Long-time Peninsula residents can remember when it was not at all assured that today's spectacular views of our undeveloped coastal mountains would avoid development.
But thanks to the vision of people who were the pioneers of a burgeoning local environmental movement, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) was formed in 1972 through a voter initiative and privately owned land was gradually acquired and opened for public use.
Today MROSD now oversees 26 preserves totaling more than 60,000 acres with more than 225 miles of trails, and that doesn't include vast additional acreage of other connected open-space lands and trails operated by other public agencies.
When one combines the land owned by various groups, including MROSD, the federal, state and county governments, the city of San Francisco Water Department and the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the expanse of undeveloped open-space watershed between Los Gatos and Pacifica has largely been permanently protected.
Increasingly, these agencies have recognized it is their responsibility to make these lands available for public use and enjoyment, not to simply preserve them.
As the demand for recreational opportunities increases with population growth and more active lifestyles, parks and open-space agencies are grappling with how to best serve the public, and how to balance competing interests.
To its credit, the Midpeninsula Open Space District has pulled out all the stops to undertake a $500,000 visioning and priority-setting process called "Imagine the Future of Open Space." With the help of consultants, it has conducted formal surveys and hundreds of informal interviews and group sessions to gather public input. Public meetings are scheduled over the next few weeks to gain further input, and the elected directors are expected to adopt a final plan by the end of the year.
Like many planning exercises, however, the scope of the visioning process is so broad that it risks not focusing enough attention on the most important and controversial questions: How much and what types of recreational uses should be allowed and supported within the district's preserves?
The values promoted in the draft plan — stewardship, education, biodiversity, enjoyment of nature, increased diversity of visitors and improved visitor experience — are all appropriate and certainly belong in MROSD's visioning document. The plan's laundry list of 74 prioritized action items, which detail specific improvements in each region within the district, including new trails, improved trail connections, habitat restoration, better parking, signage and maintenance, are sound.
But in both being broad and visionary on the one hand, and ultra-specific on the other, critical questions about how we want to use these valuable resources for recreational purposes get lost.
For example, currently in the entire open-space district, backpack camping is permitted in only one spot, atop Black Mountain above Los Altos Hills, where there are five campsites. Should development of additional overnight camping opportunities be part of a long-range plan?
Mountain biking is allowed in 16 of the 26 preserves on about 140 miles of trails. Horseback riding is permitted in all but five of the preserves.
But for dog owners, who far outnumber mountain bikers or equestrians, the district is decidedly unfriendly. Only four of the preserves on the Midpeninsula are open to dogs, and most offer only short-distance trails of little interest to serious hikers. One preserve promoted as dog-friendly, the Foothills Open Space Preserve on upper Page Mill Road, has a single trail that is less than a half-mile long.
We are happy to see the Midpeninsula Open Space District undertake this major planning process, but as it nears completion we hope directors don't dodge the controversial questions about expanding and diversifying recreational opportunities. How we use these lands is as important as how we preserve them.