Albany Hill

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AFTER: Albany Hill currently as seen from El Cerrito Plaza.
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BEFORE: Albany Hill 500 years ago with California grizzlies dining on fallen coast live oak acorns on a coastal prairie of California oatgrass bunches (Danthonia californica). The grizzlies have spent time in the prairie digging up gophers. Oil on cotton rag paper, Laura Cunningham. Private collection.

Part of what I intend this blog to be is a journal of visits to special places in the coastal prairie, the relict plant communities I have found, the parks, preserves, and neighborhoods that still hold coastal prairies, the threats to existing coastal prairies, and the special places that are being actively restored to coastal prairie by people who care. After all, this was most likely the dominant plant community across the Bay Area and coastal California hundreds of years ago. Cities have been built on it: San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, to name a few. Part of my fascination with coastal prairie is how it continues to survive in this built world in the heart of California, and how so many people want to restore it.

I grew up near Albany Hill in the East Bay and even went to El Cerrito High School–“The Little Hill” in Spanish. It is a landmark feature near Berkeley and visibly across the Bay from San Francisco; presently it is a city park oasis surrounded by urbanization. An island of native plants and animals in a sea of houses, cars, freeways, and shopping malls. It was my backyard in the city.

My sister Margot works for the City of Albany to help restore and maintain the ecosystems of Albany Hill and Creekside Park, and also volunteers a lot of time to help take care of it at Tending the Ancient Shoreline Hill. Check this site out, the Mini Herbarium and Haiku-like poetry reflecting the natural world are unique. Margot has spent a lot of time and creative effort into studying, conserving, and restoring this piece of land that retains the imprint of history and ecological heritage of the local place. This is a model of what I believe to be so important in our hyper-digital industrial age: respect for place, involvement in backyard neighborhood projects, awareness of the local natural world and underlying landscape history that gives rise to our present global society. We forget this local ecology at our peril. Remember that logo: “Think Globally, Act Locally”?

I frequently visit Albany Hill when I am in the Bay Area, and tag along with Margot to see what she is doing there. Restoration of the original coastal prairie that dominated the hill is a priority. There are some high-quality coastal prairie stands still growing here under the groves of introduced blue gum Eucalyptus which were planted on the hill by the powder companies on the west side in the late 1800’s as a barrier to their accidental explosions. They’ve been reproducing and spreading since then, although many appear drought-stressed these days. The trees harbor some native species such as migratory Monarch butterflies.

This makes restoration tricky, as the non-native Eucalyptus trees impact the native grasses and forbs underneath. Like all restoration, the process is gradual, and Margot oversees the removal of individual hazard trees and sick trees down in the park, one by one, so as not to disturb nesting hummingbirds or butterflies. A native grove of Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) grows on the north end of the hill, likely an original woodland, that in the future may be freed from the domineering tall Eucalyptus.

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Margot Cunningham at an ancient bedrock mortar rock used by the Ohlone people to pound acorns into flour, in a coastal prairie patch she is restoring on Albany Hill.

It amazed me to see Margot’s photos of black-tailed deer and a pair of gray foxes frolicking in this small live oak grove, in the middle of a vast metropolitan area. The deer have connectivity with larger wildlands such as the regional parks and water district ridges and valleys behind the Oakland-Berkeley Hills, as they walk between houses and gardens in the dark of night. Perhaps the foxes travel through the suburbs at night as well to access patches of oak and grassland. I’ll have a future blog post about these wildlife sitings.

Beautiful stands of Foothill needlegrass (Stipa lepida) still cover the slopes of Albany Hill, as they once did over thousands of acres of the East Bay back in time. I will have more to say about this also in future blog posts.

Margot found other native coastal prairie plants here, including rare plants. She carefully collects seeds from the native plants to grow more individuals in order to restore the hill.

Elymus glaucus from Albany Hill, grown from seed
Native grass seedlings grown from local seeds, getting ready for transplanting onto Albany Hill. Photo courtesy TASH.

Some of the threats to Albany Hill are the presence of private inholdings that include relatively pristine coastal prairies on the southwest slopes of the hill, outside of the park, land owned by Chinese companies that may in the future decide to sell or build condos here. This would be a terrible loss of native plant communities that are vanishingly rare in the Bay Area.

Other threats include trash, vandalism, poor water quality in the small creeks that flow around the hill into the Bay, and invasive species such as English ivy, Scotch broom, and the ever-abundant Mediterranean annual grasses and forbs.

Margot tirelessly organizes volunteer crews to pull up the invasive plants by hand, and hires tree-cutters to take down the larger woody invasives.

No herbicides are used in order to preserve the healthy soil and water quality of the area (tree frogs and stickleback fish live in Cerrito Creek). Black tarps are pinned over cut stumps to gradually eliminate the invasive woody plants. Native species are transplanted into the areas where invasive species were removed.

I’ll be returning to report on the coastal prairie of Albany Hill often in the future, it is a very special place that shows how small acreages of restored natural California can co-exist in our own backyard towns and neighborhoods within the immediate radius of booming Silicon Valley. As long as there are people like Margot to take care of them.

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Following Margot on a trail through the coast live oak woodland on Albany Hill. Who could tell we are in the middle of a bustling Bay Area metropolis?
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Albany Hill native coastal prairie and oak woodland is an island in the urban Bay Area.

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