Three years ago Nicholas Bartlett, a fire protection engineer with Security and Emergency Services, started looking at how Berkeley Lab managed vegetation as part of a larger wildfire management plan. Realizing that there was no comprehensive plan, he recruited 15 direct contributors and dozens of consulting partners from across the Lab to build the first Vegetation Management Guide.
Members of this all-volunteer team gathered to discuss what the Vegetation Management Guide encompasses, the multidisciplinary approach that created it, and what the future of Lab vegetation might look like.
- A group of employee volunteers brought together by Nick Bartlett, Senior Fire Protection Engineer, created Berkeley Lab’s first comprehensive Vegetation Management Guide.
- The Guide establishes current vegetation standards and practices and incorporates wildfire, environmental, ecological, and aesthetic considerations, among others.
- The multidisciplinary team that created the Guide reflects the history of team science and richness of expertise found at Berkeley Lab.
Suzanne Budd (Strategic Communications): What is the Lab Vegetation Management Guide? Can someone summarize it in one or two sentences?
Karen Salvini (Sustainability Project Manager, Directorate): I’d say it is an effort to guide vegetation maintenance from a holistic point of view, balancing a lot of different aspects, from wildfire, to environmental, to stormwater and bank stabilization. One of its real benefits is this balanced approach, realizing that there are these various outcomes that need to be considered. I think it’s a really important document, and we want to see it used widely, and kept dynamic and up to date over time.
Nick Bartlett (Senior Fire Protection Engineer, Security and Emergency Services): I’ve been describing it to people as a collaborative and comprehensive document that establishes the general framework for managing vegetation at the lab. The plan looks at high level topics like wildfire, landslides, and erosion control. We looked at environmental factors and we looked at sustainability, all in a big picture way.
Jeff Philliber (Site and Environmental Planner, Facilities): This was actually a really tough question because we grappled with this over the many months that this plan was coming together. At one point, to help understand what this plan is we had to define what it isn’t. That helped me understand where the gap was that we still needed to work on. This plan is helpful in that way. But what it doesn’t tell us is what we want to evolve to from an ecological standpoint. We want to actually evolve to something deliberate and not just let nature randomly take its course because we’ll end up with vegetation that we don’t want. For example, the plan discourages highly flammable vegetation, but it also discourages water intensive vegetation, or vegetation that’s incompatible with our different micro-climates. It has schedules and procedures for Jon Cleveland’s group, who actually work with these plants and maintain them. It’s a huge stepping stone towards our next phase which will look at the more esoteric vegetation outlook for the Lab. We couldn’t do that long range planning until we had this step taken care of.
Todd LeBerge (Fire Marshall, Security and Emergency Services): To echo Karen, it’s a holistic compilation of a host of segment areas that I don’t think ever would have been fully aggregated into one spot that could carry the vision for the whole Lab.
Jeff: I also want to throw in that this is not an actionable plan, but it’s rather a set of procedures. It’s not subject to California Environmental Quality Act nor National Environmental Policy Act review.
Suzanne: What is the future vision for the vegetation guide? How does the plan fit into the next 20-50-90 years of the Lab?
Jeff: I think it’s how you define vegetation. For example, I think this plan that has been developed under Nick could serve us for the next 50 years just by itself because it guides how we should maintain and manage vegetation. But I think your question is getting at perhaps into that more esoteric planning area. I think that it’s going to come down to a couple of choices. One choice would be do we want more open grassland? Because historically that’s what our site had. Or do we want more woodland? If we want more woodland it’s going to be oak and California bay laurel and that kind of thing, or some sort of mix between the grassland and woodland.
Suzanne: What sort of advice would any of you give a future group working on the long term plan?
Sebastian Uhlemann (Research Scientist, Earth and Environmental Sciences): Well, from a landslide point of view, grass is good because it keeps the ground stable. So once rain falls, you don’t get any soil erosion. The grass actually helps to move the water into the ground and prevents mudslides. I think grass is actually a nice idea, but any sort of vegetation helps, which may have different pros and cons.
Karen: We want the Lab to be a place where people want to be in the outdoor spaces. And while trees may carry some wildfire risk, we should aspire to having some balance of shade and aesthetically enjoyable spaces that are natural and habitat-appropriate.
Nick: I think that is the beauty of this plan. It’s not just a wildland fire reduction plan. It’s not just a sustainability plan. It’s an agglomeration of all of the different aspects and whatever we decide the future landscape is, it can fit right into that. One of the great things about the plan is that I don’t feel like it will need to be heavily modified as long term planning evolves.
Suzanne: How did the idea that the Lab needed a vegetation guide begin?
Todd: It started simply from Nick’s review of what we’re required to do from a wildland fire management standpoint. Nick identified this as a gap and said, we need to fill this.
Nick: The Federal Wildland Fire Management Plan is the federal government’s guidance for all federal facilities. So about three years ago, Todd and I did a full assessment of the Federal Wildland Management Plan and compared it to what the Lab was currently doing. That had never been done before and we realized that we didn’t really have a holistic and comprehensive plan to manage our vegetation at the site. And when you think about vegetation, you can’t just have a wildfire risk reduction plan. That’s just not going to work, especially at Berkeley Lab with so many different people, so many different stakeholders, and so many issues related to wildland fire and fire mitigation. We’re seeing erosion issues after huge wildfires these days, we’re seeing water contamination issues. We’re seeing all sorts of things and it just seemed kind of foolish to put together a plan that only looks at wildland fire specifically. And it started off with five or six people and slowly it expanded as we realized how many more stakeholders there were.
