UC Berkeley Has a Logging Team?

May 17, 2010
By Judith Scherr

When tree-loving activists spent twenty months trying to save a stand of oak trees next to UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, it made national news. The activists were attempting to block the university from cutting down the oaks to build a $125 million athletic training center. But just a short distance away, members of the Cal logging team were chopping down about a dozen or so live, healthy trees for sport – as they do every year – and no one protested. The reason? The students don't cut down oaks; they fell eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees.

The UC Berkeley logging, what? you may be asking. Few people know that logging is a team sport – and even fewer know that Cal has such a team. More astonishing, perhaps, is that it consists of ten women and only three men – so much for stereotypes. The UC Berkeley logging team competes with other schools, including Humboldt State and Cal Poly, throwing axes, chopping, tossing logs, manual and chainsaw sawing, and more.

And nobody seems to care that when the Cal team practices, the students kill healthy eucalyptus trees and the occasional Monterey Pine. Their practice area is up above campus on university-owned land just west of Grizzly Peak Boulevard at the South Park Road intersection, across the street from East Bay Regional Parks District land.

Ariel Thomson is co-coordinator of the university logging team, part of Cal's forestry club, and she plans to declare a forestry major next year. Practice in the hills above campus serves a dual purpose, she said. They get ready for the three competitive events they participate in each year, and they "reduce the fuel load," she said. "We're helping by managing the property, by cutting down invasive species," she added. "Sometimes we'll take down a Monterey Pine. Monterey Pines are not native. We cut them down to usable sizes." The students re-use the logs they've cut to line trails and create hillside steps.

So, are members of the tree-sit-in riled up about the Cal logging team? Former Mayor Shirley Dean, 71 at the time of the Memorial Grove protests, was among the more celebrated tree sitters who rotated into perches in the trees under the TV cameras' glare as part of protests to call attention to the university plan to remove the trees. Would the diminutive former mayor scamper up a eucalyptus to save it? "No," she said firmly. "The eucalyptus is not native – it's an invasive species." Dean added that blazing eucalyptus trees were one of the causes for the 1923 Berkeley hills fire that burned 584 structures in two hours.

Not even the local Berkeley and Oakland governments, which have ordinances to protect trees, take a stand for the eucalyptus. Berkeley municipal law addresses only the Coast Live Oak and says people who want to cut down oaks whose trunks are larger than six inches must go through a difficult permit process. But any other tree, including eucalyptus and Monterey Pine, are fair game. Oakland also consciously leaves the two non-natives unprotected: "A protected tree is Coast Live Oak four inches or larger in diameter, measured four and a half feet above the ground, or any other species nine inches in diameter or larger, except Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees," the law states.

Dan Grassetti of the Hills Conservation Network usually speaks – and fights – in defense of eucalyptus trees, but even he says cutting down a dozen of the fast-growing Australian natives every year is inconsequential. He and the Hills Conservation Network say the problem is clear-cutting the trees.

UC Berkeley began such a program about five years ago before Grassetti and his group helped stop it, and he said he fears clear-cutting eucalyptus may be on the horizon again. That's because on April 20 the East Bay Regional Parks District board of directors approved a fuel-reduction plan for 19,000 acres of district parkland: the EBRPD Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan Environmental Impact Report. And according to Grassetti, the district plans to clear cut eucalyptus as part of the plan.

Stephen Stoll, director of the UC Berkeley's Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security, is among those who believe that eucalyptus fueled the 1991 and 1923 fires. Eucalyptus trees create "a huge fuel load," Stoll said. "It's one of the fastest growing trees." He added that it burns easily due to its oil content.

But Grassetti's Hills Conservation Network argues that the eucalyptuses are not responsible for the large Oakland-Berkeley conflagrations, and that eucalyptus groves can actually help prevent fires. "Removal of the shade canopy ensures that all manner of invasive weeds, flammable brush and chaparral ... will move in," states an article in the Hills Conservation Network's February 2009 newsletter, also noting that the chips left behind from clear cutting "pose another level of fire risk." Up where the students practice cutting trees, there is evidence of the campus' clear-cutting effort – tree stumps, some surrounded by their chips, stand out in the grassy areas.

Grassetti said the Hills Conservation Network plans to sue the park district over its approval of the April 20 environmental document. As for the logging team, its members enmeshed in final exams for the moment, will continue to cut down trees and practice chopping logs up in the hills, leaving to others the debate on the flammability of the eucalyptus and pines.