Is UC Berkeley's Plan to Cut Down 54,000 Trees Necessary? 

A respected environmental contractor has questioned the university's controversial fire-prevention proposal and contends that it could create a new fire hazard.

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Representatives from UC Berkeley have said that native vegetation — California bay laurel, oak, big-leaf maple, California buckeye, California hazelnut, and others — will naturally return once the eucalyptus is removed, as seeds currently beneath the nonnative trees aren't allowed to grow due to the toxic oils in eucalyptus leaf and branch litter. As evidence, the university has cited native plant recovery in past tree-removal areas in Claremont Canyon.

But URS Corp's letter challenged those notions as well. "[W]e question the assumption that the types of vegetation recolonizing the area would be native. Based on conditions observed during site visits in April 2009, current understory species such as English ivy, acacia, vinca sp., French broom, and Himalayan blackberry would likely be the first to recover and recolonize newly disturbed areas once the eucalyptus removal is complete. These understory species are aggressive exotics, and in the absence of proactive removal there is no evidence to suggest that they would cease to thrive in the area ...."

And URS Corp also wondered whether the use of wood chips would actually prevent the growth of nonnatives, as UC asserts. "Despite thorough research, we were unable to find documentation of the ability of exotic chip mulch to suppress undesirable species while encouraging favorable species," the letters stated. "Chip mulch can be a successful deterrent to invasive plants, but would have to be coupled with selective native plantings if the intended long-term outcome was revegetation in native cover."

Tom Klatt, UC Berkeley's Environmental Projects Manager, who has guided UC's effort, declined to comment on the 2009 letter from URS Corporation or the issues raised in it, and added that he wasn't aware of its existence, although he said he has had to respond to numerous questions from FEMA throughout the project process. URS Corporation was a consultant during the initial environmental assessment of UC's application, but was not retained to complete the full environmental review.

FEMA spokeswoman Mary Simms declined to respond to questions about why URS was not retained. It also appears that few, if any, of the issues addressed in the company's letter were taken into consideration for FEMA's draft environmental impact statement on the tree-removal plan.

In an interview, Klatt defended UC's plan, saying it was necessary to cut down all the eucalyptus in the area because the tree is a "fierce propagator." "Unless you eliminate the seed source, these fast-growing invasive plants will always dominate," he said. "Part of the goal of making this work permanently is to remove this plant, not manage it into perpetuity."

But some critics contend that UC Berkeley's true motive for cutting down so many trees is not fire suppression. Dan Grassetti of the Hills Conservation Network believes UC's project is being driven by a native-plant agenda. "There's an alliance here between UC and the native plant community," he said, referring to the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit homeowners' group that supports UC's plan, has worked with UC on the FEMA grant, and is strong proponent of restoring the area's native vegetation. "If you didn't have ulterior motives, you wouldn't do this."

Three years ago, Grassetti's group sued the park district over its then-plan to chop down more than 500,000 trees. The two parties settled a year later, and Grassetti said that, as a result, the park district agreed to thinning and understory removal, as opposed to clear-cutting.

So now, UC Berkeley's plan to remove all eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia stands in stark contrast to the park district's plan. In an interview, park district fire Captain Brad Gallup said the agency's fuel reduction techniques of thinning brush and surface fuels, as well as the removal of some nonnative trees, are necessary to achieve a "more fire-safe landscape."

So could UC thin its trees and manage the understory as the park district proposes to do and still meet the goal of fire safety? Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley who's a member of the campus' Urban Interface Committee, which provided advice to Klatt but was not involved in the FEMA project, said both methods are acceptable for fire safety, but that cutting down all the trees is cheaper. "Berkeley doesn't have the resources to implement a two-, three-, four-year rotation [to remove eucalyptus seedlings]," he said. "That's a real expense."

FEMA's draft environmental impact statement also acknowledges the financial considerations, noting that repeated removal of ladder fuels is expensive. It also states that it can be difficult to do on the steep slopes that are common in the proposed areas, and can lead to erosion.

But critics of UC's plan believe still another factor may be involved in the university's decision to cut down, rather than thin, all nonnative trees: development. As the draft environmental impact statement notes, UC's 2020 Long Range Development Plan includes the possibility of building faculty housing and a campus retreat center at its Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve study area.

But Klatt strongly denied that either a native-plant agenda or the prospect of new development was driving the plan. "We are not removing these trees for future development," he said. "Frankly, if we wanted to develop the area, why would we turn it into a pristine native forest?"

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