Professor Arthur Shapiro’s comment on the Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Program

Mission blue butterfly Wikimedia Commons

With permission and in its entirety we are publishing the comment of Arthur M. Shapiro.  He is Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis and a renowned expert on the butterflies of California.  We hope that you will take his credentials into consideration as you read his opinion of native plant restorations in general and the Natural Areas Program in San Francisco in particular.  We hope that Professor Shapiro’s comment will inspire you to write your own comment by the deadline,  which has been extended to October 31, 2011.  Details about how to submit your comment are available here.


October 6, 2011

Mr. Bill Wycko

San Francisco Planning Department

                              Re: DRAFT EIR, NATURAL AREAS PROGRAM

Dear Mr. Wycko:

Consistent with the policy of the University of California, I wish to state at the outset that the opinions stated in this letter are my own and should not be construed as being those of the Regents, the University of California, or any administrative entity thereof. My affiliation is presented for purposes of identification only. However, my academic qualifications are relevant to what I am about to say. I am a professional ecologist (B.A. University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D. Cornell University) and have been on the faculty of U.C. Davis since 1971, where I have taught General Ecology, Evolutionary Ecology, Community Ecology, Philosophy of Biology, Biogeography, Tropical Ecology, Paleoecology, Global Change, Chemical Ecology, and Principles of Systematics. I have trained some 15 Ph.D.s, many of whom are now tenured faculty at institutions including the University of Massachusetts, University of Tennessee, University of Nevada-Reno, Texas State University, and Long Beach State University, and some of whom are now in government agencies or in private consulting or industry. I am an or the author of some 350 scientific publications and reviews. The point is that I do have the bona fides to say what I am about to say.

 At a time when public funds are exceedingly scarce and strict prioritization is mandatory, I am frankly appalled that San Francisco is considering major expenditures directed toward so-called “restoration ecology.” “Restoration ecology” is a euphemism for a kind of gardening informed by an almost cultish veneration of the “native” and abhorrence of the naturalized, which is commonly characterized as “invasive.” Let me make this clear: neither “restoration” nor conservation can be mandated by science—only informed by it. The decision of what actions to take may be motivated by many things, including politics, esthetics, economics and even religion, but it cannot be science-driven.

In the case of “restoration ecology,” the goal is the creation of a simulacrum of what is believed to have been present at some (essentially arbitrary) point in the past. I say a simulacrum, because almost always there are no studies of what was actually there from a functional standpoint; usually there are no studies at all beyond the merely (and superficially) descriptive. Whatever the reason for desiring to create such a simulacrum, it must be recognized that it is just as much a garden as any home rock garden and will almost never be capable of being self-sustaining without constant maintenance; it is not going to be a “natural,” self-regulating ecosystem. The reason for that is that the ground rules today are not those that obtained when the prototype is thought to have existed. The context has changed; the climate has changed; the pool of potential colonizing species has changed, often drastically. Attempts to “restore” prairie in the upper Midwest in the face of European Blackthorn invasion have proven Sisyphean. And they are the norm, not the exception.

The creation of small, easily managed, and educational simulacra of presumed pre-European vegetation on San Francisco public lands is a thoroughly worthwhile and, to me, desirable project. Wholesale habitat conversion is not.

A significant reaction against the excesses of the “native plant movement” is setting up within the profession of ecology, and there has been a recent spate of articles arguing that hostility to “invasives” has gone too far—that many exotic species are providing valuable ecological services and that, as in cases I have studied and published on, in the altered context of our so-called “Anthropocene Epoch” such services are not merely valuable but essential. This is a letter, not a monograph, but I would be glad to expand on this point if asked to do so.

I am an evolutionary ecologist, housed in a Department of Evolution and Ecology. The two should be joined at the proverbial hip. Existing ecological communities are freeze-frames from a very long movie. They have not existed for eternity, and many have existed only a few thousand years. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about interspecific associations. Ecological change is the norm, not the exception. Species and communities come and go. The ideology (or is it faith?) that informs “restoration ecology” basically seeks to deny evolution and prohibit change. But change will happen in any case, and it is foolish to squander scarce resources in pursuit of what are ideological, not scientific, goals with no practical benefit to anyone and only psychological “benefits” to their adherents.

If that were the only argument, perhaps it could be rebutted effectively. But the proposed wholesale habitat conversion advocated here does serious harm, both locally (in terms of community enjoyment of public resources) and globally (in terms of carbon balance-urban forests sequester lots of carbon; artificial grasslands do not). At both levels, wholesale tree removal, except for reasons of public safety, is sheer folly. Aging, decrepit, unstable Monterey Pines and Monterey Cypresses are unquestionably a potential hazard. Removing them for that reason is a very different matter from removing them to actualize someone’s dream of a pristine San Francisco (that probably never existed).

