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.

FEMA has published the final Environmental Impact Statement for projects in the East Bay Hills

Readers of Million Trees will recall some of the most controversial projects in the San Francisco Bay Area which propose to destroy hundreds of thousands of trees in the East Bay Hills.  The owners of these properties—UC Berkeley, City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District—applied for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund these projects, based on the claim that fire hazards would be reduced  by the projects.  Detailed descriptions of the proposed projects as originally planned are available HERE

The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement closed in June 2013.  FEMA has announced the publication of the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is available HERE FEMA now reports that it received more than 13,000 public comments and informs us that the final EIS reflects the concerns expressed in the public comments as well as the analysis of “subject matter experts.”  We haven’t read either the public comments or the final EIS yet, so we are only quoting excerpts directly from FEMA’s announcement so that you have this information as soon as possible.  If you read these documents, we welcome your reaction to them. 


Here are excerpts from FEMA’s announcement of the final EIS (emphasis added):

“One of the major revisions to the draft EIS influenced by information gathered during the public process is that FEMA will not fund the proposed methodology of eradicating designated tree species without a phased approach.  The originally proposed eradication methodology to completely and immediately remove the “overstory” was deemed not to satisfy the purpose and need for the grant of fire reduction, and therefore did not meet hazard mitigation program eligibility requirements.

Identifying and analyzing implementation options is another required element of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision-making process that must be explored before federal funding can be awarded.  Based on input and issues raised during the public comment process, and in consultation with the grantee, sub applicants, and cooperating federal agencies, FEMA revised the vegetation management methodology for two of the three sub applicants – City of Oakland and UC Berkeley.  The revisions align the majority of proposed projects with a thinning alternative, the approach originally proposed by East Bay Regional Parks District as described in the Draft EIS.

The thinning approach has been scientifically validated by subject matter experts to effectively reduce fire risk.   The revised vegetation management methodology will result in fewer trees being removed in any single year in certain areas, with the same total fuel reduction accomplished by the conclusion of the project.  The EIS considers the overall impacts to the environment based on the amount of land treated and consequent impacts to resources.  Each grant applicant is responsible for their ongoing land management practices and determination for how much vegetation will be removed to accomplish their fire reduction goals within the scope of the vegetation management approach defined in the EIS.  Clear-cutting, a logging practice, is not part of the methodology considered in the EIS for any of the projects.


The final EIS and response to comments are available on the web at:   http://ebheis.cdmims.com/FinalDocuments.aspx

and will also be made available at http://www.fema.gov/environmental-historic-preservation-documents.

The public also may view hard copies of the EIS at the following locations:

  • Oakland Main Library, 125 14th Street Oakland, CA 94612
  • Oakland Rockridge Library, 5366 College Avenue Oakland, CA 94618
  • Berkeley Main Library, 2090 Kittredge Street Berkeley, CA 94704
  • San Leandro Main Library, 300 Estudillo Avenue San Leandro, CA 94577
  • Richmond Main Library, 325 Civic Center Plaza Richmond, CA 94804
  • FEMA Region IX Headquarters, 1111 Broadway, Suite 1200, Oakland, CA 94607-4052
  • East Bay Regional Park District, 2950 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA 94605-0381
  • City of Oakland, Office of the City Clerk, Oakland City Hall, 2nd Floor, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA 94612
  • California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Unit 10390 Peter A. McCuen Blvd First Floor Sacramento, CA 95655

 

Nearly a HALF MILLION trees will be destroyed if these East Bay projects are approved

This is a revision of an article that was published on May 5, 2013.  In our haste to inform our readers of these projects during the public comment period, we published before we had read the entire Environmental Impact Study.  We are forced to revise our estimates based on further reading of the document.  We apologize for the confusion and thank you for your patience.

On May 29, 2013, we found an error in the number of trees that will be removed at Frowning Ridge.  We show our corrections so as not to mislead our readers.  Again, our apologies.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been considering grant applications for “fire hazard mitigation” in the East Bay since 2005, when the first of these applications was submitted. After years of debate about whether or not the projects achieve the stated purpose and at what cost to the taxpayers and the environment, FEMA finally agreed to resolve the controversial issues by mandating an environmental impact review, which began in 2010. Although FEMA paid for the environmental review, the grant applicants conducted it and it represents their opinions of their projects.

