It’s hard to overstate how important quercus agrifolia is to California’s landscape and ecology. Commonly known as the coastal live oak, mature trees spread their limbs upward and out to create massive dome-like interiors shaded by boughs draped in evergreen, holly-shaped leaves. Live oaks thrive through coastal California’s hot summers, wet winters, fog, and frequent fires, to which they’re well-accustomed. In East Bay’s flatlands and foothills, they provide shelter and food that virtually every species survives on.
But over the past two centuries, millions of live oaks were chopped down to make way for California sprawl. Thirty-plus million humans settled along the coastline from San Diego to Sonoma County paving over the savannas and woodlands that were once dominated by the native oaks. In cracks in the pavement, oaks have mostly been replaced with non-natives like plane trees and palms. While they’re by no means endangered, live oak trees, especially the gnarled ancient individuals that can live for hundreds of years, are much rarer today.
That’s why environmentalists were concerned when Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery announced a major expansion project two years ago. The cemetery planned to cut down 65 mature live oaks to make room for 6,000 new graves and crypts along the ridgetop. In addition, the cemetery wants to excavate 150,000 cubic yards of soil. This terraforming operation could impact as many as 200 additional oak trees immediately downhill.
“Oak trees are the cornerstone species of this habitat,” said Judy Schwartz, vice president of the California Native Plant Society’s East Bay Chapter. “Hundreds of insects, lizards, mammals, birds, bryophytes depend on them.”
In November, the Oakland Planning Commission approved the cemetery expansion plans on a 3-2 vote. Schwartz’s group filed an appeal to stop them. She said they weren’t trying to prevent the cemetery’s expansion, but wanted to protect the oaks.
According to Schwartz, Mountain View Cemetery’s live oaks are some of the oldest trees in Oakland, making their protection crucial. In fact, they’re some of the last big oaks in a city that was named after the quercus agrifolia.
In the 1800s, downtown and West Oakland were covered in a dense canopy of trees. Early paintings and sketches of Oakland depict a Victorian town with streets shaded by moss-draped giant oaks. Today, only a few isolated trees or clusters stand as sparse reminders of how the region once looked. One is the Jack London Oak in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Mosswood Park and DeFremery Park also have stands of 100-year-old oaks.
“The whole bottom of the cemetery was once full of oak trees,” Schwartz said about Mountain View.
The celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed Mountain View’s peculiar layout of paths and plots when it was established to be the new rural burial grounds for Oakland in 1865. Familiar with California’s dry Mediterranean climate, Olmstead incorporated some of the existing oaks into his plans, but when irrigation came to the hills later on, cemetery officials planted many non-native trees. The addition of green lawns to the graveyard killed some of the oaks in the flat areas. The result is a beautiful garden park that’s popular today with visitors as well as those visiting their family members who are interred in the grounds. But the non-native portion of the landscape supports much less biological diversity than the oaks.
This time of year, live oaks are filled with tiny caterpillars and moths that feed on the leaves. These highly specialized insects, some of which can only survive on quercus agrifolia‘s foliage, provide food for birds that raise their young in the treetops.
“The baby birds can’t survive on seeds that people put in feeders,” said Schwartz. “They need caterpillars.”
“It’s a very important species to try to protect when possible,” said Cindy Margulis, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, about quercus agrifolia. Margulis said that it’s not just oak trees, but older, fully mature oak trees that are important to protect. That’s because the older trees provide things that younger oaks can’t, like hollowed-out wood for nesting.
She called the settlement “wise and thoughtful” because it protects existing mature oaks and adds new saplings that will mature over the coming decades.
Each December, the Audubon Society conducts a bird count across the region, and one spot for the census is Mountain View Cemetery. Over 150 different bird species have been counted there.
According to observation posted to iNaturalist.org, birds spotted in Mountain View include California towhees, black phoebes, and Cooper’s hawks. The cemetery’s oak trees are also home to Sierran treefrogs, arboreal salamanders, and Calisoga spiders, commonly called false tarantulas, among other wildlife. Several species of wasps also use live oaks to incubate their young by laying eggs inside leaf tissue that swells into a gall.
In response to feedback from environmentalists, the cemetery agreed to protect 20 mature oak trees. After the California Native Plant Society filed its appeal to stop the expansion project, the cemetery and environmentalists met to hash out an agreement that went further. The Native Plant Society was assisted by Martin Bern, an attorney with Munger, Tolles & Olson who donated his time.
Under the settlement, Mountain View Cemetery will hire an independent arborist selected by the Native Plant Society in order to monitor the grading and soil removal activities to ensure oak trees aren’t harmed. Mountain View also agreed to plant more oak trees to replace the ones that will be removed, rather than planting fewer or planting other species such as buckeye or redwoods. And the cemetery is also setting up a fund that the Native Plant Society can use to pay for conservation and environmental education programs in other parts of Oakland. Schwartz said the fund amount is in the “six-figures.”
Representatives for the cemetery didn’t respond to a request for comment for this report.
But Margulis said the settlement isn’t just for the birds. “If you think about the people buried there, and the people who come to visit their loved ones’ graves, they need that place to be refuge, too.”