Local environmental activists fire up to protest East Bay tree removal

Ben Shenouda/Staff

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Stationed in front of the Sierra Club’s local chapter office in Berkeley, a group of about 70 demonstrators gathered in protest of the club’s support of non-native tree removal in the East Bay hills.

Protesters defended non-native trees, including eucalyptus trees, in local urban forests, but the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA — which funds fire mitigation efforts for UC Berkeley, East Bay Regional Park District and the city of Oakland — have disagreed over the best policy for managing these non-native, flammable trees.

The club had supported FEMA’s plans to remove all flammable, non-native plants over time. But after the public voiced concern that cutting these trees would not only disrupt the environment but also displace wildlife, FEMA decided to strike a compromise and fund a plan that would thin, rather than completely remove, flammable non-natives.

Arguing that eucalyptus trees pose a hazard for the spread of wildfires and that their presence prevents native plants from growing, the local Sierra Club chapter disagreed with FEMA’s compromise and sued the agency, which led protesters to push back against the chapter Tuesday evening.

Waving signs and chanting, “We will, we will, stop you,” the demonstrators — a group composed of several local environmental groups collectively called the Forest Action Brigade — rallied against the local chapter’s lawsuit against FEMA, which plans to adopt a phased approach: removing a specified number of trees over a 10-year period.

Later in the protest, Sierra Club chapter director Michelle Myers opened the door of the building to the demonstrators, who then handed over a stack of documents outlining the protesters’ concerns.

After protesters questioned Myers, some of them shouting, she decided to return inside. Myers said their differences and the vast number of protesters would not foster a healthy debate.

“I don’t think the Sierra Club should be telling us what to do with public land,” said Silke Valentine, one of the protesters.

The FEMA-funded projects in the area remove flammable trees and promote native vegetation without replanting. The protesters took issue with these plans, along with planned herbicide use to prevent regrowth.

From 2005-10, UC Berkeley, along with the city of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District, jointly applied for federal grants that would help fund the removal of trees. This year, FEMA approved about $5.67 million to help support local tree-cutting projects aimed at reducing the risk of wildfire outbreaks.

“Fire mitigation and safety in the hills is something that has been, is and will be important to the campus,” said Christine Shaff, spokesperson for UC Berkeley’s real estate division. “We have a regular program in place and will continue. We have done a lot of work for it already this year.”

According to FEMA’s environmental impact report, about 998 acres in total will be subject to thin cutting. UC Berkeley is responsible for overseeing two FEMA-funded projects of about 99 acres in Strawberry Canyon Recreational Area and Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve.

UC Berkeley manages approximately 800 acres in a fuel-fire-management program, which operates outside FEMA funding. One such project is at Frowning Ridge, which sits in the Berkeley hills just above the Lawrence Hall of Science.

The tree-removal project at Frowning Ridge was originally slated as a FEMA project but was ineligible for funding after fuel-removal work was done in the area without FEMA’s permission.

Shaff said there are currently no plans to replant non-native trees once they are removed. She said, however, that areas in Claremont Canyon where the campus removed eucalyptus trees have naturally repopulated with native plants.


Contact Jamie Nguyen at [email protected].

A previous version of this article referred to the East Bay Regional Park District as the East Bay Regional Parks District.