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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Narika, Fremont

Memorial Park in Cupertino is a Popular Recreation Spot

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, was celebrated this year all across the East Bay. Celebrations were organized in a variety of venues – community centers, high schools, Alameda County Fairgrounds, as well as at Memorial Park in Cupertino.

While the festivities – sparklers, arts and crafts and fireworks – are a great way to engage people in the spirit of the occasion in some locations, conservationists worry that similar large scale events in public parks could put native wildlife and habitat at risk.

Memorial Park is a popular spot in the heart of Cupertino. It hosts numerous community and civic events on its 22 acre site. Local residents often gathers for summer concerts, Independence Day celebrations, family picnics and softball games.

During the pandemic, popular parks in the East Bay Area saw a 400% increase in visitors. While overall a positive development, these numbers have created challenges in terms of human and wildlife interaction.

Native Wildlife and Habitats at Risk

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) and EMS hosted an Oct 18 briefing focusing on “Enjoy, Don’t Destroy Our Public Parks: More Visitors Put Native Wildlife and Habitat at Risk.”

The title says it all.

The Mission of the EBRPD is to acquire, preserve, protect, and operate regional parklands in perpetuity for public use. At the briefing, they explained that increased public use has caused unprecedented friction between the animals that call the parks home, and visitors to the park. Now, the EBRPD is seeking the public’s help to protect parks so they can be enjoyed far into the future.

Finding a Balance

The trick, according to EBRPD Environmental Services Manager Becky Tuden, is finding the balance between preservation and recreation. Lands need to be meaningful to the public, but at the same time they are not something that is to be ‘consumed.’

EBRPD Board Member, Dee Rosario highlighted that some individuals view the role of public parks differently dependent upon their cultural perspective. For instance, some see parks as opportunities for a solitary escape from urban life, while others view parks as venues for family gatherings, and group recreation and entertainment.

“People bring with them their culture heritage and biases. Their own interpretation of what it is to ‘enjoy nature’,” said Rosario. However, he noted, “we need to understand the history and how sensitive it [nature] is to human intrusion.”

How to Be Good Park Stewards

There are three key actions that the public can take to protect their public parks said Doug Bell, EBRPD’s Wildlife Program Manager.

Don’t Disturb Wildlife

First of all, but don’t disturb wildlife. Parks are home to unique environments that host many threatened or endangered species. For example, the federally threatened western snowy plover, winters on the beaches of some parks. To protect these animals, he urges visitors to obey closed areas signs and stay on officially marked trails.

Another important rule is to keep dogs on leashes. Someone may take their dog off leash “and they just see one dog and they think, ‘what’s the problem?’,” said Tuden. “What they don’t realize is that there are 25 million visitors, half of whom have dogs, and maybe a quarter of the who do the same thing with their animal.” The cumulative impact of this seemingly minor transgressions can have major consequences for the ecosystems impacted.

Bell gives another example of a park user crashing a drone into a bald eagle’s next. Drones are not allowed in the parks. As a result , said Bell, “the bald eagles abandoned it [the nest] and this either caused the eggs to die or get eaten by a raven. If there were young chicks, they succumbed because the eagles were so afraid.”

Don’t Feed Wildlife

The second rule is to never feed wild animals. Feeding animals has several negative consequences. First, it draws additional animals into the area and the crowding can spread disease and lead to behavioral problems. Another consequence is that it trains animals to associate humans with food. When animals expect food may attack the humans who don’t meet their expectations. In other words, people can be injured, and the animal will have to be exterminated.

Don’t Release Animals

Last, never release an animal into a park. Domestic animals are not equipped to live in the wild and many will not survive. Joe Sullivan, Fisheries Program Manager for the EBRPD, said that “the number one threat to aquatic life is people releasing aquarium species into the lakes and streams. There is the threat of passing a disease or parasite that could wipe out entire populations.”

Solutions can be found, said Sullivan, when noting that “There are a number of religious communities that do release fish as part of their faith.” For example, the park is happy to work with groups to provide responsible alternative to store-bought fish, such as sourcing fish that are certified as native and healthy.

People also release pets, such as their cats. According to Bell, this is the most destructive thing individuals can do because cats can devastate local populations of birds, rodents, and other vulnerable animals, particularly endangered shoreline species. Should someone no longer be able to care for their cat, the animal should be re-homed or taken to a shelter.

Lands Belong to Everyone

“These are our lands, they belong to everyone,” Rosario concluded. We all share these public lands and we all should share in taking care of that land as well. This comes with an etiquette. Not only how we treat each other, but how we treat the land, it’s animals, and the environment.”

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Erin Zimmerman

Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science...