Op-Ed: Secrecy, Private Influence Threatened Santa Clara County’s Sanborn Park

Until exposed by citizens in 2018, the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department had conducted a covert four year scheme to destroy 90 acres of Sanborn County Park. Why? To construct revenue-generating bike jumps, barriers and ramps that would put the department’s imprimatur on the most dangerous form of mountain biking. All to generate cash for undisclosed future projects.

The development conflicted with the department’s advocacy of health and safety. It also apparently violated the county’s general plan, its official blueprint for future growth. But with parks department encouragement, REI, Inc., the mountain bike retailer, avoiding publicity, cut a check to local bikers to prepare the initial concept.

Thanks to public opposition, the county Board of Supervisors stopped the project and will finalize that decision sometime this spring when it approves the final master plan for Sanborn Park. Arguably, it should also condemn the parks department for conducting business in secret and encouraging undisclosed corporate influence in local governance.

Documentation acquired through the California Public Records Act revealed how park department decision-makers attempted to persuade Apple, Google, and Yahoo! to help pay the estimated $3.5 million for completing the project. In keeping with the agency’s pattern of secrecy, the parks department never explained why it would not maintain control over the project by instead spending taxpayer money to build the facility.

Reluctance to do so might be related to a lack of demand for replacing parkland with dangerous downhill biking. The department’s own data indicates that the park system’s 160 miles of trails open to bikes are popular with only 1 percent of visitors. So, why destroy a sensitive ecosystem for bike thrills?

Observers believe the parks department justified the scheme by expecting many of the estimated 1,500 revenue-generating daily users to come from throughout northern California. Why part of a county park would become a state-wide attraction was never explained and the potential effects never explored. Apparently unsure how to rationalize the resulting negative impact on local infrastructure, the department appears to have ignored park policy to review such proposals with agencies responsible for traffic, law enforcement and wildfire, all of which remained ignorant of the project.

All the public heard when asked if something was up at the proposed site was a false denial that park personnel had been assigned to implement the “bike park.”

Meanwhile, Annie Thomson, the Santa Clara County Parks Department’s principal planner asserted in an internal email, that though “in theory” environmental law will assess the proposed impacts, “[we are] working with the full intent of developing a bike park ... This is not a Feasibility Study to see if a bike park COULD work—it is to see how a bike park WILL work ... and we will not be going through … a full public input process … to determine the … appropriateness of developing a bike park there.”

In other words: the public be damned.

Some park visitors believe protection of the environment ought to be the department’s main concern. REI would like you to think that’s what it is doing, in 2018 having contributed more than $600,000 to public land across the country. Good corporate citizenship? Ask Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is now suing its City Council for voting to sell part of a park for a mall that would just so happen to be anchored by an REI store.

Equally revealing, REI testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in opposition to a federal tax on recreation gear which would be distributed to public lands. Obviously, REI prefers obsequious park managers receiving corporate checks on bended knee and perhaps industry insiders occupying positions in targeted public agencies. Ms. Thomson, hired not long after REI-funding of the proposed bike park, and recently promoted to interim deputy director, had been for six years employed in bike sales and instruction for REI.

Just a coincidence? Or was she engaged to help transform a public agency into one more corporatized, commercialized and whose accountability to citizens consequently compromised? We will never know without an investigation of Santa Clara County’s now-infamous bike park affair. I’m talking to you, Board of Supervisors.

John Miller is the author of Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape and a member of the Santa Cruz Mountains Environmental Protection Alliance. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].


  1. Wow Mr. Miller! I am highly impressed by your courage. County Supervisors I am talking to you too! Is this woman going to be given a higher position or be investigated? Dave Córtese, I received and invitation from you via email to join a board or commission for the county and be able to advice you and other supervisors. I am Not interested on your position. This is my advice to you though: BE ON THE SIDE OF THE PEOPLE AND JUSTICE NOT SPECIAL INTEREST. My request as a voter of Santa Clara County is: investigate this ripoff!

  2. KAMALA FOR THE PEOPLE; KAMALA FOR PRESIDENT! Vote for the least evil; vote KAMALA. Shalom…My Advice to you Kamala…PEOPLE victim centered approach. Protect victims; rehab aggressors. NO TO RAPE CULTURE!

  3. This op-ed is lunatic to the core. The trail improvements already done in Sanborn County Park, notably the John Nicholas Trail, have proved hugely popular with mountain bikers and hikers alike. You can hardly find a space to park at the Black Road trailhead on weekends. Further trail development at Sanborn on the south side of Black Road would be welcomed by northern Californians of all ages. There won’t be any environmental harm.

    Deep ecologists like the author work relentlessly to disconnect Americans from their public lands, unless they’re willing to walk dutifully and reverently (and sometimes not even then). They hate mountain biking because it’s exhilarating. They’re also misanthropic generally, regarding the human race as an infestation (themselves excepted, of course).

