Guest article about FEMA projects by a student of the forest

A few days ago we received a comment from a fellow tree-lover and student of the forest that deserves our attention.  He visited the project areas that may soon be cleared of all non-native trees and expressed his opinion of this planned devastation.  With his permission, we are posting his comment as an article.

His name is Deane Rimerman and he describes himself as “Hybrid Car Geek, PNW Landscape Restorationist, Web Builder, Arborist, Writer, Poem Performer, Life-long Photographer & Audio Engineer” on his website.  


Frowning Ridge before "vegetation management"
Frowning Ridge before “vegetation management”

Yesterday I toured the Oakland hills for the first time since I visited it a week after the 1991 fires. That torched landscape turned me into a lifelong student of the forest. So after my visit back to those hills yesterday I started reading everything I could about these FEMA plans!

In the interest of providing the most value I’ll focus on what’s not been mentioned yet in the debates I’ve read on this website thus far. Primarily it revolves around moisture and the value of tall standing trees for the purpose of capturing fog drip during the dry season.

I once worked with a forester named Rudolph Becking on studies that show 200 foot tall old growth redwoods can capture up to 7 inches of fog drip during the dry season. The biggest tallest eucalyptus,and pines, invasive or not also have the ability to do this. And if we’re talking about fire safety don’t we want to increase humidity in soil and in the air during the hottest driest times of the year? If the answer is yes, that can be done by protecting sites that are most exposed to fog in the dry season.

Frowning Ridge after 1,900 trees were removed from 11 acres in 2004
Frowning Ridge after 1,900 trees were removed from 11 acres in 2004

Also eucalyptus are huge water users only when they are young and exposed to full sun, but like most trees, once in a closed canopy forest they consume far less water during the dry season compared to open canopy forests.

Point being, we need to maintain landscapes that don’t dry out because plant and tree diversity won’t thrive and really aggressive invasive weeds will take over if we don’t intentionally map out and seek to protect the highest existing levels of soil moisture. The SF Bay Area climate is very arid.  If a time of drought were to coincide with this fire hazard removal plan, we could have a mass die-off native species and an even greater shift to drought tolerant non-native weeds that will eliminate most biodiversity.

And regardless of drought, desert like alterations to the landscape is what happens when we lose too much shade and moisture all at once. Many native plants growing under semi-shade conditions right now can’t survive if all the non-natives are clearcut or near clearcut as proposed in this plan.

Also what is missing from this landscape is lots of tall dead trees that act as bioreactors for flora fauna and rhizo diversity. Tall dead trees are like a bank account for future healthy soil, homes for so many birds and bugs too. There is a great poverty of standing deadwood on this landscape, yet no significant mention of snag retention and snag creation in this plan.  If we cut down all the largest live and dead standing trees there will be no large downed log recruitment for another century and that would be a misguided tragedy that will further impoverish the soil.

In a word: DIVERSITY.  You don’t have to cut down all the trees to increase diversity. We could have thousands of us spending every winter in these hills replanting hundreds of different species of native plants, as well as clearing weeds away from existing native plants in a low-impact site-specific way.  This of course is a labor intensive approach and humans have been manipulating these hills for thousands of years in very labor intensive ways.

In my view we’ve neglected these lands for too long and it’s about time we get back to all of us working together as volunteers meant to cultivate a garden of biodiversity with an eye toward carbon absorption and keeping as high as possible soil moisture and air moisture in order to prevent catastrophic fires.

But instead in this plan we see the usual lazy, super aggressive approach in which a forester, whose job is to cut down forests, is asked to solve our problems. And without any site-specific observation of fog drip and areas of high soil moisture in the dry season we log the forests as quickly and cheaply as possible thinking if we do it severely enough we won’t ever have to come in and fix anything ever again.

The homeowner version of these two approaches is akin to one homeowner who makes their landscape beautiful with hard work and lots of hands-on low impact cultivation of plant and tree diversity without herbicides. And then we have the other lazy homeowner who hates his yard and weedwacks his yard to bare ground every other year thinking once he does it one more time (and even more severely this time with extra herbicide) he won’t ever have to do it again.

And habitat-wise, if we inoculate eucalyptus and pine with heart wood rot to create cavities for habitat we will help fuel the whole food chain, not to mention create homes for myriad species.

