Proposal to Reduce Fire Risk in East Bay Hills by Cutting 85,000 Trees Draws a Crowd

Jean Stewart, second from left, said she would "place my body and my wheelchair in the path of the bulldozers" to prevent large-scale tree cutting. On her left is Robert Miller. Photo credit: Dixie Jordan.
Jean Stewart, second from left, said she would "place my body and my wheelchair in the path of the bulldozers" to prevent large-scale tree cutting. On her left is Robert Miller. Photo credit: Dixie Jordan.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the Claremont Middle School gymnasium on Oakland's College Avenue Saturday morning, May 18, for a meeting on a controversial plan to cut down tens of thousands of eucalyptus, Monterey pines and other non-native trees in the East Bay hills, then treat stumps and sprouts with herbicides, to reduce the risk of wildfires.

The lively crowd, and the dozens of people who signed up to speak for three-minute periods, included Oakland and Berkeley hills residents, survivors of the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm, environmental activists, native plant enthusiasts, hikers and many who couldn't be categorized.

Among the speakers was Jean Stewart of El Sobrante, who appeared in a wheelchair and said her disability stemmed from herbicide exposure. Stewart said she had worked as a researcher for a large herbicide manufacturing company after graduating from college with a degree in botany.

She drew an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience when she wrapped up with, "If necessary, I'll place my body and my wheelchair in the path of the bulldozers."

Susan Piper, who identified herself as an Oakland Hills fire survivor, Hiller Highlands resident and co-chair of a committee to renew an Oakland hills fire assessment district, said the proposal would be using "the best tools to deal with an aging urban forest." (Piper is also a former spokesperson for Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.)

Steve Martino, a resident of the Shattuck-Rose area in Berkeley and an opponent of the plan, was greeted with laughter when he said the plan "criminalizes illegal immigrant trees."

The meeting was sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is considering grant applications from the University of California Berkeley, the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) and the City of Oakland to remove an estimated 85,000 trees from 998 acres of land stretching from Wildcat Canyon to Anthony Chabot Regional Park.

A draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by FEMA — the official subject of Saturday's meeting — also covers more than 1,060 acres of adjacent park district land that isn't included in the grant application. That brings the total area under consideration to 2059 acres, or 3.2 square miles.

Among the areas covered by the grant are Claremont Canyon, Strawberry Canyon, Oakland's Caldecott sports field and adjacent land above the Caldecott Tunnel, Frowning Ridge (Grizzly Peak Boulevard) and portions of Tilden Regional Park and Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve.

Additional regional park lands include portions of the Sobrante Ridge, Wildcat Canyon, Huckleberry Botanic, Redwood, Leona Canyon, Anthony Chabot and Lake Chabot parks and preserves, and Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline.

According to the executive summary of the draft EIS, the agencies would cut down all non-native trees in the designated areas. The smaller felled trees would be chipped, with a layer of wood chips up to two feet deep covering up to 20 percent of the cleared area (a little under two-thirds of a square mile).

Larger trees and branches would be cut into lengths and scattered on the sites, with some trees placed to help control erosion.

Stumps and sprouts would be treated "Garlon 3A or other herbicides approved for use near water," according to the summary. Several speakers at Saturday's meeting indicated the herbicide Roundup would qualify as an alternative.

While most of the grant applications said removing non-native trees would promote the eventual return of the affected areas to grasslands or oak-bay woodlands, none of the agencies appeared to have specific plans for replanting of the areas.

Among other comments from speakers at Saturday's meeting:

—"With sudden oak death, for certain the oaks will be dying out. These will become bare hills good for windmills and more housing developments."

—From a 1991 fire survivor: "We live in a fire landscape. The East Bay hills have burned 14 times since 1924. Those of us who have been victims of fire have lost the ability to live in a state of denial."

—From a North Berkeley resident and runner: "I'm not comfortable running through Roundup."

—From an attorney: "In 1991 the Oakland Fire Department was unprepared. Since then they know what they are doing, but they need more resources. There have been fires in the hills [since 1991] and they have been contained."

—From a Piedmont Pines resident: "I support the no-action alternative. The proposed plan is too extreme."

—"Doing nothing is not the alternative. There are other alternatives."

Members of the public may submit written comments on the draft EIS through June 17. Copies of the three-volume draft EIS are available at the Oakland Main Library, Rockridge Branch Library, Berkeley Main Library and several other locations. See the FEMA website listed below for more details.

For more information:

—The FEMA website "East Bay Hills EIS for Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction."

—"Death of a Million Trees" and "California Progress Report" for arguments against funding the grant applications.

Claremont Canyon Conservancy for arguments in favor of the proposal.

—On the Hills Emergency Forum, "After-Action Reports from the 1991 Oakland-East Bay Hills Tunnel Fire" and "20 Years After" for information on changes made by the Oakland Fire Department in the wake of the 1991 fire and a critical report on the OPD response at that time.

Rob211 May 19, 2013 at 01:27 PM
Several people listed weren't Rockridge residents, I note. Not that they aren't entitled to an opinion, but one wonders if their views would be the same with skin in the game. It's about time we undertook efforts to undo the ecological damage caused by previous generations and remove the invasive plants to the extent possible. It's not enough to preserve and protect existing wildland, we should try to rehabilitate when we can. The fortuity of fire protection and environmental restoration is a big win-win.


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