UC Berkeley tries to dodge environmental impact review of its FEMA projects

On March 1, 2016, UC Berkeley published an Addendum to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its Long Range Development Plan. They claim the Addendum is a substitute for an EIR for its portion of the FEMA Grant projects in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons.  The Addendum is available HERE.

Public comments on the Addendum are accepted prior to 5:00 pm on Tuesday March 22, 2016.  Send public comments to planning@berkeley.edu.  The announcement of the Addendum says, “The University will consider whether to approve the proposed project, as described and analyzed in the addendum, as well as all comments received, in the spring of 2016.”

The project is unchanged

Our reading of this document is that it makes no changes in the project as described by the Environmental Impact Statement for the FEMA Grants (available HERE).  Therefore, whatever comments you submitted on the EIS for the FEMA Grants are equally relevant to UC’s Addendum. 

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

Additional justification for the project

We read only the “guts” of the Addendum, Sections I to V.   We did not read sections regarding “Mitigating Monitoring Program” or “Biological Opinion Post Treatment Monitoring Plan.”  Therefore, our comments here should not be considered comprehensive.  However, we noted new justifications for the project that seem legally bogus in some cases and scientifically unsound in others.

UC Berkeley destroyed about 600 trees on Frowning Ridge in August 2014, before the Environmental Impact Statement was complete. FEMA has therefore refused to fund that portion of the grant.
UC Berkeley destroyed about 600 trees on Frowning Ridge in August 2014, before the Environmental Impact Statement was complete. FEMA has therefore refused to fund that portion of the grant.

Justification for carbon loss

The Addendum cites Cal-FIRE policy regarding quantifying carbon loss.  Cal-FIRE states that although “There is not an approved forest carbon protocol for fuel reduction projects,” it suggests:  “On an acre treated for fuels the carbon balance emitted from the treatment subtracted from the carbon retained multiplied by its reduced probability of loss [by fire] over the time of treatment is effective.”  (Addendum page 18)

In other words, Cal-FIRE suggests that if the probability of fire is lowered by the project, carbon loss associated with such a theoretical fire can be subtracted from the carbon loss resulting from the destruction of trees by the project.

There are several problems with this justification for the carbon loss associated with the destruction of trees by the project:

  • The claim that the probability of fire will be lowered by the proposed project is entirely theoretical. Many highly qualified analysts of this project believe that the project will increase the probability of fire, not decrease it.  For example, the US Forest Service said, “Removal of the eucalyptus overstory would reduce the amount of shading on surface fuels, increase the wind speeds to the forest floor, reduce the relative humidity at the forest floor, increase the fuel temperature, and reduce fuel moisture.  These factors may increase the probability of ignition over current conditions.”
  • The law that defines and regulates environmental impact reviews is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), not Cal-FIRE policy. CEQA requires that environmental impact is defined by a comparison of existing conditions with post-project conditions.  In other words, environmental impact is not measured by comparing some theoretical landscape in which a theoretical fire occurred with the post-treatment landscape.  Therefore, the methods used by the Addendum to quantify carbon loss do not conform to the law (CEQA) that regulates environmental impact reviews.
  • The Cal-FIRE policy defines its fuels reduction program as follows: “vegetation treatment…will focus on selectively removing understory trees and brush to reduce fire hazards, improve tree growth, and increase forest health and resilience.”  Therefore, the Cal-FIRE policy is not relevant to the project of UC Berkeley, which intends to destroy ALL non-native canopy trees and does not intend to remove understory brush and trees.  Consequently, carbon loss will be significantly greater than the projects proposed by Cal-FIRE because carbon storage is greater in the large, mature trees that will be destroyed than carbon stored in the understory.

The science of carbon storage

We have heard many absurd statements about carbon storage in the many years we have defended our urban forest, such as “grass stores more carbon than trees.”  But the explanations provided by UC’s Addendum that their project will not cause carbon loss enter the realm of science fiction:

  • UC claims, “The report concluded that the HCFRR project area currently stores an estimated 61,565 CO2e tons, the majority of which will remain stored in the project area in the form of post-treatment chips.” (Addendum, page 19)

When questioned by the consultant (URS Corporation) that was hired to complete the Environmental Impact Statement for the FEMA projects about the flammability of 2 feet of wood chip mulch in the project area, UCB responded that the chips would decay within 3 to 5 years (available HERE).  Now UCB wishes us to believe that the wood chips will not decay, but will continue to store carbon forever.  UCB contradicts itself or it is ignorant of the role of decomposition in the release of carbon stored during the life of the tree.  As the wood decomposes, the carbon stored in the wood is released into the atmosphere:

