Photo 13
Eucalyptus trees in Claremont Canyon: Cal is seeking federal funds to cut down many such non-natives. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Federal funding to enable UC Berkeley to cut down 22,000 non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon is proceeding through the late stages of an environmental impact review. A final public meeting on the project will be held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Saturday, May 18, at Claremont Middle School in Oakland at 10 a.m.

The university’s project is a continuation of work it has been doing for the last decade on its land. Over 19,000 non-native trees — eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia — have already been eradicated on 185 acres of campus property. The 22,000 additional trees expand the program to Strawberry Canyon and the hills to the north of Claremont Avenue as it climbs to Grizzly Peak.

“It’s a cohesive strategy that started over a decade ago,” said Tom Klatt, the university’s environmental projects manager. “We target the most fire-prone, fuel-productive trees that we have on our land. Those areas will have less fire intensity as a result.” 

But opponents of the project argue that the scheme will have precisely the opposite effect, increasing the fire risk, purely for the goal of restoring native species.

Klatt said that the university’s project will, over time, allow native trees such as California bay laurel, oak and big-leaf maple to thrive. He said, however, that there will be a period of time when the cleared areas will be mostly scrub or grassland. The plan is to suppress regrowth of non-natives with herbicide and encourage the growth of native trees.

FEMA, which will provide up to $5.6 million in pre-disaster mitigation funding for the university’s plans, as well as those from Oakland and East Bay Regional Park District, concludes in its draft environmental impact statement that the schemes are important to reduce fire danger (there’s a 16-page executive summary of the full draft EIS).

“Fire risk may be lowered by creating a fire break and reducing the amount of flammable trees, shrubs, and debris that can act as fuel during a wildfire,” said a FEMA spokesperson. “The proposed vegetation management work would primarily focus on reducing highly flammable, non-native invasive species.

“Based on the wildfire hazard characteristics of the East Bay Hills and the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline, FEMA has identified that a need exists to reduce hazardous fire risk to people and structures in these areas,” the spokesperson said.

The university plans to eliminate all the non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon. Felled trees less than 24 inches in diameter would be chipped and the chips spread on up to 20% of each site to a maximum depth of 24 inches. Larger trees would be cut up and scattered on the sites, which would help control sediment and erosion or support wildlife habitat, according to the draft EIS. For 10 years after the felling, stumps would be treated with herbicide to prevent new sprouts.

The project is supported by a large resident’s organization, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy. It has encouraged its members to write to FEMA in support of the EIS, arguing, “We Claremont Canyon residents know only too well that, when ignited, the eucalyptus canopy will spread wildfire dramatically during our windy fire season. With removal of invasive trees and yearly follow-up to discourage regrowth and weeds, native vegetation will thrive.”

Photo 1
Eucalyptus and other trees are often sited cheek by jowl with homes in the Claremont and Strawberry canyon areas. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Dan Grassetti is a member of the Hills Conservation Network (HCN), a small group of local residents who have mobilized against the eucalyptus removal. “The core of our objection is that the methods that are being proposed are more geared to native plant restoration than fire risk reduction,” he said today.

HCN sued to spur the current FEMA environmental impact statement and, on its website, threatens to sue again to stop the plan. “What we are trying to get FEMA to do is rework the EIS to remove the native plant restoration portion and instead make it species neutral and focus on the alleged reason for this project is, which is fire risk reduction,” Grassetti said.

But Grassetti’s perspective that eucalypts are not a problem is a minority voice. Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire science at UC Berkeley as well as co-director of the U.C. Center for Fire Research and Outreach, told The New York Times in 2011: “All vegetation has the potential to burn in wildfires but some species are more flammable and hazardous than others. Eucalyptus, with it shedding bark, huge amounts of leaf litter, tall dense stands of trees, and fast growth is probably the most hazardous species in the East Bay Hills.”

A number of residents in the hills who experienced the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm echo Stephens’ concerns.

“The eucalyptus has an infamous ability to spread fire,” said Marge Gibson Haskell, who was an Oakland city councilmember in 1991, and whose house was destroyed in the fire. “Their leaves are aerodynamically shaped. The wind takes them, they go. I don’t like eucalyptus, I like natives. Why don’t we plant what was here before some idiot from Australia planted thousands of trees.”

The university’s Klatt says doubters about the new plans can see what will result by going up Claremont Avenue. To the south, the non-natives have already been removed. To the north, the non-natives exist in profusion.

“The native trees are shaded out by the 200-foot canopy of eucalyptus,” he said. “Once we remove the overstory, the natives thrive. It’s a long-term conversion. We’re staying with it for 10 years to make sure these trees don’t come back. We want this to be the last removal and we want this to be successful.”

A public meeting on the draft EIS will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 18, at Claremont Middle School, 5750 College Ave., Oakland. FEMA is also accepting written comments, which must be submitted or postmarked by midnight, June 17. Written comments may be submitted through the project website, via email to FEMA, or via mail to P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579.

Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor: “It’s important not to forget” [10.14.11]
No warning: A sense of crisis outrunning the firestorm [10.10.11]
Richard Misrach: A focus on the after story [08.01.11]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...