To: Members of the Oakland City Council and Public Works Committee

From: The Oakland Permaculture Institute and members of the East Bay Permaculture Guild

Date: March 4, 2005

Re: Use of Herbicides in Oakland

The East Bay Permaculture Guild is an organization of urban farmers, educators, environmental activists, and others who are dedicated to nurturing the earth and its people by designing, creating, and maintaining sustainable ecological systems and communities. As residents of the East Bay, we recognize the unique nature of this bioregion, and engage in research that will help to meet its challenges and opportunities.

We have become aware of the proposed ordinance to use herbicides, a form of pesticide, as a measure to prevent wildfires. While we recognize the need to protect Oakland residents from the danger of fire, we believe that there are better, safer ways to remove plants that are potentially combustible.

Cutting, discing, and pulling by hand or weed wrench are the most obvious approaches. On steep slopes cherry pickersí hook and ladder techniques can be used. Goats and other grazers can be highly effective, given proper oversight, and have been a popular resource in the Oakland hills for years. In some instances limited use of vinegar or cornstarch solutions can eliminate invasive non-native species of plants. Machines that spray organic hot foam to initiate cellular breakdown and decomposition of invasive plants are being used more and more widely and should definitely be explored by Oakland Wildfire Prevention teams.

It is essential to remember that irresponsible clearing of slopes often results in dangerous erosion. One of our most basic techniques in permaculture is digging swales along the contour of slopes to absorb rainwater run off and prevent erosion. We then plant along the edges of the swales. Using this approach and installing fire resistant plants, especially natives and ground covers, can create a more fire-resistant ecosystem in the Oakland hills. Planting alleopathics like black walnut may also be useful in preventing regrowth of invasive plants.

Both government and independent studies have shown that pesticides pose serious risks to human health and to the environment. We applaud the City of Oakland for recognizing this when it banned the use of pesticides on public land in the 1990s. This ban should not be weakened by adding further exemptions.


Fear of fire in the Oakland hills does not justify exposing Oaklanders and residents of the surrounding regions to the risks of cancers and reproductive harm. Pesticide use results in contaminated soil and water. The destruction of pollinating insects and beneficial fungi by pesticides results in a devastating loss of ecological vitality. No matter how the herbicides are applied, they do not remain in one place. Pesticide residues have found their way into watersheds and drinking water throughout the world.

Nature has its own timetable. It takes long-term vision and careful planning, with special attention to the needs of the local ecology, to protect Oakland residents from both wildfires and exposure to pesticides. Meanwhile, the city government needs to ensure that seasonal fire fighters are adequately funded.

The solutions we have mentioned are financially cost effective both as methods and in terms of the often unacknowledged costs of human health. We urge you to consider the many effective alternatives to creating and maintaining fire-resistant habitat, which would not only make the use of toxic chemicals unnecessary but would make Oakland a more ecologically prosperous city.

Please feel free to contact us for more information about how to approach this problem sustainably.

Find out more about Permaculture Design at

Christopher Shein, Katherine Steele and
members of the East Bay Permaculture Guild