Articles in this section
February 2017 RPA newsletter; Q & A on Vegetation Management for Fire in East Bay Hills, August 2015; March 2015 Newsletter; FEMA Litigation; Big One – History of Fire;The Heart of Wildcat Canyon; Let’s Have Noise; Botanic Garden Controversy of 1965 and Founding of CNPS
REGIONAL PARKS ASSOCIATION
N E W S L E T T E R February 2017
GROWING CONCERNS ABOUT MOUNTAIN BIKES ON NARROW
AND SINGLE TRACK TRAILS
The East Bay Municipal Utility District is currently updating its 25-year old Master Plan, and has been lobbied to allow mountain bikes on four “pilot” trail sections along the Bay Area Ridge Trail between Redwood Park and Crockett Hills. Currently, bikes are not allowed by EBMUD’s Master Plan on watershed lands except for paved trails at Lake Chabot, Lafayette, and San Pablo Reservoirs.
Mountain bikers are working hard to open or create more and more trails on public land in Marin and East Bay Counties, including single track “flow” trails for bike riders who want a more challenging ride.
A new alliance called STEP (Safe Trails, Environmental Protection) has been formed by the Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon, California Native Plant Society, Metropolitan Horseman’s Association, Claremont Canyon Conservancy, and Regional Parks Association, who are deeply concerned about the damage and user conflicts mountain bikes would bring about on highly sensitive EBMUD narrow trails on high ridge watershed lands between Fish Ranch Road and Tilden, and on trails in Huckleberry, Sibley, and Sobrante Regional Preserves.
EBRPD allows mountain bikes on 1,000 miles of multi-use trails, including fire roads and wide trails in almost all its 65 parks, but retains many narrow trails for only walkers, hikers, and equestrians who are using trails at a slower pace. Safety issues are paramount in EBRPD trail designations, as well as for protecting flora and wildlife in sensitive resource areas. We also know that enforcement of trail prohibitions is difficult in areas hidden from officers in patrol cars, but believe setting the correct policy is paramount.
RPA is not against mountain bikes on EBRPD lands, if narrow trails remain for hikers and equestrians only. RPA understands bikers want to emphasize trail connections throughout the Bay Area. But, with 7.5 million residents living in the Bay Area, there are some areas where mountain bike access on narrow trails is not appropriate because of heavy use or the need to protect sensitive resources. We remain steadfast in asserting EBMUD needs to protect its watershed and its hikers who never need to step off a trail to avoid a speeding mountain bike, a luxury not always afforded on EBRPD trails.
Additionally, RPA is concerned about conflicting messages when it comes to mountain bikes on EBRPD trails. On the one hand, in a February 2017 East Bay Monthly article, the Park District’s Trails Development Manager, is quoted as saying “… things are changing in the cyclists’ favor.”… “since there is no way to stop bikes from riding where they want, the Park District can only make it safer to ride.” And, “the Park District, in fact, has publicly promised that it will open-up [its] more of its own trails to cyclists to create connectivity on routes that cross into East Bay MUD land, but EBMUD must go first.” This appears counter to EBRPD policies in Ordinance #38 prohibiting bikes on narrow hiking trails at several Regional Preserves adjacent to EBMUD land.
The Park District’s 2013 Master Plan states that it “will provide a diverse system of non-motorized trails to accommodate a variety of recreational users including hikers, joggers, people with dogs, bicyclists and equestrians. Both wide and narrow trails will be designed and designated to accommodate either single or multiple users based on location, recreational intensity, environmental and safety considerations.”
However, there are several new “single track flow” trails at Crockett Hills specifically designed by a bike consultant, with five single track flow trails with jumps, dips and banked curves – a ride to give thrills to bikers – and chills to a hiker, equestrian or dog walker who might unknowingly wonder onto a mountain bike flow trail when being used by speeding bikers. We are concerned about safety, liability, and about who will maintain these new bike trails in the future. The RPA intends to learn more about these new trails, and will make appropriate comments and suggestions to the Park District later this year.
Google: Crockett Hills Regional Park singletrack – YouTube. To select from a variety of You Tube videos to experience singletrack trail mountain rides. Also, Google: the MTB Project, Highest Rated Featured Rides, Videos and Highest Rated- to experience mountain rides around the State and Country.
Google a few more of the You Tube videos to see what some mountain bikers are hoping to get on public land. It’’s no longer just narrow and multi-use wide trails trails. It’s about:
- Paved Multi-use Trails (all users)
- Unpaved Wide Multi-use Trails (all users)
- Bay Area Ridge Trail (some trail links for mountain bike multi-use, some for just hike/equestrians)
- Narrow Multi-use Trails (hike, horse, and mountain bikes)
- Narrow Hike and Equestrian Trails (hike and horse)
- Narrow Foot Paths (walkers only)
- Singletrack Flow Trails (mountain bikes only)
Obviously location, construction, maintenance, liability, and use of each trail type is different and should be carefully described in each park LUDP/EIR
Suits Filed to Save Tesla Park Acreage
Challenging California State Parks approval to enlarge Livermore’s Carnegie motorcycle park by adding 3400 adjacent Tesla Canyon lands, Friends of Tesla Park – with Center for Biological Diversity and Alameda Creek Alliance – filed a petition in November 2016. SPRAWLDEF, the County of Alameda, and Connolly Ranch also filed petitions; all four suits have been consolidated and filed in Sacramento Superior Count. with expected hearing in the fall of 2017.
“It would be a travesty to allow Tesla’s incredible wildlands, and cultural and historical resources to be destroyed by off-highway vehicles,” said Nancy Rodriguez, of the Friends of Tesla Park. “You only have to look at the environmental devastation at Carnegie to know what will happen to Tesla if it is opened to Off-Highway Vehicles.
EBRPD has recognized the importance of Tesla Park by identifying Tesla as a potential regional preserve in its Master Plan.
RPA has long supported Friends of Tesla’s efforts to protect these rich historical and biologically diverse fragile lands by writing letters, testifying at meetings and with donations.
In the meantime, a coalition of environmental groups has been working on a bill to reform, transform and modernize the OHMVR program. That bill, SB249 which includes better resource protection, was introduced last week by Senator Ben Allen of LA area.
Do Google up “Friends of Tesla Park” and read about the wonderful history and biological resources of Tesla: grinding rocks, rock carvings, site of the 19th century town of Tesla, both red and yellow legged frogs, Tiger Salamander and an incredible 50 LISTED species documented on site.
RPA Board Treasurer Wins EBRPD Board Seat
RPA members were thrilled to wake up November 8 to some great news; our board member/treasurer Dee Rosario won his election for a seat on the East Bay Regional Park District board! Dee retired several years ago after working for EBRPD for over 35 years, as park ranger, firefighter and, for 17 years as Park Supervisor of Redwood Regional Park. Resource preservation is high on his priority list. “I always saw my job as not simply maintaining the park, but healing the creeks, forests, and meadows – bringing things back to nature”, says Dee. He is equally concerned with opening our Parks to all our diverse communities. “I want our Parks to become the centerpiece of our regional environmental, recreational, and sustainable future.”
As pleased as we are, Dee will sorely be missed as an RPA board member.
(RPA Board member Reg Barrett has agreed to become our new RPA treasurer, so please note a new address for mailing RPA dues.)
NEW DIRECTORS ON EBRPD BOARD
Three of the seven seats on the EBRPD board are occupied by new directors.
In addition to Dee Rosario who won retiring member John Sutter’s seat, ex-California Senator Ellen Corbett now fills retired member Doug Siden’s seat. And Colin Coffey was appointed in January.
Corbett served six years in the State Assembly, eight years in the State Senate including as majority leader, until she was termed out in 2014.
As a child she says her visits to the Regional Parks influenced her thinking and made her the environmental advocate she is today. Making sure all children in the East Bay have similar opportunities – to experience nature firsthand, and to learn the importance of protecting our environment, so that they can become future stewards of our parks and open spaces – is high priority for her.
When two-year EBRPD Director Diane Burgis ran and won a Contra Costa County Supervisor’s seat last November, the current EBRPD board members considered 20 applicants for her vacated East County’s Ward 7 seat; they appointed Colin Coffey . He has served on the Park Advisory Committee since 2001, and has volunteered for years as a EBRPD park Ambassador. Coffey is a public health attorney, representing public and nonprofit healthcare providers.
Current president of the board is Beverly Lane, a member since 1994. Others include Ayn Wieskamp, Whitney Dotson, and Dennis Waespi
NEW TRAIL OPENS IN GATEWAY AREA Two hundred and fifty acres deeded to EBRPD as mitigation for the Orinda Gateway-Wilder development now is partly accessible. Interim access for the public leads to a loop trail on land known as the McCosker property, on the eastern side of Sibley-Huckleberry Preserves.
EBRPD is developing a Land Use Plan Amendment to add both the McCosker property and what is being called the Western Hills 390 acres (also Gateway mitigation land) to Robert Sibley Preserve, doubling that Preserve’s 660 acres. Public meetings have been held for input on the McCosker property which is owned by EBRPD; the other acreage is not yet transferred to the District. So far, the overwhelming sense is that the land should be left as natural as possible. Because of the steep terrain, very little land is usable for 250 acres could be used for much other than trails. There is great agreement on the stream restoration project both as environmental repair and as a teaching opportunity for all ages. Discussion of possible overnight camping resulted in the public’s recommendation that only a small walk-in camp be designated. Trails and trail connection were high on everyone’s list. And of course, dogs and mountain bikes were hot topics, too. (See STEP article page 3)
Eventually when the entire 1300 acres are open, there will be multiple access points, including the current ones in Huckleberry and Sibley, a parking and horse-trailer access at the southern end of the Wilder development, from Wilder playfield parking lot and from Pinehurst Road.
NEW RPA BOARD MEMBER
Joe McBride, retired Professor of Environmental Science in the College of Natural Resources, University of California at Berkeley has joined our RPA board. Joe is an expert on urban forestry in the San Francisco area. His expertise will help us grapple with eucalyptus and fire danger issues and restoration of native vegetation.
