February 9, 2016

Park District board to decide Chabot’s Gun Club’s fate at March 1 meeting

Range at Chabot Gun Club. Look closely and you’ll see the ground is littered with bullets and casings. Photo by Richard Bangert.

Range at Chabot Gun Club. Look closely and you’ll see the ground is littered with bullets and casings. Photo by Richard Bangert.

The Chabot Gun has operated since 1964 in Anthony Chabot Regional Park, a wilderness area in the hills above Oakland and Castro Valley. The gun club’s lease expires on March 31, 2016, and we need your help to make sure it is not renewed.

Decades’ worth of discarded lead ammunition (still in use today) has polluted our public land and water. Lead leaches into the soil, runs into streams, and flows downhill to Lake Chabot, an emergency water supply also stocked with fish. The amount of lead in these streams has been measured as high as 20 times the E.P.A. limit for industrial facilities. In addition to the lead pollution, there has been an increasing problem with the sound of loud gunfire reverberating for miles in the Oakland hills, disturbing park users and wildlife.

A recent Park District report estimates the costs to of keeping the gun range open at $2.1 million to $4.3 million ($100,000 to 200,000 for CEQA compliance, $125,000 for noise mitigation, $500,000 to $1.5 million for facility maintenance, and $1.3 to $2.5 million for stormwater compliance). In addition, they estimated the cost of cleaning up the area once the gun range closes at $2.5 to $20 million dollars. The gun club brings a net income of $40,000 per year to the District.

The costs of lead mitigation and clean-up mandated by the State Water Quality Control Board should be paid by the gun club and not passed on to the taxpayers—as happened recently at a gun club that closed last year at Lake Merced in the hills above San Francisco.

WhatYouCanDo

The East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors will decide whether to renew the gun club’s lease at its meeting on Tuesday, March 1. To join us at that meeting, email Norman La Force at n.laforce@comcast.net.

You can also write to the Park District board. Tell them:

  • NOT to renew the gun club lease;
  • The gun club must be held responsible for 100% of the clean-up costs for the lead pollution it has caused;
  • No taxpayer dollars should go to pay for any clean-up of the site; and
  • If the gun club continues to operate, it must be 100% responsible for costs of environmental compliance.

Send a message to the board member who represents your area, or better yet, email them all!

– Norman La Force, chair, East Bay Public Lands Committee

Protecting the Richmond hills from intensive future development — Signature gatherers needed!

Strolling in the area targeted for protection by the Richmond Hills Scenic Area Initiative. Photo by Cary Croner, carygronerphotos.com.

Strolling in the area targeted for protection by the Richmond Hills Scenic Area Initiative. Photo by Cary Croner, carygronerphotos.com.

The Richmond hills north of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park is an undeveloped stretch of scenic land with panoramic views of Mount Diablo, the mountains of the North Bay, the Napa Valley, and Sonoma County. Home to numerous common animals (fox, bobcats, deer, coyotes, and many birds species) and habitat for special-status plants and wildlife, the land has been threatened by numerous development proposals over the years. The Richmond Hills Scenic Area Initiative will protect this land from future harmful development and protect the wildlife and plants that live there.

The initiative was conceived by a coalition of local and regional conservation groups after fighting back development proposals one by one. It will make a lasting change in land protection by rezoning the area to preserve scenic views, protect wildlife habitat, and prevent residential subdivisions and other harmful development. It will allow non-motorized recreation (hiking, horseback riding, nature observation, study, and enjoyment), as well as small-scale agriculture and grazing. The initiative is modeled after the successful 2004 Hercules Protect Franklin Canyon Area Initiative that saved the land along Highway 4 above the Franklin Canyon Golf Course.

WhatYouCanDo

The Richmond Hills Scenic Area Initiative applies to an undeveloped hillside area of roughly 430 acres (greyed out in map above) surrounded by public and private lands. The area offers a mixture of dense oak forest, rolling hills, and pasture. It includes nine streambeds and their associated riparian zones, as well as vernal pools and other wetlands.

The Richmond Hills Scenic Area Initiative applies to an undeveloped hillside area of roughly 430 acres (greyed out in map above) surrounded by public and private lands. The area offers a mixture of dense oak forest, rolling hills, and pasture. It includes nine streambeds and their associated riparian zones, as well as vernal pools and other wetlands.

It takes 4,200 valid signatures of Richmond registered voters to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Signature collecting will take place on weekends from March through May. We need your help in this all-volunteer effort.