Sociologists and social psychologists talk about the “idealization of the underclass,” the “noble savage” concept, and other terms referring to the guilt-driven self-hatred that infects many members of society. Feeling the moral onus of consumption and luxury, people idolize that which they conceive as pure and untainted. That may be a helpful personal catharsis. It is not a basis for public policy.

Many years ago I co-hosted John Harper, a distinguished British plant ecologist, on his visit to Davis. We took him on a field trip up I-80. On the way up several students began apologizing for the extent to which the Valley and foothill landscapes were dominated by naturalized exotic weeds, mainly Mediterranean annual grasses. Finally Harper couldn’t take it any more. “Why do you insist on treating this as a calamity, rather than a vast evolutionary opportunity?” he asked. Those of us who know the detailed history of vegetation for the past few million years—particularly since the end of Pleistocene glaciation—understand this. “Restoration ecology” is plowing the sea.

Get real.


                                     Arthur M. Shapiro

                                     Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology

Professor Arthur M. Shapiro, at work, UC Davis

23 thoughts on “Professor Arthur Shapiro’s comment on the Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Program”

  1. Thank you Dr. Shapiro!! The native plant program here in San Francisco, misleadingly named the “natural areas program” has been dominating the conversation for far too long. Existing and very functional animal habitat is being, and has been, removed from our parks simply because it is not native. And this same habitat, even if it is native, is being thinned to make room for native grasses. So more and more of our parks are being turned into artificial nativist museum gardens that require constant maintenance, replanting and poisons because native plants are non-sustainable on their own. Your comments are immensely appreciated. Janet

  2. Dr. Shapiro’s comments are accurate and right-on! I hope they will influence the ridiculous native plant restoration projects that are underway or are proposed for the East Bay as well as those in San Francisco. I applaud him for his courage and for the knowledge he has of this subject.
    –Madeline Hovland

  3. The Natural Area extremists have Jumped the Shark, This article is the clearest thinking ever about the absurdity of clear-cutting existing landscapes. It’s time environmentalists return to fighting developers and polluters, not protected park areas.
    Webmaster: Yes, Dave, environmentalism has been stolen from us by native plant advocates. People who advocate for the destruction of trees, valuable habitat for animals, and the widespread use of toxic herbicides have no business calling themselves “environmentalists.” If you are still a member of the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society, drop them a line and tell them how you feel about their support for these destructive projects. Thanks for your visit and for your comment.

  4. For the past decade my business, Second Nature Design, has been dedicated to sustainable landscape design. My emphasis is habitat restoration and rehabilitation, one urban garden at a time. During my longtime work with Friends of the Urban Forest I helped establish the Ongoing Tree Care Program, organizing and participating in the hands-on care of many of our tens of thousands of street trees throughout the San Francisco area. I am a huge proponent of native plants, particularly trees. However, destroying our existing mature Urban Forest under the rubric “restoration ecology” is absurd. The Natural Areas Program’s (NAP) plan would decimate our existing Urban Forest, including such a unique ecotope as Sutro Woods. The NAP plan relies on false thinking, is a waste of scarce resource, and is an aesthetic abomination. It is true as the plan’s proponents state San Francisco once had no Urban Forest. But it is also true as proponents ignore that San Francisco once had no miles of roadways, concrete paving and buildings, an electrical grid and a dense population driving automobiles. The proponents of the plan never answer the question “What will sequester the off-gassing of these elements other than the trees?” The answer is obvious to me and others who work with sustainable landscaping we need our existing trees to sustain the environment we live in. Visit one of the many treeless San Francisco neighborhoods to understand the dismal, lifeless future of a treeless San Francisco. I agree whole heartedly with Professor Arthur Shapiro’s evaluation, “The creation of small, easily managed, and educational simulacra of presumed pre-European vegetation on San Francisco public lands is a thoroughly worthwhile and, to me, desirable project. …The proposed wholesale habitat conversion advocated here does serious harm, both locally (in terms of community enjoyment of public resources) and globally (in terms of carbon balance-urban forests sequester lots of carbon; artificial grasslands do not). At both levels, wholesale tree removal, except for reasons of public safety, is sheer folly.”
    Alma Hecht, APLD/ISA

