Spartina eradication is now a zombie project

Over 20 years ago the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington made a commitment to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass on the entire West Coast of the country.  Intensive aerial spraying of herbicide killed over 95% of non-native spartina about 10 years ago, but the project continues in the San Francisco Bay.  The goal is now the eradication of hybrid spartina that grows at the same marsh elevations as native spartina and is so visually similar that it requires 500 genetic tests every year to determine that it is a hybrid before it is sprayed with herbicide (1). This article will explain why the Invasive Spartina Project in the San Francisco Bay Estuary is now a zombie project, a project that is dead, but is not being allowed to rest in peace.

Click on the picture to see the presentation of the Invasive Spartina Project to the California Invasive Plant Council on June 11, 2021. This is the source of some of the information in this article. Answers to questions at the end of the presentation are particularly important.

Hybridization is the boogey man of plant nativism

Hybrid spartina is being hunted because it outcompetes native spartina.  Nativists fear the loss of native spartina as a distinct species.  Rather than seeing the potential for a new, improved species of spartina, they see it as a loss of biodiversity, rather than an increase in biodiversity. 

Non-native spartina is also accused of “invading” mudflats where some animal species require that type of environment. However, that accusation is contradicted by these photos where native spartina has been planted on mudflats at Eden Landing. The source of these photos is the June 2021 presentation of the Invasive Spartina Project.

Hybridization is an important evolutionary tool that frequently increases biodiversity by creating new species on the margins of ranges where closely related species encounter one another.  For example, hybridization is credited with creating over 500 species of oaks all over the world that are well-adapted to their respective microclimates.  The rapidly changing climate and the globalization of trade have created more opportunities for hybridization and resulting speciation. 

Advances in molecular analysis has informed us of the frequency of hybridization and its benefits to biodiversity:

“With the growing availability of genomic tools and advancements in genomic analyses, it is becoming increasingly clear that gene flow between divergent taxa can generate new phenotypic diversity, allow for adaptation to novel environments, and contribute to speciation. Hybridization can have immediate phenotypic consequences through the expression of hybrid vigor. On longer evolutionary time scales, hybridization can lead to local adaption through the introgression of novel alleles and transgressive segregation and, in some cases, result in the formation of new hybrid species.” 

Restoration and expansion of wetlands is extremely important as we prepare for anticipated rising sea levels.  If hardier, denser, stronger hybrid species of marsh grass are available why would we reject that opportunity?  Nativist ideology should not deprive us of this opportunity. 

Native species are not inherently superior to species that are better adapted to present environmental conditions.  The rapidly changing climate requires corresponding changes in vegetation to adapt to present conditions.  Extreme weather events are natural selection events that kill species that are no longer adapted to the climate.  We cannot stop evolutionary change, nor should we try.

Why does this matter?

If herbicides were not required to eradicate hybrid spartina perhaps I could shrug and move on.  Hundreds of gallons of imazapyr herbicide were used by East Bay Regional Park District to aerial spray non-native spartina for the first few years of the eradication project.  In 2020, EBRPD used 43 gallons of imazapyr for “ecological function,” a nebulous category that includes spartina eradication. 

When the Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) made a presentation to the California Invasive Plant Council in June 2021, the public asked several questions about the toxicity of the herbicide (imazapyr) that is used to eradicate spartina (1). The ISP mistakenly claimed that imazapyr is not harmful to humans and wildlife because it uses a different metabolic pathway to kill plants that does not exist in animals.  They probably believe that claim, but they are wrong.

 A similar claim was made for glyphosate for 40 years.  We now know that the claim about a “unique pathway” for glyphosate existing only in plants is not true.  In 2020, plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Monsanto alleging that it falsely advertised that the active ingredient in Roundup only affects plants were awarded $39.5 million.  The settlement also requires that the inaccurate claim be removed from the labels of all glyphosate products: “…[plaintiff] says Monsanto falsely claimed through its labeling that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, targets an enzyme that is only found in plants and would therefore not affect people or pets. According to the suit, that enzyme is in fact found in people and pets and is critical to maintaining the immune system, digestion and brain function.”

