On September 23, after more than two decades of tireless work by conservation advocates—spearheaded by Friends of Tesla Park and including CNPS, our East Bay CNPS chapter, Save Mount Diablo, Sierra Club, Altamont Landfill Open Space Committee, East Bay Regional Park District, Alameda County, dozens of other conservation groups, local tribal leaders, and supportive legislators—Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill permanently protecting Tesla from off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation and preserving it as a state park.
Tesla is an important site of California’s cultural and natural history. The land we call Tesla Park is within the ancestral homelands of the Yokuts and Ohlone peoples, where it traditionally provided seasonal hunting, gathering, and trading grounds, and it holds sacred ceremonial sites. For about 20 years during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Tesla was a busy mining town named after the inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, but little of the town remains today.
Tesla‘s land supports a number of wildlife and plant species considered rare or of special concern by state and federal agencies. Among its 42 protected wildlife species are the threatened California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii). Tesla also lies within an important wildlife corridor linking Mount Diablo and the 150-mile-long Diablo Range to the east.
Tesla’s rich and varied habitat is within our CNPS East Bay Chapter’s Corral Hollow Biological Priority Protection Area. It is home to 13 plant species considered rare or of special concern by state and federal agencies, 28 plant species that are locally rare, and seven sensitive native plant communities. Brewer’s western flax (Hesperolinon breweri) and Hospital Canyon larkspur (Delphinium californicum ssp. interius) are two of the rare plants documented in or near Tesla.
The OHV Park Threat to Tesla
The effort to preserve Tesla began after the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation (OHMVR) Division of California State Parks purchased the “Alameda-Tesla Expansion Area,” including the 3,100 acres of Tesla Park in Corral Hollow in southeastern Alameda County near Tesla Road. The OHMVR Division intended to use this land to expand Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area, a nearby OHV park. Opposition to the project began soon after the public was informed of State Parks’ plan for the land.
During the past 20 years, the OHMVR Division made three unsuccessful attempts to gain approval for the OHV park project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The most recent attempt involved an environmental impact report (EIR) that was the subject of three separate lawsuits. In January of this year, the Sacramento County Superior Court held that the EIR was invalid.
Legislative Efforts to Save Telsa
Two Bay Area legislators, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan and Senator Steve Glazer, have been Tesla’s champions, sponsoring a number of bills to protect Tesla and preserve it as a park with no motorized recreation. In 2019, Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan and Senator Glazer both authored bills that would have allowed but not required Tesla to be sold by State Parks to another agency or entity for conservation purposes. Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed that bill.
Early in 2021, Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan and Senator Glazer authored another bill to preserve Tesla in perpetuity as a state park with no OHV recreation, and to reimburse the OHMVR Division for the land using non-state funds. The bill passed the Assembly, and in June, legislators also crafted language to preserve Tesla in the state’s 2021-2022 budget bill. Governor Newsom threatened to use a line-item veto if this language was included in the budget bill, so it was removed.
Finally, in early September of this year, the Newsom administration and the legislature reached an agreement through another bill. The agreement added language to the Public Resources Trailer Bill (SB-155) making Tesla a state park, prohibiting its use as an OHV recreation area, and setting aside $1 million of state funds for the State Parks Department to plan for the best use of Tesla as a state park. The Assembly and Senate passed the bill, and Governor Newsom signed it on September 23.
In addition to preserving Tesla as a non-OHV park, the new legislation also gives $29.8 million of state funds to the OHMVR Division for the current value of the Tesla land, acquisition and development of other lands for OHV recreation, and reimbursement of expenses. This sum is vastly beyond the purchase price and current value of the Tesla property. The new legislation allows State Parks to consider adding OHV recreation to existing state parks and state recreation areas (but not to Tesla), and it specifically mentions Henry Coe State Park (in the South Bay) as a possible site for OHV recreation.
When considering acquisition and development of properties [for] off-highway vehicle recreation opportunities, the department may prioritize properties that have potential to serve large urban areas such as the Bay Area and Central Valley, offer potential recreational opportunities for off highway vehicle recreation, and potential opportunities for motorized access to nonmotorized recreation. Properties for consideration may include areas within existing State Parks and State Recreation Areas, including, but not limited to, Henry Coe State Park.
The new law does not mention or prohibit other non-OHV forms of motorized recreation at Tesla Park. Supporters will be working to assure that Tesla is designated a State Natural and Cultural Reserve, which will provide public access for enjoyment, education, and low-impact recreation consistent with preservation of Tesla’s sensitive resources. And while we’re thrilled that Tesla’s natural and cultural resources will be protected from OHV use, we’re concerned that other state parks will be pressured to add disruptive OHV recreation. Supporters of other state parks and state recreation areas should be aware that the powerful OHV lobby will be looking to add OHV recreation to other state lands.
In the meantime, we’re taking time to recognize and express our gratitude for the community of concerned individuals, conservation organizations, tribal leaders, elected officials, and government agencies whose dedication and persistence has brought about the preservation of Tesla’s extraordinary natural and cultural richness.
– Beth Wurzburg and Sue Rosenthal, CNPS East Bay Chapter