A young man feeds pelicans at the bird sanctuary near the Rotary Nature Center in 1999. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Burress

One hundred fifty years ago, the mayor of Oakland watched from his home on the shores of Laguna Peralta as hunters took aim at the wetland’s birds. Many of the Ohlone people, who tended the land and waters of the Bay Area for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, and who had once fished in Laguna Peralta, had been forcibly relocated to Spanish missions like Mission San Jose, and the lake was filling up with sewage. Meanwhile, the area had become prime real estate, and the sound of the gunshots irritated the mayor of the relatively new city and his wealthy neighbors, who were anxious of stray bullets. He petitioned the courts to designate the area a wildlife refuge, and in 1870 it became the country’s first.

The mayor’s name was Samuel Merritt. Over time, Oaklanders started calling the body of water Merritt’s Lake, and later, Lake Merritt. The mayor’s self-interested decision inadvertently left a resounding legacy on the lake and even the national park movement that was just starting to form. 

Although the creation of the country’s first wildlife refuge seems to have had the interests of the elite in mind, it did result in the California Wildlife Act, which made it “unlawful for any person to take, kill or destroy, in any manner whatever, the grouse, any species of wild duck, crane, heron, swan, pelican, snip, or any wild animal or game, of any kind or species whatever.” Over time, Lake Merritt would become an important wildlife refuge and city park, although it is not without contradictions. It has suffered from serious pollution and hasn’t always welcomed everyone to its shores for recreation.

Now, the 150-year history of wildlife protection at Lake Merritt is the subject of a new documentary film.

“That one political act, enacted by an aristocracy that brutally excluded other people, gives us a place to stand and look to the future as we’re facing climate change,” said Katie Noonan, one of the film’s creators and a steward of the lake for over 25 years.

Noonan, David Wofford, and John Kirkmire—all are longtime Lake Merritt advocates—started talking about the lake’s 150th anniversary as a wildlife refuge last fall when they realized the city wasn’t hosting an official event. They planned a celebration for March on the anniversary of the Wildlife Act, but when the pandemic shut their event down, the idea for a documentary took shape. 

The film is available on YouTube and the 150th anniversary celebration will be streamed on KTOP Channel 10 on October 23. 

The documentary celebrates Lake Merritt’s wildlife and the human stewards who protect it. It features interviews with Lake Merritt legends—Jim Carlton, who became the world’s leading expert on marine invasive species by first studying them in Lake Merritt as a high schooler; Richard Bailey, the founder of Lake Merritt Institute; and Jim Covell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose father was the lake’s first naturalist. And it signals the changing times from the old guard to the newer stewards, like Lake Merritt Institute’s executive director James Robinson, who was trained by Bailey, and naturalist Damon Tighe.

“We have the environmental community that can recognize the systemic neglect that has been applied toward the environment. And now more than ever, we’re being called to recognize systemic neglect and oppression as it applies to people.”

David Wofford

“Everybody we interviewed were all stewards of the lake in one way or another,” said John Kirkmire, who put the documentary together. 

Following Lake Merritt’s designation as a wildlife refuge, Oakland residents undertook several major efforts to preserve it. A bond measure in 1907 enabled the city to purchase land surrounding the lake, ensuring that the public—not just private residents like Samuel Merritt—could enjoy the lake. Lakeside Park was built, as were pedestrian paths encircling the lake. But it would be almost a century until the next major bond measure dedicated to Lake Merritt, Measure DD, passed in 2002.

In the meantime, many of Lake Merritt’s stewards rose to prominence. Paul Covel moved from a maintenance closet wedged between two restrooms to a proper office in what became the Rotary Natural Science Center. Covell oversaw the construction of the bird islands, which ensured Lake Merritt’s status as a key rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major annual migration route for birds that fly mostly from prairies in the United States and Canada to as far south as South America. After the bird tagging program began, people realized that the birds passing through Lake Merritt flew all around the world. (One bird tagged at the lake was killed by a hunter in Siberia.)

The documentary draws parallels between the diversity of the lake’s creatures, which hail from every corner of the world that the San Francisco Bay has ever traded with, and its human visitors. “This is where everybody comes, whether they have wings or feet,” said Robert Raburn, the BART director, in a section of the film titled “People Refuge.”