And to all the folks who say these hills were mostly shrub oak and grassland I say that natural ecosystems in this region were mosaics of conifer and hardwood woodlands amongst mosaics of shrublands and small grassy meadows and it was all maintained by humans who for thousands of years used fire to maximize productivity in traditional cultivation areas. Those cultivation practices were based on specific sites where species grew best. The current plan as proposed is the antithesis of this. The current plan treats the whole landscape as if there’s very little variability of moisture levels and species compositions.  It’s as if the planners know more about growing corn in Iowa than they do about growing an ecosystem in the arid San Francisco Bay Area.

Frowning Ridge 2013
Frowning Ridge 2013

Lastly, the Monterey Pine is entirely native to a landscape that’s less than 100 miles away. And yes some of these pines might be a hybridized New Zealand variety but so what?

I’ll have more to say on all this soon… Maybe a whole website or book perhaps? 🙂


Remember that public comments are due by June 17, 2013.  You may submit written comments in several ways:

  1. Via the project website:
  2. By email:
  3. By mail: P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579
  4. By fax: 510-627-7147

These public lands belong to you and the money that will be used to implement these projects is your tax dollars.  So, please tell the people who work for you what you think of these projects.


12 thoughts on “Guest article about FEMA projects by a student of the forest”

  1. It’s a real shame that Californians are stuck with having to debate the pros and cons of non-native vegetation because of the past practices of wiping out the native ecosystems. Good luck.

    From my knowledge and experience with of the issues in fire ecology, wildfire management, species diversity, public land manager politics/incentives/paradigms, how science is used, how science is abused, Deep Ecology, and else, I find Deane’s comments so far to suggest his ability to find paths to clarity in this muddy maelstrom may be as good or better than anyone’s, and certainly way better than whomever(s) wrote the FEMA DEIS. I strongly encourage his written thoughts to generate extremely respectful discussion – COLLABORATIVE BRAINSTORMING, not argument only to support pet solutions or to claim him ignorant or overly biased. I know no one has yet posted such derision, but I want to pre-emptively cut it off at the knees.

    Like I wrote, you guys are in uncharted waters, here. There is no such thing as an expert on how the use of non-native vegetation to replace (let alone ‘improve’ upon) the ecosystems of native vegetation can or does or will play out. NO SUCH THING. Be humble, be reflective, be smart. Whatever is done will be an experiment. Two things that should NOT be done are: A) to try things that, should they fail, would foreclose other options, and B) to repeat experiments that repetitively failed in the past

  2. Thank you for very informative and encouraging article. I especially appreciated your call for volunteer opportunities, which I suggested in my FEMA comments…Perhaps we could even consider a low-income jobs opportunity for those who are homeless or close to it. To give people who have next to nothing something to do, a chance to earn some income, has got to be a positive effort in our community!

  3. Deane, Thanks for your article. Today I drove up to the Skyline Staging Area and waked through a bit of Roberts Park into the Redwood Regional Park. To be brief I walked various trails including the Tres Sendas Trail down to the Stream Trail and walked along it as far as the bottom of the Chown Trail. A couple of years ago I walked that stretch of the Stream Trail and noted some newly planted Redwoods standing about 12 to 18 inches tall. I found them again. Now they are four to eight feet tall. If I can find my old photos I’ll try to do a count and growth analysis.

    The slopes in Redwood Regional Park between the West Ridge Trail and the Stream Trail are largely covered by redwoods. These are the original fog collectors and they are doing a good job. Small redwoods, growing in the shadow of the second growth trees, show bright green tips of spring growth, about an inch long, on each tiny branch. Since there has been little rain, fog trip gets the credit. The streams themselves show little moisture as they slip both under and over their sandy, rocky beds. The redwoods take advantage of the water there is along the slopes of hills and narrow channels of the creeks.

    Along the Skyline Blvd. side of the West Ridge Trail, and in the area where the Redwood Peak Trail and the Madrone Trail meet the West Ridge Trail the eucalyptus predominate. One tree in this area appears mutilated. It is one of the last remaining redwoods! I think the Park District clears this area of underbrush, or the foot traffic does the job. It would be nice to see a few redwoods planted here and fostered for a few years as the “invader” trees are removed. Replacement is better than removal.