This eucalyptus forest at the North Oakland Sports Facility will be entirely destroyed.
This eucalyptus forest at the North Oakland Sports Facility will be entirely destroyed.

These are the projects for which the Million Trees blog was created and for which it was named. Our opinion of these projects is unchanged by the environmental impact review. These projects will not achieve their stated objectives. Instead they will damage the environment and endanger the public.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for these projects was published by FEMA on April 25, 2013. It is available here. This is a brief description of the projects, our initial assessment of the DEIS, and information about how you can participate in the decision-making process which will ultimately determine the fate of these projects.

Description of the projects in the East Bay

Three different owners of public land have applied for these grants: University of California at Berkeley (UCB), City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). The projects of UCB and Oakland are similar and they are different from the projects of EBRPD, so we will describe them separately. These are the locations of the projects of UCB and Oakland, their acreage, and the estimated number of trees that will be removed by these projects:

Project Area

Project Acreage

Estimated Tree Removals*

UCB
  Strawberry Canyon

56.3

22,000

  Claremont

42.8

  Frowning Ridge (in Oakland)

185.2

38,000 32,000

Sub-Total

284.3

60,000 54,000

Oakland
  North Hills Skyline

68.3

  Caldecott Tunnel

53.6

Sub-Total

121.9

25,735 23,161

TOTAL

406.2

85,735 77,161

*UCB estimated tree removals are provided by the DEIS; Oakland estimated tree removals are extrapolated assuming the same number of trees per acre (60,000 54,000 ÷ 284.3 = 211 190 trees per acre X 121.9 acres = 25,735 23,161 trees removed by the projects of the City of Oakland)

UCB and Oakland plan to remove all non-native trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, acacia, etc.) and vegetation from the project area. All non-native trees up to approximately 24 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) will be cut into wood chips and scattered on the ground of the project area. They estimate that 20% of the project area will be covered with wood chips to a depth of 24 inches. The DEIS estimates that the wood chips will take from 5 to 10 years to decompose. Larger trees will be cut up and scattered on the site.

Although UCB and Oakland do not intend to plant the project areas (unless erosion subsequent to tree removals demands seeding of native grasses and herbaceous plants), they predict that the project area will eventually become native grassland, scrub, and forest of coast live oak, California bay laurel, big-leaf maple, California buckeye, and California hazelnut. They predict that this conversion from non-native to native vegetation will be accomplished by “recruitment” from areas where these plants exist, into the areas where non-native plants and trees will be removed.

The stumps of eucalypts and acacia will be sprayed with an herbicide (Garlon with the active ingredient triclopyr) soon after the trees are cut down to prevent resprouting. An estimated 1 – 2 ounces of formulated herbicide will be required for each stump. Based on an experiment conducted by East Bay Regional Park District, an estimated 5% of the trees will require retreatment of subsequent resprouts. They are therefore predicting that between 703 633 and 1,407 1,266 gallons of herbicide will be required to prevent resprouting if only 5% of the stumps require retreatment as they claim. Monterey pines will not require herbicide treatment which reduces this estimate proportionately, although we are not provided with enough information to make this calculation. Herbicide (Roundup with active ingredient glyphosate) will also be sprayed to control non-native vegetation, but no estimates of quantities required for that purpose are provided by the DEIS.

The fire hazard mitigation projects of the East Bay Regional Park District were described in detail in its “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of 2009. EBRPD has applied for FEMA funding for about one-third of the “recommended treatment areas” in that plan. The FEMA DEIS considers all recommended treatment areas on EBRPD property, including those for which FEMA funding has not been requested. The recommended treatment areas for which FEMA funding has not been requested are called “Connected Action Acres.” The “Connected Action Acres” have undergone environmental review under California law (CEQA) and are therefore approved for implementation, which has already begun.

Project Area

Project Acres

Connected Action Acres

Total Acres

Estimated Tree Removals*

EBRPD
Sobrante Ridge

4.1

0

Wildcat Canyon

65.6

46.6

Tilden Park

132

194.2

Claremont Canyon

35.3

130.4

Sibley Volcanic

47.5

118.4

Huckleberry

17.8

.3

Redwood Park

58.4

92.8

Leona Canyon

4.6

0

Anthony Chabot

200

478.2

Lake Chabot

4.8

0

Miller-Knox

22.2

0

TOTAL

592.3

1,060.7

1,653

400,602 409,176

*Estimated Tree Removals: Neither the DEIS nor EBRPD’s “Wildfire Plan” provides an estimate of the number of trees they plan to destroy. Furthermore their plans for tree removals are complex and variable. All non-native trees (eucalypts, Monterey pines, acacia) will be removed in some recommended treatment areas, but in most they will be thinned to spacing of 25 to 30 feet. The final Environmental Impact Report for the “Wildfire Plan” provides an estimate of the existing tree density of existing eucalypts on EBRPD property (page 392). Acres of eucalypts in the entire project area are provided by the DEIS (page 4.2-6).  Our estimate of tree removals is based on those figures (1).

