The Marin Conservation League (MCL) holds an annual Walk into (Conservation) History and this year the location was China Camp State Park. The guided hike, led by Nona Dennis, Kathy Cuneo, Louise Kanter Lipsey and members of Friends of China Camp, highlighted the history of saving China Camp from development back in the 1970s and the need to . China Camp is because of deep cuts in the budget of the Department of Parks & Recreation. Judging from the turnout for the hike, the community is determined to prevent this from happening.
The hike began at the parking lot for the Back Ranch Meadows Campground, with introductory remarks by Nona Dennis, vice president of MCL. Dennis then introduced Kathy Cuneo, Ph. D., a botanist who talked about the plant and animal communities that can be found at China Camp. The next speaker was Yvonne Brown of Friends of China Camp, an organization that has raised $180,000 of its $250,000 goal to date in an effort to save China Camp from closure.
Brown talked about the history of China Camp and the origins of the Chinese shrimp fishing camps that once lined the shores of San Pablo Bay. She explained how the shrimp fishing industry faded in the early 20th century and most Chinese people left these isolated villages. Frank Quan is the last remaining resident of China Camp Village, and although his tenancy is guaranteed in the state park's General Plan, it is uncertain what will happen to him if the park should close.
We then started to hike on the Shoreline Trail, with Kathy pointing out plants and trees, wildflowers, and wildlife. With a group of about 40 people, there were many eyes and ears available to find unusual features, including a scorpion that was crawling through the fallen leaves scattered by the trail. As we walked through the serene forest of oak, bay laurel, madrone, and manzanita, the gobbling of wild turkeys rang out across the hills. We followed the trail for about a mile, finding the forest floor covered in a lush mat of woodland strawberry while the hillsides above were bursting into color with the first deep red blossoms of Indian Warriors.
We came out of the forest and into open meadows, with the bay coming into view again, along with the vast salt marshes that surround Turtle Back Hill. Here we stopped for another talk, this one about the political developments that led to the creation of China Camp State Park. Louise Kanter Lipsey provided some fascinating insights into how the park was saved from development in the early 1970s, when Gulf Oil wanted to build a massive development on the site. The plans called for large commercial areas that covered much of the San Pedro Peninsula, along with light industry, high-rise condos, and an estimated population of 30,000.
Louise enlisted the help of some of her Peacock Gap neighbors and formed Save San Pedro Peninsula in 1972. With the help of a man named Bob Young, a volunteer with the MCL, an Environmental Impact Report was prepared, which caused an explosive scene at a meeting of the San Rafael Citizens Open Space Committee. After Bob spent several months walking and exploring every inch of the San Pedro Peninsula and prepared a detailed EIR, the committee took issue with the fact that this was done without their authorization. The EIR was ultimately endorsed by the committee, which got the attention of the Marin County Board of Supervisors. The wheels were in motion for the land to be preserved and a state park created. Bob Young, who played such a pivotal role in this process, has seemingly disappeared in the intervening years.
We then crossed North San Pedro Road and continued the hike on the Turtle Back Hill Nature Trail. This 0.75 mile trail forms a loop around the peninsula of Turtle Back Hill, a unique ecological “island” that is almost entirely surrounded by the salt marshes of San Pablo Bay. The wildflowers were out in force, with blue-eyed grass, pearly everlasting, California poppies, checkerbloom, Ithuriel’s spear, and sticky monkey flower forming a rich palette of California natives that lined the trail. We stopped for another talk at the halfway point, overlooking Jake’s Island and the salt marshes. Kathy provided us with background about the role of the salt marshes in the ecological process and their importance in maintaining the health of the Bay.
We finished the hike after making the complete loop around Turtle Back Hill. Ernest Chung, Chairman of the Friends of China Camp, addressed the group at this point, filling us in on the progress being made to keep the state park open. Friends of China Camp has submitted a proposal to the state to become the operator of the park after July 1, the scheduled closure date. The group's fundraising progress so far, the turnout on this hike and the enthusiasm of the participants are good indications of the strong community support to preserve this very significant part of Bay Area history, culture, and natural environment.