A showdown is happening around the last mature oak grove in the Berkeley foothills on the edge of the University of California, Berkeley campus. The University announced plans, as part of an extreme construction surge, to remove almost 50 trees in order to build a new high-tech training facility adjacent to Memorial Stadium. A strong outcry — including the occupation of trees — has sprung up from many segments of society. The blind acceptance of constant growth at the expense of our history, ecology and neighborhoods has met a strong chord of resistance against this troublesome plan. The sacredness of an oak grove and the pressing issues of global warming and environmental devastation are calling many to make a stand.
Neighbors are alarmed at the degradation to their neighborhood. Environmentalists are concerned about the web of life that the oak grove supports. The California Native Plant Society has declared the importance of this stand of Coast Live Oaks, which has proved resistant to the mold that causes sudden oak death. Students are outraged at the University’s lack of wisdom in pursuing the development here and the Chancellor’s refusal to meet with their student organization. The City of Berkeley is upset that the University is ignoring the city law against cutting mature Live Oaks as well as state law baring construction over earthquake faults. Even student athletes are arguing that a training facility should be built at a more appropriate site. There are currently four separate lawsuits filed against the plan.
Unfortunately, there are foolish and powerful forces at play. The University claims exemption from Berkeley City law and is guided by a board of regents with extensive corporate connections that often pushes through plans detrimental to the local (and arguably greater) community. The $125 million (!?!) of funds for the construction of the gym are coming from “private donations” and the environmental impact report being used was written by the university itself.
There is big money in sports and Memorial Stadium is the home of Cal’s football team. The team was a winner this year with a coach whose contract commitment to Cal would be strengthened by the construction of the new facility. UC usually does what it wants and locals have few options to stop them.
This is not just an issue for Berkeley or California. All over this country development is systematically prioritized over the preservation of green spaces. Powerful money interests are rapidly and radically demolishing open space with little regard for how their actions affect the corresponding communities and environment. In this age of increasing climate change, such methods are no longer viable. Those of us who would seek to oppose these measures, however, often find ourselves hopelessly outmatched. We are David against Goliath. But remember; David beat Goliath in the end… with a slingshot!
On Dec 2, after numerous demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, lawsuit threats and attempted meetings, local activists including Native American activist Zachary Runningwolf, climbed the trees in an effort to protect them. The night before the “big game” between UC Berkeley and Stanford football teams, the tree climbers outwitted UC Police and managed to get three people up into the trees. The large police presence relented as 70,000 fans began showing up for the game. The next day, platforms for the tree sitters were built and a support camp established. A flurry of media coverage ensued. Three to five tree sitters have been living in the canopy for over a month since then. A dedicated ground crew has been supporting them. The UC police regularly check in on the treesit. They have issued trespass citations and stay-away orders to a few of the tree sitters, one whom was arrested when he refused to leave the area. On January 12 they even went so far as to confiscate the entire ground camp. including tents, bikes, blankets and cooking, art and medical supplies. The support crew returned immediately after the police departed.
The campaign to Save the Oaks has brought together a broad coalition of neighbors, students, Earth Firsters!, People’s Park activists, religious leaders, preservationists, botanists, university staff, children and elders. It is creating a natural gathering place for a community that may not have met otherwise.
There have been concerts with Country Joe McDonald and Wavy Gravy, a solstice celebration, visits by Julia Butterfly Hill, a Spiral Dance with Reclaiming collective members and many a good music jam. If you are in Berkeley, you can visit the urban treesit any hour of the day or night on Piedmont Ave. just north of Bancroft Street. Help with food and good cheer are always welcome. It is a lovely and accessible place to experience a little nature and meet some of the diverse community that has come out to support this special tree grove. If you are not in the East Bay, think about creative ways that you can protect the threatened green spaces that are important to you, your environment, and the communities that you are a part of.
For info: saveoaks.com, berkeleycitizen.org