Berkeley is Burned Up About the Big Tree Brouhaha

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 24, 2013 - 05:35:00 PM

The East Bay hills don’t need to wait for the next fire storm. There’s one raging right now over a plan to clear thousands of trees—estimates range from 22,000 to 85,00, depending on who you ask—from Berkeley’s Strawberry and Claremont Canyons and parts of the Oakland hills. Some of us who live near the affected area have been aware of this project for a long time and wondered whether it was wise, but others have just recently heard about it and they’re outraged.

It’s shaping up to be an unusual political battle for an area where good vs. evil is usually a clearly defined contest. Gay marriage? Sure. Solar power? Sure. Bicycles lanes? Sure. (Well at least if you’re under 60 and vigorously fit.)

But this struggle, in the first place, pits two groups of tree huggers against one another, and both sides seem to manifest a quasi-religious fervor reminiscent of the Great Crusades. Those on one side (the native plant fans—short for fanatics) long to purify the hills above Berkeley and restore them to their pristine pre-colonization state. The other side just likes a nice walk in the woods from time to time, and isn’t particular about the pedigree of the flora.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s a third flank populated by people who don’t care much about trees one way or the other, but are very worried about fire. And of course all three populations overlap.

What makes this an interesting conflict is that in various ways they’re all “right”. 

Though a lot of people seem to be coming late to the party, Planet readers have been aware of the proposal for a long time. We ran a piece in 2008, UC Lets Tree-Sitters Nest to Divert From Clear-Cutting, written by Robert Bruce. He reported on UC’s developing plans to seek FEMA’s support in order to remove trees above campus in Strawberry Canyon perceived as a fire hazard. 

Bruce identified himself in the piece as someone who lost his Oakland home in the 1991 fire, and he published the Phoenix Journal newspaper for fire survivors. He said he was part of a volunteer group known as the Hills Conservation Network that was trying to stop UC’s clear-cutting and get them to use what he characterized as more rational methods of fire prevention. 

In the five years since, the HCN group has devoted a web site, at least one law suit and many hours to tracking UC’s proposal and what it has grown into. You can follow their side of the story in exhaustive detail here. 

Meanwhile, on June 10, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) filed a notice of intent to prepare a federal Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed action. This EIS was triggered by four grant applications submitted to FEMA by the East Bay Regional Park District, the University of California at Berkeley, and the city of Oakland, asking for funding for various tree clearance projects aimed, applicants said, at preventing huge fires in the hills like the big one which took out a lot of homes in the Oakland-Berkeley area in 1991. 

That notice kicked off a public scoping period that ended on October 1, 2010. The application for FEMA funding has been making his way through the EIS process since then, with modest publicity. Comments during the scoping period resulted in a draft EIS. The last iteration was a series of public hearings on this draft, which is now entitled Hazardous Fire Risk ReductionEnvironmental Impact Statement. If you want to see the big picture, click on the link and prepare for a really big read. 

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, my friend Randy Shaw, who among many other things edits Beyond Chron, a San Francisco-based alternative online newspaper, though he lives in the Berkeley hills, got wind of the project and was shocked by what he learned. He ran a story about it on May 16 in his publication, FEMA Plans Clear-Cutting of 85,000 Berkeley and Oakland Trees, which said that “there are countless destructive attacks on the environment that Bay Area activists cannot impact. But this is occurring in our own backyard, and activists must make sure that this cannot happen here.” (Randy is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.) 

The Planet and Beyond Chron sometimes reprint each other’s stories, but we passed on this one, because I was aware of the back story and knew it was not a simple problem. What Randy didn’t mention, and perhaps didn’t know, is that most of the targeted trees are eucalyptuses, and that many well-credentialed environmentalists favor removing these and other non-native plants in order to allow the pre-European-settlement ecology to establish itself in open areas around the bay. 

That’s an important part of the story. It’s not just about competing methods of fire prevention. 

But fire prevention is important, however you decide to do it. 

I watched the big 1991 fire from my bedroom window as it moved down to the eucalyptus stand behind the Claremont Hotel until the fire department told us to flee. It was plenty scary, an experience I would not enjoy repeating. 

