The Gill Tract Farm has long been a refuge for native plant life and the lively community of students and volunteers that work the land there. Now it is also home to a new and unexpected inhabitant: the monarch butterfly. Over the last two winters, the Albany farmland has become recognized as a significant overwintering habitat for monarchs, according to a recent count by the Xerces Society. In 2020, the count found 59 butterflies habituating at the site, making it the fifth largest overwintering habitat in California.

A black and orange Monarch sits on an orange Mexican Marigold flower
A monarch drinks the nectar of a Mexican Marigold at the Gill Tract Farm. (Cole Rainey)

“It is a big deal. The big picture is that there are almost no monarchs left in the west, less than 2,000,” says Mia Monroe, a longtime volunteer with the Xerces Society, the nonprofit that counts the monarchs each year. “When you look at less than 2,000 monarchs in the whole western coast, 59 is kind of a big percentage of them. It’s all very exciting for us to see.”

Overwintering is a process that begins in the late fall when the monarch begins its migration. As it travels, it settles in various places along the Pacific coast to take shelter and feed on the nectar of native plants. When spring arrives, it flies inland looking for milkweed plants where it can stop to lay eggs. 

But this process may be disrupted by UC Berkeley’s plans to build student housing on a lot that sits adjacent to the Gill Tract and the creek-side redwood trees where the monarchs take sanctuary. Environmental factors created by the project, such as shade, wind, and heat could force the monarchs to shelter elsewhere. This is cause for concern, say monarch specialists like Monroe, because loss of overwintering habitats has already had a deadly effect: the western monarch butterfly population has plummeted 99.9 percent since the 1980s, and the decline has accelerated significantly over the last three years. In December, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the monarch butterfly warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but that other species currently take priority.

“We’re not even saying don’t build the housing. We’re saying keep all the buildings over there in that parcel and make sure you build it in a way that doesn’t destroy the monarch habitat,” says Effie Rawlings, a farmer with the Gill Tract who helped organize an occupation of the farm in 2012 to protect the land from development.

Student farmers and community members are in the process of petitioning the university to conduct a new environmental impact report (EIR) to reveal any potentially significant environmental effects of a project, identify possible ways to minimize those effects, and describe reasonable alternatives. Gill Tract farmers argue that the current survey is outdated because it was taken in 2004, before the monarchs started using the area for overwintering, which should move the area into a different ecological category.

“There’s a larger picture of how the development ideology is so much about profit and so little about actually acknowledging [its impact]”

Beyond threatening the butterflies, advocates argue that UC Berkeley’s large-scale development plans are another step forward on the university’s path toward privatization. 

“There’s a larger picture of how the development ideology is so much about quickness and profit and so little about actually acknowledging the land that we’re on, the people it will impact, the beings different projects will impact,” says Neeka Salmasi, a farmer with the Gill Tract. 

The plot of land adjacent to the Gill Tract Farm is just one of the places where UC Berkeley plans to build student housing, according to its contentious Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). The plan has been hotly opposed by protestors, community members, and even the City of Berkeley, which issued a scathing 75-page letter at the end of April lambasting the university’s plan and environmental impact reports, arguing that the university has failed to adequately analyze the effects of its projected growth. The city went so far as calling for the plan to be redone. Other proposed sites for new student housing include People’s Park and the apartment building at 1921 Walnut Street, both of which have been fiercely opposed by hundreds of people who reside within and around them.

The LRDP is set to be reviewed by the UC regents in July. At the meeting, the regents will have the opportunity to make caveats and amendments to the plan and its accompanying EIR. But once the plans are approved, the public will no longer have a formal method by which to weigh in on the projects, or request changes. This creates some urgency for all those who take issue with the university’s housing plan, from the houseless people who reside within People’s Park to the farmers fighting for the monarchs that take refuge at the Gill Tract.

