05/21/2013 09:17 pm ET

UC Berkeley Tree Cutting Proposal Slammed By Environmentalists

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A proposal by UC Berkeley and a collection of local government agencies to cut down over 85,000 trees in Berkeley and Oakland to reduce fire danger has drawn the ire of Northern California environmentalists.

The main issue at hand is the preponderance of non-native eucalyptus trees. The trees have flourished in the Bay Area's temperate, foggy climate but represent a major fire threat due to their flammability. In fact, eucalyptus trees secrete an oil that's so flammable it can literally cause the trees to explode when the tree is set alight.

UC Berkeley and the other agencies involved in the plan want to remove the eucalyptus trees and restore the native flora, and have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure the necessary funding.

Citing a history of destructive fires in the area--including the massive Oakland Hills fire of 1991 that killed 25 people and caused $1.5 billion worth of damage--FEMA outlined the general tenor of the plan in an April press release.

"Fire risk may be lowered by creating a fire break and reducing the amount of flammable trees, shrubs and debris that can act as fuel during a wildfire," wrote the agency. "The proposed vegetation management work would primarily focus on reducing highly flammable, non-native invasive species."

In addition to cutting the trees, the plan also calls for applying herbicides to the cut stumps to prevent resprouting.

The Daily Californian reports:

According to Thomas Klatt, an environmental projects manager at the university, UC Berkeley has been involved in projects like this for the last decade. The monetary cost of removing risk-prone trees, about $5 million according to Klatt, is less than the costs of large-scale fires. Klatt also said that in the 19th century, the Berkeley Hills were generally free of large vegetation, and this plan would return the landscape to its historic setting.

However, some opponents of the plan, like Don Grassetti of the Hills Conservation Network, argue that the native species actually present a greater fire threat than the invasive ones. "Because these [native] trees have foliage right at ground level, they're ideal for propagating a fire," Grasetti told ABC San Francisco.

Passions ran high at public meeting held in Oakland earlier this month to discuss the project, with Rockridge Patch reporting that El Sobrante resident Jean Stewart, a botanist now confined to a wheelchair due to damage from herbicide exposure, vowed to do anything she could stop the removal of the trees.

"If necessary, I'll place my body and my wheelchair in the path of the bulldozers," she said.

This controversy echoes the fight over a similar plan by UC San Francisco to cut down up to 60 percent of the trees in a portion of San Francisco's Mount Sutro Forest administered by the school. Much like Berkeley's plan, efforts in San Francisco have been met with hostility from environmentalists and some neighborhood groups.

FEMA officials have said the agency will be accepting public comments regarding the East Bay the plan until June 17.



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