    Nuttiness of this type is unique to the United States. It’s an epiphenomenon of the Puritans’ baleful 17th-century influence, which lingers over the national psyche like a dark cloud.

  4. REI is disgusting! They claim to care about the environment, but actually they are only interested in profiting from it.

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: https://mjvande.info/mtb10.htm . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see https://mjvande.info/scb7.htm ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Mountain bikers also love to build new trails – legally or illegally. Of course, trail-building destroys wildlife habitat – not just in the trail bed, but in a wide swath to both sides of the trail! E.g. grizzlies can hear a human from one mile away, and smell us from 5 miles away. Thus, a 10-mile trail represents 100 square miles of destroyed or degraded habitat, that animals are inhibited from using. Mountain biking, trail building, and trail maintenance all increase the number of people in the park, thereby preventing the animals’ full use of their habitat. See https://mjvande.info/scb9.htm for details.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    To see exactly what harm mountain biking does to the land, watch this 5-minute video: http://vimeo.com/48784297.

    In addition to all of this, it is extremely dangerous: https://mjvande.info/mtb_dangerous.htm .

    For more information: https://mjvande.info/mtbfaq.htm .

    The common thread among those who want more recreation in our parks is total ignorance about and disinterest in the wildlife whose homes these parks are. Yes, if humans are the only beings that matter, it is simply a conflict among humans (but even then, allowing bikes on trails harms the MAJORITY of park users — hikers and equestrians — who can no longer safely and peacefully enjoy their parks).

    The parks aren’t gymnasiums or racetracks or even human playgrounds. They are WILDLIFE HABITAT, which is precisely why they are attractive to humans. Activities such as mountain biking, that destroy habitat, violate the charter of the parks.

    Even kayaking and rafting, which give humans access to the entirety of a water body, prevent the wildlife that live there from making full use of their habitat, and should not be allowed. Of course those who think that only humans matter won’t understand what I am talking about — an indication of the sad state of our culture and educational system.

  5. Hmmm.

    REI sells bikes for profit. Yes?

    People who use the bike lanes carved out of public thoroughfares buy bicycles. Yes?

    Thinking. . . Thinking . . . Thinking . . .

    Could it be possible that . . . . No. Silly me. That would just be a conspiracy theory.

  6. This is written from a very ignorant point of view. The fact is that more of these mountain bike is must be built so that riders do not have to resort to becoming a nuisance to other random protected spaces. Good for REI.

  7. ( Disclosure: I opposed the Sanborn bike trails last year, both because of the apparent lack of required environmental review, and also because the proposal had parking at the top of the hill which is far more problematic both for emergency services and in inclement weather. I would have preferred the proposal use the existing Sanborn parking lots)

    This article seems really one-sided. Did you ask the Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers for their point of view?

    As more and more people spend their life staring at screens, it’s vital that we broaden the communities that love and use the outdoors as much as possible. We just need to do so with sensitivity to the environment and to the impacts on everyone else.

  8. I thank REI and the county for supporting this worthwhile project.

    The trail improvements already done in Sanborn County Park, notably the John Nicholas Trail, have proved hugely popular with mountain bikers and hikers alike. You can hardly find a space to park at the Black Road trailhead on weekends. Further trail development at Sanborn on the south side of Black Road would be welcomed by northern Californians of all ages. There won’t be any environmental harm. Hikers and mountain bikers get along reasonably well on the John Nicholas Trail. It should be the same if this new network is developed.

    Deep ecologists like the author strive to disconnect Americans from their public lands, unless they’re willing to walk dutifully and reverently (and sometimes not even then). They detest mountain biking because it’s exhilarating. Attitudes of this type are unique to the United States. They’re an outgrowth of the Puritans’ unfortunate 17th-century influence, which lingers over the national psyche like a dark cloud.

  9. The real story here is the apparently well known secrecy under which the County Parks and Rec Department has operated for years. How has this continued for so long. Did cash change hands? Dig deeper SJI. This might be a good investigation for the Civil Grand Jury to undertake.

  10. I love mountain bikes. Imagine that, bikers writing their our EIR for their own purpose , reminds me of another group that of human turds that cry global warming and climate change to preserve their rights to huge swaths of Government money in the form of grants for studies. Mountain biking is likely half of the bikes sold today in the US.

    Perhaps Mayor Sam would get a kick out of some jumps in the bike lanes he shoved down the public throat!

    Yes ridding down hills at break neck speed is dangerous, but its also good exercise and fun and a lot safer just like skiing if done in a supervised environment. Parks are for the people there are no grizzly bears or wolves in Sanborn Park. Deer, fox, coyotes, mountain lions, turkeys. its been about 35 years since I’ve heard of a black bear in the area.
    I’ve seen deer walk right across a live firing range and start grazing as bullets whipped by. Coyotes more than happy to carry of a dead biker. 60% of the bay area is still a wild and unused, if so called greedy corporations want help pay for improvement and maintenance of the parks so much the better.