  5. This is an interesting and thought provoking discussion. It’s tough to argue with Dr. Shapiro’s arguments; however, accepting them at face value seems to suggest that we should simply throw up our hands at the approach of any ecological change. I’d be lying if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind at times when staring across fields of Eleangus or marshes of Phragmites in Ohio. However, that would also mean saying goodbye to a good many species that rely on habitats that these invasives are replacing. By Shapiro’s logic there would seem to be no point to protecting endangered or threatened species, because, by his logic and on his time-scale, there is no such thing as protection and everything will eventually change anyway. Which in evolutionary terms is to say that all species as we recognize them will eventually go extinct. He’s ultimately right (in my opinion), but that doesn’t mean we should lay down and let it disappear at the rapid pace that we have set in motion. Yes, we are just one more species in a vast collection of species on this planet, and a species that is amazingly adept at aiding the dispersal of other species, but don’t we have any responsibility to try to preserve anything? Scientifically I would answer “No” but ultimately something else inside me says “Yes.” I wouldn’t expect everyone to feel that same way, and I can’t make a bulletproof defense for my position. However foolish as it may be, I’d like to believe that we are giving species a fighting chance to adapt before our rapid mixing of the global ecosystem causes a new mass extinction event that I don’t suppose the planet has seen before. I’m not ready to write a history that states, “I watched the Spotted Turtle disappear in my lifetime, because it’s habitat required too much effort to preserve.” Feel free to insert which ever other imperiled species you can think of that requires habitat protection and restoration to give it a fighting chance of being around 100+ years from now.

    Webmaster: You are generalizing from Professor Shapiro’s comment far beyond what he intends to say. He is talking about a specific project in a specific place. This project proposes to destroy tens of thousands of healthy trees, which will release tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air and spray public parks with toxic herbicides. The project is in San Francisco, the second most densely populated city in the country. This is a place in which the climate, the air, and the soil have been irreparably altered in the past 200 years such that the native plants that once existed here are no longer adapted to current conditions.

    Nothing that is done here will either cause or prevent extinctions of any plants or animals. These are tiny plots of land, some as small as one-quarter of an acre which are completely surrounded by non-native plants that will repeatedly re-populate these small gardens. Although the entire project adds up to 1,100 acres, they are spread into 32 unconnected plots. The project is pointless, futile, impossibly expensive, and unnecessarily destructive. To what end? A few native plant gardens that will not be sustainable in the short term or the long term.

    I would imagine that Professor Shapiro would support other projects if he were convinced that they had some chance to be successful and, that they would not do more harm than good.

    1. My generalization was not by accident. I think he makes some interesting points to think about, without narrowing the scope of his letter to the project in San Francisco area. Furthermore, when Dr. Shapiro expounds on what he deems to be the reality of “restoration ecology,” it is my opinion that he is speaking beyond the scope of any one project. Moreover, when he sets the stage for this letter with his credentials as an accomplished ecologist and evolutionary biologist (which I am certainly not disputing), I believe he is building a context that goes beyond a single project to instead critique an entire movement in land management philosophy. You can disagree.

      Nevertheless, and to be very clear, I am not disagreeing with what he is saying. Ultimately, our planet has been, and will continue to be, in an endless state of change; and the idea of maintaining ecosystems in a static state contradicts the very nature of these systems. You cannot have adaptation and evolution without natural competition and change.

      The purpose of my comments was and isn’t to specifically address the project in San Francisco. Instead, I am simply adding my thoughts to what I consider to be an interesting discussion. I don’t agree with your position, but I’m not commenting here to argue directly against it. I can’t speak directly to the project in San Francisco, because I am not familiar with the characteristics of the invasive vegetation that they are trying to control. However, with experience in invasive plant control and restoration projects I can offer an informed perspective.

      Plants that are labeled as invasive have been given that designation because of their ability to aggressively displace other species (typically native species). Yes, competition and displacement is a natural part of ecosystems; however, the actions of the human species have greatly enhanced the ability of species to rapidly disperse around the globe. As a result, competition and displacement has been sent into overdrive. The rapid homogenization of ecosystems leads to a cascade of changes that affect more than just the species in direct competition (i.e., the example of the spotted turtle).

      To the question of why land managers should disturb “mature ecosystems” that are overrun with or dominated by invasive species, I would return to what makes a species “invasive.” It is not something that matures and stays put. It continues to rapidly disperse and displace more and more species. Often times this mean the replacement of native habitats that support species uniquely adapted to these native ecosystems. When we allow the rapid displacement of key native species, we lose the functionality of that ecosystem such that numerous other species disappear with it. Restoration work, while ultimately futile in a sense, is an attempt to slow the rapid homogenization that we have set in to motion. With any hope, the persistence of remnant ecosystems over time will allow some species that might otherwise have disappeared sufficient time to adapt to new niches. Preserving a little bit of that diversity that took many millennia to evolve and radiate.