This eucalyptus forest at Chabot Park will be thinned to about 60 trees per acre.
This eucalyptus forest at Chabot Park will be thinned to about 60 trees per acre.

This estimate does not include the Monterey pines and acacia that will be removed by EBRPD, for which inadequate information is available to provide an estimate.

EBPRD plans to cut the trees into wood chips which will be scattered to cover 20% of the project to maximum depth of 4-6 inches. The remainder of the wood will be burned in piles. Other non-native vegetation will be destroyed with herbicides and/or prescribed burns. These prescribed burns will not be funded by FEMA.

EBRPD’s plans to convert the project area to native vegetation are similar to the plans of both UCB and Oakland. EBRPD also does not plan to plant project areas with native vegetation. EBRPD also plans to use herbicides on the stumps of eucalypts and acacia which we estimate will require a mind-boggling 3,286 3,356 to 6,572 6,713 gallons of herbicide.

Million Trees’ assessment of these projects

We have surely exhausted your patience with the mind-numbing detail needed to describe these projects accurately. Therefore, we will provide only a brief outline of our assessment of these projects:

*  These projects are more likely to increase the risk of wildfires than to reduce that risk.

By distributing tons of dead wood onto bare ground

By eliminating shade and fog drip which moistens the forest floor, making ignition more likely

By destroying the windbreak that is a barrier to wind driven fires typical of wildfires in California

By expanding the oak-bay woodland being killed by Sudden Oak Death, thereby adding more dead wood

*  These projects will damage the environment by releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the destroyed trees, thereby contributing to climate change.

*  These projects will endanger the public by dousing our public lands with thousands of gallons of toxic herbicides.

Erosion is likely on steep slopes when the trees are destroyed and their roots are killed with herbicides.

Non-native vegetation such as broom, thistle, and hemlock are more likely occupants of the unshaded, bared ground than native vegetation which will not be planted by these projects.

Prescribed burns will pollute the air and contribute to the risk of wildfire, endangering lives and property.

*  These projects are an inappropriate use of the limited resources of the Federal Emergency Management Agency which are for the expressed purpose of restoring communities destroyed by disasters such as floods and other catastrophic events and preparing communities for anticipated catastrophic events. Most of the proposed projects in the East Bay are miles away from any residences.

Update:  Please visit THIS post for the current status of these projects.  In summary:  East Bay Regional Park District is implementing its original plans.  City of Oakland is developing a new “Vegetation Management Plan.”  UC Berkeley is suing to re-instate its FEMA grant funding so that it can implement its original plans.

How to participate in this decision-making process

The Hills Conservation Network has created a petition to oppose these projects. It is available HERE.

You can also participate in this decision. FEMA will host three public meetings in May 2013:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., Richard C. Trudeau Center, 11500 Skyline Boulevard Oakland, CA 94619

Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., Richard C. Trudeau Center, 11500 Skyline Boulevard Oakland, CA 94619

Saturday, May 18, 2013, 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m., Claremont Middle School, 5750 College Avenue Oakland, CA 94618

Comments on this document must be submitted by June 17, 2013. You may submit written comments in several ways:

  1. Via the project website: http://ebheis.cdmims.com
  2. At the public meetings listed above
  3. By email: EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX@fema.dhs.gov
  4. By mail: P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579
  5. 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.

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(1)           Calculation of estimated tree removals by East Bay Regional Park District,  Update:  We understand the weakness of this estimate.  Unfortunately, the DEIS does not provide sufficient information to improve its accuracy.  Again, our apologies.

