One of the most daunting challenges of developing new housing in the wildland urban interface is increased fire danger. Fire resilient infrastructure and careful vegetation management are important elements of protecting our community from wildfire.
Most of us agree that wildfire danger is fueled by climate change. If we fail to address the root cause of the problem, we will find ourselves literally going up in smoke.
The Stanford Wedge housing project offers a timely and important opportunity to tackle this challenge head on by the practical and scientific demonstration of carbon negative development, a proactive project proposal that takes specific and measurable actions that sequesters more carbon in the soil than the project uses.
Sequestration of carbon in soils is recognized as an important strategy in drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is low-tech, well-understood and under-utilized. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasizes the importance of this tool. One key solution to climate change is literally under our feet.
Our community, in cooperation with Stanford University, has an opportunity to demonstrate how soil carbon sequestration can be part of mitigating development in fire prone areas. The Alpine Rock Ranch area, and perhaps portions of Webb Ranch, could be converted into no-till, organic agriculture which sequesters carbon and produces healthy food. The project could be funded in part using community supported agriculture and private donations.
The fruit and produce could be used in campus food service, be sold at nearby stores and a farmers market. Some of the harvest should be donated to local food banks to address the scourge of hunger in children in our county. The farm could be operated as a cooperative, non-profit run by climate refugees. One can envision a group of families with an agricultural heritage being provided below market rate housing supported by local agencies, Portola Valley and the county. This could partially support the town's housing element. By providing an opportunity for climate refugees to start a new life and be integrated into our community, we can also address the global injustice caused by climate catastrophes and war.
Research at Stanford already addresses the intersection between agriculture and climate change at the O'Donohue Stanford Educational Farm, and Stanford is a leader in understanding soil carbon sequestration. Documenting the carbon uptake of the Alpine Rock farm would be an important demonstration of the power of carbon sequestration in well-managed agricultural settings and ignite broad application of this important tool.
The second element of this plan would be to sequester carbon in the undeveloped remainder of the property by planting native grasses to sequester large amounts of carbon. Fire mitigation plans for the site calls for removing trees, ladder fuels and non-native understory plants. These actions may well lead to non-native grasses and other fire prone plants dominating the understory, creating long-term management problems and costs. Native perennial grasses could mitigate those problems and establish a stable, resilient system that sequesters carbon. The expertise of Stanford University could provide the scientific underpinnings for this work and calculate overall project carbon balance.
These restoration efforts should engage local indigenous tribes. Local tribes could be granted conservation easements to conduct long-term grassland research and restoration in conjunction with Stanford scientists and the broader community. Stanford research supported the Muwekma Ohlone in their federal recognition efforts and in renaming landmarks to redress historic injustices. Working together, we can relearn, refine and implement the cultural land management practices that indigenous people used for millennia on this very land and take a step toward redressing the harms of the past while addressing the demands of the future.
John Muir said "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." It is time to employ this paradigm to solving complex social issues. When we look at any one problem (climate change and increased fire hazard) we find that it's connected to all other problems (jobs-housing imbalance, immigration, food security). By developing integrated solutions, we can address historic and current injustices, remove carbon from the atmosphere, address housing, wildfire and social inequities, and inspire others to do the same.
These ideas support the educational and research missions of Stanford, but are not intended to suggest Stanford should be required to undertake any of these as CEQA mitigation. Given the urgency of addressing the climate crisis and other compelling social challenges, these activities must be supported by the broader community using the scientific, financial and creative human resources unique in the Valley of Hearts Delight. Stanford can supply the soil and the scientists and make necessary internal policy decisions. The rest of us need to work together to urgently address the climate crisis in order to leave our children a habitable planet.
David Smernoff is a Portola Valley resident and founding board member of the nonprofit Grassroots Ecology.