To – Do list:
Mail $20 RPA dues – 2 Dos Posos, Orinda CA 94563
Write letter to EBMUD saying no bikes on EBMUD trails – Doug Wallace, EBMUD 375 11th Street Oakland, CA 94607-4240 email@example.com
Write letter to Friends of Tesla Park supporting lawsuit with small donation; Friends of Tesla Park PO Box 2502 Livermore, CA 94551 FriendsofTeslaPark@gmail.com
Write letter to EBRPD supporting little or no development on McCosker, no dogs and no mountain bikes within the acreage; Julie Bondurant, EBRPD, 2950 Peralta Oaks Court Oakland, CA 94605-0381 firstname.lastname@example.org
Write letter to EBRPD about your questions/feelings about mountain bikes, special trails, multi-use etc. Address your Board Director, or Sean Dugan, 2950 Peralta Oaks Court Oakland, CA 94605-0381
from the Sierra Club, San Francisco Bay Chapter Questions and Answers about Sierra Club’s Vegetation Management Program for Fire Safety in the East Bay hills
Given the very serious drought conditions facing California, combined with longer and more serious wildfire seasons due to climate disruption, it’s more important than ever to prioritize fire prevention in our vegetation management strategies for the East Bay hills. The Sierra Club has worked closely with fellow environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy to design an ecologically- and fiscally-sustainable model for fire management. This strategy entails removing more flammable and ember generating species like eucalyptus and Monterey pines in phases so that less flammable natives can reclaim those areas and allow a rebound of biodiversity. When it comes to preventing fire, replacing flammable and water-intensive invasives with drought-tolerant native species is the best, safest, and cheapest option.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about this preferred strategy for the care and management of vegetation in the East Bay hills. We hope this document can help correct these misunderstandings and help build support for an approach that would reduce fire risk, encourage healthy ecosystems, and reduce the financial burden on taxpayers.
How did non-natives like eucalyptus get here in the first place?
Non-native eucalyptus trees were introduced to the East Bay hills in the early 1900s by two Oakland businessmen who forested the hills with eucalyptus plantations for hardwood lumber production. The brittle wood proved unsuitable for lumber, however, and the plantations were abandoned and allowed to spread throughout the hills, overwhelming native species and changing the nature of the ecosystem. The result is groves of highly flammable invasives, which can become densely packed at 400 to 900 trees per acre, and can exceed 120 feet in height, with a tendency to dramatically explode when on fire.
What covered the hills before these non-natives were introduced?
Before the introduction of non-natives like eucalyptus and Monterey pines, the East Bay hills were a mix of chaparral, grasslands, and riparian vegetation along streams. Native plants adapted to the local climate over millennia to be drought tolerant and low consumers of water. Natives are also naturally more fire resistant.
Are eucalyptus and Monterey pines a greater hazard than native vegetation?
Yes! Eucalyptus and Monterey pines can leave up to 50 tons of flammable fuel on the ground per acre, as well as deep duff and dense eucalyptus and pine-seedling growth within and around the grove. This compares with one to five tons of fuel per acre in grasslands, native live oak groves, and bay forest. A study conducted by the US Forest Service found that a mature eucalyptus forest in the Berkeley hills contains 8.23 tons per acre of litter while an oak-bay woodland contains a mere 1.71 tons per acre.
Eucalyptus branches, leaves, and bark slough off in long pieces that end up draped on one another, creating a near-optimal mixture of oxygen and fuel. The smooth, aerodynamic bark provides a way for fire to climb into the tree canopy and send burning material aloft. Dead debris can also become suspended between branches, creating a nearly continuous arrangement of fuels — horizontally and vertically.
In Australia, eucalyptus trees are sometimes referred to as “gasoline trees” for their tendency to quickly spread explosive fires. Eucalyptus leaves contain enough oil that it is sold as a product in some countries. The leaves have three times the energy of cellulose, so they burn hotter. Blue gum eucalyptus leaves release volatile chemical gases at relatively low temperatures and ignite easily.
What happens when a eucalyptus catches on fire?
Groves of eucalyptus trees create fuel ladders that spread rapidly into the canopy. When wind-driven wildfire reaches eucalyptus tree crowns, it can spur flames that reach over 150 feet into the air, with burning embers blowing downwind beyond a half mile. Eucalyptus embers also stay lit longer than embers from other vegetation. In contrast, native plants generally grow below 40 feet in height and are more easily controlled in the case of a wildfire.
Do climate disruption and changing weather patterns contribute to fire risk?
Yes. Unfortunately, climate disruption means that the conditions that lead to wildfires are much more common. Temperatures are rising and we’re getting less rain, which means that wildfires are more frequent and more damaging, and wildfire season is longer.
Why can’t we just thin the eucalyptus and other non-natives?
Thinned eucalyptus with understory cleared
While thinning the eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations seems like an appealing compromise, in reality it compounds the problem. Thinning actually denudes hillsides to an even greater extent than removing them altogether, because in order to keep the hills fire safe, it requires regular, wholesale clearing of the understory and hanging debris — including native vegetation. This has to happen on an ongoing basis for the life of the remaining eucalyptus. Then, as trees die, they must be cut down and removed to prevent accidents. Thinning means that the hills will end up being a monoculture with a bare understory — a situation that will not support endangered species.
Won’t removing the non-natives leave a barren landscape?
Restored native grassland and prairie in Redwood Park
Quite the opposite. Hidden among the eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations are native oaks, bays, and willows that are struggling to survive under the canopy. These native species cannot grow to full size beneath the canopy of eucalyptus and Monterey pines.
Oaks, bays, and other native trees present under eucalyptus or pine canopies should be saved during non-native removal. Once non-natives are removed, the natives can get the sunlight and water they need to grow and thrive.
Has the restoration of native landscape been done successfully in our hills?
Restored native vegetation in Claremont Canyon
Yes! When the eucalyptus trees on the south side of Claremont Avenue were removed by the University of California and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, it did not take long for the native trees and shrubs to flourish and become a beautiful native landscape. Drive up Claremont Avenue to Signpost 29. To the right, looking south, is the restored native landscape that was once a eucalyptus forest. Turn and face the opposite direction and you will see the dense forest of eucalyptus suckers that sprouted after the 1972 freeze. Look closer and you will find native bays, oaks, and willows hidden in the eucalyptus shadows.
How do you prevent the eucalyptus from growing back?
Herbicide application on eucalyptus stump
Unfortunately, simply cutting down the eucalyptus trees doesn’t solve the problem. Unless the stumps are disabled, multiple stems or “suckers” will quickly sprout, producing several new trees where only one existed previously. There are various methods to prevent eucalyptus stumps from sprouting. The Sierra Club expects agencies to have an IPM program and does not endorse any particular method, but understands that the costs and benefits of all options must be weighed in order to find a sustainable and fiscally responsible approach.
In some cases, the agency that manages the land will choose to apply an herbicide like Garlon to the eucalyptus stumps to prevent re-growth. In those cases, the herbicide is applied by hand (not sprayed) with a small brush to freshly cut tree stumps. Garlon is similar to store brand treatments sold to the public and has been approved by independent experts. The product has been deemed safe for use in all planned application settings and around natural environments.
What happens to the eucalyptus and pine trees once they are felled?
The tree trunks and branches are ground into chips. The chips themselves decompose and disintegrate rapidly. Fire professionals agree that they do not impose anywhere near the fire hazard of the standing trees.
How does this approach measure up in terms of costs?
Costs of maintaining eucalyptus
The approach endorsed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups is the most cost-effective strategy in the long term. Merely thinning the non-native trees would burden taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in future maintenance costs. Over a period of 20 to 40 years, the costs of regular thinning of non-natives and debris removal can be conservatively estimated at around $250 million. These long-term costs would force agencies like the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District to levy fire-maintenance taxes as high as $200 per household in the East Bay — or else defer maintenance and risk a deadly and destructive fire. On the other hand, once established, native plant communities are much cheaper to maintain.
Remains of the 1991 East Bay hills fire.
Photo courtesy of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Flickr account.
Remember that wildfires are incredibly expensive, both in terms of lives and money. The 1991 East Bay hills fire destroyed over 3,450 homes, killed 25 people, and injured 150 others. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the fire cost $3.9 billion in present-day dollars. Given these stakes, it’s critical to employ the most effective fire-management strategy, and that entails the removal of the highly flammable non-natives.
What about wildlife and endangered species?
The restoration of native vegetation creates healthier ecosystems and promotes greater biodiversity. As the California Native Plant Society wrote in its letter of support for the Sierra Club’s position on fuels management in the East Bay hills, “We recognize the importance of native plant communities and native plant habitats, in the intricate and complex web of life that is our natural world. Our locally evolved flora supports a rich palette of interconnected life, from the insect world to birds, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, fungi, etc.”
The endangered Alameda whipsnake. Photo courtesy the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Flickr account.
Restoration of native vegetation also provides an opportunity for the return of endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion calls for the restoration of whipsnake habitat through the removal of the eucalyptus and restoration of native habitat. Eucalyptus and pine groves, even thinned, do not provide habitat for the endangered whipsnake, and the East Bay hills provide prime habitat areas for this endangered species — but only if the invasive non-natives are removed.
Summary of the Sierra Club’s 3 R’s for Fire Safety
The Sierra Club’s program for vegetation management can summarized as the Three R’s:
Remove fire dangerous eucalyptus, pine, and other non-native trees and other fire dangerous vegetation like French and Scotch broom in selected areas of the East Bay hills considered prime fire dangerous areas;
Restore those areas with more fire safe native trees like bays, oaks, laurels and native grasslands and native flowers species with habitat conversion to take the place of the more fire dangerous eucalyptus and other fire dangerous non-native trees and thereby,
Re-Establish the greater biodiversity of flora and fauna that results from the return of more diverse habitat than exists in the monoculture eucalyptus plantations and also Re-Establish habitat for the Alameda Whip Snake, an endangered species as required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biological Opinion for the recovery of this species in the East Bay Hills.
The Sierra Club 3 R’s Promotes Greater Fire Safety through an ecologically superior approach that is fiscally responsible costing less than the other methods proposed.
Have more questions?
Don’t hesitate to reach out! Call the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter office at 510-848-0800 email@example.com.
Take a Tour of Claremont Canyon where the Claremont Canyon Conservancy has carried out the Three R program. See for yourself what has actually taken place. Contact Norman La Force, Chair, East Bay Public Lands Committee, 510-526-4362.
For More Detailed Information contact Norman La Force at 510-526-4362.
Regional Parks Association NEWSLETTER March 2015
RPA Annual breakfast meeting Cosponsored by East Bay Regional Park District
Saturday, May 23 9:30 a.m. Trudeau Training Center
“The Rising Tide
or How Long Can You Tread Water?”
A conversation about how climate change and rising waters will affect Ebparks’ 49 miles
of Bay shoreline and the Bay itself.
John Takekawa, Research Wildlife Biologist, and principal investigator for a report evaluating sea level rise for SF Bay Tidal Marshes, and Matt Graul, EBRPD Chief of Stewardship, along with Maggie Wenger from BCDC and Kevin Takei, EBRPD’s Shoreline Manager, will lead the conversation on what the future holds and how best can we as individuals and organizations respond to the threat.
We’ll have breakfast as usual and a 3 minute RPA business meeting. Invitations have gone out to 35 East Bay environmental organizations to join us for this event.
