FEMA projects could result in a treeless landscape in the East Bay

Although we are often accused of being “euc-lovers” by native plant advocates, we actually prefer native oaks to eucalypts.  Unlike native plant advocates, we don’t think our preference justifies the destruction of eucalypts.  Because of our fondness for oaks, informing our readers of the rampant spread of Sudden Oak Death that is killing our oaks is not a pleasant chore.  But we want the public to understand that when we destroy all of our non-native trees, we may be dooming ourselves to a treeless landscape.  

Hundreds of thousands of non-natives will be destroyed by FEMA projects

The projects of UC Berkeley, the City of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) that are being evaluated for FEMA funding will destroy hundreds of thousands of non-native trees, as reported here.  According to the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) that claims to evaluate those projects, “Oak-bay woodlands total 320.6 acres in the proposed and connected project areas and represent the second largest vegetation community identified in the proposed and connected project areas.” (DEIS 4.2-17)  Also, the “vegetation management goals” for the Recommended Treatment Areas (RTAs) in EBRPD’s FEMA applications are predominantly oak-bay woodland.   Thirty-seven of the 47 (80%) RTAs in the EBRPD’s FEMA grant application are destined to be oak or oak-bay woodland when this project is implemented.

Sudden Oak Death in the East Bay

The pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) that causes Sudden Oak Death (SOD) was reported on the UC Berkeley campus in 2002. (1)  At that time it also existed at the UC Botanical Garden, which is proximate to UC Berkeley’s FEMA projects. By 2011, the SF Chronicle reported that the infestation of SOD was spreading rapidly in the East Bay and had been found in North Berkeley, the Claremont district in Berkeley and the Montclair area in Oakland.  That article predicted that 90% of the native live and black oaks in California will be dead within 25 years. (2)  There is no known cure for oaks that are infected with SOD.  A preventative treatment is recommended, but it is expensive and is therefore not being used on our public lands.

One year later, based on the sampling done by thousands of volunteers participating in the 2012 SOD Blitz, the California Oak Mortality Task Force reported these findings: (3)

  •  “The USDA FS 2012 annual aerial detection survey for California mapped 376,000 new dead oak (Quercus agrifolia) and tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) over 54,000 acres in areas impacted by SOD.”
  • “Most of the Bay Area locations sampled had increased levels of infection, with the East Bay infestation found to have transitioned from a newly arrived status (in 2011) to epidemic levels on California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica) (in 2012).”

We participated in the 2013 SOD Blitz in the East Bay on April 27, 2013.  This volunteer effort is led by Matteo Garbelotto who is a scientist at UC Berkeley studying Sudden Oak Death.  He has organized the SOD Blitz throughout Northern California to determine the spread of the disease.  Hundreds if not thousands of citizens attend his workshops to learn how to identify the disease and take leaf samples of native bay trees for testing in Garbelotto’s laboratory.  Oaks aren’t sampled because that requires cutting into the bark of the tree which can damage the tree if not done properly.  Based on previous studies, bays that are infected with the pathogen are assumed to infect oaks within 200 feet of infected bays.  So, based on the SOD map that identifies infected bays in the East Bay, we should assume that all oaks within 200 feet of those infected bays are doomed to die eventually. 

 SOD Map2

This is a detail of an area south of Lake Anza and west of the Tilden Botanical Garden from the SOD Map which is available on the internet.  Infected bay trees identified by the 2012 SOD Blitz are indicated with red triangles. This small portion of the SOD Map shows that 6 infected bay laurel trees were found in 2012 in four of the FEMA project areas:  TI010, TI020, TI011, and TI1012.  This is not a complete list of the infected bays in all project areas.  It is only an illustration of how the DEIS could have reported the existence of SOD in the FEMA project areas.