I asked Beyond Pesticides for help to determine if the exclusive pathway claim was true of imazapyr.  Beyond Pesticides informs me that both imazapyr and glyphosate use metabolic pathways that exist in animals. I summarize their response:  “You asked about the ALS pathway that is the target of imazapyr—is there a comparison to glyphosate?  [According to] the research I found, I think the comparison is valid.  This early paper appears to clearly state that ALS is a pathway found in yeast and bacteria as well as plants (2). Another early paper which identified ALS as coming from bacteria, fungi, and plants (3).”  These pathways exist in bacteria that reside in our bodies and perform important functions, particularly in our digestive and immune systems.  When we damage those bacteria, we are damaging our health.

Please note that both of these studies of imazapyr are nearly 40 years old.  If pesticides were being evaluated and regulated, the public and the users of imazapyr might know that it is harmful to animals.  I provided this information to the Invasive Spartina Project.  They responded that their use of imazapyr is legal.  Unfortunately, they are right.  Because there is no regulation of pesticide use in the United States, the Invasive Spartina Project has the legal right to use it.  But is it ethical?  I asked the Invasive Spartina Project to quit making the inaccurate claim that imazapyr kills plants, but cannot harm animals.  They did not respond to that request.

Unfortunately the judicial system is our only recourse to take dangerous chemicals off the market.  For example, chlorpyrifos that is known to damage children’s brains was finally banned as the result of a court order.  The EPA refused to ban chlorpyrifos, but a lawsuit finally resulted in a judge requiring that the EPA either provide studies proving its safety or ban its sale.  The EPA could not prove its safety, so it had no choice but to finally ban it. 

What about the animals?

Ridgway rail. Source: Cornell Ornithology Laboratory

The only issue that temporarily brought the spartina eradication project to a halt was the impact it has had on endangered Ridgway rail. Ridgway rail is a close relative to the Clapper rail on the East and Gulf coasts where the spartina species considered non-native here (S. alterniflora) is native.  Clapper rails are abundant where S. alterniflora resides.

“Fig. 2.  In marshes where invasive Spartina was present in large densities, populations declined rapidly commensurate with the amount of Spartina removed [from 2005 to 2011].” (4)

The eradication of Ridgway rail breeding habitat in the San Francisco Bay reduced the rail population significantly by 2011, according to the US Geological Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (4). The loss of rails was greatest where the most non-native spartina was killed with herbicide.  In response, USFWS mandated a moratorium on eradication in areas where rails were nesting (5). According to the ISP 2020 survey of rails in the project areas, the rail population rebounded where eradication was stopped.  When treatment resumed in 2018, the number of Ridgway rails in the previously restricted areas declined by 9% in the following year.  That outcome was predicted by the USFWS Biological Opinion: “In the 2018 Biological Opinion, the Service estimated that rails inhabiting the nine previously-restricted sub-areas may be lost due to mortality or exhibit decreased reproductive success due to loss of hybrid Spartina cover when treatment of these sub-areas resumed.”

Clearly, the endangered Ridgway rail has been harmed by spartina eradication, as USGS and USFWS concluded in their analysis that was published in 2016 (4):

“California [now known as Ridgway rail] rail survival was higher prior to invasive Spartina eradication than after eradication or compared to survival in a native marsh. The combined indication of these studies is that tall vegetation structure provides California rails with both higher quality nesting substrate and refuge cover from predation, particularly during high tides. Thus, habitat structure provided by invasive Spartina in heavily infested marshes may facilitate California rail survival, and continued efforts to remove invasive Spartina from tidal salt marshes could lead to further California rail population declines….” (4)

Given that Ridgway rail is protected by the Endangered Species Act, it is difficult to understand why this project is allowed to continue.  Much like the unregulated use of pesticides, it will probably take a lawsuit to enforce the Endangered Species Act on behalf of endangered Ridgway rail. When government is not functional, the judicial system can sometimes compensate.

Let’s bury this zombie project

The US Geological Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have put their finger on the failure of the Invasive Spartina Project.  The same could be said of many other pointless eradication projects:

“Removing the source of that novel habitat without addressing pre-existing native habitat quality limitations threatens to re-create an ailing landscape for California rails by dogmatically adhering to specific management approaches. In essence, the conservation community is choosing the winners and losers in this ecosystem by failing to solve the underlying problems that will support a healthy species community with all constituent members.” (4)

The spartina eradication project serves no useful purpose.  In fact, it damages the environment and the animals that live in it.  We cannot stop evolution, nor should we try.  Let natural selection determine the plant species that are best adapted to our environment and the animals that live in it.  Not only would we benefit from better protection for our coastline from rising sea levels, we could reduce our exposure to dangerous pesticides that are harmful to our health, as well as improve habitat for wildlife.  This project is doing more harm than good. 


