First we must recapitulate the long history of UC Berkeley’s destruction of non-native trees on its property.
UC Berkeley (UCB) started destroying non-native trees on its property in the East Bay hills in 2000 and continued destroying trees until 2005, when it applied for FEMA grant funding to complete the destruction of all non-native trees. UCB published detailed reports of its first phase of tree destruction, which reported the destruction of about 18,000 trees on 150 acres on Panoramic Hill, Claremont Canyon, Frowning Ridge, Chaparral Hill, and Lower Strawberry Canyon.
UCB completed the first phase without completing an Environmental Impact Report, which is what enabled it to avoid informing the public in advance of the destruction. When UCB applied for FEMA funding it expected to be able to continue those projects without completing an environmental impact report. UCB’s FEMA grant application proposed to destroy 54,000 trees on 284 acres in Strawberry and Claremont canyons and Frowning Ridge. But the public was now alerted to UCB’s intentions and objected to the project being done without environmental review. After completing the Environmental Impact Statement required by federal law, the FEMA grant to UCB was cancelled after a successful legal challenge of the project.
UCB tried to implement its plans with its own funding without completing an Environmental Impact Report, as required by California State law. Again, they lost a legal challenge that prohibits it from implementing its plans without an EIR.
UCB’s most recent demonstration of its continued commitment to destroying all non-native trees on its property was a legal complaint filed in June 2017, which demands that FEMA reinstate the grants that were cancelled about one year ago. At the same time, UCB has launched a new public relations effort to convince the public to support its projects. In this post we will take a closer look at UCB’s recent round of propaganda.
New “informational” signs in Strawberry Canyon
We learned of new “informational” signs along the fire trail in Strawberry Canyon in July 2017, but we don’t know precisely when they were installed. Those who often visit Strawberry Canyon tell us the signs are recent. This sign about “biodiversity” is an example of the message UCB is sending to the public.
Many of the statements on this sign are inaccurate:
The sign claims that native plants “provide food and habitat for native wildlife” but that non-native plants “provide food and habitat for other non-native species.” Neither of these statements is accurate. If a native plant provides food and habitat for native wildlife, it also provides both to non-native wildlife. Conversely, if a non-native plant provides food and habitat for non-native wildlife, it also provides both to native wildlife. The notion that wildlife makes such distinctions is ridiculous. Wildlife does not know or care what humans consider native or non-native. If the plant is edible, it is food. If the plant provides cover, it is useful habitat.
- The sign also claims that the roots of native plants are deep, but the roots of non-native plants are shallow. These are equally ridiculous statements. The depth of roots may vary, but that variation is completely unrelated to whether or not the plant is native.
Nativists often claim that the roots of eucalyptus trees are shallow (except when they claim they are very deep in order to make the opposite case that they use more water than other tree species). So, we will digress briefly to provide some information about tree roots from a reputable, scientific source.
According to a study of tree roots by Harvard’s forestry research institution, Arnold Arboretum, (1) tree roots vary little by species. The configuration of tree roots varies somewhat over the life of trees. Early in their life, trees often have a deep tap root, but the tap root is slowly replaced by a wide, lateral network of fine roots around the perimeter of the tree, usually far wider than the tree canopy. To the extent that the root system varies, it is more a reflection of soil conditions. If the soil is very compact or the tree is planted in a rock or concrete basin, the width of the root system will be physically constrained. If the tree is unstable in the ground, it is usually because of where it has been planted.
UC Alumni Magazine gins up fire hysteria
In June 2017, the UC alumni magazine published an article in defense of its plans to destroy all non-native trees in the East Bay hills. (Available here: UC Alumni Mag – Glen Martin interviews Scott Stephens) Curiously, this article appeared in an edition devoted to climate change and adaptation to the changing climate. You might think that concern about climate change would predict a greater respect for our urban forest, which stores the carbon that will contribute to greenhouse gases when the trees are destroyed. Again, don’t look for consistency in the nativist viewpoint. You won’t find it.