    1. Where were the redwoods in the East Bay?

      The Oakland Museum’s Natural History section has just re-opened after significant remodeling. There is a terrific new item: An inter-active, touch screen computer map of the East Bay’s pre-European vegetation. You can look at the map and zoom in or out. If you touch a spot on the map you are told exactly what vegetation was there: oak/grass savannah, grassland, oak/bay forest, redwood forest, coastal scrub, etc. You can easily spend an hour at it without getting bored. Unfortunately you have to go to the museum; it’s not available on-line or for down-load.

      And the redwoods? Less than I expected, but still a significant presence. And they were exactly where Kenneth places them now, in creek bottoms and on the east facing slopes of canyons. (More protected from the drying effects of sun and wind?) Not in Claremont Canyon, so the Conservancy’s planting there is really an experiment. And of course not on the steep, dry, west facing slope of Frowning Ridge.

      Disclaimer: As an enthusiastic member of the Museum’s Natural History Guild, I hope others will be inspired to join.

  4. This is beautiful–a wonderfully clear and well-informed article. I’m forwarding it to friends. Thank you for posting it.    Linda

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments… And great you point this out Keith… Of course it’s important to remember that by the time there was photography europeans had already spent a half-century destroying the land and enslaving the indigenous population so those photos are far from what this land looked like for thousands of years when it was actively cultivated. There’s a poem I posted that includes a painting of what SF looked like further back before photography, but again the painting was many decades after so much deforestation and enslavement of the traditional peoples. Point being we have no idea and no way of knowing what these hills once looked like…. Though I have read that old growth Redwood in the hills of Oakland were so huge that according to earliest ship’s logs those trees were what they looked for when they navigated up the coast to know where the entry of the SF Bay Area was…

  6. The Oakland Museum’s historical vegetation digital map I described above is not a collection of photographs. It’s not quite accurate to say we have no idea what these hills looked like when Europeans arrived. We don’t have to rely solely on photographs. The Portola expedition had three diarists who described in detail the landscape they encountered in their peregrinations. The first visit to the East Bay was in 1772. Most of Alameda County was granted to Peralta in 1820, and Peralta divided his land among his sons in 1842, all of which involved maps and descriptions of the landscape. (1842 is when full scale logging began in the East Bay.) Diaries, letters, reports to the King of Spain, mission records, etc. all contribute to what we know about the early East Bay. It would be nice to have a set of aerial maps of the East Bay in 1772, but in their absence many historians have put a lot of effort into reconstructing the East Bay’s history, including vegetation.

    I think you have misremembered the “redwood navigation” story, in which ships used two particular trees to navigate within the Bay, not to find the Bay. I have read that these two trees are still visible in an 1852 photograph taken from Telegraph Hill, but I haven’t seen it. They were gone in 1855.

    1. Oooh, that’s fascinating Keith… I’d so love to see those navigation trees I’ve heard mentioned so often. Is that available at the Museum? Also can you point me to a summarizing narrative of East Bay vegetation that draws on all these documents in an objective way?

      1. Well, there’s two questions I can’t answer. I’ve only read about the Navigation Trees photo, never actually seen it. The Bancroft Library on the UC campus might be a good place to begin a search. I’ve always been in awe of the magic reference librarians can perform. As for a vegetation history: Eventually I’ll get back to the Oakland Museum and ask who developed their map. Then I can ask them about their sources. You’ll probably get to those tasks before I do; please let me know what you find out.

  7. This is brilliant, and I wish everyone could see those tragic photos. We have no idea how many of our native trees will die from Sudden Oak Death. We need every tree we can get, and especially those that have adapted to the dramatic climate changes we are facing.

    It is heartbreaking to see trees killed, the landscape left ugly and empty of the wildlife who once lived there. On another site some who wrote in, wanting Eucalyptus dead at any cost, repeat myths and deny what personal experience and photographs show of the incredible variety of animals who nest in, live in, and eat from Eucalyptus. Their bigotry really is reminiscent of the human nativist movement, also ironically led by non-native humans.

    Most completely forget the other trees that will be killed, like the Monterey pine and Monterey cypress, which make our parks much more beautiful and with far more species diversity than we’d have with just oak/bay forest, which is darker and drier.

    Many people do not seem to know how much of our forests are non-native also, and what we might lose.

