On the Green Beat

The fight over the pines of El Cerrito.

Tree Tussle

Sometime back in the mid-’60s, a group of El Cerrito schoolchildren trooped into a ragged-looking ravine in the city’s northeast quadrant, each bearing a tiny evergreen seedling. The kids took the trees from their containers and planted them in the ground, no doubt wishing them to become tall pines, a shady grove that their children and grandchildren could someday enjoy.

As the youngsters grew up and moved on with their lives, the trees also grew, helping to transform what had long been a neglected, garbage-strewn scrap of land into the popular Canyon Trail Park. The city-owned Canyon Trail Park comprises twenty acres of open space. A paved pathway leads from the bottom of the park near Conlon Avenue, up along narrow Baxter Creek for less than half a mile to the top at Mira Vista Drive. At the lower end, the creek has been turned into a small pool, with a sign asking people to not disturb the Pacific Chorus Frog tadpoles that hide beneath the vegetation. In the upper reaches are tennis courts, a grassy playing field, and a clubhouse.

And there’s also the trees–almost fifty Monterey pines with bright red “X” markings spray-painted on their trunks, indicating an upcoming engagement with a chainsaw. That appointment has been delayed for most of the trees, at least temporarily, but their long-term future is still uncertain.

Monterey pines (Pinus radiata) are native to the Santa Cruz and Monterey County coasts. They have been widely planted in temperate areas throughout the world, mainly for timber production. Until recently they were also popular landscaping trees, because of their beauty, quick growth (up to a height of one hundred feet), and abundant shade. However, they aren’t universally loved–Monterey Pines, along with blue gum eucalyptus, were widely blamed for the rapid spread of the 1991 East Bay hills fire, and they readily shed their needles, often creating a messy carpet around the base of their trunks.

Spare the Trees, Spoil the View

Early this year, the city of El Cerrito announced that it had plans to cut down 47 Monterey Pines in Canyon Trails Park. A letter sent to neighbors said that the pines “are nearing the end of their life expectancy, are subject to insect infestations which can severely weaken and ultimately kill the tree, and present significant impacts on the views from the homes above the park.” It also stated that the city wanted to “eliminate high fire hazard trees” that have a “high maintenance cost.” The Monterey pines would be replaced by native trees, like California Live Oaks and California Buckeyes.

The Parks and Recreation Commission supported the removal of all 47 trees. But as word got around, resistance to the idea of cutting so many trees at once grew, and at a public hearing in early April, the City Council chambers were jam-packed, largely with opponents of the plan.

Rosemary Loubal was the only Parks and Recreation commissioner to vote against the removal. She and her husband moved to a house just a few blocks from the lower end of the park eight years ago. Like many of their neighbors, they walk the streamside trail almost every day. “It feels different under here, doesn’t it?” she muses as we pause in the refreshing shade of a large evergreen. When we come to the pines with the spray-painted X’s on them, she shudders. “It’s chilling,” she says. “I don’t think most people have been through a forest marked like this.”

Loubal argues that the wholesale cutting would cause at least as many problems as it would solve. Much of the park is a steep ravine, and without the trees there could be severe runoff problems in Baxter Creek. “What happens up here is going to affect what happens down there,” she says, pointing toward the stream. She also notes that a number of bird species, including hawks and owls, nest in the pines.

Moreover, the health of the trees may not be as bad as the city portrayed it to be. City officials cite pitch canker, a pathogenic fungus, as a major problem that is killing the trees and making them more vulnerable to fire. Several UC professors examined the trees, however, and came to different conclusions. One of the scientists, Andrew Storer, a professor of insect biology at Cal, noted that trees with pitch canker can live for many years, and the fungus sometimes goes into remission. Current management practice is to “keep pines in place for as long as possible,” he wrote in his report. Trees that pose a hazard should be removed as soon as possible, but Storer suggested that if the city were to decide to get rid of all of the Monterey pines, it should be done gradually, perhaps over a thirty-year period.

The real push for tree removal seems to have come from above –that is, from neighborhoods where living-room windows, if not for a wall of greenery, would overlook magnificent vistas of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate. Mayor Larry Damon, no friend of Pinus radiata, admits as much, characterizing the dispute as “tree-lovers versus view-lovers.”

“People in the area (above the park) had great views of the Bay Area when the trees were planted,” he says. According to Damon, people living along Mira Vista and nearby streets have been pushing for the tree removal for the past seven or eight years, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that the city allocated sixty thousand dollars to do the work.

Bruce King, the city’s manager of maintenance and engineering services, agrees. “Monterey pines are probably not an appropriate tree to be planted in parks. They tend to have more problems than benefits.” Removing all 47 would be much cheaper than taking them out piecemeal, he says. Damon points out that part of the city’s plan was always to replant the park with native trees.

The “tree-lovers” contend that if Monterey pines are properly maintained they don’t pose a major fire threat, and Loubal dismisses the mayor’s complaints: “Trees have litter. What are you going to do, have concrete trees, or education and management?”

Loubal does admit that the original decision to plant Monterey pines was probably ill advised. “People didn’t have the knowledge then that some trees cause problems.” She says that she’d like to see a long-term management plan for the park, which could include the gradual removal of the pines, so that they could be replaced by more suitable species, which wouldn’t grow so high as to block people’s views.

Last month, Loubal got at least some of what she wanted when the City Council overruled the Parks and Rec Commission. Instead of cutting all 47 pines, King was directed to identify the most diseased and hazardous trees–up to a maximum of twenty–and have them removed. He is also supposed to come up with a plan for replacing the park’s pines, and other non-natives such as London plane trees, with native species over the next four to five years. King says he hopes to have the plan done by the end of May. (Damon and one other councilmember had to be recused from the vote because they live within five hundred feet of the park.)

Park advocate, Evelyn Kiresen, still thinks that the city is heading in the wrong direction. She sees no problem with removing a pine that is badly diseased or dangerously unstable, but, she says, “If a tree is beautiful–if it grows well and fits in–keep it, by all means.” She doesn’t buy into the notion that natives are inherently more suitable than exotic species. She points out that California live oaks, one of the probable replacement species, are currently under attack from a mysterious virus. “Sudden oak death syndrome” has killed hundreds of trees already, and many researchers think it will reach the East Bay in just a few years. If so, she worries, the disease would likely wipe out any new plantings in the park.

Views are a big issue in the East Bay hills, and elimination of the trees would add tens of thousands of dollars to the value of the homes above the park. But Loubal counters that the trees are valuable in a different way. “This issue speaks to people,” she says. “A lot of people really felt badly about their urban forest being cut down.” Monterey pines, eucalyptus, and dozens of other species grow in people’s backyards and along streets, providing shade and beauty for all the city’s residents. “Almost every tree here has been planted by people,” she reminds me. “Can you imagine El Cerrito without trees?”

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