Conservation in 2019

It has been a busy year for the East Bay CNPS Conservation Committee. Below are highlights of issues that the Conservation Committee tackled this year thanks to Committee volunteers, the donors to the Chapter’s Conservation Fund, and to each of you who wrote to your legislator and City Council members to petition them to do the right thing on these important conservation issues.

Improvements to Coyote Hills Park Land Use Plan

View from hilltop at Coyote Hills Park looking east to the Patterson Ranch addition. Photo by Judy Schwartz.

The Conservation Committee submitted CEQA comments on the Coyote Hills Park expansion. The plan incorporates the Patterson Ranch acquisition, land purchased by the Park District after years of organizing by the Citizens to Complete the Refuge. Our comments again stressed the need to use comprehensive, well-timed botanical surveys to plan the location of development in the park.

Following a subsequent public hearing on the park plan, several East Bay Regional Parks Board members requested staff to insert language into the Draft Environmental Impact Report stipulating that existing native grasses be avoided or salvaged during the restoration of the “northern natural area,” site of a historic willow community and upland grasslands. EBCNPS committee members will continue to monitor the project and meet with Parks Planning Department staff about using locally-indigenous native plants for upcoming restoration work.

Chapter helps get TESLA Park bill passed by state legislators …

TESLA’s Mitchell Ravine. Photo courtesy of Friends of TESLA Park.

Because of legislative work by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-San Ramon) and Senator Glazer (D-Orinda), as well as support from the entire Bay Area state legislative delegation, a bill (AB 1086) to enable the TESLA property to be purchased for use as a park passed all legislative committees and the state assembly and senate. State Parks, the landowner, intends to develop it as an off-road vehicle site.

Conservation Committee member Beth Wurzburg traveled to Sacramento several times to speak in support of the TESLA bill (EBCNPS is a member of Friends of TESLA Park). Many of you responded to our conservation alerts to contact state representatives. The CNPS Conservation Program also sent an alert to CNPS chapters statewide to petition the governor to sign the bill.

… but Governor Newsom vetoed it.

Carnegie State Off-Road Vehicle Park on Corral Hollow Rd. south of Livermore. State Park OHV Division wants to expand off-road vehicles onto the adjoining TESLA property. Photo courtesy of Friends of TESLA Park.

In his veto letter, Newsom said that there is no evidence that State Parks was mismanaging the adjoining Carnegie Off-Road Vehicle property. He also stated that the TESLA land was purchased by State Parks for the benefit of all of the people of California and it should remain a state park (note: unfortunately, off-road vehicle parks are little used, or unsafe, to hikers, equestrians, campers, and family day users, the majority of park users in California).

It’s evident that awareness needs to be raised among policymakers that the OHMVR Division Plan to open Tesla to damaging OHV recreation undercuts the preservation objectives of our State Parks, the Natural Resources Agency, and the Administration. FOTP also will continue to pursue a legal challenge on the inadequacy of the State Park’s Environmental Impact Report to convert TESLA to an off-road vehicle park.

FOTP notes, “OHV recreation can be located elsewhere where its damaging impacts don’t matter. Tesla’s exceptional and irreplaceable natural and cultural resources cannot be moved.”

Chapter weighs in on “fuel break best practices” on 19 mile Lafayette to Berkeley project

Governor Newsom awarded funds to the Moraga-Orinda Fire Department (MOFD) this spring for a vegetation fuel reduction project on over 1,000 acres of natural lands stretching from Lafayette to Berkeley’s Tilden Park Inspiration Trail. The project had to be completed by year’s end.

EBRPD fuel break;
native herbaceous layer retained. Photo by Jim Hanson.

The Governor waived CEQA environmental review on this and other projects across the state. However, EBCNPS, the Sierra Club, and Golden Gate Audubon and the Fire Department officials and their environmental consultants agreed that it was desirable to meet. During two pre-project meetings EB CNPS advocated for vegetation treatment practices that would not damage the diverse oak woodland, shrub, and grassland plant communities subject to the project.

Several scientific studies and observations reveal that when the low, intact native herbaceous layer is subject to overly-severe fuels reduction work, easy-to-ignite, often dense annual weeds follow. During a Sunday morning field trip to view current fuel break work by the East Bay Regional Park District, Conservation Committee members observed that moderate vegetation fuel reduction could be achieved by limbing up oaks and retaining a low green understory of native grass, sub-shrub, and forb cover.

The Chapter Conservation program has been involved in policy-making for smart vegetation management of our natural areas nearly three decades. Now that this year’s project is complete, we look forward to working collaboratively with MOFD, EB Regional Parks, and other agencies so that the Bay Area develops wildfire risk reduction practices that also help sustain and enhance native biodiversity.

