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.
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?