  1. Presentation of Invasive Spartina Project to California Invasive Plant Council, June 2021 
  2. Falco, S.C., Dumas, K.S. and Livak, K.J., 1985Nucleotide sequence of the yeast ILV2 gene which encodes acetolactate synthase
  3. LaRossa, R.A. and Smulski, D.R., 1984. ilvB-encoded acetolactate synthase is resistant to the herbicide sulfometuron methylJournal of bacteriology160(1), pp.391-394.
  4. M.L. Casazza, et.al., “Endangered species management and ecosystem restoration: finding the common ground,” Ecology and Society, 2016, 21(1):19. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08134-210119
  5. Adam Lambert et.al., “Optimal approaches for balancing invasive species eradication and endangered species management,” Science, May 30, 2014, vol. 344 Issue 6187

Polarized views of nature mirror our politics

This article about the polarized views of conservation and how similar they are to our polarized politics was published by Conservation Sense and Nonsense 7 years ago.  It is truer now than it was then.  Where are the moderates in American society who are willing to work together to find a way forward?  Conflict produces stalemate.  We can’t address the very real issues in the environment on such an antagonistic battle ground.


We recently posted an article about our on-going debate with the Audubon Society regarding its misguided support for the projects that are destroying the urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That article provided a few examples of our widely divergent views of nature:

  • We don’t see how birds will benefit from the destruction of tens of thousands of trees and countless plants that provide food and cover for birds and animals.
  • We don’t enjoy walking in nature with a judgmental eye, which points fingers at plants and animals that others claim “don’t belong there.” We are unwilling to divide nature into “good” and “bad” categories.
  • We don’t think humans have the right to pass a death sentence on wild animals because they prefer another animal, which they claim will benefit from the death of a potential competitor.
  • We don’t consider a “managed” forest a “more natural forest.” We don’t think humans are capable of improving what nature can accomplish without our interference.  We don’t think a public park that is routinely sprayed with herbicides can be accurately described as a “natural area.”

However, these widely divergent viewpoints about nature are not inconsistent with the extremes of our polarized politics in America.  Just as we don’t expect to change the minds of those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, we don’t expect to change the minds of those who view nature through the darkly colored lens of nativism.  Just as elections for public office are decided by the independents in the middle of the political spectrum, the debate about the future of our public lands will be decided by those who have not yet formed an opinion about what is best for nature.  Today’s post is addressed to them.  We will tell the “independents” about two recent op-eds published by The New York Times which represent the two extreme viewpoints about nature.  Both op-eds use sparrows as representatives of the natural world, which we hope will make the differences in these viewpoints starker and therefore clearer.

First a word about how important the “independents” are to the debate about the ecological “restorations” which are dictated by invasion biology.  Political independents are usually not more than a third of the electorate.  But, a survey conducted by University of Florida suggests the majority of the public are still open to learning more about “invasive species.”  They report that 62% of Floridians they surveyed said they are not knowledgeable or only slightly knowledgeable about invasive species.  Ironically, the same survey claimed that “a majority voiced support for raising sales tax to combat invasive species.”  One wonders why voters who acknowledge that they know nothing or next to nothing about invasive species would be willing to tax themselves to combat something they don’t understand.  In any case, if Floridians are typical, the majority of the public needs to know more about invasion biology.  We hope they have access to balanced information that is not written by those who make their living killing animals and poisoning our public lands.  Million Trees was created over four years ago for that purpose.

“The Truth About Sparrows”

Some time ago, we told the story of how sparrows were brought to America in the 1850s by people who believed they would eat the insects that were killing trees.  We concluded that article by saying that 150 years later house sparrows are no longer despised as alien intruders.  We were wrong.

