FEMA funding for East Bay tree destruction is cancelled!

We republish with permission a Huffington Post article by Jennifer and Nathan Winograd about the cancellation of FEMA funding for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees on the properties of UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland.  We are grateful to the Winograds and to the thousands of people who participated in the effort to prevent these projects from being implemented, including the Hills Conservation Network, which bravely filed the expensive lawsuit that resulted in this outcome.

It remains to be seen if the City of Oakland and UC Berkeley will implement their plans using other fund sources.  We therefore urge our readers to continue to follow the issue until we have some assurance that the plans have been abandoned.

The Winograds have also provided the following introduction to their Huffington Post article, which explains that this outcome could have been avoided if those who demanded the destruction of our urban forest had been willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the projects.

“Many of us tried to engage in meaningful dialog with Bay Area politicians and land managers about our objections to the clear cutting and poisoning of the hills. We were rebuffed. Some, like Mayor Libby Schaaf, did not even extend the courtesy of a reply. Others, like Dan Kalb, Oakland City Councilmember, calls anyone who disagrees with him “stupid.” We tried to engage the media — local newspapers, television and radio, magazines — and with few exceptions, our objections were largely ignored. When we were mentioned, we were ridiculed. Refusing to give us a fair hearing, the Contra Costa Times and San Francisco Chronicle claimed we were indifferent to public safety. Regardless of how many experts — including the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA, and former firefighters — substantiated our concerns, they remained defiant, insisting that even more forests should be clear cut and more poisons be spread. With local politicians, the media, and proponents refusing to engage in reasonable dialog, this left opponents no choice but to force the discussion in a court of law. That lawsuit, filed by Hills Conservation Network, ultimately prevailed with FEMA, which withdrew millions of dollars in funding to the City of Oakland and UC Berkeley. That’s a good thing and here’s why:”


FEMA Pulls Funding for Oakland, Berkeley Clear Cutting

Eucalyptus forest, Lake Chabot
Eucalyptus forest, Lake Chabot

The City of Oakland just lost millions of dollars in federal funding. Given what the intended use of that money was for, that’s a good thing. Combined with similar funding for UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD), over 400,000 trees across seven Bay Area cities were to be chopped down and thousands of gallons of cancer-causing herbicides spread on their stumps to prevent regrowth. Slated for eradication were the vast forests above the Caldecott Tunnel and Caldecott Field, North Hills Skyline, Strawberry and Claremont Canyons in Berkeley, and 11 regional parks including Sibley, Huckleberry, and Redwood in Oakland. Costing nearly $6 million, the plan would have radically transformed the character and appearance of the Oakland hills. Why?

The Scripps Ranch Fire of 2003 burned 150 homes but none of the Eucalyptus abutting those homes.
The Scripps Ranch Fire of 2003 burned 150 homes but none of the Eucalyptus abutting those homes.

If you believe proponents, it is because the trees pose a heightened risk of fire. Since the infamous Firestorm of 1991 which burned scores of homes and killed 25 people, they have worked tirelessly to turn public opinion in the East Bay against Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees. Chief among their claims is that these trees were to blame for the ferocity of that fire because they are alleged to possess unusually high quantities of volatile oils that make them more flammable and prone to shooting off embers which enable the spread of fire. These claims have been repeated so many times they are often regarded as self-evident, even though the evidence does not support them, nor does the history relating to the ignition and spread of past fires. Indeed, the 1991 fire itself (and a later 2008 fire) started in grasses, the very sort of vegetation that clearcutting is intended to proliferate throughout the hills. In fact, the stated aim of the deforestation effort is to replace Oakland forests containing species of trees that are among some of the tallest in the world with shallow grasses that are highly susceptible to fire and which the EBRPD admits are “one of the most dangerous vegetation types for firefighter safety due to the rapid frontal spread of fire that can catch suppression personnel off guard.”

In a report highlighting the heightened fire risk which would have resulted from this plan, David Maloney, former Chief of Fire Prevention at the Oakland Army Base, criticized the spread of misinformation about these trees as motivated by native plant ideology, calling it “a land transformation plan disguised as a wildfire hazard mitigation plan” that will “endanger firefighters and the general public” and “be an outrageous waste of taxpayer money.” And he’s not alone in his concerns.

