InfoWar: UC Berkeley bombards us with propaganda against trees

First we must recapitulate the long history of UC Berkeley’s destruction of non-native trees on its property.

UC Berkeley (UCB) started destroying non-native trees on its property in the East Bay hills in 2000 and continued destroying trees until 2005, when it applied for FEMA grant funding to complete the destruction of all non-native trees.  UCB published detailed reports of its first phase of tree destruction, which reported the destruction of about 18,000 trees on 150 acres on Panoramic Hill, Claremont Canyon, Frowning Ridge, Chaparral Hill, and Lower Strawberry Canyon.

UCB completed the first phase without completing an Environmental Impact Report, which is what enabled it to avoid informing the public in advance of the destruction.  When UCB applied for FEMA funding it expected to be able to continue those projects without completing an environmental impact report. UCB’s FEMA grant application proposed to destroy 54,000 trees on 284 acres in Strawberry and Claremont canyons and Frowning Ridge. But the public was now alerted to UCB’s intentions and objected to the project being done without environmental review.  After completing the Environmental Impact Statement required by federal law, the FEMA grant to UCB was cancelled after a successful legal challenge of the project. 

UCB tried to implement its plans with its own funding without completing an Environmental Impact Report, as required by California State law.  Again, they lost a legal challenge that prohibits it from implementing its plans without an EIR. 

UCB’s most recent demonstration of its continued commitment to destroying all non-native trees on its property was a legal complaint filed in June 2017, which demands that FEMA reinstate the grants that were cancelled about one year ago.  At the same time, UCB has launched a new public relations effort to convince the public to support its projects.  In this post we will take a closer look at UCB’s recent round of propaganda.

New “informational” signs in Strawberry Canyon

We learned of new “informational” signs along the fire trail in Strawberry Canyon in July 2017, but we don’t know precisely when they were installed.  Those who often visit Strawberry Canyon tell us the signs are recent. This sign about “biodiversity” is an example of the message UCB is sending to the public.

Many of the statements on this sign are inaccurate:

  • Monarch butterflies roosting in eucalyptus tree.

    The sign claims that native plants “provide food and habitat for native wildlife” but that non-native plants “provide food and habitat for other non-native species.” Neither of these statements is accurate.  If a native plant provides food and habitat for native wildlife, it also provides both to non-native wildlife.  Conversely, if a non-native plant provides food and habitat for non-native wildlife, it also provides both to native wildlife. The notion that wildlife makes such distinctions is ridiculous.  Wildlife does not know or care what humans consider native or non-native.  If the plant is edible, it is food.  If the plant provides cover, it is useful habitat.

  • The sign also claims that the roots of native plants are deep, but the roots of non-native plants are shallow. These are equally ridiculous statements.  The depth of roots may vary, but that variation is completely unrelated to whether or not the plant is native.

Tree roots

Nativists often claim that the roots of eucalyptus trees are shallow (except when they claim they are very deep in order to make the opposite case that they use more water than other tree species).  So, we will digress briefly to provide some information about tree roots from a reputable, scientific source.

According to a study of tree roots by Harvard’s forestry research institution, Arnold Arboretum, (1) tree roots vary little by species.  The configuration of tree roots varies somewhat over the life of trees.  Early in their life, trees often have a deep tap root, but the tap root is slowly replaced by a wide, lateral network of fine roots around the perimeter of the tree, usually far wider than the tree canopy.  To the extent that the root system varies, it is more a reflection of soil conditions.  If the soil is very compact or the tree is planted in a rock or concrete basin, the width of the root system will be physically constrained.  If the tree is unstable in the ground, it is usually because of where it has been planted.

UC Alumni Magazine gins up fire hysteria

 In June 2017, the UC alumni magazine published an article in defense of its plans to destroy all non-native trees in the East Bay hills.  (Available here: UC Alumni Mag – Glen Martin interviews Scott Stephens)  Curiously, this article appeared in an edition devoted to climate change and adaptation to the changing climate.  You might think that concern about climate change would predict a greater respect for our urban forest, which stores the carbon that will contribute to greenhouse gases when the trees are destroyed.  Again, don’t look for consistency in the nativist viewpoint.  You won’t find it.