    The original logging of the Redwoods destroyed many understory species, which can still be seen in second-growth Redwoods in Marin. Some believe it was the heavy machinery, which of course is what is again planned. The earth will be compacted and ruined, with so many native plants and animals killed. Now, we have to travel to Marin to see the Clintonia and Scoliopus lilies, which should be still living under our Redwoods. (I recently heard that one Clintonia was found in the East Bay.) Did we used to have the beautiful Calypso orchids? What all did we lose, and what more will we lose? What about the endangered species?

    NO tree should be cut, “thinned,” or pruned. There is no need for anything to be done to prevent fires. Let those trees get as tall as they can and we will have more water that we desperately need. When the inevitable fires start (most are from arson), they will start in the grasslands. More trees, less grasslands.

  8. This is a truly complex issue, and because the very act of removing so many trees invokes a visceral response, it is unlikely that a plan like this could go forward with any semblance of consensus. I appreciate the first comment asking for opinion to be given in a constructive way, rather than an an argumentative way.

    My opinions here are based both on education and personal/anecdotal experience.

    There are a few misleading things on this page which I think should be addressed.
    For starters, The title of the page is “Death of a Million Trees” which is in my opinion a bit inflammatory. It could almost as easily be called “Rebirth of a Native Forest”, as there have already been enormous tracts of land cleared of eucalyptus trees in the surrounding area, some just a stones throw away from where this article’s photo was taken. This happened somewhere around 8-10 years ago (give or take) but I remember being quite surprised how even after 2 years, how quickly the native plants were rebounding. They are still thriving and I find it quite beautiful now when I visit. I take photos.

    With respect to the article and the area in question being “arid”, I live right off Grizzly Peak just north of this particular site, and have been visiting these very same pullouts along Grizzly Peak for over thirty years. In fact as a teenager we would regularly hang out there, and so I know the area really well, so It’s hard for me to see how this particular microclimate can be considered arid. If fact I sometimes wish it were more ‘arid’ because I often find myself pining away for more sunshine and warmth, as a river of fog invariably comes right through the Golden Gate and engulfs the East Bay hills above Berkeley and North Oakland. This happens on a high percentage of days, and yes, even in the summer.

    I have been an ISA certified arborist for the last 25 years (in the interest of full disclosure I own/operate a tree service) and I have been working on trees since 1981. I that time I have learned and observed many things about the trees in the area and how they interact. It is widely known accepted that the eucalyptus globulus is allelopathic, which means it produces growth inhibiting substances that stifle the competition. So in addition to growing faster than other native species and getting more of the sunshine, they suppress other plants chemically. It’s just downright difficult to get new trees to thrive under this kind of canopy. I really like the idea of volunteers replanting, and I would join such an effort. but I would be skeptical of attempting to interplant in these conditions, as I feel the new trees would have little chance of flourishing, and it would take a sustained commitment.

    I would support a phased in approach of removing and replanting large portions every 6-10 years. I know large government budgets don’t work that way, but at least it transitions the loss/regrowth of the biomass.

    Lastly, I do believe that Monterey pines have a tough time in this particular area. They really need even more fog/summer water than what is available. I’m not a stickler for natives of this exact location, but the beetles really go after these pines, especially in dry years.

    Open to alternatives.

  9. There has been some gap in time since Michael’s very helpful comments. His reference to the boom and bust of government budgets is insightful. Perhaps a ecological restoration trust is really what is needed. Land acquisition trusts have proven an amazing success in Northern California.

    The term “restoration” is not meant to be argumntative. It’s just good marketing, like “ecological.” The idea would be to foster the growth of trees consistent with the vegetation that survived in the area for millenia before the invasion of the non-natives (people) … (meant to be argumentative). I must confess to being a fan(atic) of redwoods. I like them living and in their afterlife as a building material. The Australian upstarts inspire only fear.

    Wbmaster: Eucalyptus do not inspire fear in everyone. Many people consider them beautiful. Did you see the article about eucalyptus in yesterday’s East Bay Express? The author likes eucalyptus as much as you like redwoods. It is a matter of opinion.

    Can we establish a California Redwood Restoration Trust to work with contributions and volunteers to come behind the Park tree cutters and heal the barren scarred earth with sequoia sempervirens? Call it rebirth of a million trees.

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