Green Neighbors: Finding the Boogeymen in the Bushes

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 07:04:00 PM
Baxter Creek’s understory of willow and ceanothus. Scary, huh?
Urban Creeks Council
Baxter Creek’s understory of willow and ceanothus. Scary, huh?

When Lisa Owens Viani summoned spirits (and bodies) from the vasty deep of bureaucracy, they showed up. Furthermore, they made specific promises. 

The City of Richmond promised to re-restore the section of Baxter Creek in Booker T. Anderson Park that Owens Viani and many others had restored nine years ago, and that a city maintenance crew had reduced to bare soil and lollipop trees in a misguided effort to increase safety. That promise is now in writing, and several public agencies are helping—and watching—to see it gets fulfilled right. 

Despite the fact that people in Richmond and other local cities get mugged, robbed, raped, shot, and generally threatened out in public parking lots, streets, ballfields, and their own front lawns on a regular basis, there’s a widespread perception that any public space is safer if it’s bare, especially of shrubbery and low-growing plants like bunchgrasses. Several of the city representatives at the meeting I’ve referred to over the last three weeks cited callers who were concerned about drug sales and use, lurking muggers, and people having sex in the formerly verdant understory.  

Richmond’s not alone in its public disregard for decent habitat. I have a report from a local university professor who may write in to identify herself if she wishes:  

I have observed a disturbing trend in my home in Santa Cruz, California. In these cases, urban riparian corridors are denuded in the name of public safety, despite the existence of a restoration plan of some sort. In the Santa Cruz case, the work is done by furloughed prisoners engaged by the city government, no qualified biologists are employed, and a vegetation removal permit entitled “riparian restoration” is issued, despite the heavy removal of willows, box elders and other natives. 

I have other such tales I’ll pass along if I get permission.  

It’s not just an urban problem. The Federal stimulus bill includes this:  

For an additional amount for “Wildland Fire Management,” $500,000,000, of which $250,000,000 is for hazardous fuels reduction, forest health protection, rehabilitation and hazard mitigation activities on Federal lands and of which $250,000,000 is for State and private forestry activities including hazardous fuels reduction, forest health and ecosystem improvement activities on State and private lands using all authorities available to the Forest Service: Provided, That up to $50,000,000 of the total funding may be used to make wood-to-energy grants to promote increased utilization of biomass from Federal, State and private lands: Provided further, That funds provided for activities on State and private lands shall not be subject to matching or cost share requirements. 

Maybe it’s just that short plants get no respect. This bill makes no distinction between “fuel” and functioning native chaparral communities. Rick Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute has set about educating the people who pull the pursestrings. As he says, “The conversation needs to be changed from focusing exclusively on wildland fuels reduction towards correcting problems at the wildland/urban interface.” 

And wholesale clearing won’t help with fire, either.  


Next: The chaparral connection. But first, Joe Eaton has a rather more pleasant story about local hawks.