Public Comment

Comment on Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Berkeley/Oakland Hills

By Antonio Rossmann
Friday June 14, 2013 - 02:21:00 PM

I am submitting this comment [to FEMA] as a frequent user of the Claremont Canyon and Strawberry Canyon trails and resident at 6442 Hillegass Avenue, Oakland; and apparently a mildly dissenting member of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy. While my professional practice over 40 years has concentrated on preparation of or response to comprehensive comments on environmental documents, this comment will not focus on linear detail but attempt summarily to reach the heart of the matter.  

The EIS posits a choice between only two alternatives: do nothing, or remove all the eucalyptus and Monterey pine. And so the community appears to have divided: those advocating wholesale acceptance of the FEMA proposed project, and those advocating no action. This circumstance, which flows from legal error so gross as to invite FEMA to withdraw the DEIS and proceed properly lest one of the interested advocates prosecute a worthy legal challenge, represents a regrettable disservice to the community. As I frequently advise my clients and my students, in the face of extremes your challenge is to find the third way. FEMA must develop and implement the third way of selective tree removal. 

This writer accepts the reality that eucalyptus and other exotics pose a fire threat in the Claremont and Strawberry Canyon areas. This hazard must be moderated to the greatest degree balanced with other considerations. At the same time, this writer believes that stands of eucalyptus and Monterey pines within the two canyons form an important element of the historic and evolving landscape. One need only consult paintings from the California plein air school to comprehend that these trees have for a century formed a recognizable part of our region's environment and ecology. Just as the law recognizes that few absolutely natural watercourses remain in the state, such that we treat the changed water resource as "natural" for regulatory purposes, so should these trees be understood as earning recognition as part of the landscape that we view and in which we recreate.  

Totalitarian elimination of this heritage landscape should be no more pursued than would we pursue elimination of other exotics, for example the striped bass from the Delta, or the post-McClaren vegetation in Golden Gate Park. And yet, action must be taken to improve both the fire security and visual access in these two canyons. Not all environmental conflicts lend themselves to beneficial resolution of competing values, but this one does. On rewrite the authors of the EIS will have the opportunity to honor the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin, that all values are relative. 

A thinning of the exotics to preserve the most prominent trees, while removing concentrations that pose environmental risk and actually detract from the views of both hikers and observers, should be developed as a third alternative. For example, the prominent row of Monterey pines atop the north ridge of Claremont Canyon provide a visual landmark to users of the canyon and to those from afar; these should be maintained. Similarly, the landmark eucalyptus inside the elbow of the second switchback on the Claremont Canyon trail -- that is, the switchback that overlooks the Golden Bear soccer field -- would be unthinkable to destroy. Selective thinning will leave these untouched, while promoting the health of the remaining forest and improving visual access from points along the trails. Shade and habitat will be preserved. This worthy example is the one followed by UC Berkeley a few years ago in Strawberry Canyon, and which now forms the preferred method of fuel reduction within the Tahoe National Forest. 

The EIS is fatally flawed by deliberately avoiding the development of this alternative, instead including a partial clearance as a variant and part of the proposed project. This fallacy enables the decision-makers to avoid independent consideration of a partial-clearance alternative on its own, and more regrettably, from conducting the legally-required comparison of that alternative to both project and no action. The present EIS enables the decision-maker to avoid the legal necessity of identifying the alternative, other than no action, that is environmentally favorable; that strikes at the heart of NEPA. 

Finally, the EIS fails to stand as a joint EIS/EIR, and thus cannot serve the state-law actors (UC Berkeley and EBRPD) whose approvals to carry out the project also require environmental documentation. This error is also more than academic, in that not only must those local agencies make use of an EIR, but they must formulate and adopt enforceable mitigation measures more potent than those required by NEPA; and prior to that, consider alternatives that are capable of attaining most, if not all, of the project objectives, which a thoughtfully-designed thinning project can accomplish.