Here are a few of the absurd statements made in the article in the alumni magazine:

  • The article claims that the 150 acres where UCB destroyed trees over 15 years ago are now covered in native trees and shrubs that “came in” on their own when the trees were destroyed. All of these areas are easily visited and observed.  They are occupied by non-native weeds and piles of wood chips.  Here is a picture of one of those areas taken on August 6, 2017.
Site 29. The tall, dry weeds are the remains of poison hemlock that dominates this site where eucalyptus was destroyed by UCB. Shade is lost when trees are destroyed and weeds thrive in the full sun. The weeds dry out during dry summer months and become fuel for summer fires.
  • The article repeats the ridiculous claim that eucalypts are called “gasoline trees” in Australia. The word “gasoline” is not used in Australia.  As in all British Commonwealth nations, what we call gasoline is called petrol.  Calling eucalyptus trees “gasoline trees” is an American rhetorical device.  A native plant advocate probably made it up, then it was shared in their closed community until it became a “fact” in their minds.  It is a means of generating fear.  It is a tool used by native plant advocates to support their demand to destroy all non-native trees in California.
  • The article describes the huge die off of native conifers in California, caused by climate change and related infestation of native bark beetles and it predicts that they will be replaced by different species of trees that are adapted to present climate conditions. These observations are made with no apparent understanding of how it contradicts UCB’s strategy here in the Bay Area.  If the climate is changing in California and its landscape must change along with it, why is UCB trying to install the landscape that existed here 250 years ago?

UCB’s latest propaganda installment

The recent fire in the East Bay Hills was another opportunity for UCB to gin up the fear machine against non-native trees.  The fire started on Grizzly Peak Blvd where UC Berkeley destroyed 1,900 eucalyptus trees on 11 acres in 2004.  When the trees were destroyed, the ground was quickly colonized by non-native annual grasses and the road was lined with the trunks of the trees they had destroyed.  The dried grass and the dead logs were the fuel of the fire that started on August 2, 2017.  The fire was stopped when it crossed the road into the eucalyptus forest in Tilden Park.

This area on the west side of Grizzly Peak is known as Frowning Ridge. It is one of the first areas that was clear-cut by UC Berkeley over 10 years ago. Destroying the trees did not prevent the grass and shrubs from igniting in the August 2017 fire. Pictures of that area before and after the trees were destroyed are available here:

UCB now writes in its alumni magazine that there was no major damage to property and no loss of life because of UC’s “fuels management program” that destroyed the trees.  The fire risk to life and property was increased by the “fuels management program,” as facts on the ground tell us.  Scott Stephens, speaking for UCB, speculates that the fire “would have thrown embers miles ahead, starting hundreds of spot fires that would also burn explosively and merge.  That’s what happened in 1991.”

In fact, that’s NOT what happened in 1991.  The only source of embers identified by the FEMA Technical Report on the 1991 fire was “brush.”  That report also says the maximum distance of the fire spread was less than 3 miles, so if embers started spot fires, they did not travel many miles.

A study by US Forest Service of embers starting spot fires during wildfires all over the world included the 1991 fire.  The only known ember reported in the ‘91 fire was a wooden shingle from one of the homes that burned.  That study said of urban fires in California, “In the wildland-urban interface fires in California—Berkeley in 1923, Bel-Air in 1961, Oakland 1991—wooden shingles which were popular in California as roof material, assisted fire spread. Wooden shingles increase fire hazard owing to both ease of ignition and subsequent firebrand production.” (2)

But here is the kicker to this rewriting of fire history by Scott Stephens.  Less than a month ago, Stephens was interviewed about the many wildfires in California this year.  He blamed the wildfires on the heavy rains that produced a lot of grass and he said forests are less likely to burn: “UC Berkeley Fire Science Professor Scott Stephens says most of the fires so far have been in grassland areas that were revived from the rain, then dried out early during triple-digit heat waves… He says forests are better at retaining moisture and the Sierra will be more resilient this year because of the rains.” 

Stephens knows what is causing wildfires in California, but he chooses to misrepresent the fire in the East Bay Hills last week, presumably in the service of UCB’s desire to destroy our urban forest.  Perhaps it is naïve of me to expect more from a faculty member at California’s most prestigious research and educational institution.  But I find it disappointing.

Please join Million Trees in rejecting fear as the maker of public policy.  Be suspicious when you are asked to be afraid of something.  Are you being manipulated?  Do the fear mongers have ulterior motives? 

