“Mother Nature’s Melting Pot”

The Sunday New York Times of April 3rd published an op ed in defense of non-native plants.  In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot” Professor Hugh Raffles (New School) reminds us that our country was built by immigrants.  Despite our origins, we also have a long tradition of opposition to immigration.  As each generation becomes established, it wishes to pull up the welcome carpet to new immigrants.  During times of economic crisis this anti-immigration sentiment is particularly strong.

Professor Raffles notes the extension of this anti-immigration sentiment to non-native plants and animals.  Just as immigrants have contributed to the dynamism and creativity of our society, non-native plants are contributing to our natural world as, “They arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar conditions and proceed to remake each other and their surroundings.” (1)

He provides many examples of non-native plants and animals that benefit both humans and native animals, including several examples that are locally relevant.  He reminds us that the eucalyptus is a rare source of winter nectar for the honeybees that were imported in the 1600s and now pollinate about one-third of our food crops.  He also reminds us that ice plant can stabilize sandy soils that might otherwise inundate our roads and neighborhoods as they shift in the wind.

Painted Lady butterfly on ice plant. Bug Squad, UC Davis

He notes that attempts to eradicate non-native plants and animals are often futile once the species become firmly established and that attempts to do so often harm the environment.   Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are acutely aware of the harm being done by attempts to eradicate non-native plants.  We witness hundreds of thousands of healthy, mature trees being needlessly destroyed.  We see acres of park land being sprayed with toxic herbicides.  We watch precious recreational space being fenced off for “restorations” in places that are completely artificial, yet also entirely natural in the sense that they are sustained without being actively gardened.

The most recent example is the announcement that the Albany Bulb (in Albany, CA) will soon be transformed into a native plant garden.  The Albany Bulb is composed of landfill that was used for decades as a city dump and is now a heavily used park, populated by art created from the junk that remains from the dump.  Non-native plants and trees thrive there without any care.  It is pointless to destroy this valuable artistic and recreational resource, yet native plant advocates demand its “restoration.”

Sculpture of “Albany Bulb Greeter”

Professor Raffles makes the logical connection between anti-immigration sentiment and the native plant movement’s commitment to the eradication of non-native plants and animals.  This connection is relevant in the Bay Area because a prominent leader of the native plant movement here is strongly opposed to immigration.

Jake Sigg has been an officer in the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society for many years.  He was a gardener in San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department for 31 years.  He was awarded the “Jake Sigg Award for Vision and Dedicated Service” by the California Invasive Plant Council in 2003.  This award was named for him, “For years of tireless service and leadership on invasive plant issues in California.”

For many years, Mr. Sigg has published a “Nature News” newsletter several times each week.  This newsletter is widely distributed throughout the Bay Area and is a valuable source of information about nature-related activities.  It is also Mr. Sigg’s podium from which he expresses his opinion on a range of topics.  In most issues, he expresses his deep concern about immigration, both legal and illegal.

“Virtually All Of California’s Problems Can Be Traced Back To Too Many People…Virtually All Of California’s Population Growth In The Last 10 Years Was Due To Immigration…If We Don’t Do Something About Immigration, Our Problems Will Get Much Worse.”  April 2, 2011, Nature News

He is equally concerned about related issues such as granting visas to workers with unique skills and granting citizenship to children born to undocumented immigrants.

“The Ever Expanding Pool of Cheap Labor and the Case For Fewer Visas By Joe Guzzardi”  January 25, 2011, Nature News

“Current U.S. policy results in over 300,000 additional citizens from anchor babies each year.  The demographic impact is far greater because their families stay and bring in additional relatives. Anchor babies are eligible to sponsor their illegal alien parents and other relatives when they turn 21. Moreover, taxpayers pick up the tab for the medical costs and subsequent welfare outlays because of the child’s citizenship status. ACTION NEEDED  Please ask your Congressional representative to co-sponsor HR 140.”  January 13, 2011, Nature News

And so, we conclude that Professor Raffles is not making an idle philosophical connection between the native plant movement and anti-immigration sentiment.  There IS a connection because we see it discussed repeatedly by a prominent voice in the community of native plant advocates.  Occasionally, one of Mr. Sigg’s allies challenges his opinion on this subject.  However, such a debate is apparently rare in his community of interests.

We thank Professor Raffles for making explicit what is implicit in the native plant movement.  We believe that the connection between the eradication of non-native plants and animals and opposition to immigration should be acknowledged and discussed.  The desire to be rid of immigrants—both plants and animals, including humans—is grounded in a need to find someone or something to blame for problems that we are unprepared to face or are powerless to change. 

