Eucalyptus in the news

Because our mission is to inform our readers of the many projects all over California that are destroying non-native trees and vegetation in order to “restore” the native landscape of grassland and dune scrub, we are obligated to tell many sad stories.  So, we are always pleased when we have the opportunity to relay some good news for a change.  In this post we will tell you about several articles in the media that have treated our non-native landscape, as well as those who defend it, with more respect.

High Country News

Taking these articles in chronological order, we’ll start with an article in the High Country News which was published December 23, 2013. (1)  We considered it our Christmas present!

The article was informed by Jared Farmer’s Trees in ParadiseWe have reported extensively about this book, so we’ll leave that information aside to focus on what is new in this article.  It is written in the context of a specific project which had originally planned to destroy about 120 of 450 eucalypts on a 32-acre preserve managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society.  The Sweet Springs Nature Preserve is in Los Osos, California, near San Luis Obispo.

Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, Los Osos, California
Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, Los Osos, California

When the project was announced, defenders of eucalyptus objected:  “the Morro Coast Audubon Society was so stunned by the outcry when it filed for a county permit to remove some of the…blue gums that they put the project on hold,”  The defenders of the eucalypts are treated with respect by the author of the High Country News article.  She portrays the controversy as a question of different conservation priorities.  The eucalypts are serving a population of monarch butterflies and raptors.  Those who want to destroy the eucalypts believe they are shading out rare native plants that would theoretically serve a different species of native butterfly.  The author implies that these are all worthy goals.

She seeks the advice of a local scientist, Matt Ritter of Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo.  He tells us that  of the 38 species of eucalyptus that are widespread in California, only 18 have naturalized and only two—blue gums and red gums—are considered “moderately invasive, and then only in places refreshed by perennial moisture in the form of streams, springs or summer fog. “  He shows the author photographs of a place where eucalypts spread at a rate of 2 feet per year during the period 1931 to 2001.  Mr. Ritter concedes that that isn’t a particularly fast rate of spread compared to other plants.  For example, we wonder how it would compare to the spread of coyote brush into grassland that isn’t burned periodically to prevent natural succession to shrubs.

The article isn’t specific about the location of the photographs except to say it is “150 miles north” of San Luis Obispo.  That would put the location south of Santa Cruz.  That technique was also used In “Vegetation Change and Fire Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area Open Spaces” by William Russell (USGS) and Joe McBride (UC Berkeley). (2) They 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. 

The High Country News article ends with this happy ending:  “…the Morro Coast Audubon Society board backpedaled on its plan to remove blue gums.  While approving the removal of small trees—those with trunk diameters of eight inches or less—it took the larger trees off the table.  Flagged as exceptions to be considered on a case-by-case basis were trees that pose risks to life or property.”  This is the kind of compromise that we hope will ultimately resolve this conflict.  This particular compromise is especially welcome because a chapter of the Audubon Society made this decision.  We hope that the Bay Area chapter of the Audubon Society—Golden Gate Audubon—will note this compromise and learn from it.  To date, they have reflexively supported every destructive project in the Bay Area. 

High Country News is often quoted in Jake Sigg’s Nature News, which suggests it is influential with native plant advocates.  We hope this even-handed treatment of those who object to the destruction of eucalyptus will come to their attention.

San Francisco Chronicle

Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer
Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer

On Sunday, January 12, 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Jared Farmer, the author of Trees in Paradise. (3) It was also a balanced article that treated both sides of the debate about eucalyptus with respect.  We won’t describe the op-ed in this post because we have covered the book extensively in earlier posts.

To date, the article has drawn 115 on-line comments and three letters to the editor.  They are typical of the highly polarized debate about eucalyptus.  Here is the letter to the editor from the “other side:”

“I have never read such unsubstantiated, unscientific, navel-gazing in 50 years of reading The Chronicle. The logic of celebrating this invasive human-introduced species is the same as celebrating the hydraulic mining of the Sierra foothills or the decimation of the native Californians by disease and organized murder. We may never be able to restore our oaks and redwoods to their previous place, but a euke is as natural as a strip mine – and even more dangerous to life through falling limbs and fire.”

The commenter equates “human-introduced” trees to genocide and “organized murder” of Native Americans.  My, my…such hyperbole.  “Euke” rhymes with “nuke”…how clever.  He also reveals his ignorance of our natural history in the Bay Area where eucalyptus did not displace oaks and redwoods because there were virtually no trees here.  We won’t be looking to this person for the compromise that we seek.  This is the religious fervor which is standing in the way of compromise.

