Green Neighbors: The Richmond Chainsaw Massacre, Part One

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:23:00 PM
This photo shows a flourishing native-plant understory.
Urban Creeks Council
This photo shows a flourishing native-plant understory.
Barebanks: No more stream-cooling understory.
Ron Sullivan
Barebanks: No more stream-cooling understory.

This was the second time I’d seen the same stunned, stoic, pale, pained reaction to revisiting a restoration site.  

Lisa had invited us on the spur of the moment to see the part of Baxter Creek that she and her allies had restored nine years ago. The accomplishment was her master’s thesis, but her involvement had continued way beyond that; for example, she’d been showing the spot off on creek-restoration tours as recently as a few months ago. Now, as we unloaded the little tree she wanted to slip into the plantings, she was frozen and staring: “What happened? Where’s the understory? Where are all the plants?” And then: “Who did this?”  

Who had done this? Not vandals in the usual sense, but a paid maintenance crew from the City of Richmond. Clearly they’d thought they were doing the right thing. In fact, the taxpayers had paid them to effectively destroy half the carefully planned, working creekside woods in Booker T. Anderson Park.  

This short stretch of creek had nurtured a carefully chosen community of native plants, which in turn made welcome some wildlife—Pacific chorus frogs, fox-squirrels, birds including hawks, ducks, woodpeckers, waxwings, warblers—more wholesome and congenial than urban rats. Based on previous observations, we’d even been thinking about an organized survey in spring and fall to document the place as a stopover for migrating birds. 

It was obvious somebody had come through, chainsaws blazing, and clearcut everything below about five feet from the ground. There were stumps where there had been native currant bushes and dogwoods, ninebark and wild rose. Some of the willows were still there, cut in ridiculous ways with stubs galore; some were just finger-length sprouts poking up from more stumps.  

Down at creek level, weeds and invasives—cress, nasturtium, “Chinese chives”—were already rampant, but there was still lots of bare dirt waiting to be washed into the creek by the next rain.  

In 2000, the Friends of Baxter Creek and the Urban Creeks Council had received about $150,000 to begin the work. That and lots of in-kind donations and labor from the East Bay Conservation Corps, conservationists, students and staff of nearby Stege Elementary School, and other park neighbors had been invested to make the restored stretch of creek into something more than a channelized storm drain.  

The understory had functioned to slow and filter rainwater running into the creek, and to harbor and feed many of the organisms of its lifeweb: flowers for butterflies and other pollinators, leaves for native caterpillars, berries and flowers for birds.  

Evidently, what the city crew had done was render the creekside more visible to patrol cars on the street. People were said to be concerned about drugs, muggings, and/or sex in the shrubbery. 

A month later, a group including reps of the state’s Fish and Game and Water Quality departments, the Coastal Conservancy, the Urban Creeks Council; Richmond’s Department of Public Works, Parks Department, City Council, mayor, and city manager, and several of the park’s neighbors met there.  

What happened? Tune in next week.