A State Park Interpreter with a passion for San Francisco's Candlestick Point Recreation Area
James Aliberti is a State Park Interpreter and Special Events Coordinator at the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. He has worked at many state parks and wildlife reserves. His passion for nature and wildlife is part of what makes this urban park in San Francisco special.
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is a 252-acre pocket of nature on the western shore of the San Francisco Bay. James’s job is literally a walk in the park, well, at least part of it. I asked him to show me one of his favorite spots in the park. He takes me to ‘Last Port’, which is the extreme western edge of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. He said, “We're almost at the border with the San Mateo County line and it's very quiet, we're facing San Bruno Mountain. You can hear the traffic going by on 101 in the distance, but other than that it's a place of solitude. Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is a beautiful, quiet, serene place right inside an urban environment. And it's a great place to come and visit and, just like you said, we want people to relax, enjoy, jog, walk, sit at the picnic tables and have a good time.”
The park can be a place for reflection or a space for adventure. James says, “This is a great opportunity to see a coyote running on by itself, hawks flying around looking for prey. Since it's winter, we've got all these diving ducks out here, several different species of beautiful ducks and sometimes you can hear the cacophony of the gulls calling, and What I've said multiple times on our social media to people, is like, do you want a place that's quiet, right in the city? Usually see a cool animal, like most of the time, the park doesn't let you down, you can flush a jack rabbit or see some other kind of animal.”
I look up and see a pod of pelicans flying in a perfect formation. James says with genuine excitement, “Oh nice, yeah, and there is a ‘V’ of pelicans. So, back in ‘99, when I really started doing a lot of my environmental work, the California Brown Pelican was on the threatened list. That's a species now that we see regularly in the park, and that's one of the attractions, a lot of people come just 'cause they want to see the Pelicans because they're so big and they're so beautiful and they kind of defy gravity the way they fly like those pterodactyls.”
James has worked at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area for just over two years. He greets every visitor with a broad smile from under his wide brim ranger hat and is always ready to share tips about the park. He spots two women and without a word, he knows they are hiking a popular urban trail.
James greets them warmly and asks if they are going to the Crosstown Trail and directs them how to get to the starting point and adds a friendly tip. He tells the pair, “If you stay on this trail and go all the way out to the fishing pier at the point, I always suggest you go the extra 300 feet to the end of the fishing pier, so you start right in the bay.”
From a young age, James has been passionate about wildlife and nature. While other kids said they wanted to be a doctor or a policeman when they grew up, he remembers the puzzled looks when he said paleontologist or archeologist. He discovered his inner artist and athlete playing sports in high school and studying World Arts and Culture during his undergrad at UCLA. He went on to get his Master’s at Boston University in Mass Communication and Environmental Advocacy. James said his first research expedition revealed his calling, “I went to Mona Island and studied the Mona Island iguana of Puerto Rico, that was really fascinating and made me say, yes, I want to be involved in wildlife.”
Next James becomes a turtle sniper, protecting the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles on the Big Island of Hawaii. He says there's only 1200 left in the Pacific so his job was to protect the hawksbill turtle from everything that could possibly kill them. His next job would keep him in Hawaii . James said, “I saw that they were looking for an interpretive Ranger out at Midway Atoll, this tiny little atoll in the middle of the Pacific and the second most remote inhabited place on Earth, 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu. I took that job, and I became the first Refuge Ranger on Midway National Wildlife Refuge.”
Editors note: The actual distance of the Midway Atoll from Honolulu is 1,311 miles.
His career includes positions with many national and state parks. James rattles of a list of places he has been throughout his career, “I worked at Fort Point over by the Golden Gate Bridge. I worked at Alcatraz, worked at Don Edwards, San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the Army Corps of Engineers at the Bay model in Sausalito. I was also at the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion, Point Reyes National Seashore and the Havasu Mojave Desert”.
While he may look like a park ranger and sound like a park ranger, at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, he is a park interpreter.
James explained, “California State Parks is the only entity that I'm aware of that calls their park rangers, interpreters. There are two kinds of park rangers. You can be law enforcement and, then the other side is our Interpretive branch, which is the education branch. Multiple times I've been asked to go into the law enforcement side, but it's not an interest of mine. I'm much more interested in like kind of trying to educate and enlighten and have a positive influence on people and get them to love nature like I do and be enthusiastic about wildlife.”
Despite starting his job just before the pandemic, that didn’t stop James from developing COVID-safe volunteer programs, educational experiences, and park events. His enthusiasm and commitment to the park has attracted visitors and a growing park community. I joined (10) regulars that attend the monthly park bird count James leads at the park. Heidi Linsmayer has been with him since the very first bird count. She said, “I come because James is probably the best, most fun teacher I’ve had. He is a storyteller and he’s made this park come alive. I come to the workdays as well. Again, because it’s just fun and we’ve started a little community so it’s a wonderful place.”
James felt his interactions with visitors in the park during Covid changed. He said, “I was very conscientious to the visitors I was seeing who were in some cases, seniors alone, lonely, scared. I'd see them walking out in the park and I could tell that they didn't want to, just ask me a quick question, they wanted to really talk.”
James also noticed a change in the park too. He said, “The silver lining to this whole COVID thing, I think the plants and wildlife have benefited. It seems like, and this is anecdotal, I don't have any scientific proof, but it just seems like there's a lot more wildlife, they seem to be doing better, they seem to be looking healthier, everything looks less stressed. A lot of the plants seem to be like fuller and healthier, so I think the park, on a natural side, as benefited from COVID in most respects”.
In the early days of Covid, James worried that park programs would have to stop. He said, “I was able to find work arounds for a lot of those things. For example, I never stopped doing the bird counts. I started with only six or seven and then as I saw that the group was very amenable to the instructions and they were doing all the things they were supposed to, I was able to bump it up to 10 and go out and do a COVID safe program. There are ways that keep programs running.
I asked James to share one of his favorite programs in the park. He says “Of all the things I've done in the almost two years that I've been here, the ‘Candlestick Mile’ was the funnest day for me as an interpreter. Seeing the joy, seeing how much fun they were having. Last year it was kind of like a pilot race because of COVID, but I'm hoping that this year becomes a much bigger event.”
James is excited about the possibility that the park’s potential can be reached. He hopes as time goes on there will be more native plants, habitat restoration and more people who live adjacent to the park that become friends and advocates who want to help the park, protect it and be involved in keeping it clean and safe.
James shares these recommendations for visiting the park :
James says, “One thing that would be great to do is walk out to the end of the fishing pier, because that gives you a feeling of being on the Bay and it's a great place to see what the anglers are catching and also to just kind of get a really big, broad look at the Bay.”
The excitement James has for the Candlestick Point State Recreation area and educating visitors is the real deal, he was born for the job. When I left James that day, I took a walk around the park. A beautiful blue heron stopped me in my tracks, standing just steps away from me. It was amazing and James was right, this park doesn’t let you down. I saw a few people running, walking their dogs and a man fishing off the pier. All in all, it was really peaceful. I stood at the end of the fishing pier, feeling the sun and a gentle breeze off the water on my face. It did kind of feel like I was out on the bay.
Visit Candlestick Point State Recreation Area:
Main Park Entrance: 500 Hunters Point Expressway (not Boulevard) Take the Candlestick Park exit off U.S. 101 in San Francisco.
The Park Office is located at 1150 Carroll Ave. S.F., CA 94124 and can be reached by phone at: (415) 671-0145
Check for Park Information at: Candlestick Point State Recreation Area
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