We like to think that management of our parks, including the largest, Cesar Chavez, is in the hands of people who care about them. That belief balances between incidents of managerial stewardship and episodes of the opposite. The positive side took a big hit this week when Parks management hired a contractor to turn a lovely single-track trail through the Native Plant Area into a road wide enough for trucks to pass. The video above shows the contractor crew butchering some of the few stands of native California Sage and White Ceanothus along the trail, among other plants, in order to create passage for City trucks.
The Native Plant Area, created in the mid-1980s on City and Coastal Conservancy grants, is a statewide model. It was a demonstration project to test whether native plant communities could be established on a coastal landfill. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the nonprofit DAWN (Design Associates Working with Nature) members, the experiment succeeded in a spectacular way. The forested grove on the western slope is a brilliant shady refuge, unique in the park, and with historical significance. However, there are problems. The chief problem is systematic lack of maintenance. City Parks managers through the decades have basically ignored the area. As a result, the native plant communities have suffered assaults from invasive exotic weeds, shrubs, and trees. Your Chavez Park Conservancy has applied for and won a grant from the UC Chancellor’s Office to commission a study of the area by recognized park restoration experts with native plant expertise. The study would make recommendations for restoration of the native plant communities.
The city’s Parks Director, Scott Ferris, as regular readers of this blog are aware, has turned thumbs down on this study. The study would cost the City no money and require no staff time. But Ferris doesn’t want to have it done. We can only speculate why. What’s clear is that just going into the native plant area with chainsaws and hedge whackers isn’t the solution.
When we learned of the beginning of the contractor’s project on Friday, senior plant scientist Jutta Burger wrote an email to Alexandra Endress, Waterfront Supervisor, outlining the situation and suggesting a more planful and informed approach. This is what Burger wrote to Endress on Sunday, with photos from Friday. So far, no answer.
Updated: After a pause, a constructive approach; see post.
Dear Ms. Endress:
I am writing to you to first and foremost thank Berkeley City Parks for investing resources into the vegetation management activities in the DAWN project site that appear to have begun last week at Chavez Park. As you are aware, the DAWN project is a hallmark native plant installation in the East Bay and represents one of the first organized native plant installation projects in the state of California. The site has persisted remarkably well for over 30 years with scores of native shrubs and trees still to be found.
I had an opportunity to visit the Native Plant Area today and, though I was happy to see some clearing of dead limbs and grasses AND litter removal, I am concerned about the current vegetation management actions as well as the goals and long-term plans of site management. As a professional ecologist with specific expertise in invasive plants and restoration of California habitats with several years of open space management experience in urban and urban-adjacent environments, I would like to emphasize the importance of careful work and a clear plan for what the desired state of this site should be. Without that, clearing practices may wreak more damage than good.
Specifically, I have the following concerns regarding management of the Native Plant Area:
1. Significant widening of a single-track trail (middle trail entrance from north side of site; see below). A typical single-track trail is 2’ to at most 4’ wide (see City of Portland’s comprehensive trail guidelines for one of many examples of clearly defined trail parameters https://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/article/250105). The Native Plant Area trail shown below has just been widened from a width of approximately 2’ by several feet. What is the purpose of this widening? Has the City is considered the aesthetic, experiential, and maintenance repercussions of transforming an intimate albeit somewhat overgrown single-track trail to vehicle-accessible road. Several aggressive invasive plant species that are unappealing to the public (ripgut brome, Kikuyu grass, Himalayan blackberry, poison hemlock) already occur on site and will likely take over this newly opened, disturbed area, which will lead to future management issues. A widened trail such as this may take significantly more management to maintain than the original single-track trail.
2. Loss of habitat for wildlife through trail widening (see photo below). The loss of shrub cover and exposure of a much wider area alongside the trail has reduced available habitat for wildlife. Although much of the shrub cover on the north section of the Native Plant Area is now comprised of bank acacia (an aggressive, non-native shrub), this species still provides more resources for wildlife than open ground. Gopher snakes (common in the park) will have no protection from disturbance by people and their dogs. Nesting birds will have less area to nest and forage in (and less protection from human/dog disturbance). Pollinators will have fewer flower resources. Trail maintenance may appear to have little impact at any one location, but when summed across the entire length of trail being modified, its impact is significant. For example, if we conservatively estimate that the trail is widened by 5’ along 500’ of the middle trail, 2500ft2 will be lost by maintenance if no plants are installed in where clearing occurred.
3. Inadvertent loss of original DAWN project native plantings through maintenance work. Several California sage shrubs as well as Ceanothus, purple sage, coyote bush, and Channel Island-endemic buckwheat shrubs grown along the middle trail. They are botanical highlights that also attract wildlife and pollinators. These shrubs go dormant in the summer and may appear dead. They are at risk of being removed by maintenance operations that are not aware of them. A few shrubs may have already been lost by trail widening.
Again, it is fantastic that Berkeley City Parks has been able to employ a maintenance crew to maintain the DAWN project area. Chavez Park Conservancy and I as an ecologist and environmental professional who is dedicated to this park would like to ensure that maintenance is done with a sensitivity to preserving the original iconic DAWN project, to maintaining and enhancing wildlife habitat in an urban environment, and towards enhancing the enjoyment and appreciation of the site by visitors.
Chavez Park Conservancy member and professional arborist Bob Huttar has offered his services at no cost tomorrow morning to help maintenance crews identify native plants and other vegetation to preserve and trim around in order to preserve habitat and aesthetics. A restoration plan for the site, proposed by the Conservancy, would be a first step towards building a future for the DAWN site while preserving and respecting its past.
Please feel free to call or email me if you would like to discuss any of the points I made directly. I am happy to also help with any consultation needed.
Jutta C. Burger, PhD
Board member, Chavez Park Conservancy
Science Program Director, California Invasive Plant Council