January 17, 2017

Park District can’t afford to keep eucalyptus plantations–economics and ecology agree: convert to native species

Chabot Campground thinning.

Chabot Campground thinning.

The East Bay Regional Park District’s Vegetation Management Program, in many ways a great advance, contains one major flaw that it’s time to fix.

The Sierra Club supported the plan last year when the District adopted it, because of its strong emphasis on protecting and restoring native species (see August 2013, page 8). More than 20 years after the devastating 1991 Claremont fire, the District finally had a plan for managing the vegetation in its 17,000 acres along the wildland-urban interface.

The Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and California Native Plant Society generally supported the plan, but with grave reservations about one component: the preservation of large eucalyptus plantations. We called for these areas to be converted to allow native woodlands and other native vegetation to reclaim the hills from Richmond to San Leandro. Instead, the plan calls for thinning those groves–and removing the understory, including native plants such as oaks and bay laurels, where they have survived.At some point the eucalyptus will reach maturity and begin to die off, creating even a greater fire risk unless the trees are removed then. (Could we count on the District to have the funding at that time to do this?)

Recently an economic analysis has added to our concerns. Jerry Kent, a former assistant general manager for the Park District who worked on these issues before his retirement, finds that if the District persists in its current approach, it will ultimately cost $180,000 an acre over the next 20 – 40 years to maintain and then remove the eucalyptus plantations. There are 1,293 acres; the total cost will be $230 million.

Our worst fear is that at some time the Park District will lack funds for the needed maintenance and will do what governmental agencies do in such situations: just stop, calling it ‘deferred maintenance’. Once that happens, the chances of a catastrophic fire grow, while the habitat suffers.

The Park District’s main funding for this work is from Measure CC, a parcel tax levied on residents west of the hills from Pinole and Richmond in the north down to San Leandro. Measure CC must be renewed by 2020, and the District wants to start the process in 2016. If it increased the tax to cover the $230 million needed for eucalyptus (or anything close to it), voters would revolt and refuse to reauthorize the tax. (This tax pays also for a wide range of essential park operations such as stream and creek restoration and opening up new parks to users).

No one wants another 1991 conflagration. It would be a human nightmare as well as an environmental disaster. Moreover, just as we saw in the aftermath of 1991, the call would go out to simply clearcut all vegetation in huge swathes of Park District land. The Club had to spend years fighting this alternative after the 1991 fire, and it still appeals to some politicians.

It is time for the Park District to fix its plans with the goal of making vegetation management cost-effective, promoting real fire safety, and restoring native habitat in lands now covered with eucalyptus.

WhatYouCanDo

Write to general manager Robert Doyle and the Board at:

East Bay Regional Park District
P.O Box 5381
Oakland, CA 94605-0135.

Urge the District to adopt plans to remove all eucalyptus.

To read Jerry Kent’s full analysis of the costs of eucalyptus thinning, see http://claremontcanyon.org/pdf/the_risks_and_costs_of_eucalyptus_and_pine_dec_7_2013_jerry_kent.pdf.

Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee

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