Existing average density of eucalypts 650 trees per acre
minus Planned average density of eucalypts 60 trees per acre
equals Number of eucalypts removed 590 trees per acre
times Total acres of eucalypts in project areas 824.3
equals Total number of eucalypts removed 486,337
minus Trees removed by UCB & Oakland 85,735 77,161
equals Eucalypts removed by EBRPD 400,602 409,176

Our urban forest is under siege

The urban forest on Mt. Davidson is slated for destruction.

According to California Trees (1) the US Forest Service has determined that tree cover in the country’s urban areas is decreasing by 4 million trees a year.  Although no research has been done on tree loss throughout California, the US Forest Service reported a one-percent decline in trees and shrubs in Los Angeles despite a big campaign to plant one million trees there.

You might think that the loss of trees in urban areas is the result of increasing development and you would probably be at least partially correct.  But many trees are lost for more trivial reasons that we think could be easily prevented.  Here are some local examples of trees in the Bay Area that were needlessly destroyed or soon will be.

  • The City of Oakland has a “view ordinance” which guarantees homeowners the preservation of their view at the time they purchased their home.  This view ordinance was invoked by a resident in the Oakland hills who demanded that her neighbor and the City of Oakland destroy trees obstructing her view.  Her neighbor purchased her house because of its forested view.  Yet, the desire for a forested view was trumped by her neighbor’s desire for a treeless view.  The law required that 25 trees be destroyed on private property and 21 trees on city property in order to restore the view of a 95-year old property owner who no longer lives in her home.  When trees are destroyed for such trivial reasons, we should not be surprised by the following compendium of absurd excuses to destroy trees.  (The story is here.)
  • The people of San Francisco are trying to prevent the destruction of their urban forest which is almost entirely non-native.  The City of San Francisco is systematically destroying non-native trees in order to return the landscape to its historical origins as grassland and dune scrub.  The latest battle in this long war is a particular park, Glen Canyon, in which the City proposes to destroy about 160 trees in the short -run and 300 trees in the long-run.  A handful of the trees are hazardous and aren’t disputed, but most have been evaluated as “poor suitability” which is the latest euphemism used by native plant advocates to describe non-native trees.  They propose to replace most of the trees with native shrubs and a few tall trees that are native to California, but not to San Francisco, such as Douglas Fir and Cottonwoods.  It remains to be seen if either of these species will survive in San Francisco.  Douglas Fir requires more rainfall than San Francisco receives and Cottonwoods are hot-climate trees which don’t tolerate mild temperatures without seasonal fluctuations.  We suspect that is the strategy, i.e., to plant trees for the sole purpose of placating the public without any intention that the trees will survive.  (The story is here.)
  • The space shuttle Endeavor was recently retired from service.  Its permanent home is now a museum in Los Angeles, where 400 street trees were destroyed to accommodate the delivery of the space shuttle from the airport to the museum.  The neighbors were not pleased, as you might imagine.  They unfortunately live in a blighted part of Los Angeles, so they didn’t have the clout needed to save their trees.  Do you think these trees would have been destroyed in Beverly Hills?  We doubt it.  (The story is here.)
  • The neighbors of Dimond Park in Oakland are trying to save the trees in their park from being destroyed by a “restoration.”  We often marvel at the use of the word “restoration” to describe projects which are more accurately described as “destruction.”  This is yet another native plant project, which is hell bent to remake nature to its liking.  In this case 42 trees would be destroyed, of which 27 are native, including 17 redwood trees.  Please help the neighbors save their trees by signing their petition which is available here.
  • Finally, we share the story of a property owner on 65th St in Oakland who with a great deal of courage and tenacity was able to save most of the street trees on her block from being destroyed by the City of Oakland.  The trees weren’t posted as required by Oakland’s ordinance.  The crew who came to cut them down couldn’t tell her why they were being cut down, nor could they tell her who owned the trees.  We encourage you to read her story because it will give you a brief lesson on the difficulty of advocating against the needless destruction of trees.

Deforestation causes climate change

We have been accumulating these stories in the past few months, but are finally inspired to share them with our readers because of the recent storm on the East Coast, Sandy, which caused over $50 billion in damage and the lives of over 100 people.  What’s the connection?  The connection is that Sandy has finally forced people to take the threats of climate change more seriously. 

When will this new interest in climate change translate to an interest in saving our trees?   Probably not soon, because few people understand that globally, deforestation contributes 20% of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.  The public and its elected representatives are focused primarily on transportation as the source of climate change.  Transportation contributes only 10% of greenhouse gases globally. 

