EBCNPS Meets with North Orinda Fuel Break Managers on 19 Mile Vegetation Reduction Project

East Bay Regional Park District vegetation reduction work above Tilden park. Oaks limbed up; native herbaceous vegetation is retained. Photo: Jim Hanson.

Work began in early August on the North Orinda Fuel Break, a vegetation fuel reduction project crossing watershed, park, and private lands from Lafayette to the Tilden Park ridgeline. Governor Newsom authorized the nineteen-mile vegetation fuel reduction project, one of thirty-five such projects across the state. The Governor waived the normal CEQA process that requires a public process to identify and avoid, or otherwise mitigate for significant biological impacts. EBCNPS, along with Norman LaForce of the Sierra Club and Pam Young of Golden Gate Audubon, asked for a meeting with the local project managers, the Moraga-Orinda Fire Department (MOFD) staff, to discuss environmental protections in the project.

Our concerns included measures to prevent the spread of invasive weeds and sudden oak death, how the work would avoid converting fuel break sites to flashy, tall, and dry annual weeds, nest protection, and an easier-to-read, publically accessible project map (now available at: North Orinda Fuel Break online). We proposed keeping green, low-growing, low fuel risk native plants, such as the native grasses and forbs, in the oak understory and in grasslands, as well as rarer shrubs such as native currants, coffeeberry, and toyon (environmental regulations do not protect these relatively rare and important avian habitat-supporting shrubs).

Sequoia Ecological Consulting, the environmental consultants hired by MOFD to oversee environmental protections, stated that trucks and other equipment would be cleaned daily. The majority of the work is on EBMUD watershed land. Water District natural resources staff reported the locations of special status plants to MOFD’s environmental consultants so that the fuel break work avoids these populations.*

The project’s first update (MOFD update 1) shows a large hilly slope with extensive creeping wild rye (Elymus triticoides) above Pleasant Hill Road and Highway 24 being sheared to ground level. Among other benefits, native perennial bunchgrasses and forbs help to hold soils in place, increase rainwater infiltration, and store carbon storage deep into the ground. Also, retaining intact, native herbaceous vegetation is also usually better than the alternative; take over by “flashy” (easy to ignite) annual and invasive weeds. We contacted MOFD staff and the environmental firm about this concern and why retaining native vegetation makes sense.

EBCNPS is continuing the dialogue with MOFD on the North Orinda Fuel Break Project about how to sustain ecological diversity and reduce some vegetation fuels in natural lands, especially since the two goals often complement each other.

*Botanist and EBCNPS Rare and Unusual Plants of the East Bay author Dianne Lake previously surveyed the San Pablo Reservoir watershed for EBMUD for special status plants and sensitive natural plant communities.

Jim Hanson, Conservation Committee Chair