Environmentalists drop clothes at UC Berkeley to protest tree cutting in East Bay hills

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Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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Environmentalists shed their clothing Saturday morning on campus to rally against what they see as plans to cut down an estimated 450,000 trees in the East Bay hills.

About 50 people participated in the rally, which took place in the Eucalyptus Grove on the west side of campus and was organized by Jack Gescheidt, founder of the TreeSpirit Project. The project aims to “raise awareness of the critical role trees play in our lives, both globally and personally” through photos of people, often naked, interacting intimately with trees, according to its website.

Gescheidt said the plan is a joint effort by UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District that involves cutting down trees for reasons such as fire mitigation and invasiveness of the eucalyptus tree, which is a non-native species and one of the three species targeted for cutting.

The three groups have independently and successfully applied for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the cutting may start as early as next month, according to the TreeSpirit Project’s website.

Christine Shaff, spokesperson for the campus’s real estate division, said the campus does have an ongoing fire mitigation effort that sometimes involves cutting trees but questioned the validity of the estimate of 450,000 trees. Gescheidt said this number came from a detailed analysis done by Death of a Million Trees, an activist organization that works with the TreeSpirit Project.

According to Shaff, eucalyptus trees do pose significant fire hazards. The campus’s plans are both backed and funded by FEMA, which began providing grants for fire mitigation after the 1991 fire in the East Bay hills, according to Shaff.

Ken Cheetham, one of the activists at the rally, said the plan to cut down eucalyptus trees is “extremely misinformed,” as the trees prevent fire by absorbing moisture and spreading it to the ground. Cheetham added that he does not believe invasiveness is a problem because species have migrated throughout history and “can find ways to adapt to each other.”

But Jon Kaufman, board member of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy — a group of 500 families that live in one of the areas targeted for cutting — said eucalyptus trees played a key role in spreading the fire in 1991. Several of the tree’s characteristics — particularly its oiliness, height and peelable bark — make it a significant fire hazard, he said.

Before providing the grants, FEMA took several years to research and consider the possible environmental ramifications and took account of public comments before setting “stringent conditions” that the groups have to follow when cutting the trees, according to Kaufman.

Cecile Pineda, an author and observer of the rally, said that although she agrees with the premise of the rally, the question is now whether the rally was enough to “motivate the people that were here and the people who consume the photos to take action.”

Contact Natchapol Praditpetchara at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @natchapolp.