People stand in a field that is thick with yellow mustard flowers. The sky is blue above them.
Students, community members, and other stakeholders gather at the Gill Tract Farm in February to discuss future design plans for the farm. (Jessica Rozul)

The fight to defend the monarchs is just the latest in the history of resistance at the Gill Tract. The university has been toying with the idea of building housing on the farm for at least a decade. In 2004, they changed the land use plan of the Gill Tract from “academic reserve” to “recreation and open space,” and outlined plans to bring a Whole Foods, retail space, housing, and two baseball fields to the area.

“We’ve lost $250,000,000 in state funding in recent years. We need to look at all of our resources and see how we develop incremental revenue,” Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof told filmmaker Todd Darling in 2012. “This is ultimately a business decision for the university,” Vice Chancellor Edward Denton echoes in the documentary.

In response, there was a groundswell of community support by people who wanted the farm to be preserved as farmland. On April 22, 2012, a group of some-200 students and community members marched down to the plot of land at 1050 San Pablo Avenue with tools and seedlings—coincidentally, just two days after the 43rd anniversary of People’s Park. On that first day, they weeded and tilled a full acre of the farm. The protest turned into a three-week occupation during which 200-plus activists planted over 15,000 seedlings. After a heated standoff with UC Police, a lawsuit, and several arrests, the University entered into, a 10-year spoken agreement to preserve the 10 acres of land for agricultural uses. The Gill Tract Community Farm was formed out of this agreement, and has grown to be a hub for community education and research, and in recent years, a seasonal home for monarch butterflies.

Though the farm has existed in relative peace since 2012, the fight to save the monarch may serve as a harbinger of a larger battle to come. While there are no current plans for development of the farm itself, the 10-year verbal agreement to maintain the space as farmland is up in 2022. As that deadline approaches, farmers are cautious about what could come next.

“An essential question at the beginning of this year was whether the Gill Tract would have to fight for its life again in 2022 after the 10-year spoken agreement was up,” said Rourke Healy, a farmer with the Gill Tract and a UC Berkeley graduate student studying Urban Planning. “There is still no agreement about its continued existence, but there has been an acknowledgment of the farm as a legitimate entity that needs to be brought to the table about what new developments will look like.”

A hand-painted banner decorated with images of vegetables reads, "Occupy the farm, take back the tract"
Students and community members on the Gill Tract during the Occupy the Farm movement in 2012. (Jeff Contat)

It’s this working relationship with the university that may continue to preserve the Gill Tract Farm, while community groups on other university-owned parcels of land face a more uncertain future. The farm shares several key characteristics with People’s Park, for example: both projects started as grassroots occupations, both are fighting to preserve the use of public land for public good, and both must continuously advocate for their own survival.

“We are the grandchild of People’s Park,” said farmer Effie Rawlins. “They’ve been doing this for 50 years.”

However, People’s Park is set to be developed next year, despite hundreds who are protesting the project, while there are no current plans to develop the farmland itself. Rawlins points to educational efforts such as summer courses and university research as one explanation for their success in advocating to be brought to the table.

“We know we have to be leveraging an educational agenda—talking about these things with the dean, with professors…We make it our business to talk to them.”

In the current development plan, the farm may get space to build a kitchen and food distribution hub, which would be its largest piece of infrastructure yet. But even as they work to maintain their seat at the table, the fight to maintain the Gill Tract’s integrity as farmland persists. To do that, farmers have been doing all they can to tend to the monarch habitat, and ensure the butterflies have everything they need to thrive in the creekside redwood trees. This includes planting nectar flowers, mulching the area around the redwoods to nourish the trees, and cleaning the creek, amongst other efforts.

“This is something that an institution of public education should be tending to. Not just these research agendas that are driven by private interests, but taking care of our communities,” Rawlins says of university-owned public spaces like the Gill Tract and People’s Park. 

“In the space of 10 years we’ve seen this dramatic shift when we’ve tended to the land. The human community and wild communities are responding. They’re integrating it into their survival plans. The ripples are huge, and happening way faster than a lot of people expected.”

Correction: The print version of this story states that the last Environmental Impact Review of the Gill Tract was completed in 2015. In fact, the last comprehensive EIR was conducted in 2004. And, a previous version of this article stated that the Gill Tract Farm is in West Berkeley. It is actually in Albany.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.