We are publishing a “progress report” from a member of our tree team who attended a Weed Management Workshop on June 3, 2017. This report suggests that the goal of local ecological “restorations” may be more realistic than they were in the past and potentially less destructive.
I attended a Weed Management Workshop this morning that was co-sponsored by East Bay Regional Park District and the California Invasive Plant Council. It was attended by about 70 people, representing many of the “stewardship” organizations engaged in native plant “restorations.” The main speakers were Doug Johnson, Executive Director of the California Invasive Plant Council and Pam Beitz, a member of the Integrated Pest Management staff of the East Bay Regional Park District.
The primary purpose of the workshop was to recruit new volunteers for the many “restoration” projects in the East Bay. Similar workshops will be offered in Mill Valley (June 17), San Jose (June 24), and Portola Valley (July 15). Since volunteers do not use pesticides or heavy equipment, those methods of eradicating “invasive” plants were not discussed. [Information about remaining workshops available HERE.]
Although the usual accusations about the negative impact of “invasive” plants were discussed, the speakers made several acknowledgements about limitations on their objectives that represent significant progress in the 25-year debate about invasion biology.
In the spirit of encouragement, I will tell you about a few of them.
Doug Johnson set the tone at the beginning of the workshop when he said, “Non-native plants aren’t evil. It’s important not to get ideological about this.” The audience did not react negatively to his appeal to base judgments about non-native plants on their ecological function and impacts on ecosystems.
Pam Beitz acknowledged that the historical landscapes, which “restorations” attempt to recreate were, in fact, manmade. She provided several observations from Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild to illustrate that point. Native Americans intensively gardened the landscape to foster the plants they needed for food, shelter, and tools. The implication of that history of our landscape is that ecological “restoration” must make a permanent commitment to managing the landscape. [HERE is an article on Million Trees about “Tending the Wild.”]
Beitz said the goal of these weed management projects is to eliminate “invasive” plants from a small enough area that it can be managed for the long term. She said it is no longer considered feasible to eradicate “invasive” plants.
In answer to the question, “Why manage the wildlands?” Beitz said, “Because we are driven to alter our environment.” She also said that human disturbance maximizes biodiversity, citing a study by Joe Connell that found the greatest diversity where there are intermediate levels of disturbance. This is a radical departure from the earlier view that the most effective conservation eliminates all human activities.
There were also many representatives of local “restoration” projects who described their projects and recruited more volunteers. Some of their presentations indicated the shifting emphasis of native plant “restorations.”
- Margot Cunningham of Friends of Albany Hill said that 50% of the 300 plants on Albany Hill are natives, despite the fact that it is heavily forested in eucalyptus, and that many of those native plants are growing under the eucalypts. She said there are 100 species of butterflies and moths and that monarchs roost in the eucalyptus trees. There are 80 species of birds. Her organization is trying to eliminate plants they consider invasive, such as ivy. [HERE is an article on the Million Trees blog about Albany Hill, which corroborates the view of Friends of Albany Hill.]
- Wendy Tokuda is one of the most prominent native plant advocates in the East Bay. She described several of the projects she has been working on for about 10 years, such as trying to eliminate broom along 3 miles of a trail in EBRPD. She emphasized the importance of focusing one’s effort on a small enough area that the goal can be both attained and sustained. [HERE is an article on the Million Trees blog about the 10-year attempt to eradicate broom on a trail in the East Bay Regional Park District.]
- Friends of Five Creeks said, “In a city, stewardship is forever.”
I have been following the native plant movement for over 20 years. I believe this workshop articulated some significant departures from their original agenda:
- There is a new understanding that the historical landscape was created by humans.
- Any attempt to recreate the historic landscape will require a permanent commitment to manage the landscape.
- Because of the scale of such an undertaking, it is not realistic to transform all open space to pre-settlement conditions. Projects must be scaled to match available resources.
Anonymous member of the tree team
The observation that humans are “driven to alter our environment” struck a chord. We are in the camp that prefers not to interfere with the workings of nature any more than necessary because we believe that human knowledge is inadequate to presume to make better management decisions than natural processes. There are pros and cons to every change in nature. Some plant and animal species will benefit and some will be harmed. It’s like flipping a coin. I prefer to put the coin in the hands of nature, rather than the hands of humans. However, we understand and are sympathetic to the human desire to “help” nature.
A recent article in the New York Times provided a good example of how the good intentions of humans often lead to intrusions into the natural world. The author explained how she became the self-appointed guardian of birds nesting in her garden. Her small dog was a predator of fledgling birds. She felt obligated to identify all the nests in her garden so that she could keep her dog indoors when the birds left the nest.
When her dog died, she discovered that she could not give up that role. If one bird was competing with another for a nesting spot, she found herself choosing sides, although she knew she had no business choosing winners and losers in the natural world: “It is wrongheaded to interfere in nature when something is neither unnatural nor likely to upset the natural order. I can’t help myself…It’s humiliating, all the ways I’ve interfered.”
We know that volunteers in “restoration” projects mean well. Since they don’t use pesticides or have access to the heavy equipment needed to destroy trees, we don’t argue with them directly. Our advocacy for the preservation of our urban forest is aimed at the managers of our public lands because we are as much the owners of those lands as anyone else and our tax dollars are used to fund their projects.