The oak woodland in the East Bay is called the oak-bay woodland for a reason.  The oaks and bays grow together, in close proximity.  Although bays are hosts of the SOD pathogen, they are not killed by it.  However, bays are considered the primary vector of the disease to the oaks which are killed by it:  “Bay laurels are not thought to die from P. ramorum infection, but these trees are a major source of inoculum for the pathogen and appear to play an important role in spreading disease to other plants in California.” (4)  For that reason, property owners and managers of public lands are being advised by scientists to remove bay laurels growing in proximity to oaks:  “Scientifically-tested recommendations for managing forests impacted by P. ramorum are still in development, although at least three promising directions have emerged:  application of systemic fungicides, forest thinning to remove susceptible hosts, and targeted removal of the main carrier, California bay laurel, near coast live oak.” (5)

To summarize these reports:  the spread of SOD in the East Bay has reached epidemic proportions and is expected to kill most of the oaks.  Meanwhile, one of the few treatments being recommended by scientists to limit the spread of the disease is to remove bay laurels that grow near oaks.  The future of the oak-bay woodland in the East Bay is indeed dim. 

The cause and the consequences of SOD

Scientists studying SOD have determined that the spread of the disease is facilitated by warm rainy days, most likely to occur in the spring.  And models of climate change, predict just such conditions in the future. (6)  How ironic that the destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees in the East Bay will contribute to climate change by releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

SOD researchers have also reported that SOD deaths are increasing the risk of severe wildfire:

“Not only does SOD alter fuel quantity in these forest types, but it can also change the arrangements of fuels, posing serious challenges to firefighter response in infested stands. After trees die from the disease, they can remain standing with dry, dead leaves for several years, greatly increasing the likelihood of crown fire under extreme weather conditions. Likewise, the increased fuels on the forest floor can take a long time to break down, posing a long-term fire hazard and additional risks to firefighters. In many cases, modeled wildfire conditions in SOD-impacted forests exceed safety thresholds for hand crews, calling for changing suppression tactics and strategies, such as more heavy equipment, aircraft use, and indirect lines.” (7)

 Putting our heads in the sand

The DEIS makes no mention of Sudden Oak Death.  Seven written public comments submitted during the scoping process expressed concern about SOD, but the DEIS ignores the issue.  (A word search of the 3,000 page DEIS finds SOD and Sudden Oak Death only in the Scoping Report (DEIS Appendix K1), not in the study itself.)

Since the scoping process in 2010, we now have overwhelming scientific evidence that Sudden Oak Death is rampant in the East Bay, that it is spreading rapidly, that its spread is associated with climate change, and that it is increasing the risk of severe wildfire, yet the DEIS ignores these serious threats to the oak-bay woodlands.  This omission verges on incompetence, if not negligence.  One wonders why the government bothers with a public comment period such as the scoping process, when the public’s concerns are obviously ignored.

If the consequences of Sudden Oak Death in the oak-bay woodland in the project areas are not adequately explained by the Final EIS, FEMA should assume that it will be legally challenged by the taxpayers.  At the very least, taxpayers need to know if there will be any trees left in the East Bay hills, either native or non-native.  If the expansion of oak woodland increases the risk of wildfire, funding of these FEMA grants would be entirely inappropriate.

Please sign the petition in opposition to these projects which is available HERE.  Please send FEMA your public comment about these projects by the June 17 deadline.  Information about how to submit public comments in available HERE.

UPDATE:  The final version of the EIS has added a section about Sudden Oak Death, with this introductory paragraph:

“If SOD is present within the proposed and connected project action area, vegetation treatment could exacerbate SOD by causing it to spread to unaffected areas. A protocol for fuels treatment in areas with SOD was developed using information from U.C. Berkeley Forest Pathology and Mycology SOD workshops. The summary includes identification, mapping, and isolation of infected trees.”  (page 5.1-34 Available HERE)

The final EIS confirms that the entire project “could” spread Sudden Oak Death.  Then it describes how that spread can be “mitigated” by using certain methods designed to limit that spread.  This is the technique used throughout the EIS to essentially dismiss our concerns.  It acknowledges potential problems, then waves them away with elaborate “protocols” which even if they are effective, are unlikely to be followed by people in the field who are usually ignorant of them.


(1)     http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/3880

(2)     Fimrite, Peter, “Sudden oak death cases jump, spread in the Bay Areas,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 2011

(3)     “Sudden Oak Death and Phytophthora Ramorum, 2011-2012 Summary Report, California Oak Mortality Task Force

(4)     UC Davis IPM Online:  http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74151.html

(5)     Janice Alexander, Christopher Lee, “Lessons Learned from a Decade of Sudden Oak Death in California:  Evaluating Local Management,” Environmental Management, 2010, 46:315-328.

