Opinion: Norman La Force is wrong for our East Bay parks

He is an anti-access activist whose election to the board of directors would be a disservice to the popular, well-run park district.

Norman La Force is an anti-access activist whose election to the board of directors would be a disservice to the popular, well-run East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD).

Residents of Ward 1 recently received a La Force campaign flyer touting his contributions to McLaughlin Eastshore State Park (MESP). You may love that park, but La Force hated it. If he had been on the EBRPD board in 2002, MESP would be very different today.

His 14-page complaint to California State Parks in late August 2002 said there was too much public access, too much parking, and too many facilities. He was bitter that Sierra Club’s restrictive vision had not been adopted, and said the planning process had failed the participants. But at least, he said, the Berkeley Meadow and Albany Bulb had been set aside for preservation.

The Berkeley Meadow, 72 acres of landfill that cost $6 million to transform into artificial wetlands, is now behind a chain-link fence with two fenced, token paths. Presumably, the Albany Bulb will be one day, too.

People can argue about whether “restoring” landfill along the crowded urban shoreline is the best use of scarce parkland and monies. The discussion has social justice implications: Residents of West Berkeley used to enjoy jogging, picnicking, and flying kites on those 72 acres. But you will not be having that discussion with Norman La Force.

The two extremes that MESP park planners considered for Eastshore State Park (ESP) 20 years ago were maximum conservation and maximum recreation. Under maximum conservation, kayaking, kiteboarding, and windsurfing were prohibited. The Albany Bulb and Albany Beach would have been off-limits. Few trails would have been allowed along the shoreline. There would be no off-leash dog walking on North Point Isabel, and the footbridge from one side of that park to the other would have been removed.

The plan that was eventually adopted set aside large areas for habitat, including the Albany Mudflats Ecological Reserve, Emeryville Crescent, Hoffman Marsh, and Berkeley Meadow. It just didn’t set aside everything.

ESP planners rejected the maximum conservation option, saying it would allow the public to observe the park but not actually experience it. La Force responded furiously (page 103). That was a value judgment on the part of the park planners, he said. Observation is an experience, he said.

He complained that the planners should at least have adopted the (slightly less draconian) plan put forward by Sierra Club, Citizens for East Shore Parks, and others. (That plan, too, would have restricted water access and reduced longstanding off-leash recreation at Point Isabel/North Point Isabel from about 50 acres to 23 acres.)


La Force declared that the final, compromise plan “gives something to everyone but pleases no one, and cannot be justified by policies or the law.” That is:  I may sue EBRPD, as I have over many other things.

East Bay residents have a park today where we can splash in the water, picnic, cycle, wander along the shoreline, launch a kayak, and walk our dogs. We owe that to EBRPD and California State Parks, not La Force. They pushed back against him. That’s their role:  to balance recreation, conservation, and preservation. They speak for wildlife, habitat, and park users. La Force does not.

La Force also has a credibility issue. He claims to have led a Sierra Club campaign to double the size of “the Point Isabel Dog Park.” The campaign he actually led, in the early 2000s, was to cut longstanding off-leash recreation by more than half. The paper trail is indisputable, and East Bay Times called La Force out on the falsehood when it endorsed Elizabeth Echols.

For the record:  Point Isabel Regional Shoreline is a multi-use park that allows dogs off-leash – not a dog park. EBRPD does not operate dog parks. La Force knows this; also, he was on the local Sierra Club chapter’s executive committee when it passed a resolution in August 2000 opposing “exclusive dog run areas” anywhere in EBRPD. Yet he would have us believe he was advocating for doubling “the Point Isabel Dog Park” at the very same time.

The Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter sent a tortured rebuttal to East Bay Times that tacitly admits that La Force and others opposed off-leash recreation on North Point Isabel. But, it says, he brought the environmental community together and “worked a solution that doubled the size of the dog park to be added to McLaughlin Eastshore State Park by including the adjacent Battery Park.”

The question remains whether La Force worked on this solution before or after the preferred park concept was presented to the public on March 21, 2002. (The preferred park concept authorized off-leash recreation on North Point Isabel to continue.) If before, it is surprising that La Force wrote on March 26, 2002, opposing his own solution. If after, then the solution wasn’t his.

This dissembling troubles residents of Ward 1, or at least it should. Facts matter.

When McLaughlin Eastshore State Park was being created, park users submitted 20,000 signatures in favor of preserving recreation, including off-leash recreation, at Point Isabel. They were pushing back specifically against La Force, who has a long history of bias against people with dogs. They won.

But park users shouldn’t have to mobilize like that. Parks leaders should be looking out for them.

Norman La Force is the wrong person for that job.

EBRPD deserves thoughtful leadership that is not excessively ideological. La Force says he wants to transform the park district from the inside. His track record on the outside suggests that’s a very bad idea.

The right person for the job is Elizabeth Echols. Echols balances stewardship with access. She knows people need parks and that parks need them. We need East Bay residents to actively enjoy their parks, fall in love with the outdoors, become stewards of the environment, and keep voting to support EBRPD. The future of the parks literally depends upon it.

Mary Barnsdale is an East Bay resident, recreational dog walking advocate, and park supporter who organized the East Bay’s first big beach microplastics cleanup in 2017.