The U.S. Forest Service objected, saying it would “increase the probability of [fire] ignition over current conditions” because “removal of the overstory trees can introduce changes to the environment which increase fire behavior in undesirable ways.”

The U.S. Fire Administration Technical Report on the 1991 Fire led to the conclusion that removal of the trees would lead to growth of highly flammable brush species, noting that “brush fuel types played a significant role in the progression of the fire” and that brushland made up “a large portion of the available fuel.”

The Environmental Protection Agency stated that it is predicated on “extensive use of herbicides” and “risks posed to human health and the environment from that use.” It went on to express concern about the “potential impacts of climate change,” including “the length and severity of the fire season.”

FEMA itself admitted that the plan would result in “unavoidable adverse impacts … to vegetation, wildlife and habitats, protected species, soils, water quality, aesthetics, community character, human health and safety, recreation, and noise.”

During the summer, 5,200 California firefighters battled 14 fires across the state. The vast majority of the fires were in grass and brush, with a few in so-called “native” Oak woodlands.
During the summer, 5,200 California firefighters battled 14 fires across the state. The vast majority of the fires were in grass and brush, with a few in so-called “native” Oak woodlands.

But you would not know any of this by reading Bay Area newspapers, watching Bay Area television news programs, listening to local radio stations, reading local magazines, or hearing Bay Area politicians. These are discussions those who oppose this plan tried to engage in with the Mayor, the Oakland City Council, the media and even plan supporters in order to find a compromise, but were rebuffed. Instead, the “need” for deforestation and herbicide use was deemed “self-evident” and opponents were labeled as indifferent to public safety who debased the memory of those who died in the 1991 Firestorm.

In the absence of public discussion about the expertly substantiated criticism that the plan would have increased rather than reduced fire risk, exposed citizens to huge amounts of dangerous chemicals, released over 17,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases into our environment, poisoned and displaced wildlife, radically altered the appearance of our parks, threatened homeowners values by degrading the aesthetics upon which those values depended, eliminated erosion control for hillside homes, and caused a variety of other harms, the public was denied information that would have allowed them to make a sound and informed choice. This troubling bias does not honor the memory of those who died in that tragic fire 25 years ago; it shames it. Their loss should have served to embolden our resolve to prevent a recurrence of their tragedy through rigorous public debate, rather than hobbled us with emotionally charged rhetoric that stifled discussion before it was allowed to begin and threatened to turn the response to that fire into the root cause of yet another disaster.

For while opponents sought to elevate the discussion on this plan to prevent a future tragedy, local media, politicians, and supporters proved themselves incapable of moving beyond a narrative that was so sensationalist and even after more than two decades, so raw, that the abandonment of caution, reason, and critical analysis were paradoxically and counterproductively portrayed as the moral high ground. It left opponents no choice but to force the discussion in a court of law, a point of view that ultimately prevailed with FEMA. Whether the Mayor, City Council, deforestation advocates, and Bay Area media outlets learn from their failings going forward remains to be seen. But one thing is abundantly clear. If the result of the lawsuit proves anything, it proves opponents of deforestation and poisoning were right.

More public comments on FEMA projects in the East Bay Hills

We are publishing a few more of our favorite public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the FEMA projects in the East Bay Hills which will destroy nearly a half-million trees if implemented as presently described.

Over 13,000 public comments were submitted to FEMA.  FEMA estimates that 90% of the comments are opposed to the project.  We have selected a few which demonstrate expertise as well as knowledge of the areas that will be irreparably harmed by the destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees and the spraying of toxic herbicides.  All of the comments are in the public record and can be read HERE.

