Officials urge removal of eucalyptus from Berkeley, Oakland Hills

Shady eucalyptus trees growing in the East Bay hills could pose a serious fire danger and 12 area elected officials are advocating for federal funding to remove them.

A letter signed by the 12 politicians was delivered to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking funding to remove the trees from Claremont Canyon, an undeveloped area between Strawberry Canyon and state Highway 24 that straddles the University of California at Berkeley campus and the Oakland Hills.

The Claremont Canyon Conservancy distributed the letter and announced Wednesday it had been endorsed by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, state Sen. Loni Hancock, state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, Berkeley City Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak and Oakland City Councilmembers Dan Kalb, Rebecca Kaplan, Larry Reid and Libby Schaff.

UC Berkeley, the East Bay Regional Park District and the city of Oakland have been seeking up to $5.6 million in federal funding to remove the trees in Claremont Canyon and elsewhere since 2005, FEMA officials said. The agency released a draft Environmental Impact Report on the project last year and is expected to release a final version soon.

The eucalyptus trees are an invasive species, planted in the late 19th and early 20th century by two Oakland businessmen as a source of lumber, according to the conservancy. But the trees proved unsuitable for lumber and have spread throughout the hills unabated.

The leaves and bark drape across one tree to another creating a canopy that can spread flames quickly. The trees also drop more dry material than other trees and the oily wood ignites easily, proponents of the plan argue.

The presence of eucalyptus has been cited as one reason that a massively destructive fire spread through the Oakland hills in 1991, killing 25 people, injuring 52 others, and destroying 3,354 houses and 456 apartments.

To remove them, the trees must be cut down and the stumps treated with pesticides immediately as they can sprout back quickly.

During public comment sessions last year, the plan proved controversial, with some advocating against cutting down any trees and objecting to the use of pesticides on the cut stumps.

Proponents argue that removing the eucalyptus will allow other native tree species such as oak and willow to repopulate the areas now dominated by eucalyptus. In fact, they say, some oak sprouts can be found under eucalyptus groves unable to thrive under their shade.

The use of herbicides would not affect that process and would be sprayed in such a way to minimize its impact on surrounding foliage, according to the draft Environmental Impact Report.

Opponents also object to the plan to chip the trees and spread them in the surrounding area, arguing that such a move could create a fire hazard as much as the standing eucalyptus trees.

But the chipped wood would quickly decompose and would not burn easily, according to supporters.

One suggested compromise has been to thin the eucalyptus rather than cut them down, but the conservancy and area elected officials argue that thinning the groves could create an even greater fire hazard and require costly maintenance to keep the trees from spreading.

"Simply thinning the trees will continue to block sun light, consume the limited amount of ground water and not enable the native, less flammable species to regenerate," the 12 elected officials wrote in their letter.

"Furthermore, thinning will enable the Diablo Winds to blow through the eucalyptus more readily, thus enhancing the fire danger and increase the threat to homes in Claremont Canyon and beyond. Thinning also obligates the property owners to years of additional maintenance expense," the letter said.

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