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Celebrating County Parks: a century of preserving open space

A century ago — January 24, 1924 to be precise — Santa Clara County acquired 400 acres of rolling foothills between Saratoga and Cupertino for the County’s first public park.

By the end of that year, the County opened what is now Stevens Creek County Park, laying the foundation for the modern-day Santa Clara County Parks system. Today, that system includes 28 locations encompassing more than 52,000 acres set aside for recreation and habitat protection. 

At my request, the Board of Supervisors recently recognized Steven’s Creek Park’s centennial milestone, honoring a beloved park that grew to include more than 1,000 acres of woodlands, meadows, and canyons.

Stevens Creek Park truly highlights the West Valley’s varied and natural beauty — home to a wide range of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, coyotes, and numerous bird species. It’s also a great example of how our County parks are always evolving to meet the recreational needs of current and future generations.

In 1935, the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District purchased 171.5 acres adjacent to the County’s initial purchase of parkland to develop a reservoir. The Stevens Creek dam was completed in 1936. Over the years, additional acreage and improvements meant that Stevens Creek Park today is a place where people go to picnic, connect with nature, tour historic sites, and participate in interpretive programs. There are miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, and facilities to enjoy archery, disc golf, boating, fishing, and horseshoe tossing.

The Board’s commendation honors this particular park — because it was the first, and also, because at its core, that wise and forward-thinking purchase of property blossomed into so much more. 

In 1956 the County’s growing population led to the establishment of our Department of Parks and Recreation. The acquisition of new lands and expansion of the regional parks and trails network accelerated when Santa Clara County voters approved the Park Charter Fund in 1972. This funding helped create one of the largest and most diverse regional park systems in California. That is a very, very good thing. 

Our County’s iconic viewshed — the sweeping ridgelines, emerald green this time of year — is valuable just in itself. Our protected lands also maintain a rich and diverse habitat for animals and plants, help safeguard our water supply, and give residents and visitors a place to recharge.  Parks are integral to our County’s identity and allure. 

As we have come to learn all too well when it comes to land use, there will always be development pressures or some alternative use that someone proposes. Some are worthy and necessary — affordable housing for one. It’s a balancing act. Constant vigilance may sound overly dramatic, but the history of our Valley is a reminder that once open space is gone, it’s probably gone forever. Very rarely do we get to reclaim a site. 

(That said, the Lehigh cement plant and quarry — located just a few miles north of Stevens Creek Park — offers just such a rare opportunity. It’s one reason I pushed the County to negotiate a binding agreement that permanently shuttered the 84-year-old cement plant. In anticipation of the quarry also ceasing operations and the eventual restoration of the 3,500- acre property, I also led the County in partnering with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the City of Cupertino to ensure that any future development benefits the surrounding communities.) 

So, Happy 100th Birthday to Stevens Creek and our wonderful parks system! I hope you will soon find the opportunity to walk, think, picnic, or play in one of our County’s many fine open spaces. 

This article was originally published in Los Gatos Living in March 2024.

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