You can help to prevent this project from being implemented as presently planned by making a contribution to the suit of the Hills Conservation Network.  Visit the HCN website HERE to make a contribution.

clearcut-East-Bay-hills-Jack Gescheidt


 

From:                    [Name redacted by Million Trees]

To:                          EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX

Subject:               Berkeley Hills

Date:                     Friday, June 14, 2013 11:52:35 PM

I am a resident of Berkeley, California. I oppose the use of FEMA funds to cut trees in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills. I am an environmental science teacher at Berkeley High School. We know that these trees provide important habitat for many kinds of wildlife, and cutting them down will not prevent fires. Clear-cutting in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills is a very bad idea. It may cause mud slides, destroy the landscape, harm wildlife, destroy hikers’ aesthetic enjoyment of our wildlands; the planned use of pesticides is unconscionable. Please do not fund any of this clear-cutting. It is a waste of money, will not prevent fires, and will cause harm.


From:                    [Name redacted by Million Trees]

To:                          EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX

Subject:               FEMA “fire hazard reduction” NO!!!!

Date:                     Friday, May 17, 2013 11:45:15 AM

Hello,

As a trained wildlands firefighter, I am familiar with the management techniques of wildland fires. Clear-cutting is not one of them. I could potentially support implementing a permanent firebreak of the standard size: about the width of a road. Cutting more than that is unnecessarily destructive, and destroys natural heritage which belongs to our children. Applying herbicide is likewise completely unrelated to standard, approved wildlands fire management, and presents unknown environmental dangers. I recommend consulting the county fire department for their recommendations, which based on my experience, will likely consist of bringing out a CCC or convict crew to cut a firebreak seasonally.

My family and I STRONGLY OPPOSE the current plan.

[Name redacted by Million Trees]

Berkeley resident


From:                    [Name Redacted by Million Trees]

To:                          EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX

Subject:               Halt the land clearing!

Date:                     Friday, May 17, 2013 2:30:22 PM

Absolutely do not go forward with plans to clearcut the Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. These trees provide far more beneficial ecosystem services, like cooling, attracting moisture, and providing beauty, oxygen and habitat.

Do not use Round up on this land, it is an extremely hazardous toxic pollution.

The proposed management is extremely misguided and very irresponsible destruction, and would cause far greater ecological harm. The loss of this forest would be a great impoverishment to all the surrounding communities. Leave these trees alone!!

[Name redacted by Million Trees], Natural Areas Manager

Is UC Berkeley building a bonfire during fire season?

If you are watching the news, you know that wildfires are raging all over California. One of those fires destroyed most of the small town of Weed a few days ago. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that fire and made a rare acknowledgement of the flammability of native California vegetation: “…the native fuels adapted over thousands of years to the lightning-caused fires that regularly broke out in California. The most problematic in a drought situation, he said, are manzanita, younger ponderosa pine trees and incense cedars. The three are all highly flammable and close to the ground, creating a fuel ladder from the grass to the overstory trees.” The article also noted that fires usually start in grasses and are then fanned by high winds into wildfires that destroy everything in their path.

Yet, the fiction continues in the San Francisco Bay Area that only non-native trees are to blame for wildfires and that they must all be destroyed to reduce fire hazards. In fact, when the trees are destroyed, the unshaded ground is quickly populated by grasses that are the type of vegetation in which virtually all of our fires start.

In the height of fire season, UC Berkeley has recently destroyed many trees in the East Bay Hills and left them lying on the ground to dry out. These huge piles of dead vegetation look like bonfires waiting to happen. We are grateful to our readers for alerting us to this new round of destruction. They have given us permission to publish their letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and UC Berkeley. We hope you will consider writing your own letter to express your concern.


 

Alessandro Amaglio [alessandro.amaglio@dhs.gov]
Region IX Environmental Officer
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Oakland, CA

RE: East Bay Hills – Environmental Impact Statement – FEMA – RIX

Dear Mr. Amaglio,

We are writing to tell you that UC Berkeley is in the process of destroying eucalyptus and some pine on its property. Judging by the Pesticide Application Notice posted on Grizzly Peak Blvd near South Park Drive, the trees were destroyed August 24-26, 2014. The scale of the removals is not entirely visible because the property goes down a steep slope that we could not cover. Based on what was visible to us, it appears that at least 100 trees were destroyed on a few acres.

P1010390

We believe the trees are being destroyed within the area for which UC Berkeley has applied for a FEMA grant to remove all non-native trees. We have used the maps in the Draft EIS to make this determination. Therefore, it seems appropriate that FEMA should be informed about this.