House sparrow Cornell Ornithology Lab
House sparrow, Cornell Ornithology Lab

In May 2014, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Truth About Sparrows.”  The op-ed was written by Peyton Marshall, whose mother was an exterminator of house sparrows.  This was no idle pastime for Ms. Marshall’s mother.  It was her mission.

Eastern bluebird, public domain
Eastern bluebird, public domain

Mom’s crusade against house sparrows began when Ms. Marshall was a child.  Mom loved bluebirds at a time when their population was dwindling in the east where they lived.  Mom decided that house sparrows were to blame and so she took it upon herself to kill every house sparrow that had the misfortune of entering her yard or within reach of it.

Mom began by trapping the house sparrows.  “Good” birds caught in the traps were freed, but the house sparrows were put into plastic garbage bags and asphyxiated.  Mom started the family car in the garage and wrapped the open end of the garbage bag around the tailpipe.  When the birds did not die, she consulted her husband who informed her that the car was a diesel and would not produce enough carbon monoxide to kill the birds.

So, mom took her operation on the road.  She helped elderly ladies with their groceries in the parking lot in exchange for a shot at their tailpipe.  When dropping off her children for play dates and birthday parties, she asked their parents if she could make brief use of their cars to kill birds.  Polite parents watched in horror as they became accessories to this execution.

Ms. Marshall concludes her story by noting that the population of bluebirds has rebounded since she was a child.  But mom continues to trap house sparrows in her yard and now uses a less public means of killing them:  “Now, she uses a carving knife and cutting board, at her leisure, in the privacy of her own kitchen.”

Although Ms. Marshall doesn’t say so, we doubt that the recovery of the bluebird population has much to do with the extermination of house sparrows in her mother’s backyard.  The recovery of the bluebird population is attributed to building nest boxes that substitute for the dead trees which are their preferred nest sites.  There are few dead trees in urban and suburban areas because people consider them hazardous and unsightly.  Once again, animals pay the price for the choices of humans.

“What the Sparrows Told Me”

The New York Times published “What the Sparrows Told Me” in August 2014.  It is a fitting antidote to the grisly tale of the sparrow exterminator.

Trish O’Kane, the author, was a human rights investigative journalist in Central America for 10 years before moving to New Orleans to teach journalism.  Less than a month after arriving in New Orleans, she and her family were displaced by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Four months after the hurricane, she rented a room in a dry part of town so that she could return to her teaching job.  It was a hard time for everyone in New Orleans, but her gloom was deepened by learning of her father’s terminal cancer which would kill him in a matter of months.

Ms. O’Kane had never had an interest in birds before, but she knew she needed “to focus on something beautiful, something positive, something alive,” and so she did:

“I bought two bird feeders.  Each morning I sat on that back stoop and watched those sparrows.  Instead of wondering what was going to happen to the city, to the Gulf Coast, to the planet, I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed.  I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs.  If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else.  If they lost a nest, they built another.  They had no time or energy for grief.  They clung to the fence in raggedy lines heckling one another like drunken revelers on Bourbon Street.  Their sparring made me laugh.“

Audubon Park, New Orleans.  Public domain
Audubon Park, New Orleans. Public domain

Ms. O’Kane started holding her classes in Audubon Park, named for John James Audubon.  Her students began to find the same solace in watching the birds going about their business, finding a way to survive, carrying on.  And that gave her and her students the strength and the will to do the same at a time when life was hard in New Orleans.

Ms. O’Kane is now a doctoral student in environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  She has found a way to connect her interest in human rights with her new found interest in birds.  She teaches an undergraduate course in environmental justice in which she pairs undergraduate students with middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers.  Many of the middle school children are immigrants from Central America.  She finds that they enjoy learning about the birds that migrate between Central America and Wisconsin, just as their families did.  The birds, like the people of America, are citizens of the world.

Ms. O’Kane tells us that many of her undergraduate students are frightened of the future of our planet.  She likes to start each new class with the story of the sparrows in New Orleans:  “I tell them that the birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance.”

Whose eyes do you choose to look through?

It’s no secret that our viewpoint regarding nature is more closely aligned with Ms. O’Kane’s.  If you haven’t yet taken a stand on the issue of what plants and animals are welcome in your ideal nature, think for a moment.  Which of these starkly different viewpoints do you prefer?