RPA launched a new web site in March. It’s a bit like the old one but cleaner design – and much easier to update. The old site, if you ever checked on it, was frozen in time, so to speak. We’ll try on this new site to keep board meeting minutes up to date and post articles about park district and environmental issues. Google it up at Regional Parks Association.org
We’re sorry to have two members retire from the board this year: Martha Breed and Pete Wilson.
We are grateful for the many years they served on the board and hope they will continue to be engaged in RPA’s activities.
The RPA board had Dennis Waespi, new EBRPD board member and Marguerite Young new EBMUD board member, as guests at the January board meeting. Dennis talked about the challenges of spending WW money and getting further grants to purchase and open new land. He cited the continued effort to balance recreational needs and wildlife preservation. Marguerite sees the primary challenges for EBMUD as infrastructure and climate change. She also hopes EBMUD will expand its vision and see itself as a resource agency rather than just a utility. Both Dennis and Marguerite believe in joint stewardship of the greenbelts, golf courses and trail system.
Bob Nisbet, AGM Land Division for EBRPD will be the RPA board’s guest. All are welcome to join us 9:30 a.m. Monday morning, April 6, at the EBMUD Watershed headquarters.
We have a new treasurer – Dee Rosario. Star by your name on address label? Yes, you’ve paid dues this year. But if you haven’t yet paid your 2015 RPA dues, you can mail your $20 to him at RPA, 35 Lost Valley Drive, Orinda, CA 94563.
Thank you, Dee, for taking over this job.
Environmental Concepts Related to FEMA Litigation
– Jerry Kent March 2015
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process currently underway has the media and public completely confused about the fire safety and resource management options in the East Bay Hills. The media coverage about this significant safety and resource management project has mostly focused on the controversy about thinning eucalyptus and pine vs. selectively removing these high-risk planted trees to enable the establishment of the native flora that currently exists on several thousand acres of park and public land in the East Bay Hills.
In our opinion the FEMA EIR did not integrate, adapt, and use natural resource and fire science principles that are relevant to the East Bay Hill’s unique wildland urban setting. The USFWS Biological Opinion represented important natural resource science, but did not result in on site mitigation in project areas for EBRPD, but did for UC and Oakland. The Park District’s requirement to mitigate at some unspecified location with a long-term endowment for management is unacceptable “double dipping” to avoid on-site fire hazard reduction and listed species habitat restoration along the urban interface.
The thinning science used by FEMA was based on large acreage Federal and State softwood conifer forests, and is not reliable as for use as a generic “one solution fits all conditions” in closed canopy blue gum eucalyptus forests in our steep and windy East Bay hills. We also believe that FEMA was intimidated and overly influenced by the fear of litigation, and by eucalyptus advocates who supported a removal of native oak and bay trees and their native understory when intermixed with eucalyptus and pine, but opposed selective removal of eucalyptus, pine, and French broom to allow native vegetation to flourish.
The East Bay Hills have been impacted over the past 100 years by ranchers, cattle grazing, a eucalyptus plantation developer, private and public water companies, residential developers and landowners who have not made their homes defendable, invasive exotic plants, natural plant succession, 80 years of park district development and tree planting projects, and by dense urban development in the hills that was not adequately permitted and regulated by cities in terms of fire safety. These impacts have resulted in a potentially dangerous mix of fuels from flammable homes, planted exotic forests that are now extremely flammable, and increasingly flammable wildland fuels at the urban interface.
We expected the FEMA process would have been the vehicle for establishing clear fire hazard reduction and resource management policy for agencies and residents in the hills. But, in several aspects this flawed FEMA process did not generate either good policy or clarity about alternatives for effective and sustainable vegetation management on public land at the wildland urban interface.
The Biological Opinion rejected the notion that thinned eucalyptus and pine provide suitable habitat for any of the federally protected species, especially the Alameda whipsnake. The Park Districts insistence on thinning eucalyptus and pine may have caused the USFWS and FEMA to overlook on-site mitigation opportunities at park action acres and all connected (interconnected) action acreage. Ironically, almost all of the existing or proposed projects where eucalyptus and pine have been or will be selectively removed have been mapped by the USFWS as native-like vegetation and excellent whipsnake habitat. This fact alone demonstrates the mutually beneficial relationship of native vegetation being maintained to aid fire fighters in stopping wildfire along the East Bay Hill high ridge and urban interface- while also creating critical habitat. Managing for fire hazard reduction, native vegetation, and Alameda whipsnake may be the only practical way to ensure that designated high-risk ridgetop lands at the urban interface are maintained in perpetuity for these three essential purposes.
We believe FEMA and the Park District prefer to provide mostly off-site mitigation, possibly elsewhere on existing lands where fire hazard reduction objectives are not as important. We object to the existing USFWS mitigation measure that requires the Park District to have a compensation plan for the purchase, preservation, and management in perpetuity of at least 386.2 acres of core scrub habitat at some unspecified location with a long-term endowment for management. This approach would be unacceptable “double dipping” by avoidance of on-site fire hazard reduction and resource mitigation along the urban interface, and by assigning mitigation benefits to another parkland area that is already protected. We believe that all mitigation should occur within already identified UCB, Oakland, and Park District projects, or within nearby areas of identified critical habitat. This is the correct location for requiring ongoing management of public lands in perpetuity to reduce wildfire risks for 100,000 residents living in the East Bay Hills.
During the past 10-year Park and FEMA planning processes, mainstream environmental groups advocated that fuel reduction and urban wildfire risk reduction should and can be simultaneously achieved while establishing native vegetation that is compatible with habitat-conserving goals. On March 27, 2009, the Environmental Green Paper was prepared by the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the Golden Gate Audubon Society to document our view about how best to meet the twin goals of managing the urban edge to enhance and preserve habitat for native plants and wildlife species while reducing the threat of catastrophic fire at the interface.
The 2006 Park District vegetation inventory provided the vegetation baseline for the FEMA EIS, USFWS Biological Opinion, and the Park District 2010 Plan EIR. The 2006 inventory identified 11,036 acres of major native plant communities that included:
3,675 acres of coast live oak/California bay,
2,440 acres of woodland succession,
1,688 acres of annual grassland,
1,505 acres of shrubland,
1,023 acres of shrub succession,
474 acres of redwood,
91 acres of bay woodland,
30 acres of riparian wetland
Native vegetation and native woodlands are generally below 40’ in height, and are less prone to unmanageable fire behavior. The recommended strategy for reducing exposure to residential areas from wildfire coming from wildland vegetation, including shrubland, is to create and maintain residential-edge fuelbreaks of sufficient width in combination with homeowner defensible space to provide safe access for firefighters defending ember resistant homes. We understand that residential edge fuelbreaks have historically been used by the Park District to aid in the protection of homes that exist along park Western boundaries and on high ridge lands above residential areas. However, we objected to the conversion of healthy native shrubland to create 1,187 acres of new weedy annual grassland that will likely be maintained by goat grazing. All annual grasslands in current and future managed fuelbreaks should be restored to native-like flora with increased levels of native annual and perennial grasses, and with low growing native forbs that will provide reliable whipsnake habitat in sustainable low growing native-like plant communities, and when established reduce long term maintenance costs.
The 2006 Park District vegetation inventory also identified 2,388 acres of planted forests:
1,862 acres of planted eucalyptus,
341 acres of planted pine or mixed conifers,
185 acres of planted mixed eucalyptus and conifer forests
The recommended strategy for reducing ember exposure to residential areas from wildfire coming from eucalyptus and pine forests is to either thin overly dense vegetation (sometimes 400 to 1,500 stems per acre when there should be about 60) to a safe and maintainable density or to selectively remove eucalyptus and pine trees to allow thinned native trees and shrubs to blend into the type of adjacent native vegetation noted above. The Park District “gamed” the FEMA EIS process by intentionally removing its eucalyptus and pine from its final FEMA grant-funding request, thereby essentially removed most of its eucalyptus and pine polygons from the EIS review process. FEMA, still attempted to force UC and Oakland to thin their eucalyptus and pine “like the Park District” in their very different self-mitigating project areas. FEMA was negligent in not including all eucalyptus and pine work in the EIS to analyze site-by-site the most costly and controversial issue in the Fire Hazard Reduction EIS. FEMA and UCB representatives struggled during the EIS process with FEMA seemingly overly influenced by both the Park District and Hills Conservation Network. HCN has also used elements in its settlement with the Park District to publically challenge UC and Oakland efforts to remove and not thin eucalyptus and pine while converting to native understory trees and shrubs.
FEMA’s vegetation inventory on University and Oakland project areas included eucalyptus and pine on an additional 406 acres. Within the FEMA 2,059 acres covered by the EIS, UCB will remove approximately 11% of the eucalyptus and pine stems and treat stumps, Oakland will remove approximately 5%, and the Park District will remove approximately 84%. Yet, we have seen a relentless focus and attack on UCB’s projects that totaled only 11% of the tree work in FEMA. The major tree and resource management difference is UCB and Oakland will end up with manageable native trees and their understory shrubs, and the Park District will end up with thinned eucalyptus and pine plantations and few or no understory shrubs.
FEMA’s consultants noted that their fire modeling for FEMA funded projects focused on hazardous fuel reduction rather than the characteristics of native versus non-native species. Claiming neutrality, and limiting scientific fire behavior descriptions to fuel models developed for American tree species in large forested areas has resulted in leaving the public confused about what the fire science is really saying. It serves no purpose for the EIS to report that shrubland can produce 64’ flames when blue gum eucalyptus can produce 8’ to 20’ flames implying that eucalyptus must be safer than native shrubland. Native versus non-native fire hazard comparisons have and will continue to be made, but FEMA should forcefully address the controversy by emphasizing the information in the EIS. Section 5.2 states that one of the objectives of proposed and connected action projects is to reduce torching and crown fire in canopy groups of trees such as eucalyptus and Monterey pine because these (planted non-native) trees can cast off burning embers for up to 2,000 feet in distance. The FEMA EIS identified only two tree species (eucalyptus and pine) that were a threat to 4,590 homes over such great distances. A second objective in the FEMA EIS is to reduce flame lengths to below 8’ in project areas near homes. Several proposed and connected action projects focus on achieving a significant reduction in shrublands (mostly natives) near homes in fuelbreaks that would be converted to grasslands or a mosaic of native shrubs and grass in maintained potential treatment areas (fuelbreaks) along the residential interface. In all cases, the projected homes at risk above are at the leading edge to wildfires coming from public lands that could spread further in residential areas, as did the 1991 fire.
FEMA has had a difficult time integrating fire and resource science for eucalyptus and pine fire trees in a way that would lead to sound and sustainable vegetation management projects. However, we have observed several recent Park District and Cal Trans eucalyptus thinning projects (Alvarado, Tilden MGR, Chabot Campground, Highway #24 Caldecott Tunnel), and find them to leave a sterile monoculture with a bare understory that will not support listed species, and will be costly to maintain, repeatedly thin as trees mature, and then to remove very large trees when they became hazardous.