You do not have to be a Richmond resident to collect signatures. The only requirement is that you be at least 18 years old. We will work in pairs in two-hour shifts in front of grocery stores and other high-foot-traffic areas of Richmond. We’ll also be at farmers’ markets, Earth Day celebrations, and other special events during the spring. We will not go door-to-door.

From past experience, we can tell you that this is immensely rewarding work. People are very appreciative of our work and are very happy to sign the initiative petitions.

If you can help protect this beautiful area by volunteering for a two-hour shift this spring, or for more information, please contact Dick Schneider at richs59354@aol.com or (510)926-0010.

Time is running out to save Tesla Park, vital wildlife corridor and historic site in eastern Alameda County

1000x1000_saveteslapark_v2The State Parks Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division (OHMVR) has posted notice of a February 4th and 5th hearing on the Proposed Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) and General Plan for the expansion of the Carnegie off-road-vehicle area into Tesla Park. This is one of our last chances to save one of eastern Alameda County’s most beautiful open spaces.

OHMVR did not release the documents to the public when they provided the 30-day notice of the hearing; the FEIR is now available online at carnegiegeneralplan.com/document-library, though the Draft General Plan will not be released until spring. Remember, the Draft EIR implausibly concluded there were no significant impacts from the existing Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area or from opening up Tesla to off-road-vehicle use. Rather than address the inadequacies in the Draft EIR identified by extensive comments from the public, environmental organizations, and public agencies, it appears OHMVR plans to ram through approval of the Carnegie expansion plan that will destroy Tesla as we know it.

WhatYouCanDo

Years of work to save Tesla Park has been building up to this final stage of the EIR process. Please help us continue to fight. Here’s what you can do:

1) Attend the public hearing on February 5th!

WHEN: Friday, February 5, 8:30 AM
WHERE: Tracy City Hall City Council Chambers, 333 Civic Center Plaza Tracy, CA 95736

2) If you can’t attend the hearing in person, please write to Assemblymember Catherine Baker and Senator Steve Glazer. Thus far neither representative has supported Tesla preservation or helped protect Tesla in any way.

Please send separate emails to:

Here is a sample letter. Please personalize it to explain why Tesla Park preservation matters to you!

Dear [Senator Glazer/Assembly Member Baker]:

I am asking for your help to permanently preserve the Tesla Park land. Tesla is in your district in eastern Alameda County. Tesla has numerous sensitive cultural and biologic resources important for our region.  It is a vital wildlife corridor.  It contains threatened and endangered species.  It is the location of the historic Tesla town site and mine.  It is productive cattle grazing land. Creating a nearly 5,000 acre off-highway vehicle park on the outskirts of Livermore by expanding Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area and opening Tesla to off-highway-vehicle use will forever damage Tesla’s unique resources.

We all share a responsibility to preserve this important open space for future generations.  Please support preservation of Tesla and do everything you can to change state policy so that this unique and irreplaceable natural landscape is permanently protected.

[Your name, address]

Read more about the campaign to save Tesla Part at teslapark.org.

— Celeste Garamendi

Park District to expand Alameda’s Crown Beach

crown beachThe East Bay Regional Park District will soon be the proud owner of vacant surplus federal property next to Alameda’s Crab Cove Visitor’s Center on Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach. The purchase follows fierce legal battles and a successful campaign by the Sierra Club and an Alameda citizen’s group, Friends of Crown Beach, to rezone the land as open space.

The park district has been seeking to acquire the 3.89-acre parcel in order to expand the park ever since it was deemed surplus. But instead of negotiating a sale to the park district, the feds decided to auction the land for top dollar. A private housing developer prevailed, but was unable to close the deal because the state refused to grant utility easement rights on the state parkland street leading to the parcel.

Photo courtesy Jerry Ting, via Flickr.com/jerryting

Photo courtesy Jerry Ting, via Flickr.com/jerryting

After the City of Alameda frustrated the park district’s park expansion efforts by zoning the parcel residential, an acrimonious three-year-long ordeal ensued, involving the park district, the city, the federal government, the state, and the private developer.

Unable to transfer easement rights to the developer, the feds convinced a district court judge that seizing McKay Avenue through eminent domain was for a legitimate “public purpose.” The feds asked the court to value the street at $10.

The feds’ potential buyer, meanwhile, walked away from purchasing the surplus property after a citizen-led effort got the property zoned as open space, and the newly elected city council threw their support behind the park district.

