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The Death Tree at UC Berkeley: Why Did It Happen?

Hank Chapot
Friday January 11, 2019 - 02:20:00 PM
The tree that fell, killing a driver on the UC Berkeley campus, had improperly cut roots,.
Hank Chapot
The tree that fell, killing a driver on the UC Berkeley campus, had improperly cut roots,.

A falling tree north of the Greek Theater on the University of California Berkeley campus killed Alexander Grant. He was 32. Very sad and totally predictable. A week before, UC started cutting trees at People's Park and spokesperson Dan Mogulof claimed, "deferred maintenance." The huge eucalyptus fell Sunday, January 6 at 3:46 pm. 

Alexander Grant’s unfortunate death is the result either of deferred maintenance or the result of excavation on a plaza and concession stand on the north side of the Greek Theater. Either way, UC is responsible. 

As a former UC gardener I have an axe to grind, because not long ago, UC Berkeley had twice as many unionized gardeners as today and four well-trained tree workers. Tree climbing is a specialized and dangerous profession requiring certification and ongoing education. Gardeners worked the chippers. And four tree workers were never enough for central campus, Clark Kerr, University Village, Blake Garden, Strawberry Canyon, Lawrence Lab, open space below Grizzly Peak, and other places in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and even on UC Natural Reserve System (ucnrs) properties. As recently as 2004, there was a fundraising campaign for campus trees, a brilliant failure. 

And, like every department in the UC system, there was an overpaid somewhat absentee tree-crew manager who did tree assessments. He kept a database of every tree on campus. I’d guess management has buried it because some trees on campus deserve heritage status, some have names, some dedicated, some with testimonials and plaques, and some are targets, like the old growth plantings from 1969 wacked at People’s Park in December. 

Now, the chipper truck and chain saws sit rusting in Strawberry Canyon. Through attrition, injury, retirement and no new hiring, there is no tree crew on campus. It’s been contracted out, just like food services, building maintenance, custodial and other good, steady, unionized jobs. After years of activism, AFSCME achieved some modest gains and suffered severe losses under UC’s relentless outsourcing. 

I looked at the downed tree that Killed Alexander Grant before it was removed. It should have been a crime scene. This tree had its entire east side root system sheered off in a vertical cut maybe two feet from the trunk, and the tree fell directly West, North. Someone had buried the tree’s trunk up six feet with excavated soil. I could find no evidence that the university reduced the size and weight of the tree to compensate. This goes beyond deferred maintenance to official neglect. 

Yesterday, I checked out a crew from Expert Tree Service, UC’s go-to outsourced tree company. A reporter told me Mogulof expressed confidence in his tree contractors. At Rim Way and Centennial, they had no traffic controls, no flaggers and no barricades or uphill warning signs, just two orange cones in an intersection blocked with Monterey Cypress. The workers had no gloves, no hard hats, no eye protection no ear protection. 

Grounds department crews had monthly training session in safety, personal protection, proper use and care of machinery, gardening, irrigation, traffic control and had the tools we needed to tend the campus. Even got uniforms and raingear. So last century.