Saving splendor in the nearby middle of nowhere

Cattle crop the frosty grass on an autumn morning in Murphy Meadow.

There was a time in East Contra Costa – before the arrival of Welsh miners and wheat magnates, Mexican farm laborers and Midwest snow fugitives; yes, even before humanoids crossed the land bridge of the Bering Straight, headed south and earned the title Native – there was a time when nothing here had a name. A nameless mountain ruled the western horizon; a nameless plain stretched east to nameless snow-capped peaks. And nameless hills cradled a nameless valley like a mother’s arms.

That valley now has a name. Its splendor is invaluable but not inevitable. Thirty years ago, these acres were in danger of becoming a garbage dump.

Those of us who tread the trails of Round Valley Regional Preserve rarely meditate on the people who made the trails possible. We focus on falcons and flowers, distant ridges and intimate ravines. But those trails don’t burst into existence out of the blue. They’re envisioned, paid for, shaped and maintained by the efforts of many.

Two key players in the rescue of Round Valley are Jim Murphy and Bob Doyle. In the mid-1980s, farmer and rancher Murphy – grandson of Irish immigrant Tom Murphy, who in 1873 bought the land we call Round Valley – learned that Contra Costa County had nominated his beloved 700-acre spread as a candidate for landfill status. East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Doyle, who back then served as the district’s assistant general manager of land acquisition, was tasked with convincing Murphy to sell the land to the EBRPD.

“All I knew was that he’d shot at somebody,” said Doyle, stipulating that Murphy had fired into the sky. “They were going to do the peripheral canal in the ’70s, looking to acquire all this area for the big reservoir. Jim Murphy wouldn’t let the biologists on his property. He loved this valley – no question about it – got very protective of it.”

The rusted remains of a harvester combine belonging to rancher Jim Murphy, former owner of Round Valley, are among the many vintage farm implements scattered across Murphy Meadow.

Doyle’s first trip into the valley wasn’t his first view of it. “I’d looked down on it from Morgan Territory and lusted after it,” said Doyle. Among the park’s many virtues: it’s the only fully enclosed valley in the EBRPD – a district that operates the largest urban regional park system in the nation.

Round Valley is also a strategic piece of the area’s zoological puzzle. It occupies the center of a wildlife corridor that runs from Shell Ridge in Walnut Creek all the way through Mt. Diablo, Morgan Territory, Round Valley, Los Vaqueros and Brushy Peak. Residents of the corridor range from golden eagles to vernal pool fairy shrimp; bobcats to kit foxes. At dusk you can hear the Round Valley and Los Vaqueros coyote packs howl and yip before splitting up for the evening hunt. 

But in 1986, few East County folk were aware of the existence of Round Valley – fewer saw it as the optimal site for a regional preserve. As Doyle put it, “Nobody thought, ‘Why not have a park out here?’ It was too far from everything.”

When Doyle showed up at the red gate surrounding the Murphy residence in Round Valley, he had no idea how the encounter would go. “This was the first chance I got to meet the property owner,” he said. “And if I said the wrong thing, I wouldn’t have gotten through that gate. He was standing at the gate – he didn’t open the gate.”

Despite his short stature and advanced age (he was approaching 80) Murphy cut a formidable figure. “He was a scary cowboy; hated everybody,” said Doyle. “He was a champion rodeo rider and horse breaker – the Jack Roddy of his time. Always wore his cowboy boots, always wore his big cowboy hat and a big buckle.”

Tule fog slithers through oaks in east Murphy Meadow.

And it was hard to ignore the rifle Murphy toted at that red gate.

Whatever dialogue Doyle had prepared for, he hadn’t prepared for Murphy’s opening line. The rancher eyed the park district guy and said, “What do you think of mountain lions?”

Murphy was a rancher; ranchers aren’t fond of creatures that prey on their livestock. No one would have blamed Doyle for pegging Murphy for a mountain lion hater. But the park district guy replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” and held his breath.

“Well, I like mountain lions,” said Murphy.

“And that was it,” recalled Doyle. “I’m sure he’d shoot coyotes; I’m sure he hunted deer. But he didn’t have a problem with protecting mountain lions.” Who knows? Maybe the tough, solitary Murphy felt a kinship with the big cat. 

“He told me his story,” said Doyle. “He was very cautious, very anti-government. He’d had lots of ups and downs in his life; never had a lot of money. Most all of these longtime ranching families were only ‘land rich.’ Many of them were getting tired of ranching or needed to sell because they wanted their kids to go to college.”

Measure AA, the $225 million bond on the ballot in 1988 – earmarked for the purchase and preservation of 34,000 acres of prime East Bay open space – was vital to the negotiation between Murphy and Doyle. “The original 700-acre purchase was based on a pre-Measure AA promise,” said Doyle, “which was: ‘Mr. Murphy, if you give us an option on your property for $40,000, we’ll pay you $1.4 million if the measure passes. If it doesn’t pass, you keep the $40,000.’ We really wanted to see his property protected.”

A California black oak greets sunrise over Murphy Meadow.

Measure AA passed in ’88, the district bought Murphy’s 700 acres and over the years acquired 1,300 adjacent acres from the Murphy family. Doyle recalls that “within the first six months (after the initial purchase), as soon as I could get permission, I got Roger in here (the late Roger Epperson, park supervisor). And as local guys, we both thought, ‘Wow. This place is phenomenal.’”

Epperson launched into extensive preparations for the park’s public use: old houses and cabins were dismantled; trails were carved into hillsides; poorly placed roads were “disappeared,” as Doyle put it, and new roads created; the parking lot and main bridge were built – all elements we park users take blissfully for granted.

In 1998, a year after Murphy’s death, an entrance gate on Marsh Creek Road was flung open, ushering the public into a place that would have made a perfect setting for a landfill. But ask the runners, campers and cyclists; ask the exuberant families and solitary pilgrims who visit Round Valley – and they’ll tell you it makes a perfect setting for a taste of the splendor of the world.