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Wildfire cover story is the lie that binds

September 8, 2018

Native plant advocates originally thought they would be able to destroy all non-native trees in California based entirely on their preference for native plants.  People who value our urban forest quickly challenged that assumption.  Native plant advocates devised a new strategy based on fear.  Fear is the most powerful justification for many public policies that deliver a wide range of agendas, including the current prejudices against immigrants that is shared by many native plant advocates.  After the destructive wildfire in Oakland in 1991, native plant advocates seized on fear of fire to convince the public that all non-native trees must be destroyed.  They made the ridiculous claim that native plants and trees are less flammable than non-native plants and trees.

Scripps Ranch fire, San Diego, 2003. All the homes burned, but the eucalypts that surrounded them did not catch fire. New York Times

Like most lies, the wildfire cover story has come back to bite the nativists.  As wildfires rage all over the west, becoming more frequent and more intense, the public can see with their own eyes that every fire occurs in native vegetation, predominantly in grass and brush and sometimes spreading to native forests of conifers and oak woodlands.  It has become difficult for nativists to convince the public that native vegetation isn’t flammable because the reality of wildfires clearly proves otherwise.

Vegetation that burned in the North Bay files of October 2017. Source: Bay Area Open Space Council

Recently, nativists have become the victims of their own wildfire cover story as they try to reconcile the contradictions in their hypocritical agendas.  These contradictions are now visible both nationally and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We will tell you about the lie that binds nativism today.

Sierra Club caught in the wringer of its own making

The New York Times published an op-ed by Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Chad Hansen, ecologist and member of the Sierra Club Board of Directors.  They informed us of a proposed federal farm bill to destroy trees on thousands of acres of national forests without any environmental review.  The stated purpose of this federal plan is to reduce wildfire hazards.

The national leaders of the Sierra Club emphatically disagree that destroying trees will reduce fire hazards.  In fact, they say “increased logging can make fires burn more intensely” because “Logging, including many projects deceptively promoted as forest ‘thinning,’ removes fire-resistant trees, reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy and leaves behind highly combustible twigs and branches.”

They point out that climate change and associated drought have increased the intensity of wildfires.  Therefore, they say we must “significantly increase forest protection, since forests are a significant natural mechanism for absorbing and storing carbon dioxide.”  Destroying forests contributes to climate change and climate change is causing more wildfires.

The leaders of the Sierra Club tell us that the most effective way to reduce damage caused by wildfires is to “focus on fire-safety measures for at-risk houses.  These include installing fire-resistant roofing, ember-proof exterior vents and guards to prevent wind-borne embers from igniting dry leaves and pine needles in rain gutters and creating ‘defensible space’ by reducing combustible grasses, shrubs and small trees within 100 feet of homes.  Research shows these steps can have a major impact on whether houses survive wildfires.”

Does that strategy sound familiar?  Perhaps you read that exact strategy here on Million Trees or on many other local blogs that share our view that destroying trees is not the solution to fire hazard mitigation and safety. 

Unfortunately, the Sierra Club continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth.  While the national leadership speaks rationally on the subject of wildfires, the local leadership of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club continues to demand that all non-native trees in the Bay Area be destroyed. 

The City of Oakland recently published a draft of its Vegetation Management Plan (VMP) with the stated purpose of reducing fire hazards.  The draft plan recommends removal of most non-native trees on 2,000 acres of open space and along 300 hundred miles of roads.  The plan seemed unnecessarily destructive to those who value our urban forest and have a sincere interest in reducing fire hazards, but it was unacceptable to the local chapter of the Sierra Club because it does not go far enough to destroy all non-native trees.  Here are some of the revisions they demand in their public comment (1) on the draft VMP:

  • “…removal of all second-growth eucalyptus trees, coppice suckers and seedlings in city parks…”
  • “…removal of 20-year old Monterey Pine seedlings that were allowed to become established after the original pines burned and were killed in the 1991 fire…”
  • “…identify areas of overly mature and near hazardous Monterey Pine and Cypress trees that could be removed…”
  • “…recommend adoption of specific updated IPM policies for the city to implement that will allow appropriate and safe use of herbicides…”
  • “The Sierra Club has developed the right approach to vegetation management for fire safety…The Sierra Club’s program for vegetation management can be summarized by the Three R’s:”
    • “Remove fire dangerous eucalyptus, pine, and other non-native trees and other fire dangerous vegetation like French and Scotch broom…”
    • “Restore those areas with more fire safe native trees like bays, oaks, laurels and native grasslands…”
    • “Re-establish the greater biodiversity of flora and fauna that results from the return of more diverse habitat than exists in the monoculture eucalyptus plantations…”

The local chapter of the Sierra Club is making the same demands for complete eradication of non-native trees in the East Bay Regional Park District.  The pending renewal of the parcel tax that has paid for tree removals in the Park District for the past 12 years was an opportunity for the Sierra Club to make its endorsement of the renewal contingent upon the Park District making a commitment to remove all non-native trees (and many other commitments).

