Spring in the canyon and update on fire safety work, by L. Tim Wallace

The welcome rains of this winter and spring have renewed the natural beauty of Claremont Canyon. Take a few minutes to stop and enjoy a view or head out on one of the canyon’s interesting trails. You’ll see new growth and vigor everywhere. On the cooler, moister side of the canyon, ferns and flowering forbs thrive under canopies of oak, bay, willow and buckeye. On the drier, rougher, south-facing side of the canyon, the landscape is moister than it’s been in a few years. Glossy green leaves and spring flowers abound: the small ivory florets of coyote brush, the red spiky petals of Indian paintbrush and the deep purple blossoms of wild lupine.

As the weather warms up, lizards scoot a little faster, snakes slither along quicker and birds settle in to breed and raise their young. Though they hide from us most of the time, black-tailed deer browse the new growth, foxes roam for prey, and the dusky-footed wood rat builds its mounded nest of sticks and twigs. Two threatened species, thought to be in Claremont Canyon— the red-legged frog and the Alameda whipsnake— may be in need of special protection.

Of course, people are important to canyon life too, from those who enjoy the natural beauty and spectacular views, to those who help maintain the landscape by attending restoration workshops, building trails, and protecting us from fire.

These are the values that inspired us to form the Conservancy 15 years ago with the goals of fostering a native habitat, enhancing public access and reducing the most obvious hazards that lead to devastating wildfire.

If you’ve followed the decade-long story, you’ll know that removal of eucalyptus in old groves planted years ago is the number one program of wildfire hazard mitigation in Claremont Canyon, both on East Bay Regional Park District land and on University of California land. The City of Oakland has a similar program of wildfire hazard mitigation but elsewhere in the hills. All three agencies were granted FEMA disaster prevention funds more than a decade ago to deal with the problems of eucalyptus and other hazardous vegetation, but the money has been held up as land managers and the public sort out the environmental review process with the federal funders.

As you may recall, the EIS—the Environmental Impact Statement—for the three grants was approved by FEMA and is now considered complete on the federal end. The next step is for each of the grant recipients to conduct their own EIR’s (Environmental Impact Reports), as required under state law. The Park District has completed and approved its EIR and UC has issued an addendum to its fire management plan as a final step to its EIR. Oakland has yet to conduct an EIR for its portion of the grant. The City is now hiring consultants to prepare a vegetation management plan to include areas covered by the FEMA grant. Public input will be sought throughout the process, which is anticipated to take a year or more to complete.

The Conservancy actively supports all three wildfire plans funded by FEMA and has recently prepared a five-page letter to UC supporting the university’s efforts. The letter, available on our website, details why we think their plan and addendum meet all the requirements for reducing fuel loads in a safe and effective manner while protecting native plants and wildlife—including the threatened Alameda whipsnake and the threatened red-legged frog.

A remaining hurdle involves two lawsuits filed against FEMA by groups opposed to the grants but for opposite reasons. One group wants few, if any, trees removed while the other claims that entire groves should be removed all at once, as originally specified by two of the grant recipients. The second lawsuit was brought about by the Sierra Club; the Conservancy, as well as other environmental groups, including the California Native Plant Society, concur. Efforts to settle the two opposing litigations failed in mediation earlier this year and a trial in federal court is expected to take place within several weeks. Unfortunately, the process has been painfully slow while the eucalyptus forests continue to grow.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you see tree removal work taking place this summer.