P1010400

While we visited the property on Monday, September 15, 2014, we could hear chainsaws in the distance but could not determine where the sound was coming from. Therefore, we suspect that more trees are being destroyed, but cannot determine exactly where.

P1010384

The Pesticide Application Notice gave the name of a person at UC Berkeley (Gary Imazumi) who is responsible for this project. (For the record, we are not responsible for the graffiti scrawled on that sign.) We have contacted him and asked for more information about the entire scale of the project and a timeline for its completion. We have also asked him what will be done with the huge piles of dead vegetation that are now lying on the ground. We have not received a response to our questions.

This incident raises the following questions and concerns:

  • Has the Draft EIS for the FEMA grants to UC Berkeley for tree removal been approved?
  • Has the FEMA grant to UC Berkeley been awarded?
  • If the EIS and/or the grant have not been approved, can UC Berkeley be reimbursed for expenses it incurs prior to the award of the grant?
  • The trees that UC Berkeley destroyed on August 24-26 are still lying on the ground several weeks after they were cut down. They have not been chipped or hauled away.  The Draft EIS made a commitment to chip the destroyed trees and distribute them on the ground.  Is there any time frame for this disposition of the destroyed trees?  Should the public expect dead trees to spend weeks or more on the ground after they are cut down?
  • As you know and the daily news confirms, we are now in the height of fire season. Does it seem consistent with fire hazard mitigation to use chainsaws at this time of year, particularly after several years of drought?
  • Does it seem consistent with fire hazard mitigation to leave dead vegetation lying on the ground during the height of the fire season? Does FEMA believe that dead vegetation is less flammable than living, standing trees?

P1010396

We understand that some of these questions are rhetorical and we don’t expect answers to any but the first three questions. The rhetorical questions are not intended to put you in an awkward position. They are intended to express our opinion of UC Berkeley’s hypocritical claim that destroying living trees will reduce fire hazards. We just want FEMA to know what is happening and to take it into consideration before finalizing the EIS and/or awarding the grant, if FEMA has not already done so.

Thank you for your consideration.

[Concerned citizens of Oakland]

Cc: Gary Imazumi, Manager, Grounds Operations, UCB [garyi@berkeley.edu]
Sal Genito, Associate Director, Grounds, Custodial, Environmental Services, UCB [salgenito@berkeley.edu]
R’obert Newell, Acting Assistant Vice Chancellor, Physical Plant, UCB [rbnewell@berkeley.edu]


 

Update:  On December 1, 2014, FEMA published the final Environmental Impact Statement for the “Fire Hazard Mitigation Grants” in the East Bay Hills.  As a result of UC Berkeley’s premature removal of trees in the project area prior to the publication of the EIS and prior to the award of the grants, the final EIS says that UC Berkeley will not be awarded grant funding for the Frowning Ridge portion of their grant application.  The following is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the final EIS (page 17) which is available HERE.  However, we should not assume that this prohibition will remain when the EIS is officially approved by the “Decision of Record” on January 5, 2015, because we assume it is being challenged by those who support this project.

“In August 2014, UCB undertook environmental treatment measures on approximately 7.5 acres of the 185.2-acre project area at Frowning Ridge. According to UCB, they felled 150 eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia trees, and applied an herbicide to eucalyptus and acacia stumps. In undertaking these actions prior to issuance of the final EIS, UCB failed to comply with both the specific conditions of the grant and also the NEPA requirement which limits applicant action during the NEPA process under 40 CFR 1506.1. Both required UCB to refrain from action until FEMA had completed its environmental review. As a result, the Frowning Ridge project area is no longer eligible for PDM program grant funding.

Nonetheless, the environmental analysis of the impacts of the proposed action at Frowning Ridge has not been removed from the final EIS because it is part of the review and consideration that FEMA has undertaken in concluding whether to fund the proposed actions. FEMA will continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether UCB’s unauthorized work at Frowning Ridge negatively affects UCB’s other projects at Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon and will make further decisions regarding these projects in the Record of Decision.”