Goats, Regrading, and ‘Genista’ roll into Knowland Park – Anybody have a Plan?

Longtime Knowland Park aficionados know that every year as summer approaches, a herd of mother goats and their kids appears in Knowland Park to munch down the tall dry grass. The process is intended to reduce the dry grass and brush that could fuel wildfire—and thus is an important, low-tech way of helping to protect residents who live near the Park. Those who walk the Park year-round may have noticed how oak trees are trimmed very evenly in the Park. This is due to the goats, who love to nibble on the oak leaves as high as they can reach, sometimes standing on their hind legs to snack.

In addition to their function in wildfire prevention, the goats are enormously fun to watch. The kids bound and play, butting heads until their mothers intervene. The variety of colorings and patterns are fascinating, and it can be amusing to try to match up Moms and babies. Children love to watch the goats through the temporary electrified fencing put up yearly to protect the herd from predators.

The goats are brought here under the City’s Wildfire Prevention Assessment District.  Parcel tax funds are used to import the thousand or more goats to thin down the summer hillside vegetation. Also, dirt fire roads are regraded at this time of year. Oakland citizens approved the tax measure under the condition that that the fuels work be done in an environmentally-sensitive way.

Keeping Goats Good

According to California plant ecology scientists, less than 1% of California’s native grasslands remain. Knowland Park is one of only a few hotspots for high quality stands of native grasses that are left in the east bay hills. Handled right, the goat grazing might reduce the incursion of more aggressive non-native grasses and promote spread of the native stands.

But handled wrong, they actually create more problems than they solve.  In order for grazing to be done properly to enhance the grasslands, the grazing has to be carefully timed to reduce the weeds and enhance the native grasses and wildflowers, and the intensity has to be carefully monitored.  Intensity refers to how many goats graze an area and for how long.  If the intensity is too much, the goats reduce the vegetation down to bare mineral soil, creating perfect conditions for weed spread and eliminating valuable grasses and wildflowers that create biodiversity in the park.

Goats appear again this season at Knowland Park, native purple needle grasses in foreground. Photo by Jim Hanson

Regraded Dirt Fire Roads

Recently, the dirt fire roads were re-scraped throughout the Park. In addition to fire equipment, the fire dirt roads offer wonderful walking and biking access (look on this site for trail access points). One objective of the regrading may be to flatten out the eroded rutting caused by concentrated winter rains on the bare dirt surfaces. The result is that over the years the dirt fire roads have been lowered to a foot to two feet below the surrounding grassland soil surface.

Who’s watching the ‘Genista’?

French broom seedlings along recently regraded dirt fire road at Knowland Park. Photo by Jim Hanson

It’s not only dirt that gets moved around with regrading. ‘Genista’ seed has been moved further into Knowland Park with the regrading work, too. ‘Genista’ is the latin plant name for commonly known French Broom. It is a 6’ to 10’ tall shrubby pea family weed found historically in the lower park around the Zoo, but now present in spots in the upper Park highlands.

French Broom colony (lighter green) is potential fire ladder into crown of Live Oak tree behind it Photo by Jim Hanson

What’s the Plan?

The public pays for environmentally-sensitive management of vegetation at Knowland Park. Rather than the City Parks Department, the zoo manages the upper Park under an agreement with the City. Formerly it received up to $1 million per year to help manage the zoo and Knowland Park. Last year’s publicity about City budget cuts to the zoo concerned the annual subsidy the City pays the zoo to also provide Park maintenance. It’s been difficult to find a report of accomplishments on the zoo’s maintenance of the upper Park and neighbors do not report any active Park maintenance by the zoo.

Also, the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District managed by the Oakland Fire Department has an annual budget of $1.3 million for vegetation management. When the voters passed the Wildfire District parcel tax in 2004, it also included a provision requiring development of an environmental fire plan so that fuel management was compatible with conserving the biodiversity of the Oakland Hills. An information request was made to the Oakland Fire Department to view the environmental fire plan along with the Range Manager’s prescription for monitoring goat grazing. In addition, since French Broom is a widely-known fire ladder fuel, we asked how Wildfire Prevention resources are deployed to control the Broom brought into in Knowland Park, along with preventing its spread. This information has yet to be provided.

Meanwhile, as you and your families enjoy watching the playful goats, ask your Council representatives to ensure that the grazing and other fire management practices are handled in an environmentally responsible way. We don’t have to sacrifice our natural resources in order to protect residents from wildfires—if our representatives ensured adequate Park stewardship, we should be able to achieve both.

Jim Hanson grew up in the East Bay and originally heard about out the City’s development plans for Knowland Park from the East Bay Chapter of the Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club Yodeler. A landscape architect, Jim appreciates the subtle beauty of the native bunchgrass prairies and meadow lands of California. He has served on the Board of Directors of the California Native Grasslands Association for several years and was recently elected its President. He likes to take fellow Oaklanders and Bay Area visitors to the Knowland Park highlands to point with pride how a vibrant, busy city still keeps its natural wealth.

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