In January 2015, UC Berkeley destroyed about 25 eucalyptus trees at the top of Dwight Way, above the intersection of Sports Lane. We visited the area shortly after the trees were destroyed and told our readers about the project. We also reported that the project was an example of the huge gap between policy and practice in UC Berkeley’s tree removal projects. The following is an excerpt from a letter that a member of the public sent to FEMA about this project, detailing the discrepancies between UC Berkeley’s theoretical commitments to “best management practices” and their actual land management practices:
“The stumps of the trees that were removed have been dribbled with green dye, indicating they were sprayed with herbicide to prevent them from resprouting. However, no herbicide application notices were posted at the site as required by law* and as described in the Final Environment Impact Statement for the FEMA grants: “In addition to the herbicide application measures, the subapplicants would follow procedures for public notification and education, including posting the timing, location, and appropriate amounts and types of pesticides or other chemicals to be applied at least 24 hours in advance.” (EIS, page 5.10-14)
- “The Final EIS also states that “in general” most tree removals will be done “from August to November to avoid the wet season and the bird nesting and fledging season.” (EIS page 3-34) This commitment made by UC Berkeley in the EIS has been violated by this round of tree removals in January after heavy rains.
- “In addition to the approximately 25 trees that were recently destroyed, we counted over 100 stumps that have been destroyed in this area in the past. This area is not described in the Cumulative Impact Section (EIS 6.0) of the EIS. In other words, cumulative impact of the proposed FEMA projects is underestimated by the EIS.”
Consequences of tree removals
One of our readers contacted us in late May 2016, suggesting that we revisit this location to see the consequences of tree removals in January 2015. So, we went to take a look. The scene some 18 months later is a stark reminder of why we are opposed to the destruction of all non-native trees in the East Bay Hills.
Where all of the trees were destroyed in January 2015, the ground is now completely covered in non-native weeds. There are several species of thistle and poison hemlock that are over 6 feet tall.
In some places, the trees were only thinned and the tree canopy is still intact. The shaded forest floor is significantly less covered in tall weeds.
We also saw the evidence of attempts at weed control. In some places there was a sharp dividing line between dead weeds and green weeds, suggesting that the brown areas had been sprayed with herbicide. In other places, the grassy weeds seemed to be have been cut down, perhaps with a weed whacker. A sign indicated that goats were also being used to graze the weeds.
Misguided choices create more maintenance issues
When the tree canopy is destroyed, increased sunlight creates opportunities for weeds to colonize the bare ground. Once the weeds take over, land managers are forced to use herbicides to reduce the weed growth. The only alternatives to using herbicide are more costly, such as hand-operated mechanical methods or renting goat herds. This is a man-made problem that could have been avoided by leaving the tree canopy intact.
However, we don’t want to leave our readers with the impression that we support the radical thinning of our eucalyptus forest. We are opposed to such thinning because the herbicide that is used to prevent the trees from resprouting is mobile in the soil. It kills the tree by killing its roots. In a dense eucalyptus forest, the roots of the trees are intertwined. The herbicide used on one tree travels through the intertwined roots and damages surrounding trees that were not destroyed.
The herbicide also damages mycorrhizal fungi in the soil because they are extensions of the tree’s roots. Mycorrhizal fungi play an important role in forest health because they transfer moisture and nutrients from the soil to the tree. Therefore, the success of a succession landscape is handicapped by the damage done to the soil.
Also, the trees develop their defenses against the wind as they grow in a specific location with specific wind conditions. If they are suddenly exposed to a great deal more wind because they have lost the protection provided by their neighbors, the result is often catastrophic windthrow. That is, the chance that a tree will fall down greatly increases when it is exposed suddenly to more wind than it grew in.
The idea of “thinning” is an appealing compromise to a heated controversy. However, the consequences of thinning must be weighed against the entirely theoretical benefit of reduced fire hazard. The cost/benefit analysis does not make a strong argument in favor of radical thinning.