“…the Sierra Club believes it is critical that in any renewal of Measure CC [now Measure FF on the November 2018 ballot] funding for vegetation management should be increased for the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus and their replacement with restored native habitat…Measure CC [now FF] funds should not be used to thin eucalyptus but must be allocated to the restoration of native habitat.” (1)

The Sierra Club has endorsed the renewal of the parcel tax—Measure FF—that will be on the ballot in November 2018.  In other words, the Park District has made a commitment to removing all non-native trees on our parks.  We have reported on some of the clear cuts that the Park District has done in the past 6 months.

Sibley Volcanic Reserve. Photo by Larry Danos, March 2018

The national Sierra Club and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club are at odds on fire hazard mitigation.  The national leadership understands that destroying trees will not reduce fire hazards.  They also understand that destroying trees will contribute to climate change that is causing more destructive wildfires.  The local leadership clings to the cover story that native trees are less flammable than non-native trees.

Local nativists change their tune

There is no history of wildfires in San Francisco and there is unlikely to be in the future because it is foggy and soggy during the dry summer months when wildfires occur.  But the reality of the climate conditions and the absence of fire in the historical record never prevented nativists in San Francisco from trying to use the fire cover story to support their demand that thousands of non-native trees be destroyed. 

Summer fog blanket over San Francisco. Courtesy Save Mount Sutro Forest.

Jake Sigg, retired San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) gardener who is considered the doyen of the Native Plant movement in San Francisco, has a widely circulated email newsletter. In that newsletter, he repeatedly claimed that eucalyptus were dying during the extreme drought and had to be destroyed so they would not cause a catastrophic wildfire.  In fact, eucalyptus did not die in San Francisco or elsewhere in the Bay Area during the drought because they are the most drought-tolerant tree species in our urban forest.  More native trees died in California during the drought than non-native trees. 

Jake Sigg made those dire predictions before the native plant agenda was finally approved in 2017 after 20 years of heated debate and before many wildfires in California have established the truth that wildfires start in grass and brush and seldom in forests and in every case in exclusively native vegetation.

So, to accommodate this new reality, Jake Sigg has changed his tune.  He got his wish that thousands of non-native trees be destroyed in San Francisco as well as a commitment to restore the native grassland that he prefers.  Consequently it is no longer consistent with that agenda to claim that there are acute fire hazards in San Francisco, requiring the destruction of flammable vegetation.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about the concerns of park neighbors about dead/dying/dormant grass and brush in parks that they believe is a fire hazard and they want the San Francisco park department to clear that flammable vegetation.  Jake Sigg is now quoted as saying that it isn’t necessary to clear that vegetation—which he prefers—because there are no fire hazards in San Francisco: 

“What protects much of San Francisco’s forested area is the city’s famed fog, said Jake Sigg, a conservation chairman of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.  While walking on Mount Davidson on a recent afternoon, he said, one area was so muddy from fog that he has to be careful not to slip…’In the past, (fires) haven’t been too much of a concern for the simple reason that we have had adequate rainfall,’ Sigg said.”

According to nativists, the wet eucalyptus forest must be destroyed, but the dead/dried flammable brush and grassland must be preserved because it is native.

Serpentine Prairie restoration. East Bay Regional Park District

The elusive truth

Despite the constantly shifting story, we are not fooled.  The truth is that native vegetation is just as flammable as non-native vegetation and that destroying trees—regardless of their nativity—will not reduce fire hazards.


(1) These letters on Sierra Club letterhead were obtained by public records requests and are available on request.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 9, 2018 2:30 pm

    Thank you SO much for this brilliant, necessary post. It is heart-breaking to see the damage at Sibleys by the EBRPD. I live in Oakland, but can’t bear going to our local parks because so often beloved trees are gone, and the poison spraying is so visible.

    So instead, I went to hike around Lake Lagunitas on Mt. Tamalpais in the Marin Municipal Water District last week and was horrified to see that even there, workers are killing trees with heavy machinery, making the hottest, driest section of the trail become even hotter and drier. The reason, they were told by a state agency: “To reduce the fuel load to prevent fire.” They are increasing fire risk. How do we stop these maniacs?

    That’s why your work is so important.

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