Thousands of the Berkeley hills eucalyptus trees may be removed with funding from FEMA. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Thousands of Berkeley hills eucalyptus trees may be removed with funding from FEMA. Photo: Tracey Taylor

A neighborhood group has sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following its decision to fund fire mitigation efforts in the East Bay hills.

Earlier this month, FEMA announced its decision to grant $5.67 million to the California Office of Emergency Services, which will distribute the funds to UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) to remove tens of thousands of eucalyptus trees in the fire-prone hills. Immediately after, the Hills Conservation Network (HCN) filed a lawsuit against FEMA in federal court.

The HCN, a small group whose members live in Claremont Canyon, one of the areas covered by the grants, objects to the plan to “clearcut” the hills’ eucalyptus trees.

“The best thing you could do in this area for fire mitigation is to maintain the tall trees and eliminate the ground fuels and the fire ladder,” said HCN president Dan Grassetti. The group believes too much emphasis is being placed on removing all non-native trees, and that the plan to add beds of wood chips by the tree stumps will pose a greater fire risk than the trees they will replace.

The HCN is suing FEMA for what they claim were technical breaches during the years-long review process, including a lack of transparency. Grassetti said FEMA serves as a proxy for the groups who advocated for the removal of eucalyptuses. Cal OES and the three grant applicants are named in the suit as well.

“We filed suit against FEMA because FEMA is the funding agency. I should be clear: they really want to do the right thing. They got caught up in this crazy situation,” Grassetti said.

FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.

But she said in an email: “Clear-cutting, a logging practice, is not part of the methodology considered in the [Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)] for any of the projects.”

UC Berkeley removed hundreds of trees at Frowning Ridge without permission, making the area ineligible for funding from FEMA. Photo: Hills Conservation Network
UC Berkeley removed hundreds of trees at Frowning Ridge without permission, making the area ineligible for funding from FEMA. Photo: Hills Conservation Network

The initial version of the EIS, released in 2013, proposed funding for eradication of the trees in the UC Berkeley and Oakland territories all at once. After a public comment period, during which FEMA received 13,000 comments, the agency revised the EIS to include a “thinning” method, where trees are removed in phases over a period of ten years. EBRPD had initially proposed this method in its application.

“The thinning approach has been scientifically validated by subject-matter experts to effectively reduce fire risk,” Simms wrote in an email. “The revised vegetation management methodology will result in fewer trees being removed in any single year in certain areas, with the same total fuel reduction accomplished by the conclusion of the project.”

Another group of hills residents oppose the FEMA decision as well — but for the opposite reason. Unlike the HCN, members of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy (CCC) say the fire mitigation plan doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a half-hearted effort,” said Jon Kaufman, stewardship coordinator of the 500-family group. The CCC supported complete eradication.

“The problem today is eucalyptuses crowd out native trees, leaving a dense eucalyptus forest with oaks and bays underneath, starved for sunlight,” Kaufman said.

In a note to members on the CCC website, L. Tim Wallace expressed concern that one result of the FEMA decision would be more of a financial burden on homeowners: “While we are pleased that funds finally will be released, the thinning or so-called unified approach means that maintaining a fire-safe community will be much more costly and that cost will have to be born by the property owners and the cost will be perpetual unless all the eucalyptus trees in a given area are removed,” he wrote.

In an interview with Berkeleyside in June 2013, UC Berkeley campus environmental manager Tom Klatt explained why the university wants the eucalyptuses gone.

“Eucalyptus are a special risk because they drop tons of dead leaves and branches on the forest floor, litter that provides excessive fuel to fires,” said Klatt, a member of the UC Fire Mitigation Committee. “Their low branches serve as fuel ladders up to their high crowns, and their volatile oils burn hot and fast.”

UC Berkeley initially applied for funds from FEMA to eradicate trees at Frowning Ridge (near where Grizzly Peak intersects with South Park Drive) in addition to Claremont Canyon and Strawberry Canyon. In 2014, the university removed 600 trees and used herbicide at Frowning Ridge without authorization, making efforts in the area ineligible for federal assistance, Simms said.

The East Bay hills have suffered from numerous wildfires, including the destructive 1991 firestorm which killed 25 people.

UC Berkeley expert talks about hillside tree removal plan [06.11.13]
UC Berkeley seeks funds to cut down 22,000 non-native trees

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...