The district court later ruled that a jury would determine what the feds owed the state for taking the street. The state’s asking price of $1.41 million—a price beyond what the feds were willing to pay—was based on the diminished value of the parkland itself by loss of control over access and because the park district would have had to construct new parking facilities for Crown Beach visitors.

Photo courtesy Floyd Brown

Photo courtesy Floyd Brown

A settlement was reached shortly thereafter.  The feds agreed to return the street to the state and sell the surplus property to the park district for $2,182,500—essentially splitting the difference between the park district’s unsuccessful auction bid four years ago and what the private housing developer was willing to pay.

“The community won with this agreement,” said Robert Doyle, General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. “We promised in 2008 through our Measure WW bond election that we would expand Crab Cove with this valuable land” and “are happy to deliver on our promise.” Doyle also thanked the community and the Attorney General for their “unwavering support during this lengthy process.”

Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer called the agreement a victory for Alameda.  “We’re thrilled that this issue has been resolved in a way that protects open space and parkland, and expands access to our shoreline,” she said. “I sincerely thank all those whose efforts have now been realized. Many Alamedans worked years to save this parcel from development. We’re glad to finally see it protected.”

By Richard Bangert

Support wildlife, not gun shots, in East Bay parklands!

Bullet shell at Chabot Gun Club. Photo via Flickr.com/gritphilm.

Bullet shell at Chabot Gun Club. Photo via Flickr.com/gritphilm.

On November 3, the East Bay Regional Parks board will consider whether to renew the lease for the controversial Chabot Gun Club.

Join the Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon, and Chabot Park neighbors and users in saying NO to the lease renewal.

We need your help in persuading the East Bay Parks board! Send an email to the board. (See below for email addresses and a sample message.)

Here’s why:

  1. Lead poisoning. Located in the watershed of Lake Chabot, the Chabot Gun Club uses lead ammunition that leaches into streams and poisons wildlife. Raptors and vultures are poisoned by eating lead-tainted prey, while other species may be exposed by drinking or bathing in lead-contaminated puddles and water sources. Even Lake Chabot’s nesting Bald Eagles are at risk from lead contamination.
  2. Gunfire noise disturbs park users. The loud noise of gun shots disturbs neighbors and park users. Gunfire is all too common and frightening in many Bay Area urban communities; our parks are meant as refuges from that kind of stress.
  3. Gunfire noise harms wildlife. The loud noise of gunfire deters birds and other wildlife from using otherwise viable habitat. Scientists have also documented stress and hearing loss in birds exposed to sounds of gun shots.
  4. Too expensive! It will be prohibitively expensive to bring the gun club into compliance with environmental laws. It will cost between $2.5 million and $20 million just to clean up existing lead pollution from the club. If the club continues to operate, there will be even more lead clean-up expenses plus noise abatement costs of an initial $2.4 million to $3.4 million, followed by yearly costs averaging $190,000. This would be for a club that is already operating at a net loss – losing $121,479 in 2014!

WhatYouCanDo

Please email the East Bay Parks board today and urge them NOT to renew the gun club lease.

In addition, tell them that the gun club must be held responsible for 100% of the clean-up costs for the lead pollution it has caused over the past five decades. Tell them that no taxpayer dollars out of Measure CC or future tax measures  should go to pay for any clean-up of the site.

If the gun club continues to operate, it must also be 100% responsible for costs of noise abatement and other environmental compliance.

East Bay Park District board members:

Click here for a map showing which board member represents your area. Better yet, email all of them!

Sample letter:

(You can use this language as a guide but it’s best to use your own wording—explain why this issue matters to you!)

Dear [name]:

As an East Bay resident, taxpayer, and park lover, I urge you NOT to renew the Chabot Gun Club lease. 

The lead ammunition used by the club is toxic to wildlife, including the Bald Eagles nesting at Lake Chabot and the 144 other species of birds that live in Anthony Chabot Regional Park.

The noise of gunfire is disruptive to neighbors and park users seeking a relaxed experience in nature. (ADD YOUR OWN FEELINGS ABOUT HEARING GUNFIRE WHILE YOU ARE HIKING OR ENJOYING PARK LAND!) 

Finally, the costs of remediating the lead pollution and abating the club’s noise problem are just too high. As a taxpayer, I do not want to be saddled with clean-up costs for a problem I did not create. 

Please do not renew the lease. And please hold the Gun Club responsible for 100% of the costs of cleaning up the lead pollution they have caused over the past five decades. 

Yours truly,

(Name)

A bald eagle is treated for lead poisoning. Courtesy the Center for Birds of Prey.

