UC Berkeley, in partnership with Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks District, or EBRPD, is embarking on an environmentally catastrophic plan to cut down nearly half a million healthy trees. This plan — with a goal of eradicating many Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, eucalyptus and acacia forests to replace them with grassland with islands of shrub — will radically transform the appearance of the Oakland and Berkeley hills, including 284 acres of the Berkeley campus, where more than 50,000 trees will be removed.
Not only will this plan eliminate trees responsible for the iconic character and stunning beauty of the East Bay hills and Berkeley campus, but their loss will decrease biodiversity, destroy animal habitats, release 17,495 metric tons of greenhouse gasses, and repeatedly expose wildlife, students and nearby residents to several thousand gallons of toxic herbicides. This includes Monsanto’s herbicide, glyphosate, now being banned by governments worldwide in light of the World Health Organization’s recent warning that it is a “probable human carcinogen.”
Gone will be many of our most visited, shaded hiking trails made so idyllic by soaring trees planted and beloved by the region’s early settlers, including 19th century naturalist Joaquin Miller — famed “poet of the Sierras” and friend of legendary conservationist and fellow admirer of eucalyptus trees John Muir. Trees that were a favorite motif of 20th century California Impressionist painters and that served as inspiration for renowned Bay Area architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck are to be decimated by the hundreds of thousands, forever eliminating living embodiments of the region’s rich cultural history.
Given the many threats this plan poses to the environment, wildlife, public safety and the East Bay’s historical heritage, why would our public officials and UC administrators undertake such a reckless, self-sabotaging agenda?
If you believe plan proponents, we must assume these harms in order to abate the risk of wildfire. Unfortunately, their plan could exacerbate rather than reduce that risk. David Maloney, former chief of fire prevention at the Oakland Army base, stated in a 2009 letter to Brian Weise, chief of planning and stewardship of the EBRPD, that “Fire Science has proven that every living tree — regardless of its species — due to its moisture content and canopy coverage of ground fuels, contributes to wildfire hazard mitigation.” Therefore, a plan to replace trees with grasses, which the EBRPD admits are “one of the most dangerous vegetation types for firefighter safety,” will not protect but threaten us. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service noted that removing all eucalyptus trees would “increase the probability of (fire) ignition over current conditions,” while, in a 2007 statement to the U.S. Senate, Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey noted that only about 3 percent of the 2007 fires in Southern California occurred in forests; the remainder, 97 percent, burned mostly in shrublands and grasslands (and urban areas) — the exact type of vegetation in which the 1991 Firestorm is theorized to have been ignited and will be replicated throughout the hills. According to the U.S. Fire Administration Technical Report on the 1991 fire, brush fuel types made up “a large portion of the available fuel.” Far from causing fires, some claim that trees abate it. One alumna attests, “I was a student at Cal during the 1991 fires. I lived in the Berkeley hills above campus near Strawberry Canyon. The eucalyptus and other trees saved the houses on my street by serving as a barrier between us and the fire.” Yet the campus is now planning to destroy that very forest by chopping down 12,000 trees in Strawberry Canyon, 10,000 in Claremont Canyon and 25,000 at Frowning Ridge. Oakland and the EBRPD will chop down hundreds of thousands more, including many in Tilden Park.
Incited by the intolerant, xenophobic view that trees — ones that have blanketed our hills for well more than a century — are “non-native” and must be ethnically cleansed, “native” plant idealogues have gained the cooperation of our public officials to turn our collectively owned lands into environmental war zones.
Working to stop this deforestation agenda are various grassroots organizations composed of environmentalists, animal lovers, anti-herbicide activists, Firestorm survivors and residents.
Conspicuously absent from this roster of dissent, however, are the students at UC Berkeley. Stop hibernating, Bears — your habitat is under siege. Rise up and speak out against this pending environmental atrocity in the great tradition of the legions of politically active, environmentally conscious UC students who have preceded you. Lend your voice to the voiceless. Be the Lorax, and speak for your trees.
Jennifer Winograd is a member of Save East Bay Hills.
A previous version of this op-ed may have implied that in a 2007 statement to the U.S. Senate, Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey noted that only about 3 percent of 2007 fires in California occurred in forests, while 97 percent burned mostly in shrublands and grasslands. In fact, Keeley was talking only about southern California fires.
A previous version of this op-ed may have also implied that wildfire in the Berkeley hills is a remote risk. In fact, while wildfire likelihood depends on the environment, there have been numerous damaging fires in the East Bay hills.
A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that trees abate fire, instead of causing it. In fact, only some experts believe that trees abate fire.
A previous version of this op-ed also incorrectly stated that the plan to cut down trees would exacerbate rather than reduce the risk of wildfire. In fact, because eucalyptus trees spread fire faster than the grasses that may replace them, the plan would not necessarily exacerbate the risk of wildfire.