Apparently FEMA and its consultants did not observe successful Park District and University projects where eucalyptus and pine were removed for road safety or fire hazard reduction purposes at Frowning Ridge in Tilden, Lake Chabot Road, Canon Drive in Tilden, Sibley Island along Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Shasta Road in Tilden, and above the Tilden Golf Course between Golf and Redwood trails. The University has also successfully worked with the Park District at Frowning Ridge, and with the Claremont Canyon Conservancy to selectively remove eucalyptus and pine along the south side of Claremont Avenue. We believe thinning is a short-term solution when selective removal is the correct solution for both fire hazard reduction and conversion to native species and habitat at significantly lower long-term costs. We are surprised that FEMA would ever support growing large Monterey Pine after paying $1,000,000 to helicopter dead pines off of Oakland hillsides after the 1991 fire.
Thinning sounds like a harmless concept, but we now understand what’s intended and have observed several local eucalyptus thinning projects. Environmental groups reject the notion that typical Sierra softwood forestry thinning is the correct model for managing EBRPD, UC, or Oakland blue gum eucalyptus trees when there is a native understory, within or near listed species, within 1972 freeze areas of coppice suckers, for safety reasons along public roads or power lines, and where a native woodland, grassland or shrubland should be established to meet both fire hazard reduction and natural resource management goals.
We don’t endorse generic one solutions for all conditions prescriptions like “thinning” and favor site-specific analysis that is grounded in the best possible science. In practice, that means that any one given eucalyptus or pine grove will be managed for its unique characteristics to achieve fire safety, conversion to native plant habitat, or made safe for public use.
We believe the highest priority fuel management and whipsnake habitat projects for UCB, Oakland, and the Park District are along the ridge and along the west-facing slope at the urban wildland interface. In our opinion, the following projects contain the highest priority acres to be are maintained in perpetuity for both fire hazard reduction and as habitat for native species.
UCB– 250.85 acres in Table 20, USFWS Biological Opinion page 118
Oakland– 62.9 acres in Table 21, USFWS Biological Opinion page 119
EBRPD- 1,177 acres of Park District Polygons including: AC006, AC007, CC002, CC003, CC004, CC006, CC008, CC009, CCOO10, CC011, CC012, KG001, LC009, LC010, LE004, LE005, RD001, RD002, RD003, RD004, RD005a, RD005b, SR001, SR002a, SR002b, SR003, SROO4, SR005, SR006, SROO7, TI003, TI004, TI005, TI006, TI007a, TI007b, TI007c, TI009, TI010, TI011, TI012, TI013, TI014, TI015, TI016, TI017, TI018, TI019, TI020, TI022, WC001, WC002, WC003, WC004, WC006, WC007a, WC007b, WC009, WC010, WC011.
FEMA’s role should be to provide grant funding that was awarded 10 years ago after completing its grant related Environmental Impact Statement, and after requiring appropriate mitigation. The competitive FEMA grants that were awarded in 2005 and 2006 described projects in the following way.
UCB submitted two grant applications for 56.3 acres in Strawberry Canyon and 42.8 acres in Claremont Canyon to reduce the amount of fuel available to support wildfires by eliminating eucalyptus and other invasive, non-native trees from these areas. Oak and bay trees and other native vegetation present under the larger non-native trees would be preserved and encouraged to expand.
Oakland’s application includes six projects totaling 359 acres on property owned by Oakland, UCB, and EBRPD. In its two projects Oakland would seek to eliminate eucalyptus and other non-native, fire promoting trees while preserving native trees and giving them room to grow.
EBRPD’s application proposed reduction of fuel loads on 540 acres in 11 regional parks. The Park District would reduce fuel loads primarily by promoting conversion of dense scrub, eucalyptus forest, and non-native pine forest to grassland with islands of shrubs. Oak and bay trees would be preserved.
We note the similarity of the original grant project descriptions; and question by whom, when, and why changes were made to approved grant projects during the FEMA process.
Environmental groups oppose the attempt by FEMA to remove grant funding ($167,000 to $600,000) for Frowning Ridge at this late date in a long drawn out 10-year review process. In 2014, UCB selectively removed eucalyptus trees on Frowning Ridge, and the Park District removed 29 large trees and thinned 34 acres of eucalyptus along Wildcat Road in Tilden. Both were in areas covered by the EIS, but only UCB funding was removed in the final EIS. Withdrawing awarded grant funds for any agency fire hazard reduction project above homes and along high ridge lands will not make hill residential areas safer, and will undermine implementation of legally required USFWS mitigation requirements for the benefit of endangered and threatened species.
The Big One – History of Fire in California
– Jerry Kent
The past 40 years have witnessed remarkable changes in American fire policy,
institutions, sciences, and practices. Yet the standard history book, Fire in America by
Stephen J. Pyne, ends in the 1970s. The U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior,
and the Joint Fire Science Program have funded a sequel study that will survey fire
history from 1960 to 2011. Several book chapters from the sequel study (including the
following draft about historic 1906 and 1991 bay area fires) are posted on the ASU
website under A Fire History of America (1960-2011)
Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University,
specializing in environmental history, the history of exploration, and the history of fire.
§ Until modern times city and country had always shared fires. American cities were typically rebuilt
forests and burned with the panache and patterns of their surroundings. Countryside’s were shaped by the
demands of cities, both near and far, with slashed landscapes more prone to explosive fires. The same
winds blew over both. The same logic of protection led each to prevent errant sparks, build firebreaks, and
quench flames quickly.
During the frontier era, the two realms blurred. Then each matured and the fire scene calmed, as
conflagrations disappeared from metropolis and were harnessed into the tamed rhythms of rural
burning. More recently, in what might be termed a pyric postmodern phase, an outmigration of urban folk
has begun recolonizing the countryside. This new frontier broke down the firewalls that had separated
urban from wildland fire. The intermixing stirred by sprawl occurred everywhere, but it happened with
particular vehemence in California, and most spectacularly, it burned. Urban fire returned, like an ancient
plague once thought extinct and now revived in a more virulent mutation. City and countryside had to cope
with fire along their shared fringe.
That was true north as well as south. The San Andreas fault is less a geologic cut, neatly cleaving the crust
into two sides, than a swarm of breaks as deep stresses release their strain and ripple through heterogenous
rock. Even so, two regions along its complex trace stand out. To the south the swarm flexes into the
Transverse Range. To the north a parallel fault swarm, highlighted by the massive Hayward fault, doubles
the zone. The San Andreas proper runs to the west, and its echo, the Hayward, to the east. San Francisco
Bay lies between them. The two dominant urban fires that frame California’s fire century face each other
with one of those faults at their back.
In the three centuries that span from Jamestown to San Francisco’s immolation, a westering population had
hastily erected towns and then watched them burn. The process of squeezing flame out of cityscapes came
slowly and fitfully. Boston and New York continued to burn well into the 19th century. Only as buildings
became less combustible (more brick and stone than wood), as flame became less abundant in daily life,
and as firefighting became better organized did conflagrations reluctantly leave the metropoli and join
footloose folk on the frontier. The last major urban fire on the East Coast was Baltimore’s in 1904. San
Francisco’s fire two years later was the final conflagration of the settlement era.
Historians have come to think of the 20th century as a “short century,” defined by the onset of the Great
War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1991. For fire history the corresponding events are the San
Francisco conflagration of 1906 and the Oakland holocaust of 1991. The two cities pair off across the Bay;
so, too, they bookend a century. They are the Big Ones that haunt the imagination of California fire. They
were big not because of geographic size but because they slammed into cultural centers that could register
the shock. They killed. They incinerated, for the one, the major entrepot of the western U.S. and, for the
other, an elite community. They were fires that burst through nightmare into fact.
§ In many ways San Francisco’s fire history echoed that of the nation. The embryonic city was incinerated
on Christmas Eve of 1849. The next year three fires swept through what was a high-order mining camp
masquerading as a town. In 1851 the Great Fire destroyed three-fourths of the city, the same proportion as
the 1906 fire. What the fire missed, a second fire claimed later in 1851. Then, as the city passed through
its accelerated adolescence, its fire scene settled down. Outbreaks more resembled episodes of domestic
violence or saloon brawls than out-in-the-streets rioting. The big fires moved out to prospect the
The mature city erected less combustible buildings and disciplined fires through a vigorous fire
department. Paradoxically, without major burns to cleanse the cityscape – a kind of creative destruction –
the city housed more and more relic structures from its wooden age. In October 1905 the National Board
of Fire Underwriters investigated San Francisco and reported that 90% of the city’s structures were wooden
framed. No other major metropolis approached that figure, but then no other had progressed so suddenly
from canvas tents to an edifice complex with monuments such as the Ferry Building and new City
Hall. Only 54 years before, the city had consisted of surveyor stakes in windswept grass. When, at 5:12 am
on the morning of 18 April 1906, the San Andreas ruptured and sent earth waves rolling across the Bay
area, like a hurricane driving high seas before it, the city was vulnerable to fire; but it was not living on a
knife-edge of conflagration. Rather than slow down settlement, or compel rebuilding to national codes, the
city had relied on its fire department to halt fires before they became large. For decades that strategy had
worked because the number of fires was small and access relatively easy. An earthquake, however,
changed that calculus. It kindled many ignitions, its rubble and ruptures checked movement, and it broke
water mains. Firefighting alone might not succeed, and in fact, in the hands of the military and vigilantes
who eventually took over the process, it proved fatally flawed as dynamited buildings and clumsy back
burns almost certainly encouraged fire spread.
