Highs and Lows of the 2018 Conference of the California Native Plant Society

I am pleased to publish the following report of one of our readers who attended the conference of the California Native Plant Society in Los Angeles at the beginning of February 2018. 

Million Trees

I attended the last conference of the California Native Plant Society in San Jose in January 2015.  It was interesting to note a few significant new themes in the recent conference in 2018.  Both fire and climate change were much more prominent themes in the recent conference.  While both are relevant to the future of native plants, neither seemed to have any effect on the “restoration” goals of the native plant movement.  For example, there were several presentations about massive die offs of native oak trees, resulting from higher temperatures, drought, and disease.  These presentations ended with urgent pleas to plant more oaks.  That seemed a fundamental contradiction and a denial of the reality of climate change.  When the climate changes, the landscape changes, but native plant advocates are not willing to acknowledge that.  In fact, the greater the threats to native plants, the greater the commitment to their preservation and “restoration.”

Beautiful pictures support nativist ideology

The conference began on a low point for me, but a high point for most attendees of the conference.  The keynote speaker was Doug Tallamy.  He was introduced as a “rock star” of the native plant movement, and indeed he is.  His presentation was very effective in delivering his message, which is that most insects are “specialists” with mutually exclusive relationships with native plants that evolved over “tens of thousands of years.”  If you believe that claim, you also believe that the absence of native plants will result in the absence of insects and ultimately the collapse of the entire food web.

Doug Tallamy’s closing photo, CNPS Conference 2018

Most native plant advocates believe that gloomy scenario, but few scientists still do, which creates a tension within this community of native plant advocates composed predominantly of amateur “botanists” and a smattering of academic ecologists.  For example, one of the first presentations after Tallamy’s keynote was an academic ecologist from UC Berkeley who advocated for accommodating the movement of plants outside of historical native ranges to accommodate climate change. (1) He said that restoring only with local natives is “maladaptive” and that a bioregional perspective is needed to create sustainable landscapes.  Allowing Monterey pines to grow in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they have grown in the past and are presently deemed “native” just 150 miles away, seems a good example of such a broader definition of “native.”  An amateur nativist, parroting Tallamy, asked this hostile question: “But if we move the plants how will wildlife survive?”  The academic delivered this tart dose of reality: “There are few mutually exclusive relationships in nature.  Wildlife will also move and will adapt to changes in vegetation.”

Science debunks a myth about eucalyptus

The high point of the conference for me was a presentation by Jennifer Yost, Assistant Professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  She and her graduate student studied the claim that nothing grows under blue gum eucalyptus trees because of allelopathic chemicals emitted by eucalyptus that suppress the germination of other species of plants.  Two studies of this hypothesis were done in the 1960s, but the analytical methods used by those studies were misleading.

CNPS Conference 2018

Rigorous methods used by Yost’s team included planting seeds of 5 native plant species in the soil of eucalyptus forests and comparing germination rates of seeds planted in the soil of oak woodlands.  They also tested the effect of blue gum volatile leaf extracts, and water-soluble leaf extracts on germination and early seedling growth.

They concluded, “In these experiments, we found that germination and seedling growth of the species tested were not inhibited by chemical extracts of blue gum foliage, either at naturally-occurring or artificially concentrated levels.” (2)

CNPS Conference 2018

Yost observed that the lack of allelopathic effects of blue gum on the soil implies that blue gum forests theoretically can be successfully planted with native plants after removal of the trees.  However, she cautioned that those who destroy the blue gums should carefully consider what will replace them.  Will an aggressive non-native weed quickly colonize the bare ground?  If so, what is the benefit of destroying the blue gums? 

I had a conversation with one of the most influential nativists in the San Francisco Bay Area after Yost’s presentation.  This new scientific information does not alter his commitment to destroying blue gum eucalyptus in the Bay Area.  After all, there are many more negative claims that remain unchallenged by scientific studies.  For example, there are no studies that prove that blue gums use more water than native trees, as nativists claim.  Nor are there any studies that prove that eucalyptus leaves contain less moisture than the leaves of native oak or bay laurel trees, which theoretically makes eucalyptus more flammable, as nativists claim.  The lack of scientific evidence enables the persistence of speculation justifying irrational fear of blue gum eucalyptus.

