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Wild Neighbors: UC and Strawberry Canyon: Last Round for the Whipsnake?

By Joe Eaton
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:27:00 AM

Once more into Strawberry Canyon, and then I’ll try to get back to the natural-history beat.  

By the time readers of the Planet’s print edition see this article, the UC Regents will have voted on the Final Environmental Impact Reports (FEIRs) for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (LBNL) huge new buildings in the Strawberry Canyon watershed, the Helios Facility and the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) facility. Again, sorry about all the initials, but it goes with the territory. 

If the Regents—as represented by their Grounds and Buildings Committee—certify those reports, construction could begin by the end of the year. But they are being asked by the City of Richmond and the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club chapters, among others, to defer that decision; to recirculate the Helios and CRT EIRs for an additional comment period of at least 30 days. 

These are massive documents, and sifting through all their details is enormously time-consuming. But it’s clear that significant changes are contemplated in both projects-significant enough to require additional review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

The CRT facility is going to be reconfigured and moved downslope without having its footprint changed-a neat trick. And the CRT EIR still ignores the potential impact of construction on the adjacent habitat of what could be the world’s only population of Lee’s microblind harvestmen, a small spiderlike creature. 

The changes in the Helios Project are presented as a response to concerns that the access road to the facility would impinge on Mather Grove and take out some large redwoods. A rerouted access road would skirt the grove and spare those trees. But this is one of those deals where, to quote Tom Waits, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. 

If you backtrack from the FEIR to the draft environmental impact report (DEIR), and its discussion of alternative designs for Helios, you’ll see that changing the access road would destroy more trees—a total of 150—than the original proposal. Some are exotics, but a fair number are native oaks and bay laurels. The Chicken Creek riparian corridor may be affected; it’s not clear from the description of the new Preferred Alternative. 

Then there’s the Alameda whipsnake, a federally and state threatened reptile about whose presence in Strawberry Canyon the Lab and the University have been consistently skeptical. The new road, according to the FEIR, “would result in a potentially significant impact from the removal of approximately 1.27 acres of coastal scrub habitat that is considered potentially suitable habitat for the Alameda whipsnake and about 2.71 acres of grassland that could be used by the whipsnake.”  

What they propose to do about this is mitigate the impact by restoring, enhancing, or creating whipsnake habitat. Sounds good, until you think it through. Mitigation is a much-abused term in environmental planning. It implies providing somewhere for creatures displaced by development to go—a new marsh, a new grassland. In practice, it has all too often meant creating habitat that won’t even be accessible to those creatures. 

Look at it from the snake’s perspective. Whipsnakes are alert and speedy creatures, but they have certain travel constraints. Crossing roads, parking lots, and other man-made features that fragment their habitat can be a problem. Unless new habitat is contiguous to existing habitat, the snakes won’t get there, and mitigation will be an empty gesture. 

There’s no assurance in the sketchy discussion of the mitigation plan that the mitigation sites will even be on LBNL land. The report says that “if adequate mitigation cannot be planned on LBNL land, potential mitigation sites shall be identified adjacent to or within the designated critical habitat for the Alameda whipsnake in the easternmost portion of the LBNL…” And where would that be, exactly? There’s also no indication of when the mitigation work-which would entail taking out more trees, planting coastal-scrub vegetation, and creating rock outcrops-would be done. 

After-the-fact mitigation wouldn’t do the snakes much good. 

There’s so much vagueness and ambiguity here that members of the public can’t assess whether the mitigation is adequate or not. When you’re dealing with a vulnerable species already suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation, that’s a big concern. For CEQA analysis and enforcement purposes, much more detail is needed. 

As I write this, the ball is in the Regents’ court. I suspect that whatever comes out of their session, the controversy is not going to end there. Strawberry Canyon provides habitat connectivity for wildlife; recreational opportunities for hikers, bikers, runners, birders, and botanizers; linkage between open spaces protected by the East Bay Regional Park District. There’s a lot at stake here. The battle for the Canyon may yet make the Stadium Oaks conflict look like a mere skirmish. 

For information about the Save Strawberry Canyon campaign, email Phila Rogers: philajane6@yahoo.com.