Suzanne: Each of you bring certain specialty knowledge to this group. How was your specialty incorporated?
Jon Cleveland (Technical Supervisor, Facilities): My group, Field Services, brought in the current things that the groundskeepers did to maintain vegetation. We compared it to a list that Nick had, and we brought in the head groundskeeper to tell us what he was actually doing. That’s really the part that we contributed, what we were doing to maintain vegetation management currently, and then determining what we’re going to do moving forward.
Nick: Not only that, Jon, but just knowing what your groundskeepers do, knowing all the various work parameters and restrictions to make sure that what we’re supposed to be doing is something that can be done safely. And if not, how do we do it? That was a really important part of the process.
Brendan Mulholland (Environmental Water Quality Manager, Environment, Health & Safety): I’m going to use an example related to stormwater and herbicides as one way I contributed. I would review things like how often would you be applying herbicide? What volume, how much are you actually applying and at what frequency? An important question was when. Are we applying it during a rain event or immediately after a rain event? Those are not good times to apply because obviously the applied material could mobilize and create a stormwater runoff problem.
Nick: Don’t short change yourself either because you contributed an entire section on erosion and sediment control, not just the herbicide stuff.
Brendan: I’ll also mention, Sebastian and Jeff talked about what’s the future plan, grassland, woodland, or a combination thereof. From a stormwater perspective you want to look at stabilized slopes, which Sebastian touched on. A vegetated slope is going to be good for erosion control and prevent rill erosion.
Karen: One of the great things about this multidisciplinary group is that people had both expertise and resources to bring to the plan. In addition to each person’s expertise, there was also a collection of resources and institutional knowledge that strengthened the plan. For example, I knew that the University of California had recently developed herbicide guidelines that we could leverage.
Suzanne: Which actually ties in really nicely to the next question. Several disciplines are represented here but this is not everyone who was involved in the development of the plan. Who took part in its creation (besides those at the table today)?
Brendan: From the EHS side, we also had contributions from environmental health physicists.
Nick: We had a bunch of other people in Facilities. Our lead architect and our lead engineer definitely contributed. The lead groundskeeper was very instrumental. As we went along, people suggested other people who might be interested. I would find that, in digging into a particular topic, I needed to reach out to this person and then I needed to reach out to another. For example, the plan includes keeping our roofs generally free of vegetation because it’s a fire risk and it’s just not good for roofs. So I had to talk to the lead person in Facilities that does maintenance for roofing. But then I had to go to the lead mechanical engineer who works with the contractors that work with roofing. In this manner, I realized how many people this touches.
Karen: One of the things we haven’t really touched on in terms of vegetation maintenance is the installation of new landscaping that comes with major construction and retrofit projects. We want to make sure we’re providing the right guidance to the architects and the design firms so that they’re putting the right landscaping elements in their designs. We want this plan to be a resource for as many people as possible.
Suzanne: This is a very diverse group, covering both the science and operations sides of the Lab. What was that partnership like?
Brendan: I think it’s great as everyone has mentioned here. Everything is connected. You know, you want to do one thing and it’s going to affect someone else or someone else has an opinion to offer. I enjoy it. I learned from it and hopefully I helped to contribute. Part of that is pretty typical, I think for the Lab and for what a lot of us do. A lot of us work on these interdisciplinary groups. What was atypical and what made Nick’s job almost impossible was the fact that this was entirely a voluntary effort.
Karen: It was exciting to work with a large multi-disciplinary team. It was kind of cool to be on a team that reflects the team science history of the Lab, and to do that on the operations side. And I really appreciate Sebastian being involved because we have such great scientific expertise at the Lab in these topics. So to have one of our own researchers involved to provide their expertise was a really critical piece. I really hope we do more of that. I personally learned a lot about these other disciplines, and it’s always great to have connections across the Lab that you wouldn’t normally make.
Nick: I want to echo what Karen was saying. For me it was really great. I mean, in my day-to-day job, I work on construction projects, or I’m doing fire inspections. I deal with the same types of people on a recurring basis. This was really a very unique effort that brought together a mixture of people from all over the Lab who all had an interest in this topic. I developed relationships with people that I would not have been in contact with otherwise in my day-to-day job. And I also definitely appreciate having Sebastian in the group. Collaborating on something for operations, but with science area expertise, was a really great experience.
Sebastian: For myself, it was quite useful because my research itself is somewhat focused on slope stability. So actually having a Lab as a research site is really interesting, but to do that, you need to know the people in Facilities. This was a good opportunity to learn more about people, what they are doing and how they engage in different things. It was very useful.
Suzanne: Any final words?
Karen: I would like to reiterate that a key focus throughout the process was, how do we make this something that is usable, useful, and broadly applicable? We want it to be a living document, tweaked and updated as the years go by. We want people to use it and also provide feedback to keep it relevant.