Given the density of the built landscape, it did not take much for stubbornly established fires to take out
city blocks and then most of the city. A former chief geologist of the USGS, G.K. Gilbert, was in Berkeley
when the tremors struck. On Friday he took the ferry across the Bay and recorded the fire’s
movement. “The westward progress of the fire north of Market Street has been checked chiefly by
backfiring at Van Ness Avenue. The houses opposite were blistered and had glass broken, and at one place
the fire broke across, to be checked at Franklin St. Backfiring is in progress N. of Pac. Avenue, and
apparently being carried to the waterfront. From this the fire rushes up the slope of Russian Hill,
consuming block after block of houses – chiefly of wood. The flames work with wonderful speed. While I
lingered, whole squares were consumed. An hour is probably enough to raze a square of wooden
houses.” Ever the scientist – when the tremors had awakened him, while still in bed he began timing the
shocks and analyzing their direction by the swing of the chandelier – he measured the burning time for a
two-story house. “Roof gone in 7’; first falling of wall in 9’; flaming ruins in 12’.”[ii]
This was primarily a fuel-and-ignition fire. The April weather was warm and fog-free, but California’s
parching summer had not started, the city was not gripped by drought, and the winds were mild. Synoptic
systems moved through the region, slightly out of phase with the fires. There was an episodic easterly
breeze, and the first day, Wednesday, the winds shifted confusingly between damp northwest and dry east
flows. The second day saw the winds blow from the east, drying the scene and driving fire away from the
Bay. On Friday the northwestlies returned. On Saturday it rained. There were terrain effects, notably as
fires moved up San Francisco’s fabled hills. But mostly what propelled the burn was the density of
available combustibles and the abundance of ignitions – those that started the initial outbreaks and those set
deliberately or ineptly in attempts to stop it. The critical winds were apparently those created by the fire
The 1906 fire was a plume-dominated conflagration, as Jack London reported from the scene. “It was dead
calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west,
north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an
enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and
night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was
the suck.” When it ended, all that survived was “the fringe of dwelling-houses on the outskirts of what was
once San Francisco.”[iii]
The defining event was neither fuel nor wind but a 7.9 earthquake that overwhelmed the fire protection
system of the day. Too many fires, too little water, too much social chaos – that was the fire triangle that
shook San Francisco to its foundations. For the rest of the 20th century urban fires in developed countries
followed a similar scenario. It took earthquakes, wars, or riots to break down the built landscape and its
social infrastructure sufficiently to where it could carry fire. As the century progressed, the San Francisco
scene was turned inside-out as urban fire moved to the fringe and left an incombustible core. Cities were
subject to occasional catastrophes in high-density structures but no longer to free-burning conflagrations.
The final tally reckoned 4.7 square miles burned – 508 city blocks, or 2,832 acres. Some 28,188 structures
were lost (88% of them wooden). The official roster of fatalities was 700, but observers believe the likelier
total ran between 2,000 and 3,000 lives. The official narrative deliberately turned away from the
earthquake as cause, since it was a geologic precondition that residents could do nothing about, to the fire,
which they could. For the next century the city that had begun in a de facto fire rush ceased to burn.
§ Refugees poured across the Bay into Oakland. The saga of Oakland’s fire history thus began as an
aftershock of San Francisco’s. The newcomers met a fire scene not unlike San Francisco’s before it
urbanized. The landscape consisted of grassy hillsides dappled with copses of trees, often redwoods,
nestled near springs. The golden hillsides burned regularly and harmlessly. As long as the city lined the
wharf or served as an outpost to San Francisco and Berkeley, its urban fires were those typical of wooden
towns everywhere. What changed the dynamic was when houses moved up the hills.
The East Bay was a miniature Transverse Range. The Hayward fault shouldered up an embankment of
hills. A seasonal wind, known as the Diablo since it flowed past Mount Diablo, a prominent monadnock,
was a northern Santa Ana ready to spill over that height. Settlement evolved sentiments to preserve the
framing hills and East Bay backcountry as natural preserve. All this replicated the basics that made the
Southern California fire scene so explosive, and as the city crept from the Bay to the Hills, it promised to
recreate the south’s cataclysmic fires. What checked this scenario, however, was the absence of the highoctane
chaparral that made blowing-and-going fires along the Transverse unstoppable. The Oakland Hills
had annual grasses, savanna oaks, and riparian redwoods. Fires might be frequent and annoying; they
would not be ruinous.
While San Francisco hastily rebuilt, in Oakland refugees became residents, and the city grew as an
alternative. By 1910 it had ballooned to a population of 150,000. Developers – the new 49ers of California
prosperity – knew “good sign” when they saw it. On the Hills, arrayed like an amphitheater that looked out
on the Bay and San Francisco, they erected the Claremont Hotel, platted some 13,000 acres of land for
suburbs, and began softening the windy grasslands with trees, shrubs, and ornamentals including broom
that would add color, texture, and privacy, and (so they argued) might serve as fire windbreaks. They
planted Monterey pine, a native from the Coast Range to the south. They planted eucalypts, an exotic from
Australia. And, as easy money ebbed and flowed, they planted houses.
Settlement encouraged two trends. One filled up wildland with city, the other, cityscape with trees. Before
settlement some 2% of Oakland is estimated to have been in woods. Between 1910 and 1913 the primary
developer, Frank Havens, afforested some one and eight million eucalypts, mostly around the
outskirts. The City Beautiful movement encouraged internal plantings. By the late 1950s roughly 21% of
Oakland was treed. As the city spread outward, it absorbed more of its adjacent wildlands, or more
accurately, open space. In the mid-1930s probably half of the nominal city was vacant when citizens
organized a tax district to support a system of parks. By 1988 only 20% remained open, and that was
secured under the auspices of the East Bay Regional Park District. The “wildlands” claimed the hills and
their backsides. The city spread below. The two trajectories – houses and trees – crossed in 1988.[iv]
What joined the two realms was the Diablo wind. What did not join them was the kind of common
administrative fire service developed by the contract counties of the south, the California Department of
Forestry, or the U.S. Forest Service. The East Bay thus evolved a diminutive echo of the Southern
California scene, with a regional park system taking the place of national forests, but it did so without
comparable fire institutions. Alameda County did not evolve along the model of the Los Angeles County
Fire Department in which a single agency had to fuse fires from both wildlands and cities. Oakland
remained, proudly, an urban fire department. It had the only apparatus capable to attacking a high-rise fire
in the East Bay. It did not have air tankers.
§ As its landscape changed, so did the character of its fires. When Oakland was a wharf with back streets
of shops and saloons, “recurring fires…almost every year swept over the hills,” according to the Oakland
Tribune. They did to the grasslands what sailors did to their ships each year when they careened and
cleaned them of barnacles. As settlement pushed further up the Hills, flames and city clashed and fires
ceased to be seasonal nuisances and became historic milestones.
On September 27, 1923 a Diablo wind drove flames through the Berkeley Hills and into the campus of the
University of California. Some 3,100 acres and 584 houses burned. Ten years later a Diablo-driven fire
scorched a thousand acres and five homes. In 1946 another thousand acres burned. While the early
Diablos identified “smokers” as a cause, the newer ones charged arsonists. Meanwhile smaller fires under
the influence of westerly winds burned 10, 30, and in one exceptional instance, 700 acres. These were big
numbers for a city but negligible for grassy wildlands. Then, in 1970 after a hard frost had killed many
blue gum eucalypts and rained litter over the landscape, a Diablo wind powered fire through 204 acres and
37 houses. It was the first outbreak in what became the statewide 1970 fire siege.
Alarm among the wildland fire community was acute. The nearby UC Berkeley, after all, hosted one of the
premier forestry and fire science programs in the country. When drought and frost returned in 1977, the
prospects for East Bay fire found its way into congressional testimony. What boosted concern was the
character of the settlement along and under the summit of the Hills. These were the residencies of the East
Bay elite, the Northern California equivalent to Malibu or the Hollywood Hills, even if they were more
likely to house Nobel Laureates than movie stars. They made conflagrations the celebrity fires of the Bay
Area. A small but damaging fire in 1980 kept the pot boiling. A scheme to establish a DMZ between
parklands and city was deemed both damaging and ineffective, but led to a Blue Ribbon Fire Prevention
Committee, chaired by William Penn Mott (later director of the National Park Service), which issued its
report in 1982 and recommended a fuelbreak, although tempered by aesthetic considerations. Still, much
as with San Francisco prior to 1906, fire’s threat remained more vivid than its reality.
Then came the fire of the century. On October 20 the Oakland fire department knocked down a fire that
started as a warming or cooking campfire amid a spot of pine near Marlborough Terrace. Crews mopped
up by soaking the perimeter lines. The next day, while on site and rolling up hoses, the still-smoldering hot
spots disgorged embers, the flames got into patches of Monterey pine litter untouched by hose lines. The
rekindled fire raced up a largely grassy slope to the ridgeline. There the Diablo wind caught it, and the fire
blew up. With stunning speed it burned out the basin below Grizzly Peak. It burned through the Parkwood
Apartments. It burned out the Hiller Highlands. It burned out Grandview Canyon. It burned over
Highway 24. In the first hour it consumed 790 structures, each of which scattered new sources of
ignition. What became known as the Tunnel fire spotted over Lake Temescal. It burned through the
Rockridge District. When the Diablo winds finally slackened and northwesterly winds returned, the main
front – a swarm of new ignitions, building after building – headed southeastward into Forest Park. A new
index of fire spread, homes burned per hour, made its appearance. Before the orgy of burning ended, 3,354
houses and 456 apartments were ash, and 25 people had died. Total area burned amounted to 1,600
acres. It was America’s worst urban fire disaster since 1906.[v]
§ A cataclysm this horrific scatters reports and after-action reviews like spot fires. This one sparked
reviews at all levels of government, from citizen groups to the National Fire Protection Association, from a
mayoral task force to California OES to NFPA and FEMA. As with all major disasters the surveys
identified many causes, most of which had to happen together to produce results so far off the scale. Those
factors that governed fire behavior fell into two general categories. One pertained to the fire environment;
the other, to fire suppression capabilities.
There could be little dissent from the observation that the East Bay Hills were a prime natural setting for
fire. A mediterranean climate, seasonal foehn winds, terrain that could channel fire like a coal chute, and
pyrophytic vegetation that encrusted the hillside – such conditions would argue for fire anywhere they
appeared. That the fire occurred amid a drought and an epidemic of sudden oak death, after frosts that
killed eucalypts, then a record hot spell, worsened the circumstances; yet the values were “extreme, not
exceptional,” and even the exotic flora only acted as an accelerant by allowing embers to kindle surface
fuels and fling sparks from torching eucalypts. The “wildland” fire, however, had burned upslope toward
the summit, not through the structures; and in the end, the canyon’s flora survived better than its
structures. The fuels that mattered were the houses and especially their wood-shingle roofs. So close
where the houses that they burned one to another, and so combustible were the roofs that they both received
sparks and recast them into the wind. The character of the quasi-natural setting allowed the fire to
start. The character of the city allowed it to spread.[vi]
The capacity to fight the fire was badly compromised. After decades of boom, Oakland went bust in the
1970s. City services decayed, among them the capacity to maintain the kind of varied fire protection
demanded by the mix of landscapes within the city. Over and again, the urban fire service failed to
integrate with wildland counterparts. It did not know of the red-flag warning posted by CDF for the day of
the fire. It did not understand how mopup in wildland fuels differs from overhaul in buildings. It did not
appreciate how a city, full of internal firewalls, might be breached from the perimeter and find itself
assaulted not from the streets but from the air. It had not reckoned with fire-induced power failures that
neutralized pumping stations. It had not adopted ICS, and could not function seamlessly with assisting
agencies. It could not communicate on common radios (CDF officers resorted to telephoning
dispatchers). It had three-inch hydrants, while adjacent cities used national standard two-and-a-half. But
even if compatibility had been perfect, the fire would have likely bolted away because it was moving faster
than a fire department ever could. Something else intervened to break down the response.