      Of course, when economics and the public’s financial welfare are involved, there are benefits that must be weighed and difficult decisions that must be made. An important consideration in that decision is that, once species are gone there is no bringing them back. I am apparently speaking beyond the scope of your immediate issue, but take it for what it’s worth.

      Webmaster: Thank you for the clarification. I agree with much of what you say. Again, our opinion of invasion biology is based on our personal experience and direct observation of our local projects. Although we read widely in the field of invasion biology, we are always judging it from the standpoint of how we see it being used.

      And so, for the sake of discussion and hoping not to seem argumentative, we will focus on the definition of invasions because it is an example of how projects become controversial because of what seem to be inevitable gaps between theory and practice.

      Here in California, about 200 species of plants have been designated as invasive species by the California Invasive Plant Council. Two of the species of trees in the Bay Area that are being eradicated are included in that list: blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pine.

      There is no evidence that these trees are invasive. The USDA and the US Forest Service do not consider them invasive. A study was done locally using aerial photographs of open spaces in several Bay Area counties over a period of 60 years, which found that the range of these trees is not growing, but rather is becoming smaller. Native shrubs expanded their range during this period. (see “ALIEN INVADERS!! Another Scary Story”)

      Likewise, we have photographs of eucalyptus forest in San Francisco, taken over a period of 80 years, that also indicate that eucalypts have not spread. (see “Photographic evidence that eucalypts are not invasive”)

      These are examples of how a designation of invasiveness is often inaccurate. In this case, it is used as a tool to support an agenda. Native plant advocates demand that the trees be destroyed because they want to return the landscape to grassland and scrub, which do not tolerate shade. The typical citizen is unlikely to consider grassland and scrub an inherently superior landscape. Therefore, native plant advocates attempt to motivate the public to accept their agenda by frightening them with stories such as “alien invaders.”

      We do not deny that there are instances in which it is necessary to control a non-native species. There are also instances in which the ranges of native species have become problematic because of climate change. Unfortunately, we do not think that invasion biology is presently making the necessary distinction between truly harmful invasions and those that are benign. When it fails to make this distinction, damage is done and money is wasted. We ask only that every species be judged by the function it performs in the environment rather than by its origins because many new species are now providing valuable ecological services.

      Thank you for your visit and for your thoughtful comments.

  6. I live on a coastal sand-spit in Northern California where
    European Beach Grass has naturalized. A bit over a decade ago
    our Board of Directors was approached by a group who told us we had weeds and they would take care of it.

    The EBG was removed; the wetlands drained, trees died, wildlife disappeared the primary dune blew-out and erosion is out of control. We had been accreting to the west, we are now wasting to the east. Our habitat plans have been put to the wastebasket due to a irrational fear of a benevolent plant. It is by leaps and bounds the most cruel environmental effort I’ve ever witnessed.
    Manila, Ca

    1. Thank you for your visit and for telling us about your experience with the mindless eradication of non-native species. Those who demand the destruction of non-native plants often don’t give any thought to the consequences of that destruction. Your experience is unfortunately typical of these projects. The entire ecosystem was disrupted and altered by the eradication of a single plant species.

      We would welcome a guest post about your experience. Before and after pictures would be very helpful for our readers to understand the unintended consequences of ecological “restorations.”

      1. Dear milliontrees, I look forward to such an opportunity.

        What I had not mentioned above is that the money to do the eradication work, removal of vegetation and burning was Dept. Parks and Recreation HW (Habitat Wetland) and HCF (Habitat Conservation Fund).

        Sadly ironic result of these actions, the wetland habitat no longer functions as wetlands, yet vegetation is still being removed!

        1. Yes, that is typical funding for such projects. They are usually funded by government agencies at all levels from federal, state, and municipal agencies. If they are municipal projects, they are usually at least partially funded by grants from other levels of government and the fund sources often have inappropriate names such as “habitat conservation.”

          That’s because the fiction that wildlife benefits from the destruction of non-native vegetation still dominates those government agencies. Readers of Million Trees know that there is no scientific evidence to support this belief and there is considerable evidence (both scientific and observational such as your experience) that contradicts it. Yet it persists.

          We have a long way to go to turn this devastation around. That’s one reason why we need to hear from people in other parts of the state and country about projects of which we have no first hand knowledge. If you want to write a guest post, please send it to Pictures are necessary to illustrate your description.

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