Wild Neighbors: The Berkeley Meadow — Restoration and its Discontents

By Joe Eaton
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:49:00 PM

I don’t know much about Pete Najarian, other than that he is a plein air painter and prolific writer of letters to the editor, and that he is chronically unhappy about what the East Bay Regional Park District has been doing at the Marina. What set him off this time was a pair of columns I wrote about what I thought was a hopeful instance of civic vigilance and official flexibility. These inspired a long diatribe that appeared in last week’s Planet. 

I suspect Najarian is one of those people whose version of reality is impervious to facts or logic. I’m not going to try to convince him that he’s wrong about the restoration of the Berkeley Meadow. But I can’t let his accusations pass unchallenged. 

To recap, the northwest corner of the meadow—the area north of University Avenue, west of 80, and east of the Marina proper—has been a longtime nesting site for one or more pairs of northern harriers, a hawk which has been listed as a “species of special concern” by the California Department of Fish and Game. An ongoing Park District restoration project reached the harriers’ habitat this winter, and one of two historic nesting locations was cleared of brush and weeds.  

Corinne Greenberg, a longtime hawk observer, discovered this after the fact and acted to protect the remaining site. District representatives agreed to alter their plans and leave the area alone, at least for this nesting season. That was pretty much the story. I pointed out the irony of the district’s having to deal with a sensitive wildlife species that relied on non-native vegetation for nest cover, the kind of dilemma that restoration efforts are bound to run into.  

But that was enough to make me an apologist for the Park District in Najarian’s eyes: “those whom you support,” as he keeps saying, as if reluctant to use the name of the evil entity. He seems to believe that the district has destroyed habitat (“an innocent wilderness”), displaced wildlife, and locked out the public by limiting access to fenced trails through the meadow. 

None of this holds water. The rabbits and rodents are not gone; we ran into a jackrabbit on our walk-through with Greenberg and the Park District folks, and an abundance of ground squirrels. There are enough mice—California voles, most likely—to sustain the harriers plus a pair of white-tailed kites, plus visiting raptors like red-tailed hawks and short-eared owls. The finches and blackbirds are not gone. Such claims don’t do much for Najarian’s credibility.  

I suspect that the meadow restoration, far from driving out wildlife, has increased the area’s quality as wildlife habitat and its biological diversity, creating a healthy mix of wetland, grassland, and shrubby upland. The new seasonal wetlands alone are waterbird magnets, attracting such locally uncommon species as greater white-fronted geese, blue-winged teal, and red phalaropes. A burrowing owl stopped by this winter. The district’s planting plan has created more microhabitats for native creatures, from pollinators to predators. They’ve phased the work so as to minimize impacts on wildlife, and are using adaptive management to fine-tune the process. 

Yes, the district has been replacing exotic invasive plants with native species like willow and blue-eyed grass. Najarian mourns the loss of the “fields of fennel and lace.” I don’t know what he means by “lace”—maybe poison hemlock, the stuff that killed part of the tule elk herd at Grizzly Island a few years back? 

He plays the well-worn “we’re all non-natives” card. I have no problem calling a weed a weed, though. If the goal is to establish a natural plant community, there’s no place for aggressive exotics like fennel. The district is also concerned—properly so—about eliminating the seed bank for unwanted weeds, so they can’t recolonize the restored area. 

Yes, the area has been fenced. Najarian refers to “the baloney about the dogs.” That’s no baloney; off-leash dogs are devastating to ground-dwelling birds. The meadow is, after all, next door to dog-ridden Cesar Chavez Park. (There’s also a feral cat problem that needs to be addressed by other means.) The waist-high fences along the trails are no barrier to wildlife observation. 

Restoration is a human activity, and as such is subject to error: I’m still not sure what the National Park Service was trying to accomplish with their Limantour Beach project at Point Reyes National Seashore. But in general the recreation—or creation from scratch, in places like the meadow—of natural habitat to balance what has been lost is good and necessary work, too important to be hindered by willful ignorance. 

It’s also good to have alert and informed citizens like Greenberg to hold the restorers accountable when they make a misstep. Knowing what you’re looking at is the critical difference between the Greenbergs and the Najarians of the world.