That something was the wind. It did for Oakland what the earthquake had done for San Francisco. It
simply overwhelmed the capacity to respond. The OES report noted haplessly that “a fire burning 400 or
more homes per hour does not allow for normal fire-fighting tactics – either urban or wildland.” Even
mutual aid requires time to muster engines, planes, and personnel. In the first hour 790 homes
burned. Within two hours the conflagration had reached perhaps 80% of its final size. The narrow streets
soon clogged with traffic and fleeing residents. It was not possible to move people and cars out as fast as
the fire moved in. Converging fire engines met outgoing civilian autos. There was no Maxwell’s demon in
the box canyon to sort them out. There was no single flaming perimeter or high-rise to focus the action,
only hundreds of individual fires – the firefight as melee.[vii]
The subsequent committees, panels, boards, and task forces published hundreds of recommendations,
ranked by priorities. Some involved simple changes in protocol (eg, getting daily fire weather). Many,
however, required costly retrofitting, either by the city or residents in the Hills (such as refitting hydrants
and burying powerlines). Given the parlous state of Oakland’s finances, only a fraction could be
enacted. But perhaps the most critical need was simply institutional: the East Bay needed the fire
equivalent of its municipal utility district, or what Southern California had found with its county-CalFire-
Forest Service triumvirate. The South Coast, however, had a few big, wealthy entities; the East Bay had
many, smaller, and poorer ones. Even the 100,000-acres regional parklands distributed that largesse among
Still, the reconstruction went forward. The neighborhoods rose from the ash, with better fire protection
built in. After several stumbles, the East Bay Regional Park District was voted bonding authority in 2010
to expand. A Hills Emergency Forum gathered the various constituencies into a common conversation. A
memorial – shaped like a gutted house with a missing roof – was erected at the intersection of Highways 13
and 23. The scars, both environmental and social, slowly healed. Ten years later the HEF sponsored a
review, and another 10 years later.
The threat remained dormant, not dead. A million people crowded against the Hills in polyglot patches,
perhaps 70% of them newly arrived since 1991. Parks claimed 10% of the landscape, a number that would
rise. The municipal economy remained feeble. The Diablo still blew. Someday another Big One would
shake the Hills.
§ It seems the worst expression of pedantry to fuss over labels and classifications in the face of such
calamity. Yet nine days shy of ten years after the Tunnel fire the Twin Towers burned, identifying a new
urban fire threat. How that problem was defined led to a decadal war on terror that bled the country white
and may have increased rather than diminished its security. Definitions matter.
What kind of fire burned the East Bay Hills in 1991? Was it an urban fire, a wildland fire, or an
intermixing of the two? Did it follow a Northern or Southern California scenario? Did it result from
breakdowns in fire departments, or from a social fracturing that made the ability to control fire – long
considered the very essence of civilization – too difficult? Were the parklands along the Hills a threat to
the city, or the city to the parklands? Did the fire’s narrative pivot on blue gums prone to torching, or on
shake-shingle roofs receptive to firebrands? What witch’s brew of poisons and social incantation actually
stirred in the canyons’ cauldron? How the problem was defined would decide what solutions were
suitable. People would argue over fixes because they disagreed over causes.
Most early commentators, including myself, saw the Tunnel fire as an example of the emerging intermix
fire scene. They looked at the gusty summit where wind and housing, stacked like cordwood, met, and
shuddered. They likened the catastrophe to the 1990 Painted Cave fire that swept disastrously into Santa
Barbara. To their credit many East Bay parks people, often staffed with early-retired fire officers from the
Forest Service, recognized the potential for fires to bolt out of open lands into the city and exercised
leadership in creating something like the consortia that had evolved to the south. Many, too, had long
experienced the arduous and eccentric politics of public involvement. Patiently, yet with a sense of
urgency, they applied those lessons to the Hills.
Yet closer inspection reveals the Tunnel fire as an urban fire. The wildlands were adjacent, but their only
contribution, after a fashion, was the Diablo wind, which would blow with or without dedicated
parklands. The fundamental problem was that the city had planted structures, as earlier developers had
eucalypts, where they didn’t belong, and then did so in ways that violated even urban fire standards. If the
outcome didn’t look like an urban fire, it’s because the character of urban settlement had changed. San
Francisco filled up its hills until the entire tip of the peninsula was built over. The Pyne clan arrived during
the gold rush, and a family story holds that the patriarch once won Nob Hill in a poker game before
declaring that “nothing will ever live up there but the goats” and trading the deed away for something
usable (a case of whiskey). In reality, the goats were driven off, and the hills populated by flocks of
wooden houses. Oakland (and sister cities like Berkeley) kept the goats. They mixed pyrophytic
landscaping with the wooden houses, and had a backcountry from which fire and wind could come. San
Francisco was how cities developed in the early 20th century. The Oakland Hills was how they developed
near the end of the century.
The prime mover is the push for high-end urban development, of which proximity to quasi-natural settings
with expansive views are valued amenities. That is why the frontier between city and park exists and why
quarreling is interminable about tradeoffs regarding trees and houses. The story demonstrates, however,
why California has the fire management system it does. Whatever the starting point, if the site is south of
the San Andreas, or its East Bay offset, the Hayward, the pressures will drive the outcome to the same
responses. If those measures fail, the fires will follow.
September 11, 2011 /[pdf]
Acknowledgements: I am the beneficiary of an extraordinary effort, organized by John Swanson and the
East Bay Regional Parks, to educate me in the saga of fire in the Hills. I was privileged to hear analyses by
Jerry Kent, Cheryl Miller, Ken Blonski, Rosemary Cameron, Leroy Griffin, and Peter Scott, and to visit the
site in the field with John and Bill Nichols. A crowded day but an exceptionally instructive one, which left
me with the belief that the only contribution I might make was to shift the terms of context. My thanks to
them all. I was impressed with their resolve as much as with their knowledge.
[i] I rely on Philip L. Fradkin’s comprehensive The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (University
of California Press, 2005); for figures see pp. 9-10, 37.
[ii] Gilbert, April 20, 2906, Field Notebook 3501, National Archives, quoted in Pyne, Grove Karl Gilbert
(University of Texas Press, 1980), p. 211.
[iii] Jack London, “The Observations of an Eyewitness,” Colliers (May 5, 1906).
[iv] Figures from David J. Nowak, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implications for urban
forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture 19(5) (Sept 1993), pp. 313-319.
[v] Many sources. I found most useful NFPA, “The Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire” (National
Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Initiative); and East Bay Hills Fire Operations Review Group,
Office of Emergency Services, “The East Bay Hills Fire. A Multi-Agency Review of the October 1991 Fire
in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills” (February 27, 1992). It is the subject of numerous publications. Should
mention in particular Margaret Sullivan, Firestorm! The Story of the 1991 East Bay Fire in Berkeley (City
of Berkeley, 1993), and Peter Charles Hoffer, Seven Fires. The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America
(PublicAffairs, 2006), which includes several chapters on the Tunnel fire.
[vi] East Bay Hills Fire Operations Review Group, “East Bay Hills Fire,” p. 8.
[vii] Ibid., p. 7.
The Heart of Wildcat Canyon
by Tim Gordon
Park Naturalist, 1966 to 2000 East Bay Regional Park District
Wildcat Canyon is both mutable and timeless. At its green heart lies a glorious, living watercourse, a fragile but enduring and superlative refuge for humans as well as wildlife. Not that it is always peaceful and serene. One January night in 1982, for example, a powerful storm caused great boulders to groan and tumble in the creek bed. I listened and watched as the deluge saturated the earth, dissolved the bond between clay molecules, and caused a great mass of soil to slide down-slope. Four lanes of asphalt disappeared to the applause of countless raindrops. In a few hours time, years of incremental urban development was erased and several acres of wildlife habitat were restored.
Today the canyon is peaceful. Slide-rumpled and water scarred, it is a very young landscape, a wilderness of knolls and steep-sided hollows with blue-schist boulders and gorges carved down into bedrock. There are great, shadowy forests of bay laurels, thickets of north-coastal scrub, and open, windy grasslands—and everywhere the trace and promise of wildlife—the fragile, beating heart of this singular canyon.
A little way up-canyon, near the site of the old Belgum Sanatorium, a small land-slip has backed up the drainage and exposed the underlying natural spring. Mud sprawls across the foot-pocked road, and a slump pond has formed behind a soggy berm, providing temporary habitat for a splendid bunch of tree frogs. Garter snakes and an occasional Alameda striped racer work the edges of the marshy pond in search of prey. The sweet ruckus of mating frogs is so loud on moonlit evenings in springtime that sleep is hardly possible.
The land is alive—its human history preserved largely in the memories of living people. Saved almost by accident, this marvelous canyon also lives in the hearts of those who love it and who struggled passionately to secure the land and safeguard its special qualities.
Wildcat Canyon is exceptional in two ways. First, it opens directly onto the gently sloping, densely populated flatlands of Richmond and San Pablo. As a result, the canyon is close to major arterials and can easily be reached by bus or bicycle or on foot. Second, the canyon is big enough and biologically diverse enough to qualify as a true urban wilderness. There is no park anywhere with greater potential for bringing urban people easily into intimate, informing contact with wilderness wildlife values.
If we are to achieve the wisest and most humanely productive use of this resource we must inform the people of our intention. At one level we can achieve that objective by through nature walks, school visits, and community hikes. We can also work with volunteers to carry out resource protection projects such as creek cleanups, trail improvement projects, and the restoration of native vegetation. But properly developed,
the canyon can be its own best messenger. The first thing a park visitor should experience on entering the canyon is the great stream-cut gorge and valley with its marvelous cascading stream, its wetlands, and the embracing grasslands, the great quiet places among the trees, the fluid beauty of the rapids and pools, and the sandbars where the tracks of raccoons, skunks, newts, foxes and other wild creatures can be seen.
A small creek-spanning pedestrian footbridge at the beginning of the old Wildcat Canyon Parkway could do much to help people enter into the mood of this beautiful valley. Such a bridging of the creek would symbolically bridge the gap between rural and urban worlds. Alvarado Park is itself a kind of bridge since it has been used for years to take city kids into the countryside for picnics, concerts, hikes, and camp-outs. This history of human use confirms the logic of using Alvarado Park area as an entry point into the canyon—a welcoming “threshold” for urban dwellers as they leave city life behind and begin to experience the natural world of the canyon.
There is an incomparable spirit alive in the Bay Area—a powerful urge to preserve, protect, and explore the many wild areas with which the region is blessed. Time and again, the people of this region have countered the general trend of our society by expressing concern for the environment. Wildcat Canyon is an extraordinary opportunity for people to use land not for monetary gain, but for educational and inspirational purposes.