Here in California, we are gearing up to put our climate change law (AB 32) into action by creating a cap and trade auction which will enable emitters of greenhouse gases to purchase carbon offsets.  Ironically, one of the things that carbon emitters can do to offset their contribution to greenhouse gases is to plant trees.  Yet, those who destroy trees are not being required to purchase carbon offsets.  Until the people who destroy trees are required to pay for the damage they do to the environment, we are unlikely to see a change in the cavalier attitude that governments seem to have about destroying trees.   

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(1)    California Trees, Winter 2012, Vol 20, no 2

Facts about carbon storage in grasses do not support assumptions of native plant advocates

We have received many comments from native plant advocates regarding carbon storage.  These comments defend projects in the Bay Area to destroy non-native forests and “restore” native plants by claiming that native plants will actually sequester more carbon than the forest that they propose to destroy.  As always, we are grateful for comments that give us the opportunity to research the issues and report what we have learned about this complex and important subject.

Carbon cycling in a terrestrial plant-soil system

The storage of carbon in plants and soil occurs as plants and soil exchange carbon dioxide (CO₂) with the atmosphere as a part of natural processes, as shown in the following diagram (1):

Green Arrow:  CO₂ uptake by plants through photosynthesis

Orange Arrows:  Incorporation of Carbon into biomass and Carbon inputs into soil from death of plant parts

Yellow Arrows:  Carbon returns to the atmosphere through plant respiration and decomposition of litter and soil Carbon.  Carbon in plant tissues ultimately returns to atmosphere during combustion or eventual decomposition.

Rates of carbon uptake and emissions are influenced by many factors, but most factors are related to temperature and precipitation:

  • Higher temperatures are associated with faster plant growth, which accelerates photosynthesis and carbon uptake.
  • Higher temperatures also accelerate decomposition of plant materials, thereby accelerating the return of stored carbon into the atmosphere.
  • The effect of moisture in the soil on decomposition can be graphed as a “hump.”  In extremely dry soils, decomposition is slow because the organisms that decompose vegetation are under desiccation stress.  Conditions for decomposition improve as moisture in the soil increases until the soil is very wet when lack of oxygen in the soil impedes decomposition.

Although temperature and precipitation are important factors in carbon storage, they don’t change appreciably when one type of vegetation is replaced with another.  Therefore, these factors aren’t helpful in addressing the fundamental question we are considering in this post, which is “Does native vegetation store more carbon than the forests that presently occupy the land in question?”

Where is carbon stored?

Much of the carbon stored in the forest is in the soil.  It is therefore important to our analysis to determine if carbon stored in the soil in native vegetation is greater than that stored in non-native forests.  The answer to that question is definitely NO!  The carbon stored in the soil of native vegetation in Oakland, California is a fraction (5.7 kilograms of carbon per square meter of soil) of the carbon stored in residential soil (14.4 kilograms in per square meter of soil). (9)  Residential soil is defined by this study as “residential grass, park use and grass, and clean fill.”  This study (9) reports that the amount of carbon stored in the soil in Oakland is greater after urbanization than prior to urbanization because Oakland’s “wildland cover” is associated with “low SOC [soil organic carbon] densities characteristic of native soils in the region.”

Native plant advocates have also argued that the carbon stored in the soil of perennial native grasslands is greater than non-native trees because their roots are deeper.  In fact, studies consistently inform us that most carbon is found in the top 10 centimeters of soil and almost none is found beyond a meter (100 centimeters) deep. (1, 4) In any case, we do not assume that the roots of perennial grasses are longer than the roots of a large tree.

Another argument that native plant advocates use to support their claim that native perennial grasslands store more carbon in the soil than non-native trees is that native grasses are long-lived and continue to add carbon to the soil throughout their lives.  In fact, carbon stored in the soil reaches a steady state, i.e., it is not capable of storing additional carbon once it has reached its maximum capacity. (1)

It is pointless to theorize about why grassland soils should store more carbon than forest soils.  The fact is they don’t.  In all regions of the United States forest soils store more carbon than either grassland or shrubland soils.  (9, Table 5)

We should also describe Oakland’s native vegetation before moving on:  “Vegetation before urbanization in Oakland was dominated by grass, shrub, and marshlands that occupied approximately 98% of the area.  Trees in riparian woodlands covered approximately 1.1% of Oakland’s preurbanized lands…”  (5)  In other words, native vegetation in Oakland is composed of shrub and grassland.  When non-native forests are destroyed, they will not be replaced by native trees, especially in view of the fact that replanting is not planned for any of the “restoration” projects in the East Bay.

