Of Trees and Elephants 

Grassroots activists won two key victories that will protect trees and wildlife in the East Bay hills and save elephants from cruel treatment.

The press often overlooks victories achieved by grassroots activists. That's because we're often focused instead on the influence wielded by big corporations, powerful institutions, and wealthy individuals and the mistakes made by public officials. But there were two grassroots wins last week that should not go unnoticed — because they represent important examples of people coming together to effect positive change.

The first involved the announcement by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that it plans to phase out elephants in its performances by 2018. The announcement came in response to a growing chorus from animal rights activists, who had called for a ban on the use of bullhooks on elephants nationwide. Bullhooks are sharp instruments with metal points that trainers use to coerce elephants into performing circus tricks.

It's beyond dispute that the use of bullhooks is cruel. And activists had successfully convinced several large cities, including Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, to pass regulations designed to protect elephants from being tortured. But it wasn't easy. Feld Entertainment, the large company that owns Ringling Bros. and manages other entertainment acts, had threatened to pull all of its shows from cities that passed anti-bullhook laws.

Feld's threats prompted many politicians to balk at protecting animals. In Oakland, Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney backed an effort to derail the city's proposed anti-bullhook law, contending that it might hurt workers employed at Oracle Arena, where the circus performs when it's in town. But Mayor Libby Schaaf, who originally introduced the bullhook ban when she was a councilmember, ultimately prevailed — with help from Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb. The council voted to enact the ban late last year.

Ultimately, the threats by Feld turned out to be hollow — much like the threats about economic harm and potential job losses made by other big corporations when faced with legislation that seeks to eliminate unethical behavior. In fact, Feld officials last week specifically cited anti-bullhook legislation in cities like Oakland for its decision, saying the bans were making it impossible to book circus tours (unless the company stopped mistreating elephants).

"I am proud that proactive leadership from cities like Oakland means elephants being forced to perform in the nation's largest circus will soon come to an end," Schaaf said in a statement last week. "There is still more work to be done to ensure the safety and protection of all animals, but by presenting legislation where there had previously been none, Oakland has helped us take a big step forward in how we care for and treat these majestic animals."

The other significant victory for local activists occurred when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it final plan to reduce wildfire hazards in the East Bay hills. FEMA said it had approved roughly $5.6 million in grants to fund tree thinning, including the thinning of eucalyptus groves, rather than clear-cutting — as originally proposed by the University of California.

UC Berkeley had wanted to eradicate eucalyptus from its sprawling property in Claremont and Strawberry canyons, arguing that the trees presented a severe fire hazard. But the university's plan would have turned parts of the woodsy hills into a moonscape and would have required heavy use of herbicides. Moreover, the evidence that eucalyptus present a substantially greater fire hazard than other trees has always been weak — plus eucalyptus, although they're nonnative, provide habitat to numerous species (not to mention shade for hikers and picnickers). Clear-cutting swaths of the hills would have put wildlife at risk — unnecessarily.

The East Bay Regional Park District realized these facts years ago, and so had been pushing forward with an alternative plan to thin and manage trees in the hills rather than clear-cut them. And thanks to hills activists who worked to protect the area from clear-cutting, FEMA essentially adopted the park district plan for the hills, including for Cal's property. In an interview with the Oakland Tribune, Oakland's Dan Grassetti, who represents the Hills Conservation Network, a grassroots group that fought against clear-cutting, said that "the decision to not allow radical clear-cutting is a good thing."

Indeed, it is.

Three-Dot Roundup

The City of Oakland last week dropped its controversial gang injunction programs in North Oakland and the Fruitvale district. City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement that Police Chief Sean Whent had come to the conclusion that the gang injunctions — which cost millions of dollars to implement and sparked outrage among many residents and civil rights activists — were ineffective and that he opposed continuing them. ... Coliseum officials approved a one-year lease extension with the Oakland Raiders. The deal gives the two sides more time to reach an agreement on the construction of Coliseum City, a proposed mega-development that would include a new stadium for the Raiders — and perhaps one for the A's.

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