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Environmental groups clash over East Bay eucalyptus

on October 20, 2015

Eucalyptus trees tower above hills and parks throughout the East Bay, providing shade to all who pass under and homes to many animals. To some, though, these trees are dangerous intruders that have got to go.

A plan to reduce the number of eucalyptus trees in the East Bay Hills, reportedly to help protect the area from wildfires like the one that devastated the Oakland Hills 24 years ago this month, has sparked heated controversy and divided activists.

Supporters of the plan insist immediate action is necessary.

“It’s only a matter of time before we have a really bad wildfire,” said Carolyn Jones, the public information supervisor for the East Bay Regional Park District. “The worst is yet to come.”

Opponents say cutting down trees is not the answer.  “If they want to reduce fire risk, this would be about the last thing they should do,” said Dan Grassetti, president of the Hills Conservation Network.

The East Bay parks, the City of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley  are planning a joint project to reduce fire risk.  Backed by a $4.65 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they expect to remove dry brush, dead trees and non-native trees­–particularly eucalyptus–across 800 acres in 11 regional parks, including the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline and Wildcat Canyon in Richmond.

Throughout California, wildfires are a double-edged sword.  When they start and burn naturally, wildfires clear away brush and other dead plant material which, otherwise, builds up indefinitely until it decomposes. The state’s perpetually dry conditions, however, have allowed forest floors to become overloaded with brush.

Rather than fires controlling brush, the brush controls the fires.  Whether a fire is started naturally, deliberately or by accident, even a small one can become a runaway blaze seemingly instantly. The drought also means wildfire season lasts longer.

These circumstances are not likely to change any time soon. “With climate change, this is not a trend that’s going away,” said Virginia Reinhart, communications manager for the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club.

Preventing the Next Oakland Hills Firestorm: An Oakland North/Richmond Confidential Production from Richmond Confidential on Vimeo.

Those who want eucalyptus removed note that the trees may seem a natural part of the landscape, but they are not native to California—and they burn easily. Eucalyptus was introduced to the state “as a source of hardwood lumber [around] the late 1800s to 1930s,” Jones said. The trees were planted very close together, which results in a “monoculture [where] nothing else grows” and which “cuts off biodiversity—no animals, hardly any species,” she continued.   That lack of diversity weakens the surrounding ecosystem. Also, eucalyptus bark and leaves contain chemical compounds that are highly flammable.

Not everyone agrees that reducing the number of eucalyptus trees is the right way to address the fire hazard.

Grassetti said the focus should instead be on clearing ground fuels such as dry brush. “There is essentially no [connection] between what they want to do and fire risk. … The fire problem we have here is not caused by trees.”

He said the fact that eucalyptus is an import is beside the point, suggesting that fire prevention is a ruse to justify a different sort of environmentalist goal.  “If the agenda is to clear trees that weren’t here 200 years ago, and that’s what it seems to be, that’s what the public” should be told, Grassetti said. “It would be a terrible shame to lose this beautiful environment—shade, raptor habitat, habitat for other animals—because of someone’s strong belief system that some species don’t belong here.”

He also questioned what makes a species native and who determines that. “Who decides the demarcation between what’s native & non-native? …  Two hundred years ago—why not 300?” he asked. “It’s completely arbitrary … ”

Save East Bay Hills is a group of residents in the Oakland Hills village of Montclair who are actively opposed to the plan. A spokesperson said the tree-removal project would heighten “the risk of another devastating fire … expose citizens to large amounts of dangerous chemicals …  [and] exacerbate climate change,” in an email to Richmond Confidential.

The Sierra Club and East Bay Parks dismissed those concerns.

“We’re the Sierra Club,” Reinhart said. “We love trees.”

She added that thousands of eucalyptus trees would remain even after the project concludes, and that removing some trees would ensure other plants “would be given the opportunity to thrive.”  As for those dangerous chemicals, proponents of the plan say herbicides would be applied to eucalyptus tree stumps to prevent regrowth in small enough amounts to minimize their health impact. “Less than 20 gallons will be used annually over the 800 acres of ridgeline in the East Bay Hills,” according to the park district. The district also says it will leave trees alone that have birds living in them at the time.

FEMA released a comprehensive environmental impact statement detailing the high fire danger in the region, which was the key factor driving the agency’s decision to approve the grant. The FEMA researchers concluded in the report’s executive summary that “most of the undeveloped areas in the East Bay Hills are in the very high fire hazard severity zone,” and though tree removal would cause some short-term, adverse effects, most of these could be lessened. At the same time, the project promises “significant, long-term, beneficial effect.”

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