The total amount of carbon stored within the plant or tree is proportional to its biomass, both above ground (trunk, foliage, leaf litter, etc.) and below ground (roots).  Since the grass and shrubs that are native to the Bay Area are a small fraction of the size of any tree, the carbon stored within native plants will not be as great as that stored in the trees that are being destroyed.

Whether we consider the carbon stored in soil or within the plant, the non-native forest contains more carbon than the shrub and grassland that is native to the Bay Area.

Converting forests to grassland

If we were starting with bare ground, it might be relevant to compare carbon sequestration in various types of vegetation, but we’re not.  We’re talking about specific projects which will require the destruction of millions of non-native trees.  Therefore, we must consider the loss of carbon associated with destroying those trees.  It doesn’t matter what is planted after the destruction of those trees, nothing will compensate for that loss because of how the trees will be disposed of.

The fate of the wood in trees that are destroyed determines how much carbon is released into the atmosphere.  For example, if the wood is used to build houses the loss of carbon is less than if the wood is allowed to decompose on the forest floor.  And that is exactly what all the projects we are discussing propose to do:  chip the wood from the trees and distribute it on the forest floor, also known as “mulching.”  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” (8)

Furthermore, the process of removing trees releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, regardless of the fate of the destroyed trees:  “Even in forests harvested for long-term storage wood, more than 50% of the harvested biomass is released to the atmosphere in a short period after harvest.”  (1)

Will thinning trees result in greater carbon storage?

Native plant advocates claim that thinning the non-native forest will result in improved forest health and therefore greater carbon storage.  In fact, the more open canopy of an urban forest with less tree density results in greater growth rates.  (3)  Although more rapid growth is associated with greater rates of carbon sequestration, rates of storage have little effect on the net carbon storage over the life of the tree.  (6)  Net carbon storage over the life of the tree is determined by how long the species lives and how big the tree is at maturity.  These characteristics are inherent in the species of tree and are little influenced by forest management practices such as thinning. (6)

More importantly, even if there were some small increase in carbon storage of individual trees associated with thinning, this increase would be swamped by the fact that over 90% of the urban forest will be destroyed by the proposed projects we are evaluating in the East Bay.  The projects of UC Berkeley and the City of Oakland propose to destroy all non-native trees in the project areas.  The project of the East Bay Regional Park District proposes to destroy all non-native trees in some areas and thin in other areas from 25 to 35 feet between each tree, reducing tree density per acre by at least 90%.  No amount of “forest health” will compensate for the loss of carbon of that magnitude.   

Responding to native plant advocates

  • The vegetation that is native to the Bay Area does not store more carbon above or below the ground than the non-native forest.
  • Chipping the trees that are destroyed and distributing the chips on the ground will not prevent the release of carbon from the trees that are destroyed.
  • Thinning the trees in our public lands will not increase the capacity of the trees that remain to store carbon.

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Bibliography

  1.  Anderson, J., et. al., “The Potential for Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration in Minnesota, A Report to the Department of Natural Resources from the Minnesota Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration Initiative, February 2008.
  2. Birdsey, Richard, “Carbon storage and accumulation in United States Forest Ecosystems,” USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report WO-59, 1992
  3. Environmental Protection Agency, “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008,” April 15, 2010., EPA 430-R-10-006
  4. Fissore, C.,  et.al., “Limited potential for terrestrial carbon sequestration to offset fossil-fuel emissions in the upper Midwestern US,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2009, 10.1890/090059
  5. Nowak, David, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implication for urban forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture, 19(5): September 1993
  6. Nowak, David, “Atmospheric Carbon Reduction by Urban Trees,” Journal of Environmental Management, (1993) 37, 207-217
  7. Nowak, David. Crane, Daniel, “Carbon storage and sequestration by urban trees in the U.S.A.,” Environmental Pollution, 116 (2002) 381-389
  8. Nowak, David, et.al., “Effects of urban tree management and species selection on atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Journal of Arboriculture 28(3) May 2002
  9. Pouyat, R.V. (US Forest Service)., et.al., “Carbon Storage by Urban Soils in the United States,” Journal of Environmental Quality, 35:1566-1575 (2006)