A new ban on outdoor smoking at East Bay regional parks erases a 2012 rule that tolerated smoking of marijuana 1,000 or more feet away from picnic grounds, parking lots and other common gathering places in parks. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

No tokes or smokes: 65 California parks ban lighting up outdoors

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Smoking is now banned in the great outdoors of 65 East Bay regional parks, the latest tobacco crackdown by a Bay Area recreation agency.

The idea, East Bay Regional Park District officials hope, is to keep the air clean and keep beaches, bays and wild lands free of butts that can harm fish and animals.

The district previously allowed smoking in parks with few restrictions such as a ban on high fire risk days.

But effective immediately, visitors to regional park sites will be barred from smoking anywhere except overnight campgrounds, park officials announced Thursday.

The new ban also erases a 2012 rule that tolerated smoking of marijuana 1,000 or more feet away from picnic grounds, parking lots and other common gathering places in parks.

From now on, it is illegal to puff on marijuana joints and tobacco cigarettes in regional parks in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

“We’re doing this for public health reasons,” said Carolyn Jones, a park district spokeswoman, “but also one of our primary missions is protecting our lands and the environment, and cigarette butts clearly can cause harm to fish and wildlife.”

Park police will give verbal warnings to violators during an initial, undetermined grace period, Jones said.

Regional park employees will be exempt from the ban. Park workers expressed concerns they would waste large amounts of time if they had to drive out of regional parks — some several square miles large — to take a smoke break.

Twenty-five East Bay cities and both Contra Costa and Alameda counties already ban smoking in recreation areas. The Midpeninsula Open Space District also bans smoking except in designated areas.

East Bay Park officials — with their 113,000 acres of wide open spaces — may have been slower to ban smoking because the agency has received few public complaints about smokers.

The push for the park ban came from Save the Bay and other environmental and public health groups worried about cigarette butt pollution.

Cigarette butts, which can be toxic to fish and wildlife, are the most frequent type of litter picked up in the state’s annual coastal cleanup days, said Allison Chan, Save the Bay’s clean bay program manager.

Cleanup crews found 10 butts per worker at the Martinez Regional Shoreline during the 2013 state cleanup, she said.

“Cigarettes butts are a plastic toxic trash going to the Bay,” she said.

Chan said Save the Bay advocated banning smoking in overnight camps as well to provide a stronger message about not fouling parks with butts.

Park officials, however, decided to leave overnight camp sites as smoking sanctuaries in part because campers spend longer times in parks than day visitors, Jones said.

She added, “Overnight camp sites are somewhat like homes, and smoking is not banned in people’s homes.”

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff or facebook.com/denis.cuff.

This story was first published on EastBayTimes.com