A bald eagle is treated for lead poisoning. Courtesy the Center for Birds of Prey.

Correcting the record on our vegetation management strategy for the East Bay hills

This antique postcard shows that the East Bay hills were primarily grasslands with areas of riparian vegetation along streams before the spread of eucalyptus.

This antique postcard shows that the East Bay hills were primarily grasslands with areas of riparian vegetation along streams before the spread of eucalyptus.

As we slog through our fourth year of drought and once again watch wildfires devastate communities all across California and the West, we must acknowledge that the hotter, drier conditions we face due to climate disruption are not going away. With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to prioritize fire prevention in our vegetation management strategies for the Bay Area’s East Bay hills.

Ever since the Great Fire of 1991 ravaged the East Bay hills at a cost of 25 lives and 3.9 billion in present-day dollars, the Sierra Club has worked with fire experts, public officials, and environmental groups like the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy to develop an ecologically- and fiscally-sustainable model for fire management that not only reduces the risk of fires, but also promotes diverse and healthy ecosystems.

The preferred strategy for vegetation management in the East Bay hills entails removing the most highly flammable, ember-generating trees like eucalyptus in phases — only in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface. Once the flammable non-native trees are removed, less flammable native species can reclaim those areas and provide for a rebound of biodiversity. This model of fire prevention can summarized as the the “Three R’s”:

  1. REMOVE the most flammable non-native trees in select areas most at risk for fire;
  2. RESTORE those areas with more naturally fire-resistant native trees and plants; and
  3. RE-ESTABLISH greater biodiversity of flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.

Clearing up misconceptions

There is a lot of misinformation floating around about this preferred model for the care and management of vegetation in the East Bay hills. Here are the facts about a few of these misunderstandings:

The Sierra Club’s approach does NOT call for clearcutting. Under “Remove, Restore, Re-establish” thousands of acres of eucalyptus and other non-natives will remain in the East Bay hills. Our proposal only covers areas near homes and businesses where a fire would be most costly to lives and property. In fact, removing monoculture eucalyptus groves and providing for the return of native ecosystems will create a much richer landscape than the alternative — thinning — which requires regularly scraping away the forest floor to remove flammable debris.

Our preferred approach does NOT focus on eucalyptus merely because they are non-natives. Rather, it is because they pose a far higher fire risk than native landscapes. Eucalyptus shed ten to fifty times more debris per acre than grasslands, native live oak groves, or bay forests — and that debris, in the form of branches, leaves, and long strips of bark, ends up draped in piles that are a near-optimal mixture of oxygen and fuel for fire. Eucalyptus trees ignite easily and have a tendency to dramatically explode when on fire. Also, eucalyptus embers stay lit longer than embers from other vegetation; coming off trees that can grow above 120 feet tall, those embers can stay lit as the wind carries them for miles.

Any herbicide use to prevent the regrowth of eucalyptus once they’ve been cut down (they quickly sprout suckers otherwise) would be hand applied in minimal amounts under strict controls. Any herbicide application must undergo a full environmental review to prevent impacts on humans, wildlife, and habitat. There are also methods other than herbicide that can be used to prevent regrowth, and the Sierra Club encourages the agencies that manage the land where fire mitigation occurs to explore these alternatives to find the most sustainable, responsible option.

For a deeper look at the science behind the strategy we call “Remove, Restore, and Re-establish” please see our Frequently Asked Questions.

Questions and answers about vegetation management 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. For decades, the Sierra Club has worked closely with fire experts, public officials, fire fighters, and fellow environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Conservancy to design an ecologically- and fiscally-sustainable model for fire management that not only reduces the risk of fires, but also promotes diverse and healthy ecosystems. This strategy entails removing flammable, ember-generating species like eucalyptus in phases — and only in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface — so that less flammable natives can reclaim those areas and allow a rebound of biodiversity.

The Sierra Club’s program for vegetation management can summarized as the “Three R’s”:

  1. Remove the most flammable non-native plant species in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface of the East Bay hills;
  2. Restore those areas with more naturally fire-resistant native trees like bays, oaks, laurels, and native grasslands; and
  3. Re-establish greater biodiversity of flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.

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 late 1800s 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

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 diverse ecosystems including endangered species.

Won’t removing the non-natives leave a barren landscape?

Restored native vegetation in Redwood Park

Restored native grassland prairie and fuel break 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.

Will every eucalyptus in the East Bay hills be removed?

Not at all. Only the eucalyptus in the areas most at-risk for fire and at the urban-wild interface would be removed. Thousands of acres of eucalyptus would remain under this model for vegetation management.