The heart of Wildcat Canyon resides to a large extent in its wildlife, its living stream course, its intriguing human history, and its physical and biologic diversity. But the heart of Wildcat Canyon also resides in the indisputable geographic fact that the canyon is close to a large urban population. As a result, Wildcat Canyon exists not only in geographic terms, but also as a feeling—largely indescribable—that can be shared by all those who know and love natural landscapes. The Bay Region is rich with such people. We have only to persuade them that we are committed to scrupulously protecting this magnificent natural resource, and they will come in good numbers. High quality outreach programs can improve accessibility, bring young children and families into the canyon, and encourage new generations of loving use.
What we must do then, is to make certain that the visitor’s first glimpse into this canyon reveals how much we care about the resource and truly appreciate its wildness. The canyon itself should be the first thing that visitors see. Friendly workers, community outreach, and good information about the place must be readily available. Well-designed trails should lead into the canyon without overwhelming it with a maze of crisscrossing links.
The park should not have the manicured look of a city park with bounded lawns, limbed-up trees, and pruned shrubs. Rather the aesthetic should be that of nature—random, fecund, and varied.
This approach is sensible and practical; it requires less maintenance yet preserves the greatest value of wild lands—natural diversity and the potential to support wildlife. There should be trackless areas–terra incognita—Belgum Canyon for example, where visitors can lose themselves. Visitors should never feel that they know the canyon completely. It should not be easy to reach every watercourse, promontory, spring, pond, or forest glen.
We must not mar the beauty of the canyon with too many “improvements.” People should be encouraged to adventure and lose themselves in the remote spaces of the canyon.
Wildcat Canyon is much more than the sum of all those problems that land managers and resource specialists deal with. It is not merely the locale of liability-producing landslides, or thistle-thick grasslands, or fire hazards, and flood damage, traffic congestion, and law enforcement problems. It is, rather, a place where wildlife has room to flourish, where water runs free and clean, and where a solitary walker can find peace. The canyon is home to cougars, golden eagles, California newts, and alligator lizards—a refuge for both humans and wildlife.
The Ohlone people lived here for thousands of years before the first Europeans, led by Pedro Fages, left footprints in the soil of this canyon. The Mezue family raised ducks here. Pear orchards stood on the grounds of the Belgum Sanatorium. And up along the lip of Belgum Canyon, near the eagle’s roost, there is a tar seep that once was heavily used. After World War II, the National Guard marched and maneuvered in these hills, and it was only recently that Nike missiles and their thick-walled, concrete silos were removed from the eastern rim of the canyon, and the land thoughtfully restored by the District.
Fate and good fortune have combined to spare the canyon from most human intrusions, but as the surrounding cities continue to fill in their remaining open space, there is less adjacent land to act as buffer. During the autumn of 1978, for example, building sites for residential condominiums were carved into the slope above Rifle Range Road. Fortunately, the winter of 1978/1979 was relatively dry and the unprotected slopes lay open to only sparse rainfall. One moderate storm nevertheless eroded enough soil from those bare slopes to cover some 1,500 feet of Wildcat Creek. Boulders, roots, and sandbars were buried in silt. At the insistence of the Park District and others, an effort was made to undo the damage. To this day, however, Wildcat Creek bears the scars of that catastrophe.
At the head of Havey Canyon, high on the east ridge of the canyon there is a grassy bowl above which red tail hawks often soar on the prevailing westerlies. Down at ground level, even a light breeze can send dust devils swirling along the unpaved roads, gradually moving handfuls of dust, particle by particle, to new locations. A fresh deer rub is erasing the marks left on a willow trunk by the leather reins of forgotten horsemen. Upslope a stately live oak carries the scars of barbed-wire in its thick, gray, decorticating bark.
The resource is changed gradually by the accumulation of all these handfuls, rubs, and other signs of human activity. And as cities crowd in ever more tightly around the park, the natural world of the park is ever more circumscribed, its ecosystems compromised in subtle ways. Without careful stewardship the resource will be gradually and irreversibly damaged.
Nevertheless, in 50 years, if we do our job as stewards of the land, our grandchildren will be grateful for what has been saved. So, let us plan and develop and use the canyon as wisely and as gently as we can. It is a fine place to walk, to run, to breathe fresh air, and go exploring. It is a fine place in which to lose oneself—to sing, to dance, to write a poem, to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of this small piece of the natural world, a window on the universe—a place in which to honor the past, enjoy the present, and join together with other understanding souls to protect the unique resources of the canyon for the benefit of untold generations to come.
Tim Gordon served as a park naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District from 1966 to 2000. Stationed primarily at the Nature Center in Tilden Park, he also conducted interpretive programs in Wildcat Canyon, Sunol, Crown Beach, and other regional parks. He always took great pleasure in sharing his respect for the natural world and his knowledge of both the natural and cultural resources that are to be found in the parks. He considered Wildcat Canyon Regional Park an especially important opportunity to serve residents of the East Bay because the park’s wilderness values are so close and so easily accessible to a large, diverse and densely populated urban area.
Popularly known as “Ranger Tim” to successive generations of park visitors, including countless children, Tim Gordon graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in geology. Prior to joining the East Bay Regional Park District as naturalist, he worked for a privately owned firm doing bark beetle research under contract to the U.S. Forest Service. He also spent two years at the East Bay Activity Center working with emotionally disturbed children.
Tim joined the Regional Parks Association board of directors in 2003 in order to keep on speaking up for protection of the cultural resources and natural wonders to be found in our East Bay Regional Parks.
Let’s Have Noise!
Remarks by Malcolm Margolin – Save The Bay 50th Anniversary
May 11, 2011
This is a thrill to be asked to address you on the 50thanniversary. It was the first time in so many years where I’ve walked into a room and I felt that I was one of the younger generation. This is really wonderfully unique and very special.
I didn’t move to the bay area until about 1970, so I’m not one of the founding people. But when I became aware of Save the Bay, it was a teenager. And there was a kind of David and Goliath sense to Save The Bay. There was a sense of a young organization that was vigorous, and was feeling its victories and feeling its power, and had some marvelous things that it had done. There was the sense of youth to it, there was a sense of vitality to it, and that was when I came upon it in the early 70’s.
What’s remarkable to me is that I still feel it in the organization that’s 50 years old.
I’ve said this in other context, but Save The Bay, you’re remarkably spry for a 50 year old. You’re remarkably youthful. And I was wondering where it came from. I mean how does an organization preserve that kind of energy, and that kind of youthfulness?
There was a wonderful remark, one of my favorite quotes is from, of all people, Franz Kafka. And Franz Kafka said “one who loves beauty never grows old.” It’s just a beautiful quote. We consider Save The Bay an environmental organization. But when it was born, an environmental organization was a kind of flimsy construct. People didn’t quite know what it was. Rachel Carson hadn’t yet published Silent Spring. The word ecology was a kind of strange, esoteric discipline within the fields of biology. There was no Endangered Species Act, there was no Clean Water Act, there was no Clean Air Act. There was no institutionalization; people didn’t quite know what an environmental organization was.
In some ways it invented itself, but at its root was something else that was not just a concern for the environment. It was a concern for beauty. There was something about the fact that people looked out at the window and realized the spectacular, poignant, transformative beauty of the Bay. And this is what they wanted to preserve. They wanted to preserve that sense of living in a blessed place, that sense that you look out onto this and you’ll be restored on a daily basis. And at the root of the organization was a respect for beauty.
One of my favorite stories – I’ll abbreviate it because I’ve told it before, but it’s worth hearing. About 20 years ago, I was asked to co-host the Russian poet Yevtushenko, who had come to San Francisco to do some readings. He had come with his translator, and the translator had just married a Russian woman actress, and it was her second day in America. Her first day, she had been in Brooklyn and gotten lost on the subway, and was traumatized. Yevtushenko was grouchy, and this Russian actress came with us, her second day in America, and she was traumatized, and the translator was guilt ridden, and Mark Dubois and Bob Hass and I and a few others had to show them a good time.
It was a challenge. But we were up to that challenge. We went off to the slopes of Mount Tamalpais; it was a day much like this. It was a balmy day. The grass was green. There were flowers. We had a picnic basket – it had wine, it had brie, it had baguettes. It had fresh fruit, the first fresh fruit of the season. And we sat there and we looked out at the Bay. We looked out at those puffy white clouds, and at the blue waters of the Bay, and the little sail boats on the Bay, and the balmy breezes. And then we went down to Green Gulch to the Zen center, then we went down to Muir Beach. And then we came back through the Zen center. Then we went down to North Beach and we ended up walking around, and we went to Green’s Restaurant. And we were sitting in Green’s Restaurant, and this woman looks at her husband and says something in Russian. And he looks at me and says “She wanted me to thank you from the bottom of her heart, and to say it’s as if all of her life she’s been in a box and today somebody let her out.”
There is something about the energizing beauty of the Bay, when you look at it, that has that quality to it. And I think that if you look at the history of environmentalism, you’ll see very often at the basis of it, is art, is beauty, is people with great writing like John Muir, the photographs of people like Ansel Adams, the paintings of people like Bierstadt and Keith. At the root of this whole enterprise, there’s science, there’s environmentalism, there’s social concerns, there’s concerns for social justice – but there is art and there is beauty that inspire this whole enterprise.
We end up talking about the battles with Cargill, we end up talking about the battles with city councils, and with states and with bureaucracies and with all of these other people. I think the real battle is in the human imagination. It is to make certain that the human imagination still understands the richness of possibility, the beauty of the world. I think this is the great battleground, and I think that art and beauty is the way through that imagination. It’s the doorway – it nurtures the imagination, and it’s the way into it.
And the other things is … I mean “Cargill is an enemy”, and “Republicans are terrible” [audience laughs], and “big business is God awful”, and all that. But these can be conquered. There’s an enemy that you really have to be afraid of, and that’s silence. And that’s indifference. So let’s just not be silent. Let’s give a big cheer for Save The Bay on its 50th anniversary, let’s make lots of noise and cheer Sylvia and cheer everybody on for the great work they’ve done.
Let’s have noise.
The Botanic Garden Controversy of 1965, and the Founding of CNPS
by Jerry Kent
The Regional Parks Botanic Garden was created in 1940 by James Roof using California
native plants he had collected and propagated while working for Charles Kraebel at the
California Forest and Range Experiment Station Nursery in Berkeley. Howard McMinn,
professor of botany at Mills College and botany consultant for the East Bay Regional Park
District, knew of Roof’s work and pressed for a Northern California botanic garden to
complement gardens in Southern California. McMinn was selected to head the committee
that found the perfect site in Tilden Regional Park, and then arranged to have the Park
District hire Roof to create the garden using stock and rare plants from Kraebel’s nursery in
The Park District’s first four parks were developed over a six-year period between 1936 and
1942, largely with CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Progress
Administration) labor, and federal funds. During WWII most park employees were drafted,
leaving Tilden’s two-year old botanic garden abandoned until Roof returned to rescue
surviving plants that had been overgrown with weeds. Long stretches of backbreaking work
and extensive collection from the wild were required to re-establish and maintain the
garden’s plant collection through the 1940s and ‘50s with limited funding and staff. General
Manager Richard Walpole, Roof’s friend and boss, presided over the Park District’s six post
war parks and a workforce of fifty men until 1960.