(6)     Kliejunas, J.T. 2011. A Risk Assessment of Climate Change and the Impact of Forest Diseases on Forest Ecosystems in the Western United States and Canada. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-236. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 70 p. (4/12)

(7)      Valachovic, Y.S.; Lee, C.A.; Scanlon, H.; Varner, J.M.; Glebocki, R.; Graham, B.D.; and Rizzo, D.M. 2011. Sudden Oak Death-Caused Changes to Surface Fuel Loading and Potential Fire Behavior in Douglas-fir-Tanoak Forests. Forest Ecology and Management. 261:1973-1986. (3/12)

5 thoughts on “FEMA projects could result in a treeless landscape in the East Bay”

  1. When Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, as it was originally called, came to light in 1995, as we followed the trail in California we noted early on that it was showing up just inland to coastal areas where there had been sudden removal of a lot of water from the ground water table due to excessive acres of vineyards being planted. And they were planted in the greedy 90’s style of packing vines in dramatically close. Wells were going dry left, right, and center in Sonoma County as vineyard growers were sucking up all the water.

    Of course, these areas have always been full of oaks, areas just inland from coastal areas, and while it is tempting to want to think of SOD as coming out of nowhere, as with any pathogen it can only take root when the organism, in this case a tree, is weak to begin with. So the deeper question is: why are Oaks just inland of coastal areas increasingly weak in California? It doesn’t take anything more than high school biology to understand that all the pesticides used in coastal (or just inland) wine country areas in California have weakened everything, including humans, in the vicinity of any of these areas. Fungicides are used everywhere in these areas, in great part due to the greed of planting to leave no room for air circulation in vineyards. Most likely as a result of all the fungicides used since vineyards were/are flush with fungus, people in Sonoma and Napa, and we’d expect wine country areas up and down the coast, are stricken with systemic fungal infections as Sonoma Pesticide Alert discovered in health surveying in Sonoma and Napa Counties in the mid-90’s.

    Widespread fungus can show up with dehydration of trees from a low ground water situation, as it can with climate change setting up drought conditions as one can reasonably argue is the reason for any weakness seen in Ojai trees. The continual herbiciding of waterways in Ojai would be the likely culprit in causing weakness in Ojai tree populations.

    In Ojai, the state came in military style threatening people with poisons, then actually jumping fences and terrorizing people and their pets, as they sprayed their pesticides saying that they had to do this to get rid of the Gypsy Moth. Of course they did not have to do this even if they were hellbent on getting Gypsy Moths out of trees. We detail alternatives on our Gypsy Moth pages. Gypsy Moths do not kill oaks. Defoliation is part of an occasional cycle and in 2000 people in Seattle demanded that the government not use pesticides, as a Deputy Agricultural Commissioner told me. They recognized this as a natural cycle which would pass.

    All in all, SOD’s march up and down California is no surprise at all; we have an environment actively being destroyed already in the hills by pesticides used by UC; the East Bay Regional Park District; Ebmud; PG&E; and others’ use. Add on Port of Oakland; car pollution; Oakland International Airport, and other toxics, and we have already-weakened trees. Cutting down healthy Bay Laurels, too?

    A contractor’s dream.

  2. Our California local officials want to use FEMA funds for this? How are non-native trees and shrubbery an emergency? This is disgraceful. When children die in hurricanes at schools because FEMA funds are unavailable to build storm shelters, now that’s an emergency. Seems like a good time to go national with California’s conjured up projects. Every day these plans continue, tax dollars are being wasted. Sincerely, Barbara Stocklmeir Los Gatos, CA

  3. This is such brilliant information and comments. It IS disgraceful. As someone eloquently said at the Tuesday meeting, there has been no significant fire in 22 years, and that is because steps have been taken to prevent fires.

    Everything about this plan makes no sense unless you see who will make money. There is no fire danger that will not exist after all the trees are removed. Animals will die, our air will be less clean, the East Bay will lose its main treasure, our beautiful parks.

    We need more trees, and more diversity of species, not less. It’s no coincidence that people, including on the UC campus, do not landscape with natives. The streets and yards in the cities are a mass of bio-diversity with beautiful trees and plants from around the world that we are lucky to have because of our climate.

    Who in their right mind would want to kill a single tree?

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