“Two common tree disposal/utilization scenarios were modeled:  1) mulching and 2) landfill.  Although no mulch decomposition studies could be found, studies on decomposition of tree roots and twigs reveal that 50% of the carbon is lost within the first 3 years.  The remaining carbon is estimated to be lost within 20 years of mulching.  Belowground biomass was modeled to decompose at the same rate as mulch regardless of how the aboveground biomass was disposed” (1)

  • UC claims, “Remaining native trees will continue to grow and sequester carbon at a rate of ~ 530 ton equivalents per decade therefore…this will increase to 10,560 in year l00.” (Addendum, page 19) In other words, UC assumes, without factual support and in defiance of reality that native trees will not burn for 100 years.  UC also ignores the much larger amounts of carbon that the eucalypts would sequester if left in place because larger trees store more carbon than smaller, younger trees.
  • UC claims that a project area currently storing 61,565 CO₂ₑ tons will release 50,000 tons of CO₂ₑ if it burns. That is a gross over-estimate of the degree of carbon loss from trees in a fire.  According to the National Park Service, 2/3rd of the fuel load in a eucalyptus forest is in the trunks and only 1/3rd in fine fuels (branches, twigs, leaves, etc). (2)  The trunks of the trees do not burn in a fire, which is why they are left lying on the ground after they are destroyed.  Therefore only 1/3rd of the wood burns in the fire and only 1/3rd of the carbon stored in the tree – approximately 20,000 tons – would be lost in the fire.

We are profoundly disappointed that a world-class scientific institution, such as UC, would make such scientifically unsound claims in defense of its destructive project in the East Bay Hills.

If you read UC’s Addendum and you see other issues that we don’t mention here, we hope you will post a comment to inform others of what you have found.  This is a collaborative effort that we invite everyone to participate in.  The Hills Conservation Network believes the strongest criticism of UC’s Addendum to the EIR for their Long Range Development Plan is that it is not a legally acceptable substitute for a complete EIR.  You can read their arguments on their website.  There is also a petition to UCB on their website.

Status of lawsuit of Hills Conservation Network

 Meanwhile, the lawsuit of the Hills Conservation Network (HCN) against the UC Berkeley and City of Oakland portions of the FEMA grants projects in the East Bay Hills is moving forward.  HCN Informed its supporters of the current status of its lawsuit on March 2, 2016:

“Hills Conservation Network took a momentous step yesterday with the filing of our opening brief for the lawsuit against FEMA, the City of Oakland, UC, EBRPD and Cal OES. Despite extensive efforts to find another solution we decided this was the only reasonable course of action open to us.

While this is a complex matter and we are told that one never knows how a NEPA suit will turn out, we believe we have a very strong case and hope that we will prevail and these forests will be saved. If you are interested you can read the brief at http://www.hillsconservationnetwork.org

Needless to say, this has been expensive. We have spent well over $10,000 on legal fees in the past 3 months and expect that it will take at least that much more to see this through the process, which is expected to result in a ruling in the summer.

Yesterday we were notified by UC that they intend to obtain CEQA clearance for their projects (which we hope will not be funded by FEMA) by issuing an addendum to their 2020 Long Range Development Plan. We are consulting with our lawyers on how best to respond to this and expect to propose a strategy to the public by Monday.

Again, your contributions are what makes all this possible. Were it not for your support these forests would have been long gone, but with your support we are able to prevent this environmental disaster from unfolding.

Please do what you can to support this important cause.” [You can make a donation to the lawsuit at http://www.hillsconservationnetwork.org]

  1. Nowak, David, et.al., “Effects of urban tree management and species selection on atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Journal of Arboriculture 28(3) May 2002
  2. http://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/management/upload/firemanagement_fireeducation_newsletter_eucalyptus.pdf

3 thoughts on “UC Berkeley tries to dodge environmental impact review of its FEMA projects”

  1. I have an article that appeared in the Montclarion several years back, written by David Maloney, former Oaklnd Fire Department member who was on the Oakland/Berkeley Mayors’ Firestorm Task Force. The letter is supportive of all of your goals and was an eyeopening read for me.  I would like to fax or mail this article to you if you do not already have it. Is that possible?  If so,  send me fax number or address.  Pat Thompson, Montclair resident. 

    1. We have seen Mr. Maloney’s article and he has made other valuable contributions to our effort to prevent the pointless destruction of our urban forest. Thank you for noticing his article and remembering it.

      Please us let know if you would like to get more involved in our effort. We have occasional demonstrations and we write letters and public comments to defend our forest and object to the use of pesticides in our parks and open spaces. For example, you could send Mr. Maloney’s article with your public comment on UC Berkeley’s Addendum.

  2. It is alarming that a place of education would not know that we should protect our environment and save our trees. Walking on Campus we are surrounded with the beauty and energy of trees. Why would you want to destroy trees. I was not an environmental major when I was at Cal, but I know the importance of preserving our environment.
    I can only assume this is being done for $$$$. The use of toxic poisons are beyond my comprehension.

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