We're Outta Here! 

A massive mining operation near the Sunol-Ohlone wilderness will send the East Bay's coveted elk and eagles fleeing, to say nothing of the hikers.

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But when Utah Construction applied for a county permit, its plan drew immediate and widespread condemnation. Leading the opposition were environmental groups and the East Bay Regional Park District, which argued that the mine would spoil Sunol park. The district ran a hard-hitting campaign that included sharply worded op-ed pieces in the Oakland Tribune and a petition signed by area schoolchildren.

It worked. In 1969, the county board of supervisors turned down the mining permit request. "A quarry could not operate in a manner compatible with the best interests of the public health and safety, no matter how conditioned," county officials said at the time.

Apperson responded with a lawsuit against the county and the park district alleging that the district merely had been looking for a payoff. Park officials, his attorneys claimed in court filings, had offered to "compromise" and support the mine permit if Utah and Apperson would pay the district "large sums of money, dedicate land, and agree to certain conditions." Utah and Apperson refused, and the project collapsed. Years later, Ed DeSilva would take that lesson to heart.

In the estimation of William Apperson, tule elk and golden eagles probably rank just above busybody reporters and tree-huggers. "Damn environmentalists ... damn journalists," he grumbled during a short conversation on his back porch last month in downtown Pleasanton. The white-haired, crotchety 81-year-old still seethes about the failed Utah deal. The grandnephew of George Hearst also remains angry about what happened to his second plan for Apperson Ridge. "It's almost ruined me twice," he snarled.

Shortly after Apperson dropped his litigation against the county and the park district, he unveiled a new plan for the property — a large dude ranch. It was to be a mountaintop resort with panoramic views for nearly two thousand guests and staff members, and would have featured more than three hundred "villas," a tennis center, health spa, restaurants, and a youth camp — all anchored by an equestrian center. County supervisors embraced his idea and approved the dude ranch in 1974.

This time the park district steered clear of the proposal, but environmental groups moved in to block it. The San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club appealed Apperson's permit to the California Water Resources Control Board, which promptly overturned it and sent it back to a local water board for further review. The state board ruled that local officials had failed to properly account for all the sewage that would flow from the dude ranch.

As Apperson fought with the Sierra Club, the tule elk were mounting a very public comeback. By the late 1970s, the state Department of Fish and Game had stepped up its program of reintroducing the animals into some of their original habitats. One location was Tomales Point, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County. Another was in Santa Clara County near Mount Hamilton, twenty miles south of Sunol.

In November 1978, Fish and Game officials released fourteen adult tule elk near Mount Hamilton. A few stayed, but nine left for an even better spot. The eight cows and one bull walked the twenty miles to San Antonio Reservoir near Sunol and Ohlone parks. The reservoir and its surrounding watershed are owned by the San Francisco Water Department, one of the area's three major landholders; the others are William Apperson and the park district. Apperson Ridge sits directly between the reservoir and Sunol and Ohlone parks.

As soon as the elk arrived, they began to prosper. The water department forbids public access to the reservoir or the watershed, which means the elk have eight thousand acres of open space largely to themselves. During a recent reservoir tour with a water department official, the only other visible four-legged animals were cattle, a few deer, and lots of ground squirrels. Mountain lions are also spotted here on occasion, said Tim Koopman, a watershed resource specialist for the water department.

In 1982, two years after the elk arrived, Apperson abandoned his dude ranch proposal. It's unclear why. The old man wouldn't say, and former Sierra Club officials who opposed it said they couldn't remember. Apperson may have lacked the political influence to get it built — despite his family name — or perhaps he simply ran out of money. Public records show that by the early 1980s, he owed at least $400,000 to Union Bank of California. The following year, however, Apperson's long-term outlook took a turn for the better, and the fortunes of the elk took a turn for the worse.


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