When you see the foothills, mountains and Baylands of the Peninsula, you may think about the hiking, biking or riding trails that wait to be explored. But behind much of the Peninsula's nature access is one predominant organization shaping that landscape: Midpen.
That's the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the publicly funded open space district tasked with protecting and managing public access to more than 65,000 acres of undeveloped land spread out across 26 preserves — all but two of which are publicly accessible — from Half Moon Bay and Redwood City in the north to Los Gatos and San Jose in the south.
Midpen turns 50 this year, and its leaders are using the milestone to celebrate the district's achievements since it was officially created through a voter initiative on the November 1972 ballot. Measure R, an initiative called "Room To Breathe," passed "overwhelmingly" by 67.7%.
"I think that it can be easy to perhaps take these public open spaces for granted, but they are here because of a lot of foresight and hard work," said Leigh Ann Gessner, a district spokesperson.
A half-century of preservation
What would grow into Midpen first began in the late 1960s, when Palo Alto resident Nonette Hanko became involved with local government to raise concerns about how rapidly local open spaces were being developed. After an editorial in the Palo Alto Times by Jay Thorwaldson suggested adopting an approach the East Bay used to create a regional park district, Hanko began a grassroots campaign to pass the "Room to Breathe" initiative.
In 1973, the Midpen board of directors hired its first general manager, Herb Grench. The following year, the agency bought its first piece of land, 90 acres that became the Foothills Open Space Preserve. It later purchased 760 acres that would become the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, and received its first land gift, 136 acres that would become part of the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve.
Then, in November 1976, voters agreed to annex the southern portion of San Mateo County — Atherton, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, Woodside, San Carlos and East Palo Alto — into the district. Around that time Grench proposed the creation of a separate nonprofit land trust to raise money and work with land owners to secure land purchases. That organization became the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), formed in 1977.
Over the years, the district continued to both purchase land and receive land as gifts. In 1980, Midpen bought the 537-acre Windy Hill property from POST, representing the first of many public-private partnerships developed between Midpen and POST.
By 1992, the agency had protected roughly 35,000 acres. It had added another 12,000 acres by 2002. It continued to expand its land holdings, creating the Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in 1999.
In 2004, Midpen expanded its boundaries to the San Mateo County coast, and has since protected more than additional 11,000 acres of natural and agricultural lands.
Then, in 2014, voters approved Measure AA, providing a $300 million general obligation bond to the district to buy open space, expand access and improve existing preserves. Hanko retired in 2019 after serving on the district's board for 46 years.
Over the past several years, Midpen has also opened up the summit of Mount Umunhum and La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, adopted a climate action plan and wildland fire resiliency program, and developed a program to protect watersheds and provide grants to support conservation, education and access.
Adapting to changing times
Over the past five decades, the district has not only acquired more lands, but invested more resources toward restoring the lands in its care, according to Gessner.
The district has three primary goals as part of its mission: to preserve land, restore it to its original function and promote its accessibility.
"It's a big part of the work we do that isn't as visible to the public as preserving the land and opening it up for public enjoyment," Gessner said.
Nearly all of the land that Midpen has acquired over the years is not what's considered "pristine wilderness," she said. The lands have been used by different groups in different ways over the centuries — they have been logged, made into motorcycle parks or been subjected to unnatural fire suppression tactics.
"We have challenges that are different today than 50 years ago," she said. "For example, climate change and wildifire were probably not as top of mind as they are for us today."
This year, the district has a number of projects it's working on.
Midpen is in the middle of a redistricting process to draw new election boundaries for its seven seats, each of which represents a geographic area called a "ward." The district's board has already selected a preferred map for the new boundaries and is expected to consider approving it at its March 23 meeting. The proposed shifts push the boundary of Ward 6 northward, consolidates Wards 2 and 5 into shapes that are less intertwined and pushes the proposed Ward 3 boundaries farther south.
Access an interactive map here showing the current boundaries compared to the proposed ones for more details, or to do an address-based search.
Midpen is also stepping up its approach to wildland fire management, and is working to manage vegetation at several preserves, developing fuel breaks — gaps in vegetation designed to slow the spread of a fire — at the Skyline and Monte Bello preserve parking areas. The agency is also working to reduce fuels in Thornewood Preserve in Woodside.
In addition, staff are working to remove dead, broken and diseased tree limbs and a few bay laurel trees around the area of the Deer Hollow Farmhouse at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino. Midpen recently created a fuel break at Pulgas Ridge and Coal Creek preserves.
Midpen field staff are provided annual training as fire first responders, according to the district website.
The open space district is also in the middle of a pilot program to evaluate whether e-bikes should be allowed on trails where other bicycles are permitted at Rancho San Antonio Preserve and County Park and Ravenswood Preserve, and the results are expected to be reviewed by the district's Planning and Natural Resources Committee on March 8.
To celebrate the district's 50th year, district staff are planning a number of community programs, according to Gessner.
"We invite the public to join us in 2022 to celebrate how far we have come together as a community in realizing our vision, sharing stories from the last half-century of perseverance, and recognizing the contributions of people past, present and future," Ana María Ruiz, general manager at Midpen, said in a press statement.
Among the planned activities include a family-friendly festival set for April 30 at the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve along the Bay in East Palo Alto and a Coastside community celebration at Johnston Ranch near Half Moon Bay in the fall. Throughout the year, Midpen will also offer hikes and other activities led by docent naturalists, including a hike series aimed at visiting all 26 preserves.
People can also participate in the celebration through online and social media programs. MidPen is offering participants in a program called "Open Hearts" a commemorative gift if they share their stories and talk about what they like most about their favorite open space preserves. People are also invited to post photos at Midpen preserves and tag their post with the tag @MidpenOpenSpace and hashtag #SpottedAtMidpen. Each month, a winner will be chosen to receive a prize. The district also plans to host pop-up events at open spaces throughout the year, visiting a different preserve each month.
"Time and again, I’ve been so impressed with the passion, the dedication and the care the folks at Midpen bring to their work," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian at a recent Midpen meeting. "They roll up their sleeves, and they do the hard work. That’s what it takes to protect the natural resources in our region."