“A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal”

“A brilliant and insightful explanation of the food system. Bittman’s writing is succinct and entertaining, and his recommendations are spot on.” –David Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner

Mark Bittman’s new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, is best described by its subtitle, A history of food, from sustainable to suicidal.  Bittman starts the story at the beginning, nearly 300,000 years ago when humans were hunter/gatherers.  The transition from a hunter/gatherer to an agricultural society began only 10,000 years ago.  It was a long, slow transition that happened unevenly all over the world.  Hunter gatherer societies still exist in the Amazon and perhaps elsewhere.  Where nature was generous, hunting/gathering persisted longer.  For example, indigenous people in California were still hunters/gatherers when Europeans arrived and indigenous people on the East coast had developed agricultural societies.

The conventional wisdom has been until recently that sedentary agriculture is superior to hunting/gathering as a lifestyle and a producer of food.  Bittman and Yuval Harari in Sapiens—the sweeping history of human civilization—disagree.  The diets of hunters/gatherers are more diverse, which makes them healthier and less vulnerable to famine.  If you can’t find what you need in one place, you move to another.  Families of hunter/gatherer societies are small because mothers can’t carry more than one child at a time, so there is no advantage to the large families required by farming.  Women’s role as gatherer is as important as man’s role as hunter, making the family less patriarchal than agriculture societies.  A mobile society has less impact on the land and is less likely to deplete resources, such as water and soil.  Communities were smaller, making them less vulnerable to communicable diseases.

The invention of the plow more than 2,000 years ago was one of the first significant turning points in the development of agriculture.  The plow requires the strength of men to operate, making the participation of women in food production less important.  A division of labor between the genders developed, along with the gender power hierarchy that persists today.  This division of labor was consistent with the need for families to have more children and therefore more farm hands. 

As the population of humans in agricultural society increased, so did the pressure on the land to be more productive.  Farmers knew and still know that the soil requires regeneration if it is to remain fertile.  Such practices as planting cover crops between cash crops to return vegetation to the soil, are not new.  Farmers also knew that leaving land fallow for a season or two enables the soil to recover from the loss of nutrients required to grow crops.  Rotating crops helps to control pests and diseases that are usually associated with one type of crop, but not another.  But the pressure to produce more food as the population increases puts pressure on farmers to squeeze more from the soil than it has to give in the long term.

Mechanization of agriculture

Mechanization was the most significant incremental step on the long road to the dead end that we now face in agriculture.  John Deere introduced his steel-bladed plow in the middle of the 19th century that was capable of breaking the tough sod of the Mid-Western prairie.  Deere mass-produced the steel plow using the assembly-line methods of the industrial revolution.  By 1859 John Deere was making 10,000 plows in a year. 

Although the Deere plow was a significant invention, the advent of the steam and then gas-powered tractor shortly thereafter were the true game changers that started the transition from family farms to the corporate agriculture of today:  “In 1830 it took a farmer and a horse at least seventy-five hours to produce a hundred bushels of corn.  BY 1930 that same task took as little as fifteen hours.  Production grew in parallel, from 173 million bushels of wheat in 1859 to 287 million by the century’s end.  The big difference was the tractor.”

The tractor was only the beginning of mechanization of agriculture.  There are now enormous machines, such as harvesters that cost half a million dollars and more.  Family farmers can’t afford to buy these machines.  They aren’t useful to small land-holders because huge farms are needed to pay for the cost of these machines.  Farmers who tried to stay in the game took huge loans to buy them.  Agriculture is risky business because the climate is changeable and unpredictable.  In drought years, many farmers with small holdings lost their land because they couldn’t repay their loans. 

Cornfield

Corporate interests are in a position to obtain the necessary loans and buy out the small land-holders.  Family farms are a thing of the past.  The romanticized notion of family farms is a fiction. Family farmers understand that destroying their soil is not in the interests of their family. Corporate interests have a short-term perspective when making business decisions.  Therefore, regenerative agricultural methods such as cover crops, rotating crops, and leaving land fallow are also a thing of the past.   