State CNPS adds Chapter comments to Calfire’s Vegetation Management Plan

While the MOFD fuel break program was underway, the State wildfire agency, Calfire, released a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a statewide vegetation fuels reduction program that would affect over 20 million acres of natural lands across California. The CNPS Conservation Program included EBCNPS’s comments to safeguard the herbaceous layer during fuel reduction projects as part of their comment letter to Calfire EIR.

Chapter and Richmond residents push for a more sensible plan for Point Molate

EBCNPS has long championed the environmental richness of the 270 acres of Point Molate shoreline and uplands deeded to the City of Richmond after the Navy decommissioned the site as a WWII fuel depot for the Pacific fleet. The south watershed supports many native coastal plant communities – coastal scrub and native grasslands starting at the ridgeline, willow drainages below, a rare coastal strand beach, and some of the Bay’s most important eelgrass beds just offshore.

“Community Plan” by Point Molate Alliance conserves south valley for outdoor activities and recreation; Winehaven to north developed commercially.

City Council members, including the current Mayor, Tom Butt, voted several years ago to reject a Chevron offer of $80 million to the City of Richmond that would also dedicate the property as a regional park. Instead, the Council proceeded to negotiate a deal with Berkeley developer Jim Levine and the Ukiah Guideville Pomo tribe to construct a massive Las-Vegas-sized casino at Point Molate. In April 2011, after a newly-elected City Council discontinued consideration of the casino proposal, Jim Levine sued Richmond for hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, 2018 Mayor Butt gained enough Council votes in closed session to enter into a settlement agreement with Levine to allow a minimum of over 600+ housing units at Point Molate.

Under the Brown Open Government Act land use entitlements cannot approved in closed session. Even though the City’s settlement agreement is under litigation, a new City Council majority is proceeding with development negotiations with a southern California developer, SunCal. This year’s “Notice of Preparation” (NOP) for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report now mentions building up to 2200 units, including into a new area of the hillside never put before the public.

EBCNPS submitted comments and testified at the City’s public meeting on the “NOP” noting that there are significant changes from the original Environmental Impact Report, and therefore a new EIR is needed.

Last year EBCNPS also endorsed the “Community Plan” developed by residents and environmental groups to create a regional park in Point Molate’s south watershed, concentrate development in the north Winehaven historic district, and construct housing in the City’s under-developed downtown. Building hundreds of condos here raises concerns about limited evacuation routes. Also, a recent financial report concludes that building luxury condos at Point Molate will not return sufficient property taxes to cover the cost of extending city services to this remote site.

Developer and City Council plans for Point Molate are like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Recently, County Supervisor John Gioia suggested paying off Levine and the Guideville Tribe to withdraw their claims against the City. Then everything outside of the Winehaven village site would be deeded to the East Bay Regional Parks District for a shoreline park (see “The Clock is Ticking at Point Molate,” Janis Hashe, East Bay Express, Nov. 13-19, 2019).

Just as with the defeat of the massive casino deal, community and political will can help achieve a better plan for Pt. Molate. Also, several elected seats that will affect what happens here will be open in the coming years, including City Council positions and the East Bay Parks Ward 1 Board seat following the retirement announcement of long-time Board member Whitney Dotson.

Potential purchase of huge “N-3 Ranch” – speaking for watershed protection before Alameda County Water District

Portion of 51,000 acre N-3 Ranch south of Livermore. Photo courtesy of California Outdoor Properties.

Earlier this year the owners of the N-3 Ranch, a 51,000 acre ranch south of Livermore, announced plans to sell the property. The N-3 property is upstream of water sources that the Alameda County Water District uses to obtain water – Lake Del Valle, the Calaveras Reservoir, and the greater Alameda Creek watershed.

The property is offered at $72 million. The District has a healthy balance sheet, and water districts can buy land for purposes of water storage, watershed protection, and environmental mitigation. At their October 17 meeting, staff and board members discussed the benefits of purchasing the property and potential financing strategies. EBCNPS attended the Board meeting in Fremont and encouraged board members to begin negotiations to purchase the property for watershed protection. Several people spoke eloquently about the natural beauty of the area.

Oak protections at Mountain View Cemetery project

Temporary chain link fencing protects mature California Live Oak during Mountain View Cemetery expansion work. Photo by Judy Schwartz.

The Oakland Planning Commission approved a project in 2016 to expand sites for burials at the Mountain View Cemetery (MVC). Assisted by pro-bono attorney Martin Bern of Munger, Tolles, and Olson, LLP, the Chapter and MVC agreed that an independent arborist would be hired to review oak protections as the project progressed. During 2019, an independent arborist regularly reviewed and made recommendations to improve oak protections while active construction work was taking place.

Bay shoreline “executive” housing development in Newark opposed

Newark shoreline site for planned 469 “executive” housing subdivision.

The Chapter signed on with twelve other environmental organizations to oppose building a major housing subdivision on the bay shoreline .

