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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: We can have trees and views

September 2003

The El Cerrito Tree Commission & Tree Friends of El Cerrito,

(& Whomever).

I’m currently inspired to write about trees and the current minor
controversy about the El Cerrito Tree Ordinance and the simplistic Trees
verses Views, winner take all attitude that is being pursued in EC. I’m
inspired because I’m sitting in the patio/lawn of the Ahwahnee Hotel in
Yosemite, sipping my second Pina colada, admiring the magnificent view of
the Yosemite Valley walls and realizing I’m looking at the quintessential
example of the El Cerrito Tree/View problem.

It is arguably a flip of a coin as to which view might be better, Yosemite
from the Ahwahnee or San Francisco from the EC hills. The Yosemite problem
however is quintessential because of the cultural issue of Value, and
whether trees or view provide more value to individuals and communities. In
EC the question of value does become pecuniary, as people haggle over their
personal preference for views or trees. In Yosemite however, the value
issue is completely existential as no one and no group can benefit, more or
less, from either views or trees as they are equally protected.

At the Ahwahnee patio the magnificent views are of the north wall arches and
the wall itself as it bends out of view toward Cloud’s Rest. A low story of
oaks and a second story of pines frame the lawn and screens out the Ahwahnee
cottages. Right before it is blocked by the hotel itself you can see up the
Merced River Canyon, the south wall and Glacier Point. It’s a great view,
everyone around me obviously loves it as they point out climbers on the
arches and walk out into the lawn for a better view of Glacier Point.

Unlike El Cerrito, there is no controversy here about who owns this view.
It belongs to everyone and everyone has access to it, with or without a Pina
colada. It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime this magnificent view was
actually more magnificent than it is now. And the great joy being felt by
all the Japanese and Hispanic tourists is much less than the oohs and aahs
that were uttered 30 years ago when those leaving the hotel lobby stared
straight up at Half Dome, a view now screened by the “new growth” of pine
trees. This loss is suffered at the Ahwahnee patio but there are plenty of
places around the valley to see Half Dome. That’s not unlike El Cerrito
where there are many places you can see San Francisco. Unlike EC, (where
the views and the trees do not belong to us all) in Yosemite we can ask, are
we better off having 20 more Jeffery and Sugar pine trees in the Yosemite
Valley or would we better off with another magnificent view of Half Dome?
Does the past 140 years of Anglo-American manipulation and fire suppression
in the Valley, the reason these upstart pines are growing, make us better
stewards than the Ahwahnee Indians who systematically burned the pines in
order to promote the growth of the “more desirable” (and view friendly)

Is El Cerrito better off with more trees, or, the unobstructed views that
where a part of the natural landscape as both homes and trees are “new” to
our East Bay hills? One thing’s for sure, when a view is blocked, it isn’t
blocked for just one person or property owner.

Is it our civic goal to grow and protect trees of all kinds where there were
none before? Why is the city so concerned if my neighbor builds an 80 foot
tower in her back yard but less concerned if the neighbor “creates” an 80
foot tree?

Most importantly, we can have both trees and views, having our cake and
eating it too, but only if we select and plant trees with the same care and
planning we put into the rest of our contrived community. To do this we are
going to have to recognize that all trees are not created equal. Depending
on species characteristics trees will add to community values and individual
enjoyment or detract from it. Trees in the city are not noble forest
dwellers, but neighbors; some are nice, some you wish would go away, some
can be quite dangerous. Like the rest of the city, trees need to be planned
for so they can contribute their best and not detract from the “livability”
of the City.

Jim Young

PS I’ve attached a list, “sound bite style” of what I consider tree


1.. Most people plant trees in ignorance with no concept of what the tree
will be like in 15, let alone 50 years. Some people plant trees
intentionally to block views. For the moment we will give these people the
benefit of a doubt and assume their motives are personal and not malicious.
In our densely populated community these people can be assumed to be
blocking their own view of close-at-hand neighbors, power poles, etc. These
people do not think of the views that their intentional screens may deny
others. Even less consideration is given to other screened out benefits
like warm sunshine, air circulation or the affect of leaf and tree litter on
adjacent/down wind property. I have met El Cerritans who fervently maintain
that some people plant trees maliciously to deprive target neighbors of
expansive views, vistas and “space”, using some species of trees as self
assembling “spit fences”. These malicious folk are not only described as
intentional planters of noxious species like Eucalyptus globules, but they
plant their malicious trees on public or unmaintained private land, avoiding
personal responsibility for their noxious deeds. A sad circumstance if

2.. Trees and people can both coexist in a densely developed and populated
community like El Cerrito, but only if there is some thoughtful intent and
expectations, of both people and trees, used in a long term development

3.. People need to recognize that all trees are not created equal and
their individual characteristics can support and enhance, or, work very much
against other objectives established by the community.

4.. Recognizing that trees can add to or detract from community values,
trees do provide an opportunity, over the course of time, in which we can
“have our cake and eat it too”. That is, we can have trees and all their
real and alleged contributions to the community AND community values like
views that some think are incompatible or unimportant because of tree

5.. The City, that is all people of El Cerrito have a vested interest in
the establishment and approval of very large structures whether they are
buildings, commercial installations (broadcast towers, power transmission
lines, etc) or very large self assembling plants. They all have very real
environmental impacts, especially on micro climates and local neighborhoods.

6.. Property owners should be no less exempt, less liable, from the
detrimental affects caused by their garden plantings than noxious animals,
noisy tools and equipment or dangerous structures on their property.

7.. Trees, true or false:
1.. Trees prevent sound pollution – False. Space/distance with or
without trees deadens sound.
2.. Trees shade, cool and humidify micro-climates - True. Great in
Indio, less great in EC.
3.. Trees create habitat – True. Habitat for robins and hummingbirds,
and, rats and ravens.
4.. Trees remove air pollutants – True&False. Remove dust, but add
pollen & tree detritus.
5.. Massive tree plantings throughout EC could create an “urban
forest” – True.
6.. The East Bay hills are a natural “fire climax” ecosystem – True.
Berkeley 1923, Oakland 1991, El Cerrito ??

Run dates: 2003-09-10 - 2003-09-24

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