Here are a few of the absurd statements made in the article in the alumni magazine:
- The article claims that the 150 acres where UCB destroyed trees over 15 years ago are now covered in native trees and shrubs that “came in” on their own when the trees were destroyed. All of these areas are easily visited and observed. They are occupied by non-native weeds and piles of wood chips. Here is a picture of one of those areas taken on August 6, 2017.
- The article repeats the ridiculous claim that eucalypts are called “gasoline trees” in Australia. The word “gasoline” is not used in Australia. As in all British Commonwealth nations, what we call gasoline is called petrol. Calling eucalyptus trees “gasoline trees” is an American rhetorical device. A native plant advocate probably made it up, then it was shared in their closed community until it became a “fact” in their minds. It is a means of generating fear. It is a tool used by native plant advocates to support their demand to destroy all non-native trees in California.
- The article describes the huge die off of native conifers in California, caused by climate change and related infestation of native bark beetles and it predicts that they will be replaced by different species of trees that are adapted to present climate conditions. These observations are made with no apparent understanding of how it contradicts UCB’s strategy here in the Bay Area. If the climate is changing in California and its landscape must change along with it, why is UCB trying to install the landscape that existed here 250 years ago?
UCB’s latest propaganda installment
The recent fire in the East Bay Hills was another opportunity for UCB to gin up the fear machine against non-native trees. The fire started on Grizzly Peak Blvd where UC Berkeley destroyed 1,900 eucalyptus trees on 11 acres in 2004. When the trees were destroyed, the ground was quickly colonized by non-native annual grasses and the road was lined with the trunks of the trees they had destroyed. The dried grass and the dead logs were the fuel of the fire that started on August 2, 2017. The fire was stopped when it crossed the road into the eucalyptus forest in Tilden Park.
UCB now writes in its alumni magazine that there was no major damage to property and no loss of life because of UC’s “fuels management program” that destroyed the trees. The fire risk to life and property was increased by the “fuels management program,” as facts on the ground tell us. Scott Stephens, speaking for UCB, speculates that the fire “would have thrown embers miles ahead, starting hundreds of spot fires that would also burn explosively and merge. That’s what happened in 1991.”
In fact, that’s NOT what happened in 1991. The only source of embers identified by the FEMA Technical Report on the 1991 fire was “brush.” That report also says the maximum distance of the fire spread was less than 3 miles, so if embers started spot fires, they did not travel many miles.
A study by US Forest Service of embers starting spot fires during wildfires all over the world included the 1991 fire. The only known ember reported in the ‘91 fire was a wooden shingle from one of the homes that burned. That study said of urban fires in California, “In the wildland-urban interface fires in California—Berkeley in 1923, Bel-Air in 1961, Oakland 1991—wooden shingles which were popular in California as roof material, assisted fire spread. Wooden shingles increase fire hazard owing to both ease of ignition and subsequent firebrand production.” (2)
But here is the kicker to this rewriting of fire history by Scott Stephens. Less than a month ago, Stephens was interviewed about the many wildfires in California this year. He blamed the wildfires on the heavy rains that produced a lot of grass and he said forests are less likely to burn: “UC Berkeley Fire Science Professor Scott Stephens says most of the fires so far have been in grassland areas that were revived from the rain, then dried out early during triple-digit heat waves… He says forests are better at retaining moisture and the Sierra will be more resilient this year because of the rains.”
Stephens knows what is causing wildfires in California, but he chooses to misrepresent the fire in the East Bay Hills last week, presumably in the service of UCB’s desire to destroy our urban forest. Perhaps it is naïve of me to expect more from a faculty member at California’s most prestigious research and educational institution. But I find it disappointing.
Please join Million Trees in rejecting fear as the maker of public policy. Be suspicious when you are asked to be afraid of something. Are you being manipulated? Do the fear mongers have ulterior motives?
- Thomas O. Perry, “Tree Roots: Facts and Fallacies,” Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University
- Eunmo Koo, et. al., “Firebrands and spotting ignition in large-scale fires,” International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2010, 19, 818-843