In the case of human immigration, our living standards are declining primarily because of the globalization of the economy.  Building a wall around our country will not isolate us from the fact that developing countries with lower standards of living are presently more economically competitive.

Likewise, eradicating non-native plants and animals will not prevent the climate change and associated changes in air and water quality that make those newcomers more competitive than the natives that thrived in a different environment, one that is gone and is unlikely to return.    In fact, the destruction of healthy, mature non-native trees is exacerbating the climate change that will ultimately exterminate many species of native plants and animals.(2)

(1) Hugh Raffles, “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” New York Times, April 3, 2011

(2) “Multitude of Species Face Threat of Warming,” New York Times, April 4, 2011

14 thoughts on ““Mother Nature’s Melting Pot””

  1. Raffle’s article is extremely offensive, it is the same tactic of smearing ecologists as being “plant nazis” as has been used by eucalyptus lovers in Marin County.
    Webmaster: Neither Professor Raffles nor MillionTrees has called anyone a “nazi.” To leap from “anti-immigration sentiment” to “nazi” is hyperbole.

    We can have a rational scientific debate about the pros and cons of invasive species, but to stoop so low as to insinuate that people who are concerned with invasives are racist is unacceptable. Are farmers struggling with newly introduced weeds and insects and pathogens nazis? Are inspectors trying to stop the spread of fire ants racists? Are all the volunteers pulling weeds in our parks secretly anti-immigrant?
    Webmaster: Our message on MillionTrees is focused on public lands in urban areas, not agricultural areas. Also, we do not deny that there are some truly destructive pathogens, such as SOD, that are legitimately considered “invasive.” We agree with Professor Mark Davis that new species should not be considered invasive unless they actually harm the environment or human health. Eucalyptus trees do not harm the environment, nor are they invasive.

    We need to call out these people who seem to be totally blind to what is happening here, as in Raffles article and milliontrees blog where there is no mention of extinction.
    Webmaster: There is little evidence that non-native plants or animals are causing extinctions except on islands (see Professor Mark Davis). Climate change is a more important factor in extinctions.

    Also apparently milliontrees thinks we should discuss this alleged connection between concern about invasive species and concern with immigration, but we should never discuss the connection between population growth and the destuction of nature. If you do try to talk about the negative effects of population growth some of these same people will again try to label you as a nazi. We need to denounce those who resort to these smear tactics, before we can have any rational debate we need to stop these insideous lies against the environmental movement.
    Webmaster: We consider ourselves environmentalists and we are deeply concerned about the changed orientation of traditional environmental groups. For example, the Sierra Club now advocates for the use of herbicides to eradicate non-native plants and trees. This position is not consistent with environmentalism as we knew it as recently as 20 years ago.

    The top priority of environmentalism should be climate change. The destruction of millions of healthy trees is not consistent with that mission and therefore not environmentalism, in our view.

    Although population growth is a legitimate environmental issue, it should be discussed within the context of our democratic, free society. That is, rather than abrogating civil rights, we should focus on providing birth control and promoting the education of women which is the only known factor in the reduction of birth rates.

    Thank you for your visit and for your comment.

  2. Mr. Pritchard is not reading carefully, so he has missed the point. Neither Raffles nor MillionTrees is discussing “population control.” It’s the campaign against immigrants that is at issue, which is a different matter. Availability of birth control, education of women, education of the general population about the harmful effects of large population on a world with limited resources, etc., are all legitimate topics for discussion—but don’t require demonizing immigrants to the US. Jake Sigg’s newsletter, the anti-immigrant faction in Sierra Club, and other self-styled “environmentalists,” do, in fact, demonize immigrants, blaming them for a variety of ills—including the inflammatory “increased crime.”

    Raffles and MillionTrees suggest there is a connection between the hostility to immigrants and the hostility to “non-native plants.” “Environmentalists” like Pritchard should own up to the existence of the ugly anti-immigrant strain within the native plant movement, should decide if it represents their own views, and should stop trying to deflect attention with references to “nazis” and “population control.” Then we can have the rational discussion Pritchard asks for.

