Srsly, Ms. Feinstein?

When ten thousand trees are cut down on 400 acres of steep hillsides, it stands to reason it’ll have a major environmental impact. Four “fire hazard mitigation” proposals from UC Berkeley, Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District plan to do just that, with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

So when FEMA called in December 2009 for a full environmental review before it would release the funding,  it acted as we’d like all our federal agencies to act: prudently and thoughtfully. We were bemused, then, to read a letter from Senator Feinstein —  forwarded to us by her office — urging FEMA to just send the money to UC Berkeley. Let me say we’re generally fans of Senator Feinstein, who struck us as someone who cares about the environment (save the recent kerfuffle about Delta water).

East Bay’s “fire hazard mitigation” plans intend to cut down eucalyptus (of course!) and acacia and pine on 395 acres of land. Four separate FEMA applications are involved, all for East Bay projects. (Other projects in the East Bay have similar intentions;  if they all go through,  the total number of trees felled could go up from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.)

There’s strong reason to doubt that the plan will actually reduce fire hazard.  The press quotes UC Berkeley’s Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire science: “When you look at an area that has already been treated versus what hasn’t, the risk is 10 percent greater…”  ‘Treated’ meaning where all the trees have been felled. Quite aside from what that “10%” number means in real life (A fire in 21 years instead of 20? Ten houses burned instead of 11?) is there going to be *any* reduction in fire hazard?

Maybe not. Native plants and brush are actually more flammable than trees. Eucalyptus was not the cause of the 1991 Oakland fire, often used to give eucalyptus a bad reputation. Photographs from San Diego’s Scripps Ranch fire (2003) show eucalyptus surrounding homes that burned out, still green (see the picture below). Angel Island, once covered with eucalyptus, had no fires until the tree were all chopped down but for 6 acres. It’s had two substantial fires since, in 2005 and 2008. It also had a smaller fire, 2-3 acres, in 2004.  And there’s evidence that eucalyptus can actually fight wind-driven fires – the kind that most threaten the area – by breaking up wind-flows and trapping live embers.

Eucalyptus beside burned house (photo credit: scrippscentral.com)

Given that the “treatment” may be ineffective or worse – and the possibility that native-plant agendas underlie the rush to destroy these trees – FEMA is proceeding with proper caution.

In any case, the projects would undoubtedly affect the micro-climates, slope stability, wildlife, and water-flows. And that’s not even considering the climate change impacts as thousands upon thousands of dead trees release their carbon back into the atmosphere. All these risks need to be considered, and where necessary, mitigated.

The Senator’s letter notes the FEMA funds have been held up for up to five years. But that’s hardly the point, is it?  If thousands of trees are destroyed, they are not coming back. If taxpayer funds are spent, they’re gone. If it worsens the fire hazard (as it did on Angel Island), the only option open will be to explain it away with completely unverifiable descriptions of how much worse it would have been had the eucalyptus been there. If it harms the environment, we will either have to live with it, or spend more $m to mitigate the effects.

The letter was especially surprising since the Senator’s husband, Richard Blum, is a regent of the University of California. Surely, whatever her private feelings on the matter, it would have made sense to avoid the appearance of interfering? Especially in a case where an environmental review has been called for?

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2 Responses to Srsly, Ms. Feinstein?

  1. Nature Lover says:

    None of these projects in the East Bay—those already complete, those funded by the FEMA grants, and those funded by the East Bay Regional Park District—has planted or intends to plant natives in the future after the non-natives are destroyed.

    All of these projects are based on the fallacious assumption that natives will magically reappear once non-natives have been removed. This fallacious assumption is based on a common belief amongst nativists that it is only the existence of non-natives that is causing the disappearance of natives and the corollary assumption that the natives will return if the non-natives are removed.

    These assumptions are inconsistent with reality. USGS scientist Jon E Keeley makes the following observations in Conservation Biology (20:374-384): “Forest fuel reduction programs have the potential for greatly enhancing forest vulnerability to alien invasions….Forest restorations by thinning or burning carries a risk of opening new habitat to alien plant invasion…Aggressive annual aliens are favored by disturbance.”

    These observations were empirically tested by Dr. Scott Stephens (yes, the same Scott Stephens quoted by the webmaster) in chaparral in the northern California coast range. The test was conducted on plots vegetated with native plants prior to the tests. From 95% to 100% of vegetation was removed from test plots by prescribed burns and mechanical methods for three successive seasons. There were more non-native species and fewer native species in the test plots when the experiment was completed. Removing plants using mechanical methods resulted in more non-native species than prescribed burns. This publication is available here:
    http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/stephens-lab/Publications/Potts%20Stephens%20Chap%20Invasives%20BC%205-09.pdf.

    Locally, herbicides are often used to destroy non-native vegetation. So, we must ask if natives are more likely to return without being planted if herbicides are the means of destroying the non-natives. USDA used herbicides on non-natives for 16 years on a test plot of native grassland. After 16 years there were more non-natives in the test plot than in an adjoining control plot that was left alone. Whatever method is used to destroy the non-natives, their removal does not result exclusively in natives. Available here: http://blog.nature.org/2009/09/pesticides-control-invasive-species-matt-mille/.

    Critics of the projects in the East Bay believe that the destruction of non-native trees and plants will result in non-native grasses and weeds unless they are replanted with natives (and aggressively weeded, irrigated, and usually fenced). Nature hates a vacuum. The bare ground WILL be repopulated. Since non-natives are stronger competitors than natives in our current climate and air conditions, they will prevail.

  2. Sutro Resident says:

    Informative post Nature Lover

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