Has the restoration of native landscape been done successfully in our hills?

Restored native vegetation in Claremont Canyon

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, Berkeley 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

Herbicide application on eucalyptus stump

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, and the Sierra Club does not endorse any particular method. The agencies that manage the land must weigh the costs and benefits of all options in order to find the most sustainable and responsible approach.

If an herbicide is used, a minimal amount would be hand applied by licensed professionals under strict controls. The Sierra Club expects herbicide application protocols to have undergone a full environmental review to restrict impacts on wildlife and habitat.

Read more about herbicide use here.

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

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.

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.

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.

Have more questions?

Don’t hesitate to reach out! Call the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter office at 510-848-0800 or info@sfbaysc.org.

Feds prevail on taking street in Alameda — Fight to expand park at Crab Cove continues in the courts

Photo courtesy Flickr.com/gwen.

Photo courtesy Flickr.com/gwen.

McKay Avenue, the street leading to the popular Crab Cove Visitors’ Center at Alameda’s Crown Memorial State Beach, used to house a roller coaster before it became a street.  It is living up to its legacy.  In recent years the battle over the street, and what will become of the surplus federal property at the end of it, has had its ups, downs, twists and turns.

The roller coaster ride began when the federal General Services Administration (GSA) held a public auction to obtain the highest price for the vacant surplus land at the end of McKay Avenue. Next the city zoned the parcel residential, which led to a lawsuit against the city by the East Bay Regional Park District. A citizens’ initiative then rezoned the parcel as open space, and the park district dropped its suit.

GSA meanwhile used eminent domain to seize the street from the state to gain utility access rights for its surplus property. The state and the park district cried foul and tried to reverse the taking in federal court.

The Sierra Club supported the successful citizens’ initiative and has voiced its opposition to the eminent domain action by lobbying federal officials for assistance.

In order to take the state-owned street, which is owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, GSA had to prove that the taking qualifies as a “public use.” Gaining unfettered access to the utilities under the street would allow GSA to transfer that access to a nongovernmental entity in a possible future real estate sale.

The state Attorney General and the East Bay Regional Park District argue, among other things, that GSA should not be permitted to take property when no plan exists that lets the courts measure if the taking is related to a public purpose.

The district court judge suggested, and the parties agreed, to have him summarily decide the matter so that a panel of judges at the federal court of appeals could review it. The facts of this case are unprecedented.
On June 12, the judge issued his ruling, saying GSA has the right to take the street.

Making the federal land adjacent to McKay Avenue more valuable for sale serves a public purpose, according to District Court Judge William Alsup. “GSA’s authority to dispose of surplus property includes condemnation of property necessary or proper to secure marketable title in the property to be disposed,” he wrote. GSA has the right to “clear up the problem of access” before it seeks a buyer, his order said.

Upon learning at a court hearing that it would take a vote of the people to overturn the open space zoning, Judge Alsup inquired whether the entire issue was a “moot exercise.” He said it was the state’s best argument and noted that open-space zoning reduces the likelihood that a developer would ever want to purchase the property. He nonetheless ruled that GSA “is entitled to clear up this thicket of problems one at a time.”

Court documents, however, reveal that the taking of the street may be more than just a hypothetical exercise. While the taking was premised on the “continuing operation” of the remainder of the federal buildings located on McKay Avenue, the future of those buildings, and the lots on which they sit, is uncertain.

The current lessee on the remaining three acres of federal property along McKay Avenue — the U.S. Department of Agriculture — plans to move out of its offices in 2016 to property it owns in Albany. GSA has spent about $3 million to consolidate and upgrade the McKay Avenue offices and does not know if all the federal property on McKay will be sold, court documents show.

The East Bay Regional Park District has repeatedly expressed interest in buying the vacant surplus property to expand the park at Crab Cove. It is unclear when, if ever, GSA will sell the open space parcel to the park district.

“We are disappointed that the United States [GSA] continues to prosecute this action in spite of the desire of the citizens of Alameda that this property be dedicated as parklands,” said Robert E. Doyle, the park district’s general manager. “We believe the taking of public parklands for private development is bad public policy.” The board of directors “is evaluating the court’s ruling,” said Doyle.

Hang tight. The roller coaster ride isn’t over. The state Attorney General and the regional park district have 60 days to file an appeal.

The issue of fair compensation for the taking of the street is scheduled to go to trial in the fall of this year. GSA has previously said McKay Avenue was worth $1.