The Green Revolution

The so-called “green revolution” was the response to the destruction of agricultural land.  By the 1930s, the soil in agricultural America was exhausted.  The result of a century of short-term perspective agriculture that didn’t give back to the soil what was taken from it was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 

The Dust Bowl

Instead of returning to regenerative agricultural methods, the response was the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sixty years of pesticide use has bred many weed and insect species that are resistant to pesticides because no amount of chemistry can outwit evolution. In addition to introducing toxic chemicals into the environment, these chemicals exacerbated the trend toward bigger, corporate-owned agricultural lands because chemicals are expensive.  They must be purchased in advance of realizing the income of selling a crop, requiring bigger loans. According to Bittman, John Deere company makes four times as much money from financing these loans as from selling farm equipment. More family farms failed and their land was consolidated into huge acreages owned by corporate interests with short-term goals for higher profits.

The chemical warfare waged by industrial agriculture escalated greatly when Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds were introduced in 1996.  These genetically modified seeds enabled the indiscriminate spraying of the non-selective herbicide, glyphosate on commodity crops.  The seeds are expensive and their patents require that they only be used once.  They greatly increased farmer’s dependence on loans to finance the planting of their crops.  This indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate on commodity crops used in all processed food and animal feed means that we are now eating and drinking food laced with glyphosate, a probable carcinogen.

Chemical fertilizers deliver phosphorous to the soil, needed for plant growth.  Run off from agricultural land pollutes our lakes and rivers, killing fish and making water unsafe to drink or swim in.  Pesticides are indiscriminately killing insects, many of which are beneficial, such as our pollinators.  Pesticides are found in our water, our soil, and our food.  Little is known about the effects of these chemicals on our health or on wildlife, but what we know suggests they are probably more dangerous than we realize.  For example, recent research suggests that chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems are probably reducing fertility, causing birth defects and contributing to gender dysphoria. 

Consequences of agricultural surpluses

Bigger is not better in agriculture because bigger also means that only a handful of crops are grown on huge corporate farms.  It is more expensive to grow diverse crops, requiring different cultivation methods and inputs.  Huge machines are operated more efficiently on huge plots of land.  Most agricultural land in America is devoted to growing crops of corn, soy beans, and wheat.  So much of America’s farm land is devoted to these commodity crops that they produce huge surpluses that require a global market to sell them to.

The global marketplace for commodity agricultural crops has fundamentally changed many countries.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forced farmers in Mexico to abandon their small farms and move to cities to take low-paying manufacturing jobs because they could not compete against cheaper American corn.  The diet and health of the Mexican people has deteriorated significantly because they no longer have access to the variety of fruit and vegetables their small properties produced.  Their healthy fruit juices have been replaced by sodas made from corn syrup, resulting in high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Children’s cereals. Glyphosate residues are found in most cereal.

The diet of Americans has also been changed radically by the marketing campaigns designed to sell surplus commodities.  A surplus of milk produced the “Got milk?” advertising campaign that sold milk to adults for whom milk is rarely healthy.  Bittman says that 65% of adults are lactose intolerant, which he knows from personal experience.  He was forced to drink milk until he left home.  He was plagued by indigestion until he was able to quit drinking milk as an adult. 

Far more pernicious, is the advertising campaign that convinced mothers to quit breast feeding in favor of feeding formula.  This insidious campaign used guilt to pressure mothers by making the inaccurate claim that formula is healthier for their babies.  Breast feeding is the primary means that a baby’s immune system develops.  Formula contains higher levels of sugar that sets the stage for life-long eating habits that are not healthy.  High levels of obesity and diabetes begin at childhood and are very difficult to change later in life.  The advertising campaign was global and it did more damage in undeveloped countries where the water needed to dilute formula is often not safe.  Although the health consequences of using formula are well known, the advertising campaign continues to this day.  The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement for formula recently, using convenience as its approach, suggesting that modern mothers should not be guilt-tripped into breast feeding. 

Not the end of the story

We landed in this dietary and environmental disaster zone over thousands of years of small, incremental changes that were imperceptible at the time.  We could not foresee the consequences of the cumulative effect of each small step along the road to this dead end.  And Bittman says we can back out of this dead end in the same way, by making small steps back to regenerative farming.  Bittman’s final chapters are devoted to the many projects all over the world devoted to restoring our agricultural land, our diets, and our health. 

