As we have said before in “FIRE!!! The Cover Story,” fear is a powerful motivator of public policy. The fear of fire is not the only tool in the toolbox of native plant advocates. They would also like the public to believe that non-native plants are invasive, that they will overwhelm the environment if they are not promptly eradicated. So, we will take a closer look at this claim and show that non-native trees are not invading Bay Area open spaces.
In “Vegetation Change and Fire Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area Open Spaces,” William Russell (USGS) and Joe McBride (UC Berkeley) used aerial photos of Bay Area parks taken over a 60 year period from 1939 to 1997, to study changes in vegetation types. They studied photos of 3 parks in the East Bay (Chabot, Tilden, Redwood), 2 parks in the North Bay (Pt Reyes, Bolinas Ridge), and one on the Peninsula (Skyline).
These photos revealed that grasslands are succeeding to shrubland, dominated by native coyote brush and manzanita. Eucalyptus and Monterey pine forests actually decreased during the period of study. In those cases in which forests increased in size, they were native forests of oaks or Douglas fir. In other words, they found no evidence that non-native trees are invading native trees or shrubs.
They also studied the implications of these changes in vegetation types for fire hazard by measuring surface biomass for each vegetation type as an indicator of fuel load and by using a computer model (FARSITE) to simulate the speed of spread of a fire. They concluded,
“A significant increase in the cover of shrublands was apparent in the general analysis…The results from the fuel and fire hazard analysis suggest that the succession from grasslands to Baccharis [coyote brush] shrublands indicates dramatic increase in fire hazard for those areas. Fire line intensity, flame length, and total biomass were found to be significantly higher with the shrub dominated areas. In the context of the landscape matrix as a whole this increased hazard indicates a greater possibility of fire being spread into adjacent forested areas and residential communities.”
This study, based on actual aerial photos, tells us that native shrublands are increasing in size while non-native forests are actually decreasing in size. It also tells us that this succession of vegetation types from grassland to native shrubland is increasing fire hazard. There is no evidence that non-native forest is invading the open spaces of the San Francisco Bay Area. The public has no reason to fear that non-native trees will overwhelm our environment.