UC Berkeley among applicants for tree-cutting grant to mitigate wildfires

The eucalyptus trees around Panoramic Way are subject to being cut.

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UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District have jointly applied for a federal grant to cut down 85,000 trees in the East Bay hills in efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfires.

The FEMA grant would allow the groups to remove non-native trees that pose the greatest fire hazard — such as eucalyptus, Monterey pine and acacia — while preserving native plants that pose a smaller risk. Between 1923 and 1991, the hills saw an estimated 15 major blazes, the most recent of which destroyed over 3,000 homes and cost more than $1.5 billion, according to a FEMA draft environmental impact statement of the project.

The plan also calls for continued maintenance of the affected areas, including the application of herbicide to eucalyptus stumps, which can resprout after cutting. This maintenance will continue for 10 years and should prevent the trees from returning.

According to Thomas Klatt, an environmental projects manager at the university, UC Berkeley has been involved in projects like this for the last decade. The monetary cost of removing risk-prone trees, about $5 million according to Klatt, is less than the costs of large-scale fires. Klatt also said that in the 19th century, the Berkeley Hills were generally free of large vegetation, and this plan would return the landscape to its historic setting.

On Saturday, representatives from FEMA held a public comment session at Claremont Middle School in Oakland to discuss the draft environmental impact statement. More than 120 people attended the meeting, at which comments both for and against the proposal were made. Many at the meeting had serious concerns that the cutting would damage the local ecosystem and that the herbicide used for maintenance would permanently poison streams in the area.

Others are concerned that the project will limit access and ruin the appeal of the popular hiking and running trails that crisscross the hills.

“As a runner, I like having trees up there, and if they take out a lot of trees it affects the shade mix,” said Carl Rose, coach of the Strawberry Canyon Track Club. “Trees block some of the wind, and I appreciate the natural beauty of the trees. We run up there three to four days a week — that’s pretty primary for most of our runners, and they’re in pretty serious training at the national and international level. It’s probably going to affect Cal athletics as a whole.”

The university’s share of the project will cut 22,000 trees from around 99 acres in Strawberry Canyon Recreational Area and Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. One of the zones slated for cutting borders the Clark Kerr Campus, according to the environmental impact statement.

Contact Jacob Brown at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacobebrown.