Strawberry Canyon. Credit: UC Berkeley

Next week, UC Berkeley is slated to start clearing out brush, grass and trees along a popular hiking trail in the open space above campus.

The six-month “Jordan Fire Trail Improvement” project is one slice of a larger plan to mitigate wildland fire risks on Cal’s largely undeveloped hillside, bordered by Tilden Regional Park to the east. The trail will be closed during the work, except on Sundays and a few holidays, according to the university.

The roughly 800-acre Cal hillside, which encompasses Strawberry Canyon and part of Claremont Canyon, attracts walkers, runners and bike riders on its trails, many of which offer dramatic Bay Area views.

Closing a trail for fire prevention work seems pretty straightforward, not to mention welcome — especially as the East Bay enters its fall fire season, marked by the risky potential of high temperatures and strong winds from the east.

But the Jordan Trail project, which covers about 85 acres of the hillside, isn’t straightforward. Instead, it emerges from a lengthy and divisive battle over the best vegetation management techniques to slow or stop wildland fire in the East Bay Hills, centered on the UC Berkeley campus.

Community groups have sued Cal. The university sued the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Settlements have been reached, and new lawsuits filed.

The fight isn’t over, with new briefs filed last week in the latest lawsuit, submitted in March.

The Jordan Trail project — a less controversial undertaking — wasn’t stopped by the recent legal actions. There was no injunction against this work, or a couple of other road clearing projects.  The timing on the bulk of Cal’s “hill campus wildland vegetative fuels management plan” may be determined by Alameda County Superior Court, with the first hearing on the March lawsuit scheduled in December.

“The university is within its rights to move forward on this part of the project,” said Dan Grassetti, head of the Hills Conservation Network, one of the community groups involved in the legal actions against the university, including the March lawsuit.  “This part of the project is significant, but there’s a whole lot more UC wants to do.”

The Jordan Trail project calls for removing shrub, brush, and trees alongside the route to improve accessibility, especially in an emergency, according to UC Berkeley. This clearing will stretch from 10-feet to 100-feet from the trail’s edge.

“This project will support safe emergency access on the fire trail should a landslide or wildfire would occur. Currently, there are numerous trees and abundant shrubby fuels near the trail that can fall across the road and block traffic, or burn with such intensity that passage would be prohibited during a wildfire,” the university’s facilities department overseeing the project said in a statement.

The trail will be closed in three sections paced with the work, starting at the top near Grizzly Peak Blvd. and finishing where it meets Centennial Drive, said Devin Woolridge, with UC facilities.  Each section should take about 60 days to complete, he said.  “Please remember that these dates are approximates and events such as: Red Flag Warning Days, wet / windy weather, community concerns, etc. could slow progress.”

UC’s larger comprehensive fire plan calls for road and trail clearance, creating defensible space around facilities, and reducing overall fuel load, among other vegetation management. It taps a variety of management strategies from selective tree thinning to full-scale tree removal, and goats to prescribed burns.

Fire vegetative clearance along the Jordan Trail on UC Berkeley’s hillside starts this week. Credit: UC Berkeley Credit: UC Berkeley
Fire vegetative clearance along the Jordan Trail on UC Berkeley’s hillside starts this week. Credit: UC Berkeley Credit: UC Berkeley

Some projects are completed including road clearance along Centennial Drive and in Claremont Canyon.

The work is largely funded by a $3.6 million grant from CalFire, the state’s fire agency.

In February, the state approved the required Environmental Impact Report (EIR), clearing the way for work.

In the spring, the Hill Conservation Network and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, two community groups focused on East Bay hills wildland fire safety, filed suit against UC Berkeley, claiming the EIR wasn’t sufficient.

Both groups are deeply involved in watchdogging fire prevention plans on East Bay Hills public lands, including using the courts. They are known for their passion and their differing views.

In general, the conservancy advocates for larger-scale removal of nonnative flammable trees, in particular Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine, along with ground thinning. The hill network argues for aggressive understory thinning but far more selective tree removal including of Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine.

In the recent lawsuit, both groups claim UC Berkeley wasn’t specific enough in how it plans to reduce vegetative fuels, and without details, it’s hard for the public to adequately weigh in. The EIR approval process requires public input.

“Our major claim is that the EIR is deficient in that they don’t really tell you what the university is planning on doing; the actual intentions or end result,” Grassetti said.

But the core concern of the Claremont Conservancy, in its suit, is that the plan doesn’t go far enough, especially in its treatment of mature nonnative trees. The conservancy supports most of the project.

“Claremont Conservancy says the plan should do more,” said Jon Kaufman, president of the conservancy’s board.

Alameda County Superior Court combined the two lawsuits and set a Dec. 10 hearing for opening briefs.

This action might clear the way for extensive wildfire mitigation work on UC Berkeley’s hillside, after years of plans, reviews, adjustments, agreement, disagreement, court actions, and more adjustments.

Notably, in 2015, FEMA granted $5.67 million to UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Parks District for major fuel reduction in the hills, including on campus. The plan called for the widespread removal of Eucalyptus trees.

The hill network sued FEMA, and a year later, in a court settlement, the administration withdrew UC Berkeley and Oakland’s share of $3.5 million, directing all the grant to East Bay Regional Parks. UC Berkeley sued FEMA, lost, and appealed, losing again.

Story updated Sept. 7: The Jordan Trail project is now scheduled to begin Monday, Sept. 12, and will be completed in phases.

UC Berkeley’s Hill Campus Wildland Vegetative Fuel Management Plan. Credit: UC Berkeley Credit: Credit: UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley’s Hill Campus Wildland Vegetative Fuel Management Plan. Credit: UC Berkeley Credit: Credit: UC Berkeley
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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...