aerial view of canyon in Oakland
This aerial view shows tree removal work already done by UC Berkeley in Claremont Canyon. An appellate ruling has cleared the way for the university to remove more trees as a fire prevention measure. Photo: Doug Prose

UC Berkeley is free to clear dozens of acres of trees for a fire break and three fire hazard reduction projects after an appeals court reversed a trial court ruling blocking the plan.

Much of the wildfire protection work, funded by a state grant, overlaps where the university wanted to clear trees in 2013 before a different lawsuit prevented them from doing so.

An aerial map shows U.C. Berkeley's Hill Campus and several proposed fire hazard reduction projects in Strawberry Canyon, Claremont Canyon and Frowning Ridge.
This map shows three proposed fire hazard reduction projects near the campus of U.C. Berkeley. Image: Courtesy California Courts.

The university’s current plan includes a 126-foot-wide fuel break running 1.4 miles along Claremont Ridge, as well as three fire hazard reduction projects — one each in Strawberry Canyon, Claremont Canyon and Frowning Ridge, “where eucalyptus trees were previously removed but regrowth occurred,” according to court records.

A trial court initially sided with two nonprofit organizations that had filed court papers against the university. The Claremont Canyon Conservancy argued that the university’s plan was not thorough enough; the Hills Conservation Network that the university was clearing too much. Both challenged the university’s environmental impact review as inadequate in court filings.

An appeals court reversed the trial court decision Friday with the Claremont Canyon Conservancy welcoming the ruling, saying they had sought only to block the Hills Conservation network from interfering with the university’s plans.

The university first sought federal funds for tree removal in Strawberry and Claremont canyons over a decade ago after a previous decade of work was completed, clearing eucalyptus, Monterey pine and acacia from 185 acres of campus property.

University officials said at the time that the project may allow for native trees — California bay laurel, oak and bigleaf maple — to thrive in the absence of non-native species, and there were plans to use herbicide to prevent the non-native trees from returning.

FEMA announced in 2015 that it would fund $5.67 million in tree removal, with funds passing through the California Office of Emergency Services to the university, the city of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks District.

The Hills Conservation Network filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the money, and the next year, FEMA pulled $3.5 million in funding from Oakland and the university in a settlement with the group.

A separate $3.6 million CalFire grant allowed the university to cut down trees along Claremont Avenue to ensure the road could serve as a fire evacuation route.

Like the forsaken FEMA grant, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy supported the buffer zone, while the Hills Conservation Network opposed it. That work wrapped up in 2021.

Lots of cut-down logs
A pile of logs along Claremont Avenue. Photo: Doug Prose

Two years before in 2019, the university began an environmental impact review on another tree-cutting measure to remove conifers and eucalyptus across 121 acres in order to “reduce highly flammable invasive plant species and promote the growth of fire-resistant native plant species to reduce wildfire risks,” according to court records. That work would also be funded by CalFire.

When the Board of Regents finalized the review, the Hills Conservation Network and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy both filed court papers challenging the review’s adequacy.

But while the two nonprofits were united in strategy, they remained, as ever, opposed in their reasoning. “Notably, Hills contended the projects went too far, and Claremont thought they didn’t go far enough,” according to the appeals court decision.

The groups questioned various aspects of the review, including wind modeling, levels of vegetation removal and other items they saw as overly ambiguous or insufficient.

The appeals court ultimately decided that the environmental impact review at issue had, in fact, been adequate for the project to proceed, and ordered the trial court to enter a new judgment, denying the nonprofit groups’ petitions and determining that the Board of “Regents are entitled to costs on appeal.”

A wall of logs
Logs stacked up on Claremont Avenue. Photo: Gary Wayne

Dan Grassetti, president of the Hills Conservation Network’s board of directors, said the group was “disappointed” at the appellate ruling and “are currently deciding if a challenge is viable.”

Grassetti accused the appellate panel of bias in favor of institutions like the university and against citizens’ involvement in environmental issues.

“In this case, institutional clout won over the public’s right to know,” Grassetti said in a statement in response to an email inquiry from Berkeleyside. “For both local wildlife and local citizens the implications of this ruling are dire. What has been an extremely fire-safe environment providing extensive fog drip, shade, and excellent habitat, will be transformed into a hot, dry and highly flammable environment that will be largely devoid of wildlife.”

Jon Kaufman, the president of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, said that while his organization had been lumped together with the Hills Conservation Network in this lawsuit that it had really been the other nonprofit — not the university — whom they had opposed.

“Our objective all along was to enable UC to move forward, and to stop HCN from interfering with that process, but from a legal point of view we couldn’t sue HCN,” Kaufman said. “Even though our opponent was HCN we were forced, just by the way the law works, to sue the university’s (environmental impact statement), and I think the university understands that we were not opposing their efforts.”

Kaufman said when the earlier federal case of FEMA money was going on “we tried to intervene in that case, but we didn’t do it early enough. We tried to file as an amicus and the judge wouldn’t let us do that.”

Kyle Gibson, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, which oversees campus planning, design, construction and real estate matters, said the university’s current fuel management plan “encompasses areas that overlap significantly with locations where previous attempts to undertake fire mitigation in the Hill Campus were stopped by neighbor litigation.”

Since the appellate court ruling, Gibson said it was too soon to say when work might begin, or even when fuel management programs might be funded.

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...