  3. Eucalyptus are if not “invasive”, very aggressive and falling all over Mt. Davidson. A branch fell near me on Mt. Sutro the other day! It would have killed me or someone.
    Webmaster: I am glad to hear that no one was hurt. All forests, regardless of the species, require maintenance for the public’s safety. We never oppose the destruction of a hazardous tree if a certified arborist who has no vested interest in its removal makes that determination. In fact, certified arborists have evaluated the Sutro forest for the neighbors and have pronounced it “healthy.” You can read about their report on the SaveSutro website. Eucalypts are not inherently more dangerous than any other species of tree. Please visit our post featuring the professional opinion of a certified arborist: “Pt Reyes Light sheds light on eucalyptus myths and an arborist adds context.”
    It is frustrating how much time and energy you are wasting defending history’s great mistake…planting so many eucalyptus in the center of a big city. Now of course they are very successfully regenerating and growing as we speak; yet again forming our city’s greatest deferred maintenance problem.
    I am sorry to see you with no compromise on your views and perpetuating propaganda around global warming and any other info. you are actively skewing every chance you get. Jeez….it’s a life for you I guess.
    By the way….biodiversity celebrates different life and connections and defines place, whereas monocultures exclude.
    Maybe you should move to Australia or pitch in and help clean up the mess out in our parks!
    Webmaster: We have volunteered in our local park for many years and plan to continue to do so. We have also visited Australia, where the eucalyptus forests are just as beautiful as they are here. However, we actually prefer an oak woodland. The arguments for planting trees are very different than the arguments for destoying them.
    Thank you for your visit and your comment.

    1. Hi Sutro Biker,

      I guess I haven’t encountered any aggressive trees yet… but I nearly got hit by a biker crossing the street the other day. He would have killed me or someone. (He didn’t.)

      Seriously, I looked into this for the Save Sutro website. Tree-fall fatalities do occur, but eucalyptus isn’t particularly dangerous. In the last ten years, the four tree-fall fatalities in Northern California were from: an oak; an American elm; a redwood; and a Monterey pine.

      It’s true tree branches can fall, but it’s pretty rare. If you’re a biker, you face a lot more risk outside the forest than in it. (Check out Eucalyptus Myths at the SaveSutro website.)


      And if this is a risk, however small, that particularly frightens you, why go into eucalyptus forests at all? They’re easy to avoid. There are only two of them in San Francisco.

      I’m afraid global warming (actually, climate change) isn’t propaganda, from Million Trees or anyone else. Wish it were.

  4. “By the way….biodiversity celebrates different life and connections and defines place, whereas monocultures exclude.”

    Yes, the whole point of tackling the most invasive species is to promote diversity! Duh!
    Webmaster: We understand that native plant advocates believe they are promoting diversity. However, we do not believe that the destruction of non-native plants accomplishes that worthy goal. Nationally, the average number of species of plants and trees that are non-native is roughly 50%. Therefore, the removal of all non-native plants reduces rather than increases diversity. The assumption that diversity will increase if non-native plants are eradicated is based on the belief that native plants will return if non-native plants are eradicated. In fact, that does not occur. Repeatedly, we see in our urban and suburban parks that the removal of non-native plants and trees results in weedy messes, not native plants. And when scientific studies have compared species diversity in native and non-native forests they have found equal species diversity in both forests (see “Biodiversity: Another myth busted”).

    It is 100% non-sensical to compare a within species problem (human immigration issues) and a problem defined by the existence of many species and their interactions.

    It is non-scientific and anti-science.
    Webmaster: Hugh Raffles is in good company in his observation about the relationship between plant nativism and opposition to immigration. Stephen Jay Gould, noted scientist in evolutionary theory, made the same observation. (see “Stephen Jay Gould examines the concept of ‘native plants’”) The distinction between “within species” vs “different species” is a legalistic quibble.

    The biggest problem facing species is neither global warming nor invasive species but loss of habitat, and fragmentation of habitat. So it is entirely natural to not want to absorb unwanted peoples from a rich neighboring country into an area you are protecting. Calling anyone that might want to look for other solutions to this human problem, that don’t involve more destruction of a global diversity hotspot (which CA is) a racist etc reveals your OWN issues.
    Webmaster: Your generalization about the “biggest problem facing species” is an expression of your personal opinion that is not supported by scientific evidence.

    Neither Hugh Raffles nor Million Trees has called anyone racist. However, your comment makes the case for us when you state that you do “not want to absorb unwanted peoples from a rich neighboring country into an area you are protecting.” First, we consider it ungenerous to call people “unwanted.” Second, we can’t imagine where you got the idea that people are immigrating to the United States from a “rich neighboring country.” Third, you are expressing a sense of exclusionary ownership of land you do not own; this land belongs to all of us, as Woodie Guthrie reminded us 75 years ago. You have inadvertently provided an excellent example of a mind set that seems to be common in the native plant movement.

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