Throughout the year, visitors to Sunol and Ohlone Regional Wilderness parks can spot black-tailed deer darting in and out of the oak-studded brush or watch red-tailed hawks soar high above the grassy ridge lands. In spring, waterfalls in Sunol's "Little Yosemite" gush with winter runoff, and wildflowers blanket the rolling hillsides in orange, yellow, and blue. The things that make these wilderness areas truly special, however, and what attract thousands of visitors to the region each year, are two majestic and relatively rare animals the tule elk and the golden eagle. The area is home to the world's most densely populated golden eagle habitat. The thriving elk herd, which resides alongside a nearby reservoir and is visible year-round from Sunol wilderness, is the only one of its kind in the East Bay.
But the wildlife in and around Alameda County's two largest parks has flourished for the past twenty years in quiet peril. Since the mid-1980s, the animals and birds have been threatened by the specter of a giant mining and quarrying operation on a private mountain ridge nearby. The mining plans, approved by the county in 1984, allow the operator to dynamite and remove the top third of a 2,200-foot ridge adjacent to the public wilderness.
The operation promises to be staggering in scope. Its owner, politically connected developer and road builder Ed DeSilva, intends to extract 123 million tons of rock for road construction over the next sixty years. Huge crushers will grind the hard rock 24 hours a day, and each weekday during the construction season, more than one thousand dumptrucks will rumble up and down a picturesque backcountry road that connects the quarry to Interstate 680. Nearly three hundred acres of oak woodland, oak savannah, chaparral, and creekside habitat just south of Pleasanton and Livermore will be obliterated.
The mountain ridge itself belongs to a scion of the Hearst newspaper family who has hoped to cash in on his land for nearly forty years. DeSilva, who has controlled mining rights to the land for the past two decades, has bided his time, waiting for the right economic incentives before opening the mine.
Now, thanks to a shortage of quality rock needed for road building, and to the efforts of his close friend, state Senate President Don Perata, DeSilva may soon have his incentives. For more than a year, Perata has worked on a plan that would increase the demand for, and thus the value of, the would-be product of DeSilva's operation.
The story of DeSilva's mine-to-be is yet another skirmish in the age-old battle that pits nature against corporate profits and development. His company stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the quarry, and the rock it yields will widen roads, fill potholes, and create carpool lanes. But all the blasting, crushing, and trucking will come as a rude awakening for the fifty thousand people who enjoy the tranquillity of Sunol and Ohlone parks each year. As for the eagles and elk, experts say both will be devastated. The golden eagles likely will be gone in a generation, while the elk may perish sooner. "It's a ridiculous place to put a mine," said East Bay environmentalist Jeff Miller during a recent Sunol Wilderness hike, which offered a sweeping view of DeSilva's future operation. Miller spends much of his time traipsing through the Sunol-Ohlone region and keeps close tabs on developments there.
Sunol residents and some local environmentalists, Miller included, say they will fight to stop DeSilva. They'll argue that his county mining permit is out of date because it's based on a 22-year-old environmental impact report. But county officials recently stated that the permit remains valid. In an interview, DeSilva wouldn't say when he plans to open his mine, but acknowledged it may be soon. When he does, his opponents will be at a disadvantage, both because of his political influence and the fact that the East Bay Regional Park District and the Sierra Club, the two organizations that normally might be expected to lead the charge against the mine, have promised to stay out of the developer's way.
The East Bay's tule elk weren't always relegated to a small slice of watershed. In the early part of the 19th century, an estimated half-million of them roamed the western half of California from the Sierra foothills to the Pacific. Though the elk are named after a type of Central Valley grass, the East Bay hills and valleys once teemed with the big-horned mammals.
But starting with the Gold Rush of 1849, hunters slaughtered tule elk with remarkable efficiency. Killed for clothing, food, and sport, the animals were brought to the brink of extinction in just over twenty years. By the late 1860s, none were left in the Bay Area, and by 1874 only one small band of about thirty survived in a Kern County marsh near Bakersfield.
Once the East Bay's elk were eliminated, cattle moved in. One of the more famous cattle barons back then was George Hearst, father of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. By the mid-1880s George, who'd made a fortune in gold and silver mining, had purchased thousands of acres of beautiful ridge land now directly adjacent to the Sunol and Ohlone parks, according to a historical report commissioned by the county a century later. When Hearst died in 1891, he left the Sunol property to his wife Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who deeded it to her brother Elbert Apperson eight years later.
For the next sixty years, the Apperson clan raised cattle on the 2,555-acre property, known as Apperson Ridge. In the late 1960s, the Utah Construction and Mining Company offered Elbert's grandson William Apperson $15 million for the mining rights to a section of it. According to public records, the company planned to extract at least 150 million tons of rock from Apperson's land to fill in San Francisco Bay wetlands in Alameda.
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