Cleaning the Canyons

UC Berkeley's ongoing fire mitigation plans are dramatically changing the hills landscape, as conflicts have erupted among neighbors.

For months, activists have desperately tried to save a few dozen trees near UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium from being felled for an athletic training center. But few have protested or even seem to be aware of the university’s ongoing effort to chop down thousands of trees in the surrounding area.

That’s partly because the targets — eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia — aren’t native to the area. They’re considered to be a fire hazard and a threat to local ecology. Nevertheless, the university’s project would drastically alter the landscape of the Berkeley Hills. And some aren’t happy about it at all. One of the concerns is that this could be a precursor to development.

The university ramped up its fire mitigation efforts on its approximately 800 acres of undeveloped land after the costly Oakland firestorm of 1991. Eucalyptus, with its shedding bark and copious amounts of oil, was largely blamed for the out-of-control blaze. Since 2000, the university has undertaken about fourteen tree-whacking projects. “We’ve been doing this for many, many decades now,” said Tom Klatt, manager of UC Berkeley’s office of emergency preparedness and project manager for the fire mitigation project. “We failed in the past to get rid of eucalyptus.”

More recently, UC Berkeley completed a project in Claremont Canyon, removing about 3,200 eucalyptus, pine, and acacia trees, plus 300 other species. What once was a thick grove of eucalyptus now is a sparse landscape scattered with wood chips. Plans are in the works to cut another 100 acres, including 42 acres on the north side of Claremont Canyon and 60 acres in Strawberry Canyon to the north, pending an environmental assessment. The university applied for funds for the project from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

UC Berkeley’s strategy involves eradicating nonnative trees or thinning groves and allowing the native species such as redwood, oak, and bay in the undergrowth to thrive. The resulting foliage, said Klatt, “should burn with far less frequency, less intensity, and provide less of a threat to neighborhoods in the west.”

“We’re not promising there will never be another fire,” he said, sitting on a eucalyptus log overlooking an area of Claremont Canyon that used to be thick with the trees but, thanks to UC Berkeley’s efforts, is allowing the native redwoods to flourish. “We think this approach is best and meets broad acceptance of the community.”

Well, almost. The most vocal supporters of UC Berkeley’s efforts have been the members of a homeowners’ group called the Claremont Canyon Conservancy. Formed in 2001, with the 1991 fire still fresh in the memories of some members, the organization says its goal is to promote “long-term stewardship of the entire watershed, coordinated among the stakeholders to reduce wildfire hazards, improve public access, and preserve or restore a healthy native ecosystem.” The conservancy has worked closely with the university — they have a memorandum of understanding — to provide nature walks and plant redwood seedlings on its property where eucalyptus once was.

But in the last year and a half, another group — albeit a much smaller one — has come out strongly opposed to the university’s actions. Resident Dan Grassetti was riding his motorcycle through Claremont Canyon last year in July when he came across men with chainsaws cutting down eucalyptus trees. The project was initiated by the conservancy, which had obtained grant money from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove trees on East Bay Regional Park District land. Klatt was a volunteer leading the effort. Grassetti didn’t want to get involved, he said, but felt compelled to pull over and find out what was going on. “It was like pulling the yarn on a sweater,” he said. “It kept unraveling.”

Shortly thereafter, Grassetti formed the Hills Conservation Network, which consists of a core group of about ten people. They say the university fails to follow good practices set by other agencies like the East Bay Regional Parks District and the City of Oakland. Among their claims: The university is creating a greater fire hazard by leaving wood chips on the ground; it poisoned a creek with herbicide used on stumps of eucalyptus; Claremont Canyon isn’t a great fire risk; eucalyptus trees don’t ignite easily; and it’s essentially misusing public funds for native plant restoration in the name of fire safety. Grassetti and his group aren’t against cutting eucalyptus, just not all of it. They recently gathered more than 200 signatures that they sent to the university, and have set up meetings with various local officials to further their cause.

