President's message: Conservancy update, by L. Tim Wallace

This year’s drought has made all of us increasingly aware of the need to be watchful for anything that might spark a fire. In January, we had a small fire in the upper canyon. Fortunately the day was nearly windless and the fire was put out quickly, its source never determined. Trash pick-up continues as people persist in ignoring basic courtesies. The railing we installed at signpost 29, however, has helped tremendously in deterring dumping. It also provides a little bit of automobile parking for would-be hikers.

The Conservancy continues to enjoy excellent working relations with the canyon’s major landowners. However, both the East Bay Regional Park District and the University of California are under-going significant personnel changes as people retire, shift job responsibilities, or are promoted. This means we all have to pitch in to maintain good lines of communications and “get to know” each other and understand the objectives of each other’s programs. The Conservancy’s “Advocate Plan” has been very helpful in this regard, and, thanks to its two authors, Joe Engbeck and Jerry Kent, it’s been well received.

Personnel shifts have also occurred within the federal and state agencies that are leading the studies concerning wildfire hazard mitigation grants for the East Bay hills. So there are gaps in communication when “catch-up” is necessary and delays are understandable, though frustrating. We’re making progress, however, and possibly this year, 2014, might be decision time for FEMA to release the grants.

Jerry Kent’s thoughtful articles on the history of eucalyptus plantings in the East Bay are well worth reading—and re-reading. You can find them on our website. Jerry’s articles provide a good foundation for understanding the Conservancy’s position that taxpayer costs will be far greater for maintaining eucalyptus groves in parks and adjacent lands than for removing eucalyptus trees and preventing their re-sprouting. Even without the cost of thinning and downfall removal permits, the environmental damage caused by repeated re-entry onto marginal and fragile lands would have an adverse impact on native habitat. Far better to remove the exotic trees that result in increased wildfire risk and allow native vegetation to achieve its potential unmolested.

Driving through the canyon on Claremont Avenue you can see the difference. On the right side (the south side) the eucs were removed about ten years ago. Today, native oaks and bay trees abound. Trails have been established and open vistas stretch to the bay. On the left side (the north side) of Claremont Avenue, however, blue gum eucalyptus continues to grow rapidly and block access for everyone, including fire fighters. Native vegetation has been literally crowded out and scenic vistas are blocked by tall, dense stands of eucalyptus.

Another wildfire risk reduction project was carried out during the last few years by Dr. Bob Sieben, a resident of Hiller Highlands. He and other volunteer crew members removed eucalyptus, pine, and French broom from the steep south-facing slope below Hiller. The area where the work was done is visible from Highway 24 as you travel east-bound toward the Caldecott Tunnel. The project has been widely praised. On the other hand, vegetation on the south side of Highway 24 has been managed by Caltrans without significantly reducing the fire hazard. Caltrans relies on goats to control broom in the bottom of the canyon, but is allowing eucalyptus to continue growing up-slope, depositing eucalyptus debris (leaves, twigs, branches, bark, etc.) all of which is rich in resin. Right now, we urge each of you to refresh your estimates of your own “fire safe” zones around your own homes. The fire season will begin early this year. In fact, it’s already here. So, please, keep a watch out for yourselves and your families, and for your community.