The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
November - December 2007
Strawberry Canyon - a cultural landscape at a crossroads
Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon is a strange and wonderful place.
Juxtaposed here are research labs for emerging technologies, hundreds of acres of wild, undeveloped land, a world-class botanical garden, and an arts-and-crafts hillside neighborhood all within walking distance of downtown Berkeley. Here the atom was first split, and many early leaders of the Sierra Club, including Joseph LeConte, Joseph LeConte Jr., William Colby, Edward and Marion Parsons, and Willis Jepson, hiked and explored their home neighborhoods.
Today the University of California owns most of the canyon. Besides the Ecological Study Area and the Botanical Garden, UC's hillside campus includes the Silver Space Sciences Laboratory, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Memorial Stadium, rugby and women's softball fields, and the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area. The university also manages Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) for the Department of Energy.
In recent years, without consideration of cumulative impacts, the university has approved separate Long Range Development Plans, for its Berkeley campus and LBNL. These plans together will change the face and nature of the hillside area. In a particularly critical decision, the LBNL plan calls for increased development in Strawberry Canyon over the next 20 years rather than developing a second campus in a less ecologically sensitive place.
How will the wild, untamed areas in the canyon survive the building plans?
Already the urban landscape of the laboratories is colliding with the wilder landscapes that have been the traditional hillside backdrop to Memorial Stadium. Even football fans who consider the Strawberry Canyon setting central to their game-day experience now have a view of a nanotechnology facility, the Molecular Foundry, in the canyon interior.
Water and pollution
The canyon is a significant watershed. In 1864 Strawberry Creek yielded 100,000 gallons a day even during drought. This water supply was one reason the university was sited in Berkeley in 1868.
Pollution has been a creek-related problem throughout the development period, starting with cattle grazing from the 1850s until the 1930s. Even before 1900, large numbers of people began disposing of sewage in the flowing waterway. As technology advanced, so did the modes of contaminating the water. In 1923, in the building of Memorial Stadium at the mouth of the canyon, part of what is now known as Tightwad Hill was dynamited, and the creek was culverted underneath.
Every building, parking lot, and roadway results in less penetration of water into the ground. Less groundwater and more runoff have brought flooding to the lower watershed.
Although occupying only 202 acres of the over-1000-acre upper Strawberry Creek watershed, LBNL is its primary pollution source, releasing toxic and hazardous substances into the air, groundwater, surface water, and soil. To reduce the risk of toxic-contaminated wildfires, the university has denuded the hillside landscape.
The Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste has published a study by geomorphologist Laurel Collins mapping out in frightening detail contaminant radiation plumes in the canyon's groundwater. Through overlays of earthquake faults, landslides, and streams, we are reminded that Strawberry Canyon is not a great place for an industrial park.
The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), is concerned that the canyon faces imminent loss of integrity and further degradation, and is documenting the area as a cultural landscape and historic site. [see below]
Coast live oaks grow abundantly on the north-facing slopes. The canyon is home to the endangered Alameda whipsnake. Although there are no bears, except for the football type, there are occasional sightings of mountain lions. Strawberry Canyon is contiguous with Tilden Park, the Claremont Canyon Preserve, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District watershed lands, which connect the mountain lions to a much wider range.
Because of its historical connection with the Sierra Club and because of its status as a prime open-space area in Berkeley, the Northern Alameda County Group of the Sierra Club supports protection of Strawberry Canyon and its designation as a cultural landscape. The concept of the cultural landscape can be a valuable complement and addition to our standard repertoire of more traditional perspectives on the environment.
LBNL will soon release Draft Environmental Impact Reports on two new buildings, the Helios Energy Research Facility and the Computational Research and Theory Facility. Helios would be on currently undeveloped land. When these documents are released, they will be available at www.lbl.gov/Community/LRDP/index.html
At that time the Group may have further comments. To be informed, call conservation manager or call (510) 848-0800, ext. 307
What is a cultural landscape?
A cultural landscape is defined as "a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values." There are four general types of cultural landscapes, not mutually exclusive: historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes.
© 2007 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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