    What corporations have paid for those narrowed streets that cause traffic jams all over town?

  11. What, what absolute biased ignorance is on display here in this op-ed.

    Do you completely ignore the fact that the second part of the title of the department is that of recreation? The parks are commissioned with balancing the needs of all people against the need for preserving areas, for which there are already many. Open spaces such as the Nolan Property, Coyote Highlands, and Rancho San Vicente have recently been added to the fold and protected from development, providing that space for nature and wildlife to exist which you are claiming is being parceled away.

    Of course REI is looking to make money, that is the purpose of a business… and they are one that supports and provides paychecks for countless outdoor enthusiasts. Tell me, do you work in your career for free and purely subside from your small plot of land? Did you build this e-machine you are pounding away on from acorns and quartz?

    The mission of Santa Clara County Parks and *Recreation* is to *provide*, protect, a preserve regional parklands for the *enjoyment*, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

    The definition of outdoor recreation is different from person to person.

    We are facing intense challenges with a population that continues to grow unsustainably and learning how to integrate this reality into the modern world. The balancing act of providing recreation space applies to EVERYONE looking to ‘enjoy’ their open spaces, NOT just the people you agree with.

  12. I mean, this op-ed is silly. The bike park was never a secret. There was never any backroom corporate skullduggery happening. Sounds like the author found out about the proposal later than he would’ve liked, then called it a cover up. Silly. The bike park would’ve been great. It was destined for a former tree farm, so would be built on already disturbed land. And that land is currently off-limits to Sanborn Park visitors, so it’s not like it would’ve taken away from the experience of any current visitors. The real unfortunate part of the bike park story is that it wasn’t promoted enough among potential users and there was never an effective grassroots push for it, so when the anti-bike folks pushed back the whole thing fell over like a house of cards. But for this guy to write an op-ed saying there was some kind of impropriety happening is dishonest and laughable.

  13. The writer left out the part where the overwhelming majority of opposition was from Santa Cruz county. Why is Santa Cruz County running Santa Clara county? As for the environmental impact concerns that local wealthy residents claim, really? What is the environmental impact of those living in the area from the pollution of their sports cars and SUVs (hardly fuel efficient), the impact to the nocturnal wildlife from their security lighting on their mcmansions in the woods, the impact from their wood smoke in their precious firepits and fireplaces. The county needs to stop all future residence improvements, expansions and new builds in that area in order to provide proper protection to our natural resources.

    Its time the county stops bowing down to the wealthy! The wealthy landowners in the area just want the county park and county land to themselves, that needs to stop! There is nothing wrong with biking in the woods. When done properly it creates a healthy population that knows how to interact with others while having a great respect for the natural environment around them. I’m sure the writer and local residents would prefer their kids play golf on water intensive, pesticide filled golf courses or manicured soccer fields that waste precious natural resources and pollute our environment. Hiding our natural resources does not create stewards, thoughtful and planned interaction creates strong environmental stewards. True stewards of our land know that the best way to minimize their impact on the environment is to live in or near city centers, not in some 4000+ square foot home on top of a mountain. This article is political garbage.

    One thing I agree with the writer on is that Santa Clara county screwed up, by not moving forward with creating recreation activities that are in line with the interests of Santa Clara county citizens.

  14. Wow. What an inflammatory hack piece (but it sure flushed out the HOHA’s). Mountain biking is one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports. Multi-use and bike-specific trails are being built all the time and users happily coexist 99% of the time. Mountain biking is an economic boom for many areas, e.g., Downieville, Santa Cruz, Lake Tahoe, Redding, etc.–and riders typically do WAY more trailwork than other user groups! The sky is not falling.

  15. Bikers are not evil. They take great care to use trails without endangering others. BUT, there are few trails and environmentalist lovers seem to believe that unless you are John Muir walking alone that you kill all things and ruin very sensitive habitat. Not True. There are hundreds of square miles of space in the SC mountains, and we need to figure out a way so that everybody can use the areas to the best of their abilities. Maybe we become separate but equal. Bike only trails and Hike only trails? And don’t forget who helps pay for all the services and improvements around town…the big corporate TAXES that get paid by all these companies. We people just seem to hate each other, and that’s bad. Let’s make some Bike parks – and lets make some more trails that bird-watchers and hemp loving hikers can stroll through untouched wilderness without being disturbed by the whizz of a bike. We’ve tried to share trails (both paved and un-paved) and it clearly doesn’t work. From a culture standpoint or from a physical standpoint. There is plenty of room for us both, let’s divide and conquer!

    • Sharing trails does work in many places, but I think the trend is to separate user groups. That’s the plan for the new San Vicente Redwoods park north of Santa Cruz.

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