In addition, what appears to be clear-cutting on the part of the university could be the first step of its future development projects, Grassetti believes. “We’re not necessarily saying that, but UC isn’t saying otherwise,” he said. “There’s something here that smells rotten.”

UC Berkeley’s Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police Victoria Harrison did deny that claim in a letter to Grassetti in August. While the university’s long-range plan anticipates 100,000 gross square feet of development over fifteen years in the hills campus, she said, “Most likely, new construction would occur adjacent to existing development.”

Discussions with Klatt, UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens, Oakland Fire Department Assistant Fire Marshal Leroy Griffin, and East Bay Regional Parks District Fire Chief Ken Blonsky suggested that Grassetti’s other fears are largely unfounded. The only issue of potential concern, Griffin says, is the chips, which, at a depth of two to three feet, could pose a problem to firefighters trying to create a firebreak. While the city’s policy calls for hauling chips off-site, Griffin says chips may safely be left on-site, and are less of a threat if they’re scattered out of the way, away from residential property, and on flat land. “It’s really a site-by-site determination.”

Nevertheless, the fight between Claremont Canyon Conservancy and the Hills Conservation Network appears to have become more, er, heated lately. Though conservancy president Martin Holden refused to directly address Grassetti’s concerns, he stated, “This stuff is so fraught with politics.” In the same spot in Claremont Canyon where Grassetti had, just days earlier, lamented the loss of a stand of trees, Holden praised the new landscape as a model of “native habitat restoration” and fire safety. “I grew up in Southern California, and I think eucalyptus are beautiful,” he said. “But sometimes you have to make a choice. Doing nothing is doing something.”

Last October, UC Berkeley’s efforts with the conservancy were heralded in an article in The Monthly. Grassetti, on the other hand, was described as a “resident whose view was severely impacted,” and quoted as saying, “The proponents of these projects seem to believe that the end justifies the means.”

Grassetti says he was never interviewed for the article, and accuses Claremont Canyon Conservancy of being in cahoots with the university and of keeping its own members in the dark about the group’s support for a policy that would “clear-cut” the canyon. He posted a video on YouTube titled “Destruction of Claremont Canyon,” which starts off with upbeat acoustic guitar music, panning shots of thick forests, then segues into bulldozers, felled trees, and barren landscapes. A member of the conservancy has since posted several videos of their walks surveying the canyon with officials like Klatt.

The clash stems from a values discrepancy, says Grassetti, who moved to Alvarado Street in 1992. He said the ’91 fire led to a “radical transformation” of people living in the area, turning a “cute woodsy place into a high-end suburb.”

“They see this as stuff of no value,” he said. “They see it as a problem. … Doing this twenty years ago would have been unthinkable.”

At least one member of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy seems to agree. Teresa Ferguson is a member of both the conservancy and the Hills Conservation Network. She says she joined Grassetti’s crew after learning that the conservancy was supporting UC’s tree-cutting measures. “When I signed on, I thought I was helping maintain the canyon, not transforming it into grassland,” she said about the conservancy.

“Everyone wants to make the area safer,” Ferguson continued. “But what’s happening is we’re getting rid of the wildland. … People feel kind of broadsided by it. … The Hills Conservation Network was started by a guy who seemed to not want to do anything to the canyon, but there’s got to be a happy medium.”

That happy medium may be a wildland that looks vastly different from what people are used to. In addition to the two projects in Strawberry and Claremont canyons, the university applied for and was awarded a $3 million FEMA grant for a wide-scale collaborative effort with East Bay Regional Parks District and the City of Oakland covering 350 acres. The project is currently undergoing environmental review and it could be years before it starts, says Oakland assistant fire marshal Griffin. Efforts would focus on nonnative species, meaning a eucalyptus would be cut before an oak.

Griffin says the city of Oakland doesn’t have a policy of taking out all eucalyptus trees. It turns out that they do offer some benefits, such as providing a refuge for raptors. “It’s not like eucalyptus go around banging people in the back of the head like gangs,” he said.


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