All would change quickly when William Penn Mott, Jr. was hired in 1962 as the Park
District’s fourth general manager. Mott was already well known in park circles, and his first
order of business was to reorganize every aspect of the District. He hired new department
heads, talented support staff, and dramatically expanded the number of regional parks
required to serve a rapidly growing population in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Mott had just finished a complete renovation of Oakland’s parks before coming to the Park
District and planned to do the same at Tilden, the District’s 2,000-acre flagship park. By
May of 1964, Mott had commissioned four citizen advisory committees (interpretation, golf,
botanic garden, and overall park) to review and upgrade Tilden’s programs and public
facilities. The interpretive and golf groups moved forward without difficulty. But, Mott and
his staff would not find it easy to work with Roof, a self-taught botanist, horticulturalist,
conservationist, and pioneer California native plant garden director who considered himself
to be the true “park” man at the District. Mott had degrees in landscape architecture and
planning, was employed by the National Park Service for seven years, and served for 16
years as Oakland’s superintendent of parks. Yet Roof labeled Mott a city “recreation” man
and was not going to be intimidated when Mott began to deal with botanic garden issues.
The makings of a full-blown controversy began to surface in 1964 when the garden
advisory group had split into two opposing camps. The Friends of the Tilden Botanic
Garden advocated expanding Tilden’s six-acre garden, and prepared detailed
recommendations for its improvement. A small splinter Native Parks group advocated
retaining the Tilden garden, and to also establish a 400-acre Ecological Study Reserve in
Anthony Chabot Regional Park, similar in concept to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic
Garden in Southern California. Ironically, the two camps were headed by and included
leading members from the state’s prestigious California Botanical Society and the California
Mott supported the Chabot project because he felt the Tilden garden was too small, and
that a larger garden would contain a more complete native plant collection that could be
properly planned for use and maintenance. As usual for projects throughout his career,
Mott urged his staff and the advisory groups to “think big.” However, it soon became clear
that the Friends group would opposed all aspects of the Chabot Ecological Study Reserve
because Mott intended to move plants from the Tilden garden to help start the Chabot
Reserve, with a new director hired at Chabot to manage both gardens and a diminished
role for both the Tilden garden and Roof. Headlines in the Berkeley Daily Gazette editions
of August 5 and 6, 1964 warned “Botanic Garden of Tilden Park, Center of Heated
Controversy”, and “Citizens Mobilize to Protect Botanic Garden in Tilden Park.”
Specific details of the Friends and Native Parks proposals became clear when Rimo
Bacigalupi, curator of the U.C. Jepson Herbarium, member of the California Botanical
Society board, and chairman of the Friends group, sent a letter to Robert Gordon Sproul,
East Bay Regional Park board president on June 2, 1964, with “tentative suggestions” for
both the existing six-acre garden and for a proposed five-acre extension. Owen Pearce,
editor of California Horticultural Journal, past president of the California Horticultural
Society, and chairman of the splinter Native Parks group informed the board that his
group’s final report on the Chabot Ecological Study Reserve would be completed for
presentation on December 15, 1964.
Botanic Garden planning issues took a back seat during the winter of 1964-1965 because
Mott accepted a consultancy with the Australian government to provide advice about parks
in the capital city of Canberra. However, Mott and District staff had been involved in
continuing disputes with Roof about operational, aesthetic, and safety issues at the garden
that all came to a head in February of 1965 when Mott was in Australia. Roof received his
25-year service pin, and then ten days later a letter of termination because of alleged
insubordination. The headline of March 3, 1965, in the Berkeley Daily Gazette was “Botanic
Garden Furor Erupts: Director Fired”.
A “Save the Garden” committee, which included many members of the Friends group,
quickly organized to save both Roof and the Tilden garden. Lobbying at the district board
level was intense, with active media attention focused on the board’s upcoming April 6th
meeting. After hearing well-organized public comments, the board adopted a resolution
clarifying its policy “to not destroy, remove, or diminish the size or quality of the existing
California Native Plant Garden at Tilden, and that Roof remains director pending a hearing
by Mott.” The Berkeley Daily Gazette headline the next day declared that the preservation
of the Tilden botanic garden, promised by the Park District board was a victory for local
Mott had been determined to fire Roof, but was convinced by Richard Trudeau, Park
District public relations chief and Dick Moore, Alameda County district attorney that the
charges in the letter of termination could not be sustained in the face of such strong public
support for both Roof and the garden. Mott reluctantly reinstated Roof during a five-hour
grievance hearing on April 7, and developed guidelines to improve the garden.
On May 11 the Park board’s designated garden subcommittee of Marlin Haley, George
Roeding, Jr., and Fred Blumberg conducted a hearing attended by 100 people at Tilden
Park’s Brazilian Room to accept further public comment on the botanic garden controversy.
Dr. Leo Brewer, chair of the Save the Garden Committee, a UC Berkeley chemistry
professor, division head at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and avid native plant
gardener, submitted comments and a detailed report covering current and proposed
botanic garden activities in the Regional Parks. The newly formed Contra Costa Garden
Committee, led by Joyce Burr, and the Citizens Committee for Tilden Park, led by Marion
Copley provided additional testimony supporting Roof and urging the District to retain and
improve the Tilden garden. The people who fought for the garden valued its existing beauty
and diversity, and they realized that the best place for it was in Tilden Park, near the
university. The momentum had clearly swung in favor of the garden at Tilden and away
from the Chabot Ecological Study Reserve proposal.
With victory in sight, forty-five founding members of the California Native Plant
Society, filed incorporation papers on August 12, 1965, and opened an office in
Berkeley. Watson ‘Mac” Laetsch, UC Assistant Professor of Botany was elected its
first president. Jenny Fleming, a Save the Garden and founding CNPS member
described the excitement about founding CNPS in her oral history: “Following the
Park District board’s resolution to keep the Tilden garden intact and reinstate Roof,
the people were feeling very exhilarated with a strong sense of accomplishment—we
were patting ourselves on the back enthusiastically…”
On December 28, 1965 the report of the Park District board’s Special Committee on East
Bay Regional Park District Botanic Gardens was completed and presented to the full board.
Their report included 14 specific recommendations beginning with creating an upgraded
garden master plan, creating a five-year financing and development plan, and clarifying that
the responsibility for planting and maintenance of the botanic garden would be the sole
responsibility of its director.
Mary Ellen (Perry) Butler covered the entire garden controversy for the Berkeley Daily
Gazette in 1965. Later while writing Prophet of the Parks; The Story of William Penn Mott,
Jr., she came to the conclusion that Mott got along well with his employees at all of the
agencies that he managed. But, Roof was an exception to the rule. The entire botanic
garden controversy was unsettling for those involved, but Mott rarely dwelled on a setback
for long. He was able to absorb disappointment and move on. Which in fact, he did when
Governor Ronald Reagan asked him to become director of California’s State Parks agency.
Mott resigned his position at the Park District on February 28, 1967 to serve two terms as
State Parks director in Sacramento. He later held director positions at the Oakland Zoo,
then the Town of Moraga, and eventually the National Park Service. The botanic garden
controversy was a minor event in Mott’s 56-year unmatched career leading major city,
regional, state, and national park systems.
Of all the primary participants in the controversy, only Roof remained at the Park
District beyond 1968, ending his 36-year career at the garden in 1976 as one of this
states most important botanic garden directors, natural history writers, captivating
story tellers, and gifted California native plant horticulturists. The garden’s new visitor
center was completed in 1974, and at the appropriate time named to honor James
Thirty-nine years later, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden is a California native plant
treasure that has continued to flourish under the care of succeeding directors Wayne
Roderick, Steve Edwards, and currently Bart O’Brien. The East Bay Regional Park District,
re-energized by Mott in 1962, now manages a unique system of 65 regional parks totaling
118,000 acres with 90 percent of its parkland acres providing open space habitat for an
amazing variety of native plant and animal species. And, of course, CNPS has become one
of the state’s major citizen-led environmental organizations with nearly 10,000 members in
34 chapters around the state dedicated to the preservation of California’s native flora.
The Native Parks group proposal for the Chabot Ecological Study Reserve remained
dormant until 1972 when it was presented to the Board as a potential Park District
Foundation project. The Board was cautious about the District’s ability to implement the
project, but authorized the Foundation to explore options for funding.
Garden Graphic from the brochure prepared by the Ecological Study Reserve Committee
and its advisors in cooperation with the East Bay Regional Park District.
Sources retained at the Park District Archives or available on the Internet:
- Rimo Bacigalupi, James Roof and Tilden Garden History
- Jerry Kent, 75th EBRPD Anniversary History
- Mott letter to Professor H.G. Baker, University of California
- A. E. Wieslander, 1985 Oral History- James Roof and the Tilden Botanic Garden
- Berkeley Daily Gazette articles, August 5 and 6
- Friends Report of June 2, 1964
- Native Parks Report of Dec. 15, 1964
- Berkeley Daily Gazette article, March 3, 1965
- Steve Edwards, Manzanita summer of 2003-The First Friends
- Trudeau Oral history- Mott reinstatement of Roof
- Board garden subcommittee minutes from May 11, 1965 hearing
- Jenny Fleming: Memories of the California Native Plant Society During and
After Its Formation, 1955-Present, An Interview Conducted by Mary Mead.
- Watson “Mac” Laetsch Botanist, UC Berkeley Administrator and Fundraiser,
Partner in International Development, Interviews conducted by Lisa Rubens.
- December 28, 1965, Report of Board Special Committee on Botanic Gardens.
- Mary Ellen Butler’s Prophet of the Parks- the Story of William Penn Mott, Jr.
- 1972 Board Minutes and Resolution on the Chabot Ecological Study Reserve.
- Chabot Ecological Study Reserve brochure.
- Obituary: James B. Roof 1910-1983, by Alice Howard
James Roof and former Secretary of the interior Stewart Udall touring the garden in
1973 with garden staff members Albert Seneres, Jack Stratford, and Gregory Whipple.
Photo by Jerry Kent
Jerry Kent worked for the East Bay Regional Park District for 41 years, retiring as
Assistant General Manager of Operations in 2003. He is currently involved in several
environmental organizations, and is a weekly volunteer at the Park District Archives.