Public Comment

Oak Grove Issue Springs Back to Life

By Doug Buckwald
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:07:00 AM

Time is definitely not the thing that flies when you are living in a tree. Birds fly, to be sure, and squirrels and insects, too, and—thanks to the people on the ground below—your food flies up to you on ropes, but time passes incrementally, governed by the rhythms of nature. Sunlight, moonlight, stars, rain, wind, and the changing seasons become your clock. It has been almost one and a half years since tree sitters first occupied the threatened trees in Memorial Stadium oak grove on Piedmont Avenue, and they are still up there. They are a visible example of the concern that many in our community feel about the fate of this special natural place.  

This issue has been slumbering for months now, but it will soon emerge again as a full-blown controversy. UC Berkeley would like to cut the grove down to build a new gymnasium/office complex on the site. This plan caused three lawsuits to be filed against the university, including one by the City of Berkeley. Barbara Miller, the judge in the oaks case, is scheduled to issue her ruling on the three combined lawsuits sometime within the next three weeks.  

When it does, it is important to keep certain key points in mind: First, the judge issued the temporary injunction that has protected the trees from harm up to now because, after reviewing the facts and law in the case, she believed that the petitioners (those who want to save the trees) were likely to prevail in a hearing. Given the strong interest of a number of very powerful individuals and groups in the resolution of this matter, she did not make that decision without careful thought. There is no question that she felt she was doing the right thing.  

Second, because there are so many causes of action and detailed issues involved, Judge Miller’s decision may not mark the end of the legal proceedings in this matter. There may be a split decision, granting some points to the petitioners and some to the university. The complexities may take considerable time to sort out. And of course, either side may elect to appeal the judge’s decision, so there may be further court action by the petitioners if she rules against protecting the grove—or by the university if she rules in favor of protecting the grove. 

Third, don’t forget that it is against the law in Berkeley to cut down any coast live oak tree. In fact, the coast live oak is the only tree species granted such protection in our city. This ordinance was passed in Berkeley for very important environmental reasons: Coast live oaks are under threat from Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, and oak woodlands are being cut down across the state as suburban development continues. We need to protect the ones we have left. Besides, it is long past time for the university to agree to obey our city laws. Nobody should be above the law—especially not a public university. 

This upcoming period of time is critical if the community wants to protect this special urban woodland. I encourage supporters to contact Mayor Bates and the City Council to tell them to keep standing up for Berkeley, and not drop out of the lawsuit by reaching a secret deal with the university. After all, the City Council has officially declared—by unanimous vote—that the oak grove is an irreplaceable natural resource for the entire city, and we need them to continue to support this position. Let’s do this for our own environmental health and for the good of our children. 


Doug Buckwald is the director of Save the Oaks, a community group dedicated to saving Memorial Stadium oak grove. More information is available at