The area has been identified by the recently-released San Francisco Bay Shoreline Adaptation Atlas as a rare natural buffer between the Bay and developed communities. The area offers upland restoration opportunities to increase the region’s climate resilience and serve as a refuge for threatened and endangered species under sea level rise. The project requires 1.67 million cubic yards of fill – 100,000 dump truck loads – to raise the shoreline site for housing development.

On November 15, 2019 the Mercury News headline read: “Newark City Council approves 469 homes on edge of wetlands despite environmentalist concerns.” Jana Sokale, Newark resident and long-time leader with the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, shared the following statement: “We have fought for over 30 years to protect these valuable baylands, and that does not stop today.”

Rare coastal prairie is site of U.C. Field Station construction

Construction extends into the big prairie at U.C. Field Station in Richmond. Photo by Jim Hanson.

The U.C. Regents approved a long-range development plan and environmental impact report (EIR) in 2014 to build a global campus in the U.C. Field Station located on Bay Highway 580 in Richmond. The EIR states that the site is “the only Coastal Terrace Prairie in lowland clay soils in the greater East Bay Area”, and mitigation measures for any loss of coastal prairie were included.

For several years CNPS and the California Native Grasslands Association have met with University personnel to advocate for a minimum level of prairie maintenance. Extensive stands of Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica) have invaded the low-statured California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) and purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) prairie.

Construction for an expanded library storage facility began this year and extends onto a portion of the “Big Meadow.” University consultants estimate that two thousand square feet of historic coastal prairie will be lost. EBCNPS is meeting with U.C. staff ensuring a basic level of prairie management in addition to discussing mitigation for rare coastal prairie loss.

Committee meets on open space priorities for eastern Alameda County

The Altamont Landfill Open Space Committee, composed of representatives from Alameda County, the City of Livermore, the City of Pleasanton, and the Sierra Club, is organized to advise the County on open space purchases from a County landfill fee.

EBCNPS attended the Committee’s meeting in Dublin this summer to hear about plans to map and prioritize open space land priorities in eastern Alameda County, an area of rich botanical diversity. Thanks to the dedicated plant survey work of Dianne Lake, Barbara Ertter, Lech Naumovich, and the Chapter’s valuable resource document, “Botanical Priority Protection Areas of the East Bay” by Heath Bartosh, Lech Naumovich, Laura Baker (2010), significant rare plant information has been compiled for Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. We aim to provide native plant diversity information to assist in the Committee’s open space planning efforts.

Expanded uses of narrow trails in the Regional Parks?

Section of Sobrante Ridge Preserve trail – The EBRPD Park Board designates this and other similar trails as appropriate for walking and equestrian use. Photo by Jim Hanson.

Last November, EBCNPS and other organizations commented on the District staff’s proposal to expand uses of narrow trails in the new Sibley-McCosker park plan.

Under the Park District’s Ordinance 38 all trails under 8’ wide are limited to walking and equestrian use unless specifically approved otherwise by the EBRPD Board of Directors. The Sibley-McCosker plan recommended a “multi-use” designation that would also allow mountain biking on some new narrow trails. Responding to audience concerns, the Board accepted the park plan but withheld a decision on trail uses until a later date.

Partly in response to these concerns the Park Board conducted a public trails workshop in November as a way for the Board and the public to review and discuss any proposed policy changes to existing Park District trails uses, especially for narrow trails.

Narrow trails may have blind corners, steep grades, narrow trail width, and concerns for environmental impacts, trail user safety, and the trail user experience. Wider fire roads within the Park District are already approved for multiple uses, including walking, equestrians, walkers with dogs, mountain biking, and runners and occupy most of District trail miles. Discussions on this important topic will continue in 2020. A previous District study indicates that over 91% of park trail users walk and hike.

EBCNPS comments to Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan

Extended goat grazing in Oakland’s Knowland Park in 2013 resulted in bare mineral soil in 2013. Photo by Jim Hanson.

In 2014, slightly reduced grazing duration times retained native perennial grasses and some vegetation cover for winter erosion control. Photos by Jim Hanson.

The City of Oakland recently released a Vegetation Management Plan to guide vegetation fuel reduction on Oakland public lands. The next step is preparation of an EIR on the Plan.

Grasslands represent a vegetation type in Oakland’s public parklands. Several years ago EBCNPS met with Fire Department Fire Prevention staff and the representatives from the City’s goat grazing company at Knowland Park to discuss simple practices to maintain rare plants and sensitive native grassland communities. Measures include temporarily fencing off rock outcrops with rare plants and leaving some level of vegetation cover by monitoring grazing duration time. These practices have been implemented successfully for several years and shared with the Vegetation Plan program. EBCNPS will also be commenting on the EIR for the Vegetation Management Plan when it is released.

We’ll continue to speak up for conservation of local native plant diversity in 2020 and invite your help at any point along the way.

Jim Hanson, Conservation Committee Chair