factors at play; property tax revenues in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties have plateaued in the past 5 years, while Midpen’s debt has grown after a series of big acquisitions, and lastly, the district’s staff costs have increased significantly with the hiring of more people to manage the open space land. The combination may mean the district will be unable to protect current privately owned tracks of open space from future development.
That sits fine with some developers and critics who counter the district should be concentrating their efforts on managing the already existing open space lands before acquiring more. Meanwhile environmentalists and nature lovers counter Midpen still serves an important role in acquiring open space and has been instrumental in curbing urban sprawl from deep within Santa Clara County to the northern reaches of the peninsula. Nobody debates, had the district not purchased and protected this open space, the Bay Area would look and feel very different than it does today.
The vast open spaces, parks and wild lands in the public trust help define the quality of life in the Bay Area. And for now, the people of the South Bay can look up at Mount Umunhum and know, most of that mountain belongs to them and pretty soon more of it will be open for exploration.
Web Extra: How Hummingbird Got Fire
Mount Umunhum gets its name from the Ohlone word for hummingbird or “resting place of the hummingbird.” Hummingbird is a central figure in the Ohlone creation story and an important part of their culture. Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone tribal band, reads the legend of how Hummingbird got fire.