A buffer zone in Claremont Canyon as a cultural landscape, a personal perspective, by Bill McClung

For many years I have believed we need a substantial fuel-reduction zone– similar in scale to the Tilden Fuelbreak at the edge of North Berkeley–in the complex two miles of wildland-urban intermix in Claremont Canyon. This idea runs up against practical, aesthetic, jurisdictional, and inertial challenges that may be overcome if we can begin to think of such a buffer zone as a cultural landscape. In August, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association hosted a series of walks and talks concentrating on Strawberry Canyon as a cultural landscape. Walks—or rambles as they called them—occurred on Panoramic Hill, at the Botanical Garden, and along the Upper Jordan Trail, which connects to the Ridge Trail above Claremont and Strawberry Canyons.

Their keynote speaker was Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., an organization that celebrates and supports landscape preservation work in great gardens in the East and South, rescuing Mount Vernon, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, and similar projects. On the TCLF website he writes:

“A cultural landscape is a geographic area that includes cultural and natural resources associated with an historic event, activity, person, or group of people. Cultural landscapes can range from thousands of acres of rural land to homesteads with small front yards. They can be man-made expressions of visual and spatial relationships that include grand estates, farmlands, public gardens and parks, college campuses, cemeteries, scenic highways, and industrial sites. Cultural landscapes are works of art, texts and narratives of cultures, and expressions of regional identity. They also exist in relationship to their ecological contexts.”

To think of Strawberry Canyon or Claremont Canyon as a cultural landscape in this way may be helpful. These great canyons in our midst are certainly dramatic landscapes and they are complexly cultural. People live here and have done things to this landscape for centuries. Claremont Canyon is not either just a natural area for preservation or a cultural area for human uses. It is both. Whether we are driving along Claremont Avenue, walking with friends along a trail, or simply looking at the two-mile wildland-urban interface in Claremont Canyon, we are in a cultural landscape.

Conservancy member Mary Millman, is quoted on The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website www.tclf.org/stewardshipwith this interesting definition of cultural landscapes: “A cultural landscape is a physical construct, produced by people, the design, materials, and function of which express or define the historic, social and political character of a geographic area in a certain period of time. This panorama captures the essence and textures that made the time and place unique.”

Is this not suggestive of a way to think about Claremont Canyon? Old pictures at the Claremont Hotel show the Canyon as ranch land, with grasslands as the predominant vegetation. In the last 70 years the Canyon has succeeded to shrubland and forest after the removal of grazing and where fires have been suppressed.

The continuous growth toward woody, dominant vegetation is a natural process in the Canyon, as is fire to restart the successional processes, which occurred in Gwin Canyon in 1946, 1970 and 1991. The management of such vegetation—for wildfire safety or access or to promote native vegetation as the Conservancy advocates—is a cultural process.

Houses, of course, are cultural artifacts, but so is nature—managed or otherwise—close to the houses. We can think of buffer zones or fuelbreaks as cultural landscapes, natural places where humans do purposeful and historical things. Greatcultural landscapes deserve to be thought about, preserved, worked on, and maintained. Precious little work on the urban-wildland interface in Claremont Canyon has been done since the great 1970 and 1991 Fires.

Given the importance of this zone between where we live and the nature we like to look at, it is somewhat surprising that we are so tolerant of not taking care of it.

Some say it would cost too much. I believe that an effective, 75-acre fuel break along the wildland-urban interface in Claremont Canyon could be managed for under $250,000 a year. Is that too much to expect the landowners to spend to greatly increase the chance that a future wildland fire can be fought successfully at the urban edge?

Some say the work is too hard: steep slopes, large difficult-to-access areas, poison oak, etc. It is true that this work is challenging, but the large-scale University eucalyptus work in the upper Canyon in the last five years shows that a dedicated agency with strong leadership can take on the largest challenges in large areas of the Canyon.

Some say vegetation management is too destructive of habitat and scenic values. Indeed, it sometimes is, but from my professional experience working on fuel reduction in Claremont Canyon, Tilden Park, and Vicente Canyon, I have seen and learned that fuelbreaks can be beautiful places, managed to support native biodiversity, and made into important social spaces.

A managed buffer zone extending from Marlborough Terrace to Panoramic Hill along the urban wildland edge in Claremont Canyon, with an adequately constructed and maintained fire road/trail system for work and fire-fighting access, would be an important cultural feature of our Canyon.

It would in short be a cultural landscape, with all the density of values that that phrase has come to suggest. We have very practical wildfire-safety reasons to want that in Claremont Canyon, but it also carries the potential of strong aesthetic and social values. Again, the University’s enormous eucalyptus project in the upper Canyon—with its emerging trails, scenic enhancements, access for Conservancy nature walks and stewardship—is showing that work on this scale is possible.

In my view, it is essential for the Park District, City of Oakland, and the Conservancy to support and implement an urban-wildland interface buffer zone that is likely to be successful in Claremont Canyon.

We will be in the right frame of mind if we think of it as a cultural landscape: a defined place of both natural and social values.