Mill Valley begins bamboo removal on Madrona Steps

  • A worker carries bamboo branches up the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. A 70-foot section of bamboo on the upper west side of the steps is being removed by the city, which considers the factory as a fire hazard. The larger wooden bamboo along the way down the steps is not being removed as part of the project. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang from a bamboo hedge along Madrona Steps in Mill Valley Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. The town began removing a 70-foot section of bamboo Wednesday morning. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Michael St. John, a retired Mill Valley Fire Battalion Chief, chats with Nancie Rosen as a bamboo hedge is removed along the Madrona Steps near her home in Mill Valley on Wednesday, February 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • A note hangs from bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • A worker cleans bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. A 70-foot section of bamboo on the upper west side of the steps is being removed by the city, which considers the mill as a fire hazard. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang from the bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang from the bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang from the bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Nancie Rosen walks past the bamboo hedge near her home along the Madrona Steps in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of the hedge on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang from the bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Christie Gentry sits by the bamboo around the Buddha next to the Madrona Steps in Mill Valley on Wednesday February 9, 2022. While this stand of bamboo will remain, a 70 foot section of the plant across the path is being removed by the city, which classifies the plant as highly flammable. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Notes hang on a bamboo hedge along Madrona Steps in Mill Valley Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. The town began removing a 70-foot section of bamboo Wednesday morning. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • A note hangs from bamboo along the steps of Madrona in Mill Valley as workers begin to remove a section of bamboo hedge Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

After years of controversy, work began on Wednesday to remove a 70-foot section of bamboo along the Madrona Steps in Mill Valley.

The effort has reignited debate between residents seeking to protect a sacred neighborhood shrine and city officials who have directed eradication in the name of fire safety.

Michael St. John, a retired battalion chief with the Mill Valley Fire Department working as a part-time vegetation management specialist, said despite some opposition, he thinks the suppression plan represents a trade-off between cultural preservation and fire mitigation requirements.

“We try to find a balance,” he said. “There are other people who are okay with the removal and there are people who don’t want us to touch the bamboo.”

The Mill Valley Vegetation Management Ordinance prohibits certain plants such as acacia, bamboo, cypress, and juniper from fire-prone areas of the city that firefighters classify as highly flammable. St. John said if there was a fast-moving wildfire in the area, fire officials believe the bamboo would “burn furiously” and impede the community’s fire escape route along the stairs. .

The Madrona Steps stretch between Lovell and Summit Avenues near the city’s downtown. The bamboo, which locals say is half a century old, is being removed from a gate on Bayview Avenue. The bamboo support along the steps is approximately 2 feet wide and 70-80 feet long.

On Wednesday, tags were tied around the cylindrical stems that read: “Don’t destroy nature” and “Save this special place”. One of them, in a child’s scribble, read: “Nature is a bit of kep bamboo. One of them just said, “Come on.”

Residents opposed to the removal said the aesthetic transformation of the steps became clearer as work progressed. Areas once covered in greenery were now mowed and bald. Some have reported finding displaced bird nests and creature dens.

“There’s a huge pile of bamboo at the bottom of the steps that’s getting bigger every minute,” said John Pearce, who lives along the steps. “We lost; Mill Valley too.

Residents said the fire threat was exaggerated, arguing that redwood groves at higher elevations posed a greater risk. They said other fire evacuation sites could have been considered and calls for an environmental review had been ignored.

“It was kind of a close at hand opportunity,” Pearce said. “It just seems out of scale and thoughtless.”

The dispute over bamboo removal dates back to 2019, when the city recruited a commission of residents, conservationists and gardeners to assess the types of flammable vegetation in the city. Residents were able to delay the removal of the bamboo until a community meeting in October, which led to the decision to finally remove it.

By Wednesday, more than 400 people had signed an online petition calling for a stay of removal.

“We understand the community’s special connection to the bamboo and the trail, and believe we have achieved a reasonable accommodation that puts fire safety and the community interest first,” said Mayor John McCauley.

The bamboo will be removed down to the roots, which is 2 to 3 feet below the surface, and without herbicide. The work should last several days. St. John hopes the bamboo, known for its ability to overgrow, won’t return and will require further remediation work.

City manager Alan Piombo told a city council meeting on Monday that a fence will be built at the moving site to provide privacy for residents. Replanting and soil stabilization are under consideration, he said.

In an attempted concession, the city allowed an area called “the sanctuary” and a few clumps of large stock bamboo to be retained, as long as it is maintained and within 3 feet of structures, St. John said.

Nearby resident Christie Gentry described the sanctuary as a sanctuary of relaxation, shade and tranquility. It features a seated Buddha, potted flowers, stones and Tibetan prayer flags shaded by a clump of bamboo.

“This is a public offering for peace,” Gentry said. “It’s a destination place where people can walk around and show what our city is all about.”

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