Our last post of 2014 will summarize wins and losses in our effort to save our urban forest and preview the local issues that remain unresolved. 2014 has been a year of many accomplishments, but there have been disappointments as well.
Good news always comes first! We are most grateful for the hard work of the San Francisco team with whom we collaborate. After herculean effort, they completed most of the presentations to the members of the Board of Supervisors about the forthcoming approval process for the Environmental Impact Review of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program, which has been in the works for eight years…and still counting. We are advocating for the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to approve the “environmentally superior” Maintenance Alternative, which would enable the Natural Areas Program to maintain the native gardens they have created in the past 15 years, but would prohibit expansion of those gardens. The Maintenance Alternative could save about 18,500 healthy non-native trees from being needlessly destroyed and significantly decrease herbicide use in our parks.
Because native plant advocates have succeeded in convincing many politicians that their projects are “science-based,” the San Francisco team was particularly glad to have three lectures at the Commonwealth Club by academic scientists, which challenged the unfounded assumptions of the native plant ideology:
- Dr. Scott Carroll, “Conciliation Biology: An Approach to Conservation that Reconciles Past, Present and Future Landscapes in Nature”
- Professor Arthur M. Shapiro, “Ecological Communities and the March of Time”
- Professor Joe R. McBride, “The History, Ecology and Future of Eucalyptus Plantations in the Bay Area”
These presentations were very well attended, including by native plant advocates. They were entirely successful from our standpoint, though they seem to have had little influence on the opinions of native plant advocates, many of whom seemed not to understand the scientific information being presented.
In March 2014, UCSF announced that they have put their plans to destroy most trees on Mount Sutro on indefinite hold. This decision was made in response to the public’s overwhelming opposition to these plans during the public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Report in March 2013. However, UCSF has destroyed about 1,200 trees during the past 18 months which they claimed would mitigate immediate hazards. UCSF has also made a commitment to not using herbicides on Mount Sutro. UCSF has provided no estimated time frame for announcing a new plan. Please visit Save Mount Sutro Forest for a more detailed description of that announcement. We consider this a “holding pattern” because we know that UCSF is under constant pressure from those who want the Sutro Forest to be destroyed.
Invasion biology is being revised by academic scientists who inform us that empirical studies do not support the hypotheses of invasion biology. Here are a few of the highlights from the scientific literature:
- Climate change is rendering the concept of “native” irrelevant. The ranges of plants and animals have changed and will continue to change in the future, as they have many times in the past 500 million years.
- Plants and animals from places with long, stable evolutionary histories have adaptive advantages over those with a shorter evolutionary history. It may be futile to attempt to eradicate species with such adaptive advantages.
- There is no evidence that biodiversity has decreased anywhere in the world as a result of introduced species.
Likewise, mainstream media has become more even-handed in its coverage of invasion biology and native plant “restorations.” Here are a few specific examples:
- National Geographic has published a critique of invasion biology by Emma Marris. This represents a change of direction for National Geographic which has been consistently supportive of invasion biology in the past.
- The San Francisco Examiner published an op-ed about the Natural Areas Program, which was critical of both the program and its cost.
- The Nature Conservancy explicitly stated on its website that it is not necessary to eradicate eucalyptus in California.
The publication of the final Environmental Impact Statement for FEMA projects in the East Bay Hills was the biggest disappointment of 2014. There were over 13,000 public comments on the draft and they were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed projects. Yet, the projects are fundamentally unchanged by the final EIS, which will be officially approved by a “Decision of Record” on January 5, 2015. We are grateful to the Hills Conservation Network for their continuing opposition to these projects and we urge our readers to support their effort.
We were outraged by UC Berkeley’s destruction of hundreds of non-native trees on their property in August 2014, prior to the approval of these FEMA grants. And we were also appalled by the letters sent to FEMA by elected officials in the East Bay in July, demanding that funding be immediately released and approved for use to destroy all non-native trees on their properties.
