FEMA, New York Times

The New York Times blog yesterday linked to this website, via an article about FEMA and the East Bay. We’re flattered, though the opening sentence of the article, about “non-native, frowzy eucalyptus” didn’t promise unbiased reporting. (To be fair, this was the NYT blog, and blogs are usually about opinions. We just think it might be interesting to drill down a little…)

Here’s the story.

FEMA has decided to do an environmental review before sanctioning over $5 million in taxpayer funds to UC Berkeley and to East Bay Regional Park District to fell trees on their land, ostensibly to reduce fire-danger. This review will take around two years.

The Hills Conservation Network (HCN) supports this, because they believe that (a) Chopping down a lot of trees (even eucalyptus) has knock-on effects on habitat, ecosystems, microclimates, soil stability, pesticide use, and aesthetics, and (b) The proposed plan will not actually reduce fire-danger.

Claremont Canyon Conservancy (CCC), which was pushing for the project, is very angry about the delay. They think that somehow HCN is making FEMA ask for the environmental review. (This is a “significant misreading” says HCN in their December 2009 PDF newsletter with a front page story about the issue.)

The spokesperson for UC Berkeley’s Fire Research and Outreach center said the problem with managing the eucalyptus groves and removing the freeze-killed dead ones is that eucalyptus grows back, and “In under 10 years, the fire problem is back.” In a separate interview with the Oakland Tribune (linked from the NYT blog), he noted, ” When you look at an area that has already been treated versus what hasn’t, the risk is 10 percent greater.” (So it there’s a danger of fire every 50 years now, there would, post-project, be a danger of fire every 55 years? Or that if it destroyed 3500 homes then, it would destroy only 3180 after treatment? We also wish he’d quoted the research on which he based the estimate.)


We think FEMA has the right approach.

Once the old trees are gone, they are gone.

If there are Unintended Consequences – whether increased flammability because chapparal is even more flammable than trees, the massive use of toxic pesticides like Garlon, the destruction of habitats for birds and animals, changes in slope stability or in microclimates – they must be lived with.

Surely at a time when the whole country is dealing with a load of Unintended Consequences in multiple areas, a little extra caution is to be lauded?

There’s no need to rush in. Conduct the review. See if the plan actually will improve fire safety, rather than merely appearing to do so. Count the environmental cost. Then decide.


What’s the connection to Mount Sutro? In a word, FEMA.

HCN is seeing a pattern of Native Plant advocates applying for FEMA funds to chop down eucalyptus. HCN therefore supports our effort to save Sutro Forest from being gutted with a removal of up to 90% of the biomass on nearly a quarter of the forest.

Nativists are also advocates for the use of powerful and toxic herbicides such as Roundup and Garlon to prevent the regrowth of eucalyptus and a host of other non-native-and-therefore-undesirable trees and bushes. This is a concern for environmentalists in the East Bay and also here on Mount Sutro. But that’s an issue for a future post.

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6 Responses to FEMA, New York Times

  1. HarryEye says:

    Surely the idea of turning back the clock appeals to us all on some level…mistakes we’ve made, or historical events we’ve suffered through (the current economic debacle being one of them).

    But turning back the clock to a time when world travel didn’t bring us all closer and let us know our fellow earthlings better seems just plain backward. There was a time when San Francisco had almost no trees, so the gift of Sutro Forest was much-needed.

    It is needed even more now, in the midst of the city that has grown up all around it. We breathe out carbon, the trees breathe it in. They breathe out oxygen, and we breathe it in. It’s called an eco-system. Us and them.

    My daughter recently called her friend who is an active nativist. She was appalled at the thought of taking down healthy trees because they are not native! This insight has made me realize that calling the folks who keep taking down eucalyptus and other trees because they are not the right color or don’t have the correct heritage are not nativists. They are regressivists, or reversalists. True nativists know that living trees help all of us, no matter what kind.

    As I read in Michael Pollan’s article about nativism (NYTimes), it’s a fool’s errand to try and turn back the clock. Seeds are wind and water borne, and I hate to think that somewhere in the world, someone is chopping down and pouring toxic herbicides on a California redwood, because it’s “not native” – the world is too toxic now, and I’d rather have any tree than a water table full of herbicides.

    The fact that they want to regress and poison using taxpayer dollars, masquerading as helping things, well, that’s just unbearable.

    There are better things to concentrate on.

  2. Edith Mackey says:

    It’s interesting that the NYT blog entry says that Mr. Grassetti thinks that “thinning of trees” is appropriate management and then states that his group is working to “stop clear cutting of eucalyptus on Mt. Sutro”. Clear cutting means removing all the trees and thinning means removing some of the trees. We all know that the Sutro FEMA plan calls for thinning of trees (while keeping tree canopies as sunblock) and not removal of all trees, which is in line with Mr. Grassetti’s recommendations. I see in your post here that you recognize this incoherence and try to spin it that the thinning is actually “gutting”. Nice attempt to recast the plan’s consistency with Mr. Grassetti’s recommendations as something else. Forest management based on the sole principle to maintain existing biomass is scary. Interesting how you reject the idea that man can fix some of the negative affects of man’s massive introduction of exotic plants into an ecosystem, yet you wholeheartedly believe that man can fix the negative affects of man’s massive introduction of carbon dioxide into the atomosphere. I like how you choose which idealistic crusade is the proper one to follow.