My neighbors Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor, who might also have seen the Big Fire from their house if they lived here in 1991, promptly published a thorough and informative story on their Berkeleyside.com site, complete with pictures, which reported the official version of the controversy from UC and other sources, along with reporting the point of view of the HCN people. Meanwhile, the Beyond Chron story had been picked up by the widely read California Progress Report online news aggregator, and many other outlets, including television stations, copied the story. 

A lot of people were upset by what they heard about the plans, many of them Berkeley people that I know and respect. Some of their letters are in this issue. 

An added thread some of them raised is that many suspect UC Berkeley of having designs on Strawberry Canyon that have nothing to do with native plants or fires. There are many UC expansion construction projects which have been proposed for that area—including labs for LBNL and their big corporate customer BP—and it would certainly be convenient to get those pesky trees cleared out first. 

So I consulted my experts. Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan, seasoned naturalists and fine writers who have contributed many excellent pieces to the Planet, are in Hawaii at the moment and reluctant to engage in the controversy from that distance, but they did tell me that the targeted trees are not currently hosting colonies of monarchs, which can be found in many eucalyptus groves in Northern California and are a major motivation for campaigns to protect the eucs. They move around, but as of now, they’re not in our eucs. 

Then I asked an academic ecologist I happen to know, a Berkeley-raised biologist who is a professor of environmental studies. When she was at Willard Junior High long ago, she’d been an active part of the campaign which saved Claremont Canyon from becoming a housing development and added it to the East Bay Regional Park system. She’s climbed Claremont Hill through the eucalyptus groves hundreds of times. (Okay, full disclosure, she’s also my daughter.) 

Her principal observation was that sequencing the human genome was a biology project that was a lot easier than mapping the way an ecosystem like the one in the East Bay Hills works. The FEMA EIS claims that the pre-existing native ecosystem will somehow restore itself if the non-natives are removed, but the science to guarantee that result is by no means assured. Many environmental impact studies under both federal and state law have promised restoration projects that have failed or never even happened. She wasn’t willing to hazard a guess without doing a lot more research about how well FEMA’s predictions were likely to succeed. 

The worst case is that the cure would be worse than the disease. People like Randy Shaw who admit to enjoying a nice walk in the woods, any woods, even non-native woods, are appalled by the idea that what they’ll see on their hikes in the hills if the plan goes through is stumps and mud slides for at least a generation. 

On the other hand, the native plant aesthetic appeals to many thoughtful people. For example, a piece in the Sierra Club Yodeler attacked a 2011 compromise settlement specifying a more moderate approach to habitat modification which the East Bay Regional Parks reached with HCN in their lawsuit against the project. 

Author Norman La Force said then: 

“The best approach to protecting the urban East Bay from devastating fires like that of 1991 is to restore native habitat. This is also the most cost-effective approach for long-term maintenance. 

“The Sierra Club urges the Park District to hire specialists in removing exotics and in restoring native habitat, and to create an open and public decision-making process for managing each area under the wildfire plan. The Club is committed to protecting our urban communities from another massive and deadly conflagration while restoring native habitat that is fast disappearing from our Bay Area.” 

The FEMA EIS process is one result of the HCN lawsuit, like it or don’t. Without the suit the tree removal project probably would have gone forward without an “open and public decision-making process”. HCN now threatens that if the final EIS is not up to their standards they’ll sue again. 

So now it’s down to the wire. 

The last date to submit written comments pro or con on the information contained in the draft EIS is June 17. By all means, if you have an opinion, send it along. Written comments must be submitted or postmarked by midnight on June 17, 2013 and can be sent three ways: 

As of this writing, I haven’t decided myself what I think should happen. FEMA’s EIS focuses mainly on fire prevention, but for East Bay residents who enjoy the parks, that’s too simplistic. 

What I suspect is that a much more gradual approach to replacing the eucs with natives should be employed, one which among other things closely monitors the potential devastation which sudden oak death might wreak on native oaks, California bays and other susceptible parts of the original hills ecosystem. Fears about using the Monsanto herbicide Roundup to prevent re-sprouting would be allayed if non-chemical mechanical means of dealing with unwanted sprouts could be employed. 

Of course, doing things slowly and carefully would be more expensive. In the end, decisions like this often come down to money, sadly. 

If you’re still as confused as I am, here’s just a little reading list, in no particular order. But be forewarned, I’ve read it all and I still can’t make up my mind.