In a recent edition of Jake Sigg’s Nature News, one of his readers compared the Sutro forest unfavorably to the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill:
“The [Sutro] ‘ forest ‘ is unmanaged, many of the trees are deteriorated and unhealthy, spacing is unusual and given the super invasive ivies and H. blackberry, overall habitat diversity is degraded.
For example , I look at El Cerrito Hill [officially Albany Hill] (near Central Av exit of east bay I-80 at Golden Gate Fields) and see a ‘ eucalyptus’ forest with fewer and larger trees , featuring an adjacent and penetrating coast live oak woodland and a ground cover that features wide species diversity.
Granted El Cerrito does not have the fog intensity of Mt. Sutro, BUT it also shows signs of management…
Anyway, all of this is my un-scientific observation. I think, with some thinning of eucs, control of ivy and blackberry spread, the establishment of habitat corridors and discreet regions and maintenance of trails, that Mt. Sutro could continue to provide a ‘ forest’ aesthetic and include much improved habitat diversity and fire potential reduction.”
We are always trying to understand the perceptions of native plant advocates in the Bay Area, so we went to take a look at Albany Hill. We are happy to report that we found much to like. However, the comparison with the Sutro forest is mistaken in many ways, which we will explain in this post.
We started our walk at the Creekside Park on the north side of Albany Hill. It is a riparian corridor created by the confluence of two creeks, Cerritos and Middle creeks. The vegetation is almost exclusively native. The Creekside Park is carefully tended by native plant advocates who have planted many of the natives, but the Coast Live Oaks that are the predominant tree species are said to have been here prior to settlement. (1)
The oaks cover the northern slope of Albany Hill, which was typical of native oak woodland in the East Bay . The oaks benefit from the water provided by the creek and they also occupied north-facing slopes where there is more moisture in the soil than on the south facing slopes that are exposed to the sun. The prevailing wind in the Bay Area is usually from the southwest, so there is also some protection from the wind on the north side of the hill. There were never any oaks on Mount Sutro, and the assumption that there will be in the future seems delusional, given their horticultural requirements.
Looking up from the Creekside Park, we can see the eucalyptus forest on the top of Albany Hill which has not “invaded” the oak woodland. The fact that the eucalyptus forest has not encroached on the oak woodland is documented by two planning documents. The first “Albany Hill Master Plan” was written in 1991. It included vegetation maps that can be compared to the second “Albany Hill Creekside Master Plan” which was written in 2011. The second plan states that the eucalyptus forest had not expanded during that 20 year period. It also states that the eucalyptus forest isn’t regenerating. That is, it is not replacing itself, let alone expanding. Yet, it is consistently called an “invasive species” in the master plan approved in 2012. (2) “Invasive” seems to be the pejorative adjective used by native plant advocates to describe all non-native plants and trees, whether actually invasive or not.
During that 20-year period from 1991 to 2011, the eucalyptus forest was not “managed” as Sigg’s correspondent believes, because the plan was not funded. (1) Hence, a second plan was written in 2011. This is a scenario we often see played out on our public lands. Elaborate plans are written. Often they are not implemented. Sometimes we are just as happy they aren’t.
Let’s enjoy a few of the beautiful native plants and trees before we leave Creekside Park to visit the eucalyptus forest on the top of the hill.
This is a lovely little Madrone in full bloom. We recall wanting to plant a Madrone in our backyard over 30 years ago. They weren’t available in nurseries then. We assume they are now, which is great. But we digress.
This is one of the few California lilacs (ceanothus) we saw. Bumble bees were busy in the lilacs. They are nesting close by in the ground beneath an oak. If the bared ground on Mount Sutro is covered in the wood chips of the trees that are destroyed, as planned, native bees will not be able to penetrate that deep wood mulch.
This is one of many lovely oak trees, surrounded by ivy, which doesn’t seem to be doing it any harm. In fact, the master plan for Albany Hill says there are no plans to eradicate ivy in the riparian corridor because it “…would require considerable cost and labor to fully eradicate and whose spread is often limited to areas in the immediate vicinity.”
The Eucalyptus Forest on Albany Hill
The eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill was planted by a dynamite company in the late 19th century. The trees were planted to muffle the sound from frequent explosions, as well as provide some protection to neighboring residents. (1) There were many reasons why early settlers to the Bay Area planted eucalypts. Some were practical reasons, such as this, and some were aesthetic.
Albany Hill is much drier than Mount Sutro. It is further away from the ocean where fogs form and often hover for weeks on end during the summer. In general, the East Bay is considerably less foggy than San Francisco.
Because it is a much drier environment, the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill is less dense than the Sutro forest and it has considerably less understory. The understory on Albany Hill is non-native annual grass and native toyon shrubs, which are said to have been planted either by man or by birds “carrying” seeds from other locations. (2) Hmmm….let’s stop to think about that. The toyon is a native shrub that was “introduced” to Albany Hill and is thriving there under the canopy of the eucalyptus forest. The 2012 master plan for Albany Hill says that the toyon understory has expanded since the 1991 master plan.
The future of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill
As we have said, the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill has not been “managed” to date. Since the master plan was approved in 2012, only $50,000 has been allocated for vegetation management on Albany Hill. So, what is planned for the eucalyptus forest in the future? Here are the plans for the future, according to the master plan that was approved in 2012:
- The eucalyptus forest will be “phased out” slowly over time by removing hazardous trees as necessary to ensure public safety, removing new seedlings where the forest interfaces with native oak woodland, and not replacing trees that die of old age. Since the predominant species of eucalyptus in the Bay Area (Blue Gum) lives in Australia from 200-500 years, and it has been here for only about 100 years, it is reasonable to assume that this is a very long-term plan.
- This plan should require a lot less herbicide than destroying 90% of the trees on 75% of Mt. Sutro, as planned there, because we assume a dead tree will not resprout. A lot of herbicide is often needed to prevent resprouts after healthy eucalypts are cut down.
- The forest will be managed for fire safety by mowing the annual grasses, where ignition is most likely to occur; by limbing trees up to separate the understory shrubs from tree limbs to remove “fire ladders” to the tree canopy; and by cleaning woody debris from under the trees on an annual cycle.
- The plan acknowledges the benefit of maintaining a closed canopy, both in the eucalyptus forest and the oak woodland. The closed canopy shades the forest floor and suppresses the growth of non-native weeds.
This all sounds eminently reasonable to us: much less destructive than plans for the Sutro forest, yet addressing fire hazard and safety issues in a responsible way.
Neighbors on the leeward side of the hill will eventually lose their windbreak as the tall trees disappear, but that will happen so slowly that they are unlikely to react. On the other hand, plans for Albany Hill could change many times in the next 100 years. We hope the current preoccupation with the nativity of plants and trees will have faded long before the eucalyptus forest dies of old age.
And so, ironically, we agree with Jake Sigg’s correspondent that plans to manage Albany Hill are better than the plans to destroy the Sutro forest. We just don’t agree about why.
(2) “Albany Hill Creekside Master Plan,” City of Albany, 2012