Big tree ambitions
Volunteers try to reforest East Bay hills with indigenous redwood
Jim Herron Zamora, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006
There was a time centuries ago when redwoods covered most of the East Bay hills. But that was before logging, before grazing and before development.
The hills will never again be so thick with the mighty trees, but some of the splendor they brought to the landscape is returning, little by little, as volunteers spend their weekends reseeding 220 acres of land above Claremont Canyon with redwood seedlings.
They were out again Saturday, hacking through underbrush, slogging through mud and climbing over the ubiquitous eucalyptus stumps that litter the hills, looking for just the right spot for each of the 1,100 tiny trees they planted. It's an ambitious effort to reseed much of the East Bay hills with redwoods, which reached as high as 200 feet when the Europeans first came here.
"Redwood trees are a powerful, emotional symbol of coastal California," said Joe Engbeck, vice president of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and the man who organized the effort. "We can't bring the redwoods back everywhere in this urban area, but we can transform this canyon."
The volunteers sought out small creeks, culverts and marshy areas where redwoods are more likely to thrive. Others were planted just below ridge tops near the border between Berkeley and Oakland, where visitors enjoy sweeping views of San Francisco Bay.
"You've got to look at what you're doing, each little micro site is different," Bridget Tracy, a senior forestry major, said as she cleared eucalyptus debris to plant a seedling. "A few inches can really make a difference for their survival."
Tracy was among a dozen students from the Cal Forestry Club who were joined by members of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy.
"It's so cool that what we're doing today will be around in a hundred years for future generations," said Eric Meta Smith, a graduate forestry student. "We're bringing back an important native species and really changing this canyon."
The seedlings, which could reach 40 to 50 feet in 30 years, were grown from seeds taken from Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. They are being planted on UC Berkeley property along Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Claremont Avenue. Organizers hope to spread the project to nearby parcels owned by the East Bay Regional Park District and East Bay Municipal Utility District.
Most of the seedlings are replacing nearly 3,000 highly flammable eucalyptus trees felled in the past four years under a fire safety campaign by UC Berkeley. Others are being planted in areas once thick with poison oak and blackberry bushes along creeks near Claremont Avenue.
"What we're doing here is replanting this entire forest in a more thoughtful way," said Tom Klatt, UC Berkeley head of emergency services, who organized the eucalyptus logging and helped with the weekend redwood planting. "These redwoods are fire resistant and, when they mature, will provide a canopy that holds moisture underneath them.
"Everyone loves redwoods and for fire safety they are great," said Klatt, who is working to get grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove more eucalyptus, a rapid-growing tree native to Australia and now rampant in the Bay Area.
The same group planted about 1,100 seedlings last year, the first year of the project. But only about 40 percent of the seedlings, which received no irrigation, survived. Organizers believe they can improve the odds of survival and are considering watering the seedlings during the summer if they can find enough volunteers.
"I think we learned a lot since last year," said Engbeck, a co-founder of the group now called the Greenbelt Alliance. "We need to plant the seedlings where there is more shade and wind cover. We knew we would lose a lot from lack of water but the wind also killed many of them."
Engbeck and Klatt hiked through the area last week to pick the perfect locations to plant new ones. They discovered that most of the seedlings planted last year in a sheltered area along the western side of Grizzly Peak near South Park Drive did well, but just 100 feet away in a slightly exposed ridge almost all the seedlings died.
"We need to use the cover that's already here to protect the seedlings," Engbeck said. "Eventually the ones that survive will grow tall and take over this area. But right now they need some help."
Klatt and Engbeck hope to come up with a plan for volunteers to water some of the seedlings using water drawn from a fire tank placed on university land off Grizzly Peak. But the logistics remain to be worked out.
Until recently, much of the land the volunteers are reseeding was covered by thick stands of 100-foot tall eucalyptus trees that were first planted in the East Bay hills about 1910. At the time, people thought the trees would provide timber for homes after the 1906 earthquake. But when the trees, which tend to be brittle, proved useless for construction, they were allowed to spread throughout the hills from Richmond to Hayward.
Today, one of the largest remaining stands of eucalyptus is in the hills just east of the Cal campus. But the trees are highly flammable, and after the 1970 Berkeley Hills fire, university officials decided to chop down thousands of eucalyptus trees. Most of them regrew.
"This was a complete no-man's land," said Klatt as he walked along a steep slope off Claremont Avenue. "You're right off the street but it was impossible to walk here. "
Klatt envisions a future when people will be able to hike through an area resplendent with redwoods, able to appreciate and learn from trees.
"This land was just unused and ignored for years," Klatt said. "What we're doing is returning it to its natural state but also making it available for recreation and research."
Student volunteers, most of them in their 20s, such as Lana Schide, a senior, rejoiced at the chance to bring redwoods back to the East Bay hills.
"I look forward to coming back here in 30 years and telling my kids 'We planted all these trees,' " she said.
How to help
For information about joining the effort to plant Claremont Canyon with redwood seedlings, e-mail project organizer Joe Engbeck at Jhengbeck@aol.com or visit the group's Web site at www.claremontcanyonconservancy.org.