The continuum from Good to Bad land management
East Bay Regional Park District began to implement its “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” in 2011, after the Environmental Impact Report for the plan was approved. According to a presentation made by Fire Chief McCormack to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors on June 3rd, there are 3,100 acres of park land to be treated for fuels management over the life of the plan, of which 863 acres will be done by the end of 2016 and 64 acres will be done in 2017. The Fire Chief said, in answer to a question, that 1,360 acres (44%) of the total acres are forested with eucalyptus.
We went to see one of the “initial treatment” projects in Tilden Park on June 5th. “Recommended Treatment Area” TI001 is along Nimitz Way, which is a paved road/path on the ridgeline. About 17 acres of it is heavily forested in eucalyptus on both sides of the road. The project apparently started recently and is not yet completed, judging by the presence of a lot of heavy equipment still on site. So, these observations of this project should be considered preliminary:
- The smallest trees are being cut down and those immediately adjacent to the road.
- The tree canopy is intact. That is, the forest floor is still shaded.
- The stumps were sprayed with herbicide, judging by the blue dye on the stumps.
- There were pesticide application notices, but they had been wiped clean. Presumably there was information on those notices during the spraying and perhaps for some time after the spraying, then the information was removed.
We must say that we were not horrified by what we saw. There are still a lot of trees left and we are encouraged that the forest floor is still shaded. As we have reported, when the eucalyptus forest is clear-cut the bare ground is quickly colonized by non-native weeds, which then must be sprayed with herbicide. Since we don’t know the tree density prior to the project and what it will be when the project is complete, we can’t say what percentage of the trees were destroyed.
We plan to visit this area again after a year or so to answer these questions:
- Is there evidence that the trees that remain were damaged or killed by the use of herbicides on the neighboring trees that were destroyed?
- Is there evidence of fallen trees, suggesting that increased wind in the forest caused windfall?
One of our concerns about these projects was not addressed by what we saw. The beginning of June is still in the height of bird breeding and nesting season. We heard the calls of many nesting birds, including quail. We are surprised and disappointed that this project began before the end of nesting season, which is the end of July. We also wonder if some effort was made to check for nesting birds before trees were cut down. There is no mention in the requests for proposal that the company doing the work was required to do such nest surveys before the work began.
We are describing a project that is not yet complete. If many more trees are destroyed, it’s possible that the tree canopy will be destroyed and the forest floor will not be shaded. If the tree canopy is intact when the project is complete, we consider this project less damaging than the clear-cuts being done by UC Berkeley and being demanded by the lawsuit of the Sierra Club. On the continuum from Good to Bad projects, East Bay Regional Park District is closer to Good than to Bad. EBRPD also deserves credit for supplying more information to the public about their projects than other land managers, including posting pesticide application notices.
*Last week we reported that we recently learned that pesticide application notices are not required by California law before, during, or after the spraying of Garlon or glyphosate for non-agricultural purposes. You can read about that HERE.
Update: On October 18, 2016, we went to see the result of “initial treatment” of Recommended Treatment Area TI001 in Tilden Park. We confirmed with East Bay Regional Park District that initial treatment is complete, although they reserve the right to destroy more trees “if we discover something we missed this summer.”
Our over-all impression of the project is not substantially changed from our first visit in June 2016, shortly after the project began. These are our observations:
- The project is accurately described by the “prescription” for the Recommended Treatment Area TI001. The prescription is available on EBRPD’s website HERE.
- With the exception of a few small areas at the ends of the project area, trees were thinned rather than clear-cut. The trees are on average about 25 feet apart.
- The canopy is still intact and the forest floor is shaded, though not heavily.
- New growth of poison oak and blackberry is already emerging from the leaf litter.
As we have said before, maintaining the canopy should suppress the growth of weeds and retain moisture in the leaf litter. If so, fire hazards are not substantially increased by this type of treatment.
However, a few of our objections to these projects remain:
- Pesticides were used to prevent the trees from resprouting and also sprayed on the understory to destroy the fuel ladder to the trees.
- The pesticides that are used are known to damage the soil, which could damage the trees that remain as well as whatever plants remain.
- The trees that remain are now more vulnerable to windthrow.
- Valuable habitat has been lost and wildlife may have been harmed by the pesticides that were used and will be used going forward.
In conclusion, even radical thinning is preferable to clear cuts. However, the benefits of thinning are questionable, particularly because of the pesticides used by these projects.