    Also, you’re selectively comparing the FEMA plan’s objectives with the objectives of those who wish to see the forest’s biological content diversified. Very few proponents of planting a more varied understory want to use pesticides, which is why I oppose the FEMA grant as it is now written. Native plant advocates are not applying for the FEMA grant, UCSF is. To claim otherwise adds to the incoherence of your arguments. Which native plant advocate exactly is applying for the Sutro FEMA grant?

    This is all nimbyism shrouded in environmental hooha.

    • webmaster says:


      The Sutro cloud forest has an entirely different micro-climate from Oakland’s dry weather. Owing to the fog, it’s damp year-round. Solutions that are optimal in the East Bay aren’t suitable here.

      Removal of 90% of the biomass is indeed gutting those areas of the forest. What would be left would be a few widely-spaced trees, and a “sparse canopy.” It would no longer function as a cloud forest.

      The “FEMA plan” objectives for Sutro Forest are ostensibly to reduce fire risk in what is probably one of the dampest places in San Francisco. (Check the Fog Log Conclusions.)

      You’re right, UCSF is applying for the grant. But if you read the applications (available on the UCSF website) and the support letters, they clearly rely on Mt Sutro Stewards providing information and backup. At the first public meeting (May 09), it was Craig Dawson of Mt Sutro Stewards who made the opening presentation. Mt Sutro Stewards is part of Nature in the City, who are Native Plant advocates.

      I’m glad you oppose the use of herbicides. Any plan to kill eucalyptus and blackberry typically does involve the use of herbicides. They have been used in the Native Garden on the summit in the past, and at least until very recently in the Aldea Student Housing area. (We still haven’t heard back from UCSF regarding the contradiction between their e-mail and their website.)

      They’re being used on Twin Peaks, another Native Plant area.

  3. Edith Mackey says:

    Also, saying that 90% of the biomass is being removed is also incorrect. You have concluded that 90% of the trees are being removed, therefore 90% of the biomass is being removed. Not correct since the majority of the trees to be removed are saplings and other smaller immature trees. The ones that remain will be the very large ones, those providing sufficient canopy, and which represent a greatly disproportionate percentage of the biomass. How you would actually calculate this is beyond me. Unless you are considering the entire weight of the tree removal, you cannot claim 90% of the biomass is being removed.
    Again, total biomass removal is irrelevant anyway and you only position it that way to try to present an extreme, shocking position. I actually like your website because it makes a lot of people who are unused to being challenged think about their positions. If it leads to a better plan, one that does not involve pesticides, then I am all for the opposition.

    • webmaster says:


      I take your point, except that (a) there aren’t that many large trees (over 3 feet in circumference, as large around as a person) and (b) the “FEMA plan” calls for selective removal even of these. (Many of the thinner trees are still very tall and old; growing rapidly upward is characteristic of trees in dense forests.)

      UCSF’s May 09 letter says: “The biomass would be reduced by removing approximately up to 90 percent of the brush and trees less than 12 inches in diameter [i.e, 38 inches in circumference, or a bit over 3 feet] , selectively removing trees larger than this only to maintain a sparse canopy of dominant trees…”

      It wouldn’t be a forest.

      We don’t need to try to shock, we were shocked.

      Thanks for the compliment about the website. If it makes people think, it’s a good thing. (And thanks also for this discussion.)

  4. NatureLover says:

    Having read both the UCSF plan and the grant application to implement the plan, I’m not surprised that there is some debate about exactly how many trees will be removed.

    The grant is vague about how many of the trees will be removed: “It is estimated that there are approximately 740 trees per acre or 45,000 trees in the Reserve, a vast majority of which are less than 12 inches in diameter.” (page 10 of grant application) The Management Plan provides more detail: “…approximately 280 trees per acre are over 12 inches in diameter…” (page 41). Therefore, approximately 38% of the trees are over 12 inches in diameter (280/740 = 38%). However, the plan also says that a “buffer area” of between 50 and 100 feet wide be created “around native species restoration areas.” (page 10) Ultimately, “The spacing for large healthy eucalyptus is targeted to be approximately 25 to 35 feet apart.” (page 44) Such spacing would leave between 56 and 100 trees per acre NOT 280! Therefore, it’s not clear how many trees will remain.

    In other words and leaving aside the question of removing the entire understory, at the very least 62% of all the trees will be removed. At the most–and leaving aside the question of a “buffer zone” of 50 to 100 feet for the native plants which would mean anything–if the trees are removed to provide spacing of 35 feet between the trees, 90% of the trees could be removed.

    As for leaving the canopy intact, I think it’s pretty clear that trees at a distance of 35 feet from one another are not providing a closed canopy. Assuming you have walked in that forest, you realize that even the trees that have trunk diameters greater than 12 inches do not have canopies that large.

    I am pleased to have this opportunity to engage in this dialogue. I hope it demonstrates that we are well informed about this project and that we are happy to discuss the details.

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