Nativism dies hard because of lack of scientific studies

There appeared to be three distinct groups of people in the crowd of about 900 conferees.  There was a large contingent of grey-haired volunteers who are the backbone of every native plant “restoration.”  They are the dedicated weed pullers.  There is an equally large contingent of young people who are making their living writing the “restoration” plans and directing the activities of the volunteers.  The smallest contingent is a few academic scientists who study the underlying issues in their ivory tower.  The goals and conclusions of these three groups are increasingly divergent as scientific studies disprove the assumptions of the citizen “scientists.”

The tension between science and the citizenry is as evident within the native plant movement as it is in American politics at the present time. The general public rejects scientific evidence at its peril.  The rejection of science will not end well.  In the case of uninformed nativism in the natural world, the result will be a barren, poisoned landscape.

  1. “Climate change and open space conservation: Lessons from TBC3’s researcher-land manager partnerships in the San Francisco Bay Area,” David Ackerly1, Naia Morueta-Holme5, Sam Veloz3, Lisa Micheli2, Nicole Heller4 1University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2Pepperwood, Santa Rosa, CA, USA, 3Point Blue Conservation Science, Petaluma, CA, USA, 4Peninsula Open Space Trust, Palo Alto, CA, USA, 5University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. Abstracts of CNPS conference presentations are available here:  CNPS Conference abstracts

9 thoughts on “Highs and Lows of the 2018 Conference of the California Native Plant Society”

  1. Thanks for this interesting report. I wonder how prevalent native plant restoration is in Europe, and on the other continents. I have read that nativism began (or maybe restarted) in Nazi Germany in the 1930s where it was linked to the idea that non-native humans were inferior to native-born humans. Did your reader who attended the native plant conference report anything about nativism in other countries, and to what extent might nativism be linked to the Alt-right movement?

    1. The conference was specific to California. However, the native plant movement is international. The European version is less extreme. Australian and New Zealand versions are more extreme. Native plant advocates reject any association of their movement with 1930s Germany or the American right-wing. In fact, they often accuse critics of nativism of being right-wing.

      1. The nativists do a lot of projecting, such as accusing us of being right wing when that’s what they are doing.

        In my experience, they won’t or can’t talk coherently about their politics and policies so either literally run away or, most commonly, immediately go to ranting insults and ridicule, like “you can’t possibly think Eucalyptus aren’t a fire danger!” Well, yes, that’s what I just said. The last one I argued with at the beginning of a Native Plant Society wildflower hike in Marin, finally admitted he didn’t know what we were dealing with in the East Bay. No one else joined him in the loud lecture, which gave me hope.

        Of course their ignoring the catastrophic effects of killing healthy trees and other plants for being “non-native,” calling beautiful wildflowers and other plants “trash” because they originated elsewhere, etc. is very like nazi ideology and the current anti-immigrant mania.

        Many of the plants these people so hate have been in the Americas now far longer than the ancestors of the nativists who immigrated here.

        They really need to look in the mirror. Not to mention, they need to just think.

  2. This article reminds me why I cannot stomach going to the native only organizations like ‘Wild Ones.’ I just find it repulsive. “We must kill these evil plants” was shouted by the keynote speaker. A lot of the botanical terms are by and large xenophobic: waif, feral, invasive, naturalized. Do you mean like a naturalized citizen of nature? They have the “Report Sightings” and don’t forget the reasons for destruction: “Ensure natural beauty within the parks.” (From the Minnesota Parks and Rec.) oh the lows of this! You have the strength to tolerate this.

    1. No, I don’t have the strength to tolerate it. It makes my skin crawl. I carefully pace how much of it I expose myself to. Unfortunately, I need to know what they are saying and doing to inform the public. I cope with the unpleasantness of the situation by limiting face-to-face encounters with nativists. I try to watch with a sense of personal detachment.

      Thanks for your understanding. There’s nothing like personal experience to inform yourself.

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