  1. Thomas O. Perry, “Tree Roots:  Facts and Fallacies,” Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University
  2. Eunmo Koo, et. al., “Firebrands and spotting ignition in large-scale fires,” International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2010, 19, 818-843

14 thoughts on “InfoWar: UC Berkeley bombards us with propaganda against trees”

  1. One of the most difficult “inconvenient truths” that Nativists thinking try to ignore is that plant and animal species migrate to fill niches and adapt to changing climate conditions. They always have and always will by whatever means necessary. Once a species migrates it cannot be native anymore. Actually probably never was since every thing is from somewhere else.

    1. The Lanphere Dunes was one of the first native plant “restorations” we visited when we became interested in the native plant movement over 20 years ago. Can I interest you in writing a guest post about Lanphere Dunes to give us an update? What have they accomplished? Is it still closed to the public most of the time? Does it have a lot of public support?

      Thanks for your visit and for your interest in the issues.

  2. This excellent posting suggests a current parallel: the several / many hysterias being generated now in our politics, many of them centered around immigration, race, religion, the-aliens, the-foreign… a politics of fear… And there is a causal-link, hard to tell which direction — our terrors of foreign people or our terrors of foreign trees, which came first — either way the same simplistic reasoning and primal fear reactions predominate, “they” will burn us, “they” will bomb us, “they” will steal our jobs… We have become a fearful nation.

    1. Yes, the parallels between our local controversy about nativism in the natural world and the current political climate are clear to me. I don’t know the causal relationship either. I’m sure there are many. A few come to mind. People seem to be finding comfort in tribalism. We are comfortable within our tribe and our solidarity is strengthened by hating/fearing those outside our tribe. The solutions to our environmental, social, and economic problems elude us, so we also find comfort in assigning blame to scapegoats.

      If and when we kill or otherwise rid ourselves of those scapegoats, perhaps we will come to grips with the fact that they have not caused our problems. Since there are lives at stake (human, animal, plant), we can’t sit idly by and let that killing continue without resisting it.

      What else can we do? We try not to contribute to the vitriol. We don’t post hate-speech and threats here on Million Trees, but we post as many critical comments as possible if they contain any information. Do you have any other suggestions?

      1. Hi there — thanks for your good reply. &, per your request, some suggestions: first, folks might take comfort, or maybe further distress, in the thought that these hysteria-waves are just that — waves, cycles, Kondratieff or whatever, very-nearly generational — not so long ago the City of Berkeley and yes even the supposedly-rational and so-very-objective University perched on its beautiful Campus were obsessing about Communists and The Loyalty Oath — and in between this and that there was Free Speech, or not — very-nearly a generation-or-so in-between each, 1950s – 1970s – 2000+’s — just enough time for a Younger Generation to become thoroughly-disenchanted with an Older Generation, or perhaps for the latter to become fed-up with the former… Toynbee called these our Times of Troubles… the Old Chinese, our periodic losses of The Mandate of Heaven…

        But I like Pogo’s formulation best: “We have met The Enemy and he is Us.” — it’s currently what I feel about the Democrats, and have been telling them — that whatever the problem, the answer lies pretty close to home —

        * in the Trees situation, the surrender by California voters of the UC System to a commercially-funded model, now the #2 employer in the state, bureaucratically-administered and now answerable far more to corporate donors than to any other entity, even to the federal agencies of Kerr’s era and certainly including local communities, that’s become an unwieldy & for-profit behemoth difficult to crack for any policy-purpose;

        * & in the case of the Democrats, a single-issue cadre of single-minded enthusiasts obsessed with electing a single-candidate, contemptuous of all opposition including The Voters and so much so that they lost touch with the entire Midwest & South, and then lost The Election, and nevertheless they still are hammering at their one-note-samba & so will lose again;

        — in both cases attention needs to turn inward before it can expand — to personal pocketbooks and paying for the Prop 13 shortfalls which bankrupted California’s social services, literally killing the several geese that laid the postwar golden eggs — and to those contemptuous attitudes which so cripple the Democrats now, for “Pennsylvania” is _not_ “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabaaama in-between” but a Red State with 2 local Blue enclaves, just as Alabama is a Red State solid, and the one thing the Democrats need very greatly now are Red States.

        So in California we need to pay for our own “public education” again — just as nationally the Democrats need to campaign not just on the Coasts but in Central Pennsylvania & Alabama & Michigan… and campaign not by _talking-at_ but by _listening-to_ and then Finding Common Cause… think Venn diagrams, there are lots of “overlaps” so shelve the disagreements…

        All politics is local.

