Overview of UC situation
Following more than a decade of public controversy, failed environmental studies and negative court decisions, on appeal, UC Berkeley finally succeeded in removing impediments to its plans to deforest its 900 acres in the East Bay hills, including Strawberry and Claremont Canyons. The First Appellate District Court of Appeals decided in favor of UC’s appeal of an earlier loss in Superior Court. Unless citizens mount a new challenge, UC intends to cut thousands of healthy mature trees, to prepare sites for a million square feet of new construction for its “Hills Campus.” In its litigation, UC claimed the trees represent a risk of fire, despite contrary opinions of fire experts and responsible public agencies, and overwhelming negative public response.
Removing tall trees in the hills began in the early 2000’s, an erroneous response to the 1991 Tunnel Fire, based on the assertion that trees are a major source of potential “fuel.” However, the relationship between trees and ignition, fire heat or fire spread was never established, and nearly all subsequent California wildfires were actually brush and ground fuel fires. Because wholesale deforestation would have major environmental impacts – to habitat, air and water quality, and CO2 emissions – the State required all such projects to comply with California Environmental Quality (CEQA) standards, which included a detailed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and public hearings.
When in 2015 the City of Oakland, East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) and UC revealed their “fuel management” schemes in lengthy presentations, the public response was dramatic; of 13,000 written comments, 90% rejected the proposal. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded by combining the three plans and resubmitting them. This was challenged in court by a citizens’ organization, the Hills Conservation Network (HCN), primarily hills residents and fire survivors, who maintained that tree removal actually increased the risk of fire, rather than mitigating it. This position was supported by authoritative individuals and organizations, and FEMA’s plan was defeated.
The US Forest Service stated the removal of the tall tree overstory “would reduce the amount of shading on surface fuels, increase the wind speeds to the forest floor, reduce the relative humidity at the forest floor, increase the fuel temperature, and reduce fuel moisture.” The National Academy of Sciences said “fuels reduction cannot alter regional wildfire trends . . .managing forest fuels has been ineffective . . . Clearly, these [fuel management] projects have been a waste of time and money . . . “
UC, however, was insistent on clearing the hills, and claimed that its “2020 Long Range Development Plan,” published in 2004, satisfied the EIR requirement concerning environmental impacts, therefore it was free to proceed. This claim was not only rejected, but it revealed the UC’s true motivation: to develop the “Hills Campus,” by adding about a million square feet of new construction, for which removal of the forests would be a necessary first step. Still, UC’s appeal of the court’s rejection was also defeated.
Even so, UC pressed the issue. Recognizing it would not win approval based on the factual merits of its plan, UC reframed and simplified the question before the appeals judges. Instead of discussing risk of fire, or trees’ culpability, UC simply argued that CEQA did not specifically require that the number of trees to be targeted needed to be identified or even estimated – and the judges agreed. HCN argued that without providing anything more than broad guidelines, it was impossible to judge the environmental impact, allowing the plan to become a blank check for unlimited tree removal. This is the current situation.
Within sixty days of notification of this judgement, these litigation options are available: Request a re-hearing of the appeal, request the entire Court of Appeals to hear the matter, or submit the matter to the State Supreme Court; these options do not appear promising. However, it should be recognized that responding to years of pressure, the university has moderated its proposal from the original 100% clearcut plan. This is the opportunity for citizens and HCN to engage with UC, to develop a plan that addresses fire risk, meets UC’s needs, while preserving the environmental quality of our hills. It is time for people like the 13,000 citizens who, years ago, stood up to FEMA, to come together and find a way forward, rather than wake up one day to the hills carved up and paved over.
As for next steps, we will continue to attempt engagement with UC , and we expect to play an active role in the upcoming Oakland vegetation management plan/EIR discussions. The protracted legal battle with UC was not cheap and HCN would be very appreciative of any financial support you might be able to provide.
We’ve accomplished a lot over the past 15 years, and will continue to work to protect and preserve our precious urban forests.