The Last Big Save
Nearly a thousand acres of the valley oak savanna, wetlands, and agricultural land that once dominated Silicon Valley will be protected.
Photo: Derek Neumann
Originally published in Bay Nature. For complete article and more great stories, visit: baynature.org
Andrea Mackenzie stands on a dirt turnout, amid a landscape of golden hillsides and gnarled valley oaks. “We’re only ten minutes from San José and yet you feel as if you’re miles away from civilization,” she says. As general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, Mackenzie has worked for the better part of a decade to protect large swaths of the imperiled 7,500-acre Coyote Valley, sandwiched uneasily between the sprawl of San José and the rapidly growing community of Morgan Hill. She mentions the valley in the same breath as the Marin Headlands and the Presidio, iconic landscapes saved from development by concerned citizens and responsive leaders. In Mackenzie’s estimation, Coyote Valley is the last major parcel of open space available for protection in the Bay Area, a slice of a vanishing California that are on the brink of receiving the protections that she and others in the environmental community say are long overdue.
For decades developers viewed Coyote Valley as Silicon Valley’s next frontier, a blank slate upon which tech giants such as IBM and Cisco would construct sprawling campuses of glass and steel. (One famous bit of local lore tells of Apple CEO Steve Jobs touring the valley by helicopter, looking for a bucolic setting to build Apple’s headquarters.) More recently, as tech firms including Apple and Cisco have bolstered their presence in and around the urban cores of San Francisco, Oakland, and San José, business leaders have re-envisioned the valley as a hub for online retailers, a shipping mecca of winding arterioles and fortress-like warehouses and distribution centers.
Though South Bay developers and business boosters continue to tout the valley as an important region for growth, the economic benefits of the valley’s environmental resources have come to the fore. Massive flooding in San José in 2017, which displaced roughly 14,000 residents and caused an estimated $100 million in damage, highlighted the need to restore the valley’s once-extensive wetlands for downstream flood control. In addition, valley aquifers buffer groundwater supplies for roughly 2 million residents of Santa Clara County, particularly in drought years. Ecologically speaking, Coyote Valley not only provides critical habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species, including the threatened California red-legged frog and bay checkerspot butterfly; it also supplies a key linkage between wildlife habitat in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. For hikers, Coyote Valley is a connection between vast open-space parks to the east and west and a southern link in the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which, when complete, will make a 550-mile circumnavigation of the Bay Area.
Earlier this year, California state assemblyman Ash Kalra authored AB 948, which declared Coyote Valley a landscape of “statewide significance” and presented a framework for conservation. San José mayor Sam Liccardo, who has made reducing sprawl and increasing density in downtown San José pillars of his administration, has become an outspoken supporter of conservation in Coyote Valley, touting it as a critical component of San José’s push to curb sprawl and brace for a warming climate. “San José is one of the first cities in the U.S. to invest in natural infrastructure in preparation for climate extremes,” said Liccardo in a press release. “This is a visionary, smart growth approach that will make our communities more vibrant, productive and resilient to climate change in the future.” With last year’s passage of Measure T, a $650 million infrastructure bill that allocated $50 million for open space acquisition in Coyote Valley, San José and Santa Clara County are poised to take possession of roughly 937 acres of wetlands, agricultural land and valley oak savanna.
COYOTE VALLEY PURCHASE | (Courtesy of Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority)
And yet the ecosystems of Coyote Valley are a mere fragment of what they once were. Major highways bisect the valley. High-tension power lines crisscross the surrounding hillsides. Farms and McMansions squat on vast acreages, further fragmenting remaining swaths of natural habitat. Water engineering projects have altered the natural course of the valley’s streams and the functioning of its wetlands. To make matters more complicated, much of the valley is still zoned for commercial use, meaning that groups such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust and Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority have been forced to pay premium rates for individual pieces of land—parcels that must be somehow stitched together in the years ahead into a cohesive whole.
All of which is to say that preserving the natural attributes of Coyote Valley will require an ecological reimagining as bold and unwavering as the commercial dreams that sought to transform the region for decades. Can it be done—and is it worth the cost?