  3. The use of fear and the need for safety is pervasive in public manipulation. At a recent presentation at SPUR, two RPD capital mangers told us how they each got lost in San Francisco’s McLaren Park. They went on to say that was a big reason why people were afraid to go to the park and that people wanted a “predictable park experience”. SFRPD is addressing this “safety” issue by closing the network of narrow winding trails in the park and replacing them with a few large, easy to navigate, trails. Of course, the real motivation is to channelize the public and keep them out of the wild parkland.

    1. Yes, Tom. The escalation of the nativist agenda does not surprise me in the least. In the 20 plus years I have watched them get a death grip on our public lands, I have always marveled at how they are always upping the ante. They are never satisfied. Once they have achieved one of their goals, they are reaching aggressively for another.

  4. This is an excellent article. It should be required reading in the Forestry and Environmental Studies Departments at UCB where students are being brainwashed with erroneous information.

  5. I understand the mentality of tribalism and the need to rally with those of like mind, language and looks. Especially during times of stress. I wouldn’t even call that racism necessarily. We can probably evolve out of that eventually but human history is 99.999% made up of tribal experience.
    However, I do not think this current trend of Nativism is the same thing. I consider it a failing of understanding that species always migrate and evolve and sometimes become extinct. We need to be able to shift the narrative from native vs non-native to beneficial vs. non beneficial.
    The “good” news is that so many of these programs to eradicate species are a house of cards held up by too many lies.
    Of course I would like to write a piece regarding the goings on here on our coastal dunes. I’ll check in with you to get parameters you think are appropriate.

  6. I love this blog. There is so much information and love of nature. I hate the lies and propaganda that cons so many people into believing we should destroy our rare and beautiful urban parks.

    That sign that UC posted in so misleading. I dare them to show us that “Cape Ivy” anywhere in the hills. This has to be more deliberate misinformation. Real ivy, Hedera Canariensis, is a problem only when humans let it cover and kill trees, but it otherwise is an excellent ground cover and extremely fire resistant by covering the otherwise barren, dried out earth with sunburnt grasses. You’d think they’d be embarrassed by the lies and propaganda.

    Then they show the native Bay trees, which is far more flammable than Eucalyptus.

    And broom, so beautiful and perfectly suited to our environment… Driving in Marin yesterday, I saw that where there was not dried flammable grass in hillsides, it was green and fire resistant everywhere because of broom. On UC land, they poison it, making it become flammable when it dies.

    Meanwhile, UC used to have its own book about the many non-native trees from around the world that they are so proud of planting on the campus. I wonder if that book is still available? I have a copy.

    That is revealing about McLaren park. I used to love that the Arboretum/Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park was so extensive that we could actually get briefly lost in it. I forget that so many people are actually terrified of nature and especially trees. It’s so self-destructive and disconnected from who we are in reality. It reminds me of my mother who grew up eating only organic food on their farm but later became suspicious of any food not in plastic packaging. Her health deteriorated as a result and she died much younger than her mother.

  7. The “information” plaques mentioned in this article appeared over summer just above the trailhead into the Environmental Conservency on Centin,ial which is between the Strawberry Clubhouse and the UC Botanical Garden. This is a very popular trail used by hundreds of hikers and joggers from the Campus and the surronding community.

    The plaques begin innocently with interesting geological and historical information. Then comes an admission UC once used Strawberry Creek to dump their sewage, and exhortation to practice commonly known ways to avoid current time pollution …duh…at this location preaching to the choir.

    Then POW! the plaque on Biodiversity. The Consevancy, it states, contains Native and Non Native vegetation. The message is summerized in two headings:
    ~ Benefits of Native Plants
    – Threats of Non Native Plants

    The final plaque is on Fire Ecology featuring a stock photo from somewhere like we have all seen of burning trees.

    No name is given as to who at the University stands behind the information and the propaganda based upon misinformation. What is cleatr to me is the sophisticated application of Eriksonian hypnosis that is ubiquitous in modern advertising: First make statements everyone will approve to get heads nodding up and down (including that we don’t want a forest fire in the hills). Then attach your message to what has just been accepted without question.

    What also seems abundantly evident is the purpose of the plaques. People who love this beautiful area must be persuaded not to protest when UCB begins to carry out its plans to clearcut Eucalyptus, Pines,and Acacia in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons’ Ecological Preserves.

  8. There was a recent television series showing part of Turkey, and they included a very popular park where people go to walk between a line of tall Eucalyptus on both sides of the trail, which they value and appreciate. What a nice change to see that!

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