— Irene Dieter

Update on efforts to limit parking and congestion in popular Muir Woods

Photo courtesy Flickr.com/kansas_sebastian.

Photo courtesy Flickr.com/kansas_sebastian.

On June 30, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Park Service to deal with parking and congestion problems at Muir Woods National Monument. The MOU provides that the County will limit parking along Muir Woods Road adjacent to the Monument to 80 spaces by June 1, 2016. The Park Service will implement a reservation system to limit visitors to the Park within two years, partner with Marin Public Transit to increase public transit to the Park, and provide additional parking enforcement. In addition, there will be interim storm-water-management measures to reduce potential impacts from roadside parking along Redwood Creek, which contains endangered salmonids.

The Sierra Club has expressed support for both the reduced parking and reservation system. It has also urged that a “carrying capacity” study should be undertaken for the Monument.

The Muir Woods MOU was drafted by the National Park Service and County Supervisors, along with a stakeholders group chaired by Congressman Jared Huffman. The County approved a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for its parking project. The National Park Service will still be subject to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

On June 26, the Mount Tam Task Force (MTTF) sent Marin County a “notice of intent to sue” letter for violating the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to protect local coho and steelhead populations.  MTTF asks that mitigation be brought in line with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife recovery guidelines.

Muir Woods issues are being closely watched by the San Francisco Bay Chapter Federal Parks Committee. For further information on the Committee, contact Alan Carlton, Chair, at carltonal@yahoo.com.

— Alan Carlton

Sierra Club files suit to protect East Bay hills from fire risk

The Sierra Club and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) have filed suit over plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund a vegetation-management program in the East Bay hills that would increase fire hazards, threaten endangered species and native wildlife, and increase the financial burden on taxpayers.

“The best way forward is to promote native vegetation that is less flammable and encourages healthy ecosystems and greater biodiversity,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers. “That’s a win-win for the environment and for homeowners who want to feel secure that they won’t lose their homes in another Great Fire like the one we lived through in 1991. Unfortunately, FEMA’s approach isn’t in line with the priorities of fire safety and habitat restoration.”

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley's Garber Park. Photo courtesy Marilyn Goldhaber.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley’s Garber Park. Photo courtesy Marilyn Goldhaber.

FEMA has over $5.5 million in grant money to disburse for vegetation management in the East Bay Hills from Richmond to San Leandro. These areas contain thousands of acres of highly flammable eucalyptus and non-native pines, which choke out more fire-resistant natives like oaks, bays, and laurel. Flying in the face of the best science and land-management practice, FEMA has signaled its intention to fund a plan to thin flammable non-natives, rather than remove them entirely. The Sierra Club / SPRAWLDEF suit contents that this is the wrong approach.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups including the Claremont Conservancy, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society have all advocated for removing all of the flammable eucalyptus and pine trees over time so that less-flammable native habitat can reclaim those areas. In contrast to clearcutting, this approach calls for removing eucalyptus in phases, so that native trees — which cannot grow to full size underneath the eucalyptus canopy — are able to thrive. Mere thinning of eucalyptus and pine plantations in fact denudes hillsides to an even greater extent, as it requires the clearing of native plants in the understory.

Restoration of native habitat would provide an opportunity for the return of local endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake. FEMA’s plan fails to follow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion for protecting the whipsnake. Eucalyptus and pine groves, even thinned, do not provide habitat for this endangered species, and the areas that the FEMA plan covers are prime habitat areas for this endangered species.

The City of Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley applied for FEMA grants to fund the removal of non-natives and the restoration of native habitat. Only the East Bay Regional Park District plans would allow non-natives to remain. By directing funds to a misguided program, FEMA would force Oakland and UC Berkeley to forgo their sensible plans.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley's Garber Park. Photo courtesy Shelagh Brodersen.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley’s Garber Park. Photo courtesy Shelagh Brodersen.

The approach FEMA has endorsed would burden taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in future maintenance costs. Over a period of 20 to 30 years, the costs of regular thinning of non-natives and debris removal would be at least $250 million. Long-term maintenance costs would force agencies like 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.

“It’s time for us to be economically smart and environmentally conscious,” said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee and president of SPRAWLDEF. “I’ve served in government and I know that when a public agency runs out of money it defers maintenance. Letting flammable material build up on our hillsides is an accident waiting to happen. We know that’s what caused the Great Fire of 1991, so why would we go back to the same failed approach? The restoration of native habitat will make our hills much safer and will be far less costly to maintain.”