Bay Nature

The following day, January 13, 2014, Bay Nature published an excellent article about eucalyptus, featuring the reforestation effort at the Presidio in San Francisco. (4)  The article informs readers of Bay Nature of these facts which we know to be true:

  • Pre-settlement San Francisco was virtually treeless:  “Looking out along the high western ridge of the vista would have unfolded in rolling waves of sand and grass, dotted with scrubby plants that unfurled all the way to sea.  A few oaks lined the creek beds, and everything was bent to the wind and salt air.”
  • Non-native trees were planted to provide protection from the wind which enabled establishment of the entire landscape:  “The native oaks that grew in the area were too short to serve as protection from the wind and sand, and the dune habitat looked nothing like the forests that Easterners knew and loved.  And after the dunes of Golden Gate Park were forested in the 1880s, confidence mounted that the same transformation could take place at the Presidio.”
  • Non-native trees and native plants can and do thrive together:  “Like sentinels [cypresses planted just a few years ago] preside over the Presidio, but they also co-exist with the original settlers of the area:  native plants.”
  • Non-native trees provide valuable habitat for native birds:  “…the forest has also increased habitat for native species of birds that wouldn’t normally be able to nest here…”
The San Francisco Presidio, painting by Richard Beechey, 1826
The San Francisco Presidio, painting by Richard Beechey, 1826

Bay Nature is also widely read by native plant advocates and it often defends their destructive projects.  This article represents a significant change of tune, one that is very welcome.   We hope it predicts the compromise we are seeking.

San Francisco Examiner

On Sunday, January 19, 2014, the San Francisco Examiner published an op-ed by Joel Engardio about San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. (5)  In a perfectly balanced article, he accurately describes the two sides of the conflict about the destruction of trees by the Natural Areas Program.  Frankly, Mr. Engardio implies that he thinks the passion of the conflict is a bit silly, but he also makes it perfectly clear that he considers it a waste of taxpayers’ money to engage in needless tree destruction on the scale proposed by the plans of the Natural Areas Program.

A particularly nasty on-line comment on the article ends with this sentence:  “Not only does it display an impossible amount of ignorance, but a complete lack of ethics or morality.”  Having lost the debate on scientific grounds, native plant advocates now resort to self-righteous moral arguments.  Surely that is weaker ground.  Managers of our public lands are not obligated to deliver the moral imperatives of a particular interest group.

What does all this add up to?

Together, these articles represent a sea change of attitude on the part of publications that in the past were consistently supportive of the ecological “restorations” that are destroying much of our urban forest.  Critics of these projects have not been treated with such respect in the past.  Supporters of the projects were called “environmentalists” in the past.  Now the conflict is portrayed as a conflict amongst environmentalists.  That is a big step forward.

We hope that this significant improvement in media coverage of this controversy will create the atmosphere needed to find a compromise with which we can all live in peace.  We won’t predict the exact nature of that compromise because we know there is a range of opinions.  Speaking for the Million Trees blog—and no one else—we will say that the word “eradication” must be expunged from the debate and whatever the compromise is, it must include a commitment to quit using pesticides in our public parks for the sole purpose of killing non-native vegetation.

We are grateful to all of these publications for their participation in this debate.  That is the balanced reporting we are looking for from a socially responsible media.


(1)    Madeleine Nash, “Eucalyptus:  Beauty or Beast?,” High Country News, December 23, 2013. 

2)    Russell, W. H., and J. R. McBride. 2002.  “Vegetation change and fire hazard in the San Francisco bay area open spaces.”  Pages 27-38 in:  Blonski, K.S., M.E., and T.J. Morales.  Proceedings of the California’s 2001 Wildfire Conference:  Ten Years After the East Bay Hills Fire; October 10-12, Oakland California.  Technical Report 35.01.462.  Richmond CA:  University of California Forest Products Laboratory.

(3)    Jared Farmer, “Going out on a limb to defend eucalyptus,” SF Chronicle, January 12, 2014

(4)    Rachel Diaz-Bastin, “New Life for Presidio’s Historic Forest,” Bay Nature, January 13, 2014

(5)    Joel Engardio, “Tree war is Campos vs.Chiu wild card,” San Francisco Examiner, January 19, 2014

3 thoughts on “Eucalyptus in the news”

  1. Thank you for summarizing this coverage here. I am grateful for any movement toward a more circumspect approach … and for the diligent efforts you’ve applied toward changing this radical and unforgiving ecological paradigm.

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