The Rotary Nature Center was built in 1953 to serve as an interpretive museum and hub for Lake Merritt stewards. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Burress

Mayor Libby Schaaf also makes an appearance in the film. “That is what the lake does: it brings people together,” Schaaf says. “When you sit on the side of the lake, you see Oakland walk by: everyone, every language, every kind of person, every make-up of what we believe is a family. They are here at the lake and it’s a place that welcomes everyone.”

But as with the lake’s history as a wildlife refuge, the story of the lake’s relationship to its diverse visitors is complicated. Many organisms found in Lake Merritt are invasive, pushing native species from the ecosystem. “In the ecological world, we talk about competition and the replacement or displacement of what used to be there before,” Carlton said in an interview in the documentary. “We have seen those dynamics, whether it’s worms or people coming in. And while we can’t do much about invading amphipods and polychaete worms, one hopes we can do a lot better with people.” 

Gentrification has priced many long-time Oaklanders out of the city over the past three decades. The percent of Black people living in Oakland has fallen from 43% in 1991 to 24% in 2019.

Beyond demographic changes, not everyone has always felt welcome at Lake Merritt. In 2018, a video of a white woman calling the police on two Black men barbecuing went viral. This year, an effigy was found tied to a tree at the lake. Conflict between mostly Black and brown street vendors and neighborhood residents have resurfaced concerns that some groups are being driven away from the lake by more affluent residents who live near its shoreline. And with the lake drawing large crowds even during COVID-19, some neighbors have complained of illegal alcohol sales, fireworks, speeding cars, and trampled landscaping.

“We tried to not have that spill over into our anniversary and celebration because it was so contentious,” said Wofford, co-chair of the Rotary Nature Center Friends. Wofford described the Black environmental advocates that served as his role models—Chappell Hayes, who fought against polluters to give West Oakland residents clean air, and Carl Anthony, a professor and longtime advocate at the intersection of race and environmentalism. Wofford sees his life work as bridging the gaps between the two movements.

“We have the environmental community that can recognize the systemic neglect that has been applied toward the environment. And now more than ever, we’re being called to recognize systemic neglect and oppression as it applies to people,” Wofford said. Racism and environmental degradation are both rooted in exploitation and prioritizing profit above all else, he said, “so perhaps we can address them together.” 

The complex interplay between the environmental movement and the movement for racial justice is left out of the documentary. But the filmmakers hope to inspire a new generation of Lake Merritt stewards by educating Oaklanders. Among the people the film celebrates is Lake Merritt Institute director James Robinson. In addition to clearing thousands of pounds of trash from the lake each year, Robinson has also hosted school groups there.

“A lot of science is showing us that if we don’t take care of our planet, we’re going to be in bad shape. The more people know what’s going on, the more they can help,” said Robinson in an interview. When he saw how many students, especially from schools in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, were disconnected from nature, he decided to write a children’s book that would speak to them. A Bird’s Tale is inspired by Hank, a pelican with a broken wing that lives on Lake Merritt’s bird islands. It’s a story about perseverance in the face of adversity.

Environmental education is pivotal to change, said Robinson, who used to spend much of his time teaching sailing at the Lake Merritt boathouse but now focuses more on keeping the waters clean and educating others. “When you learn that all this trash from seven square miles just spews into Lake Merritt from the storm drain outlets, that makes a complete difference. It changes my behavior and I assume it will change others peoples’ behavior.” 

The virtual film screening on October 23 will feature guest speakers and promises to focus on more than what’s in the film, including “addressing the challenges of Conservation, Environmentalism, and Racial Justice in the 21st Century amid homelessness, population density, climate change, and human needs in the Bay Area and beyond.”

Given the contentious history of space and belonging at Lake Merritt, and the often untold history of non-white people’s relationship to the lake, the anniversary is “an uncomfortable marking of an event,” Noonan admits. But, she said, “It’s a place to look forward and backward to think about the role of humans in nature.”

“We aim to steward the natural environment and prevent it from further degradation, and continue to diversify that experience,” Wofford said.

Correction: the virtual celebration on the 23rd does not include a screening of the documentary. The film is available to view anytime on Youtube.