In San Francisco, our biggest disappointment of 2014 was the approval of the revised Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of the city’s General Plan, which has committed the city to managing all open space as “natural areas.” The ROSE defines “natural areas” so broadly that it includes not only areas that currently contain existing remnants of SF’s pre-settlement habitat, but also areas that could support native plants if they were planted there, or, in other words, nearly all open space in SF, including people’s back yards. This policy commits the city to managing nearly ALL open space in San Francisco, including that in private hands, the same way as the Natural Areas Program manages its lands. As disappointing as that decision was, it was also instrumental in producing one of the biggest accomplishments of 2014. We were successful in convincing the State of California to decline to fund a grant application which would have implemented the plans to convert all open space in San Francisco to native plant gardens. That so-called “biodiversity program” continues, but is presumably handicapped by the loss of that fund source.
Looking forward in 2015
In the past six months, the San Francisco team has devoted a great deal of time and effort to influencing the city’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC) to adopt “best management practices” that would discourage the destruction of healthy trees. The UFC has hosted a “listening series” of presentations by those who advocate for the eradication of eucalyptus forests as well as those who are opposed to that destruction. Native plant advocates have introduced new justifications for destroying the eucalyptus forests:
- They claim that eucalyptus forests are dying of disease, drought, old-age, etc. We have sought the advice of many professional arborists and academic ecologists who assure us these claims are inaccurate.
- They claim that the health of the eucalyptus forests would be improved by radical “thinning.” The scientific literature informs us that mature forests do not benefit from thinning because mature trees are unable to respond positively to increased light and wind. Thinning is only beneficial to young trees and even then, the disturbance can damage the trees that remain. Radical thinning of the mature eucalyptus forest is likely to destroy the few trees that will remain.
The UFC has completed its listening series and will probably reach its conclusions in 2015. Based on the meetings we have attended and the conversations we have had with members of the UFC, we are not hopeful about the outcome. They seem to be sympathetic to the demands of those who want the non-native forests of San Francisco to be destroyed. In that case, their “best management practices” could be specifically supportive of the plans of the Natural Areas Program to destroy 18,500 trees in San Francisco and Pacifica. If you would like to express your opinion to the Urban Forestry Council, you can write to them here: SFUrbanForestCouncil@sfgov.org.
We also expect the final Environmental Impact Report for San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program to be published in 2015. We will make our best effort to convince the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to approve the Maintenance Alternative. However, we should all understand that the lack of an approved EIR does not seem to have prevented the Natural Areas Program from destroying trees whenever and wherever they wish. Many trees (perhaps a few hundred) in Glen Canyon Park, McLaren Park and Pine Lake in Stern Grove have been destroyed without an approved Environmental Impact Report. In other words, the Environmental Impact Report seems increasingly irrelevant to what is actually being done in our parks.
The President of the San Francisco Forest Alliance, Carolyn Johnston, ran for a seat on the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club. If you follow the controversy about the Natural Areas Program in San Francisco, you may be aware of the Sierra Club’s role in supporting the nativist agenda (HERE is an example of their role). Carolyn lost by only 6 votes. If everyone in San Francisco who abandoned the Sierra Club because of its support for turning urban parks into native plant gardens, would renew their membership, maybe we could win a seat next year. We are grateful to Carolyn for running.
We also expect a final response from the California Invasive Plant Council to our request that Blue Gum eucalyptus be removed from its list of “invasive” plants.
Science is rapidly revising the unfounded assumptions of invasion biology and climate change is making the concept of “native” meaningless. But these realities are having no apparent influence on public policy, which seems to be immune to such facts. Popular culture always lags behind science.
Million Trees is changing its emphasis in response to these political realities. In 2015, we will focus on the science that is revising invasion biology because that’s where progress is being made. This type of research is both difficult and time-consuming for us because we do the background reading to understand the scientific literature and produce accurate reports that are accessible to the layperson. We therefore expect to publish new articles only once each month in 2015. As always, we invite guest authors to step forward with news of new developments that we are not covering.
Thank you for your readership in 2014 and for any help you gave us in 2014 on our various initiatives. We wish you all a Happy New Year in 2015.