Controversial plan to remove non-native trees from East Bay parks

OAKLAND (KTVU) - Eucalyptus trees - are they an East Bay Hills icon, or a fire hazard? That question is at the heart of a controversial plan to remove non-native trees from parks in the East Bay, from Richmond all the way to Castro Valley.

The contentious debate has pit neighbor against neighbor.

At Redwood Regional Park, chirping birds within a canopy of trees are some of the sights and sounds hikers take in along the trails.

Also part of this serene setting: thousands of non-native Eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees.

They evoke very different responses in different people.

"One of the things we really enjoy when we go on the hikes is going through the trees," Melissa Mayfield of Oakland, said.

"The eucalyptuses make a lot of dust, they are full of hot oil and they burn like crazy," said Oakland resident Victor Gold.

Removing Eucalyptus, Monterey Pines and Acacia trees over a 10 year period is the goal of what's being called a "Fire Risk Reduction" plan for the East Bay hills.

"We'll be very selectively thinning out dead trees, dying trees, saplings as well. Some healthy Eucalyptus will stay," said Carolyn Jones, East Bay Regional Park District spokeswoman.

The plan covers land owned by UC Berkeley, 11 East Bay Regional Parks and the City of Oakland. All three applied for $4.6 million in federal grant money for the project - which FEMA approved.

On Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee voted to accept the federal money and set aside matching taxpayer funds for the project.

"There will be some period after these trees are cut down where we will see less trees," said Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb. "In the long term, we will have trees in the hills, they'll just be different trees,"

Residents opposed to the plan, voiced their concerns - in vain.

"The goal - the project goal - is to remove the forest and to create grasslands with islands of shrubs," said Nathan Winogard, directly quoting a phrase used by FEMA in their five-page "Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction Record of Decision." The federal document explains:

"All three sub applicants [UC Berkeley, East Bay Regional Park District, City of Oakland] propose to reduce fuel loads and fire intensity, primarily by thinning plant species that are prone to torching, and by promoting conversion to vegetation types with lower fuel loads. In many areas the proposed and connected actions would preserve oak and bay trees and convert dense scrub, eucalyptus forest, and non-native pine forest, to grassland with islands of shrubs."

That sort of landscape is a nightmarish vision for Oakland Hills homeowner, and Save the East Bay Hills Coalition member, Nathan Winogard.

"People from all over the Bay Area come to the hills to recreate," Winogard said. "All those people are going to be horrified when the trees start falling."

Once the trees are thinned, part of the plan includes the use of herbicide to prevent eucalyptus saplings from growing back.

"Eucalyptus are incredibly tenacious," said Jones. "It will be very selectively used, hand-applied on certain trunks. Nobody likes to use this stuff, but in some cases it is necessary over the long term."

Winogard is concerned about run-off and the impact the use of the herbicide will have on property values nearby. He, and other opponents of the plan hope a lawsuit will stop it before it starts.

But other Oakland Hills homeowners welcome the idea. Victor Gold remembers the fire in '91.

"My wife ran out of the fire with our two young children," he said, explaining that his home was damaged, but not lost in the fire. He said he's happy to see the Eucalyptus go, and he's not concerned about the Monterey Pines, Acacias and other non-native trees that will also be removed.

"Other trees will be planted, like Oaks and Redwoods which are native to the area," he said.

When asked if part of the FEMA grant included money for replacing some of the downed trees, Jones explained: "In the beginning, I think the plan is to just let nature take its course." She said the hope is that once the non-native trees are removed, native plants will grow back on their own.

For some, the non-native trees are an East Bay treasure, and for others - a danger.

Both sides agree that without them, the landscape will look dramatically different.

They just have opposing views about whether that's a good thing or not.