This brief summary of Bittman’s book does not do it justice.  There are a multitude of other important factors to consider, such as the huge contribution that industrial agriculture is making to climate change and the changes in raising animals that are just as unhealthy as how we are growing our plant-based food.  I can’t say that Bittman’s book is a pleasant read, but I assure you that it is important. 

Update on California’s 30X30 initiative: The good, the bad, and the ugly

In May 2021, Conservation Sense and Nonsense introduced California’s $11 billion investment in addressing climate change and protecting biodiversity by protecting 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030 (30X30). Since then, the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) held a series of workshops to explain the initiative and give the public an opportunity to provide feedback to CNRA.  Sixteen hundred Californians participated in those workshops, including me. Today I am reporting what I learned about the initiative and tell you my opinion of what I learned.

Update: The final California budget commits $15 billion for climate change and protecting biodiversity.

Good news always comes first

The Land Conservation Panel identified the opportunity to remediate degraded spaces that will address many of the objectives of the 30X30 initiative.  Many degraded spaces are found in poor communities that are exposed to toxic waste and pollution.  Eliminating public health hazards in these communities will not only improve their health, it will make those spaces available for recreational and other purposes.  Here are just a few of many such opportunities in California:

Superfund sites in California as of 2013. Source: Environmental Protection Agency
  • There are 94 toxic waste Superfund sites in California.  Where these sites are threatening the health and safety of the public they should be high priorities for remediation.  For example, nearly 30,000 corroding barrels of DDT were recently found on the ocean floor near Catalina Island.  The extent of that particular toxic dump was not known at the time the LA Times reported it, but investigating scientists speculated that as many as half a million barrels may have been dumped by the manufacturer of DDT.
  • There are 47,000 abandoned mine sites in California, according to the Bureau of Land management.  84% of those sites present physical safety hazards and 11% of the sites present environmental safety hazards.  Abandoned mine sites that are potential recreational areas in underserved communities should be considered high priorities for remediation.
  • The California Clean Water Act identifies “impaired waters.”  The list of impaired waters is long and it is alarming.  It identifies pollution with toxic substances such as mercury, diazinon, sewage from leaking septic tanks, sedimentation from erosion, run off of agricultural chemicals, etc.  Addressing these issues will reduce public health hazards and improve fish and wildlife habitat.  Most rivers in California are ultimately watersheds into the ocean, therefore cleaning up these “impaired waters” will also improve ocean health.  At this time of extreme drought and the expectation of continuing drought, water quality should be a high priority for the 30X30 initiative.
  • There are over 5,000 orphan oil wells in California with no known responsible operator.  Capping and retiring these oil wells would reduce health hazards and make the land available for recreational and other uses.  These abandoned oil wells are frequently found in economically disadvantaged areas such as Bakersfield and poor areas in the Los Angeles basin, which is all the more reason to remediate this blight on the landscape. 

The remediation of hazardous pollution would benefit Californians, reducing health hazards for humans and wildlife and potentially making land available for other useful purposes.  Remediating polluted, dangerous land must be a higher priority than funding the horticultural preferences of hobbyists with romantic notions about recreating a landscape that is long gone and cannot be replicated.  If we are to achieve durable objectives, we must have realistic expectations and goals that are consistent with current and anticipated climate conditions.  Thriving landscapes that do not require irrigation should not be replaced with fragile landscapes that require irrigation and access restrictions.  No land that requires pesticides to accomplish “conservation” goals can legitimately be called “conserved.”

Not so good indicators of destructive projects

Although the Summary Document of the Panel for Coastal Waters made vague references to the importance of “Linking protection of land and coastal ecosystems through adjacent terrestrial and marine protected areas,” the words “watershed” and “wetlands” do not appear in the Summary Document.  No specific suggestions were made to address the close relationship between coastal land and coastal waters.

The preservation and expansion of wetlands will reduce the flow of pollution from land to ocean by acting as a filter of runoff from the land.  Wetlands are also one of our chief defenses against rising sea levels if they are expanded to perform that function.  Wetlands are the nurseries of our fisheries and they provide essential habitat for wildlife.  Wetlands are also significant carbon sinks.  Yet the Summary Document makes no mention of these essential functions that contribute to healthy oceans.

Cleaning up the watersheds that are now draining toxic pollutants into the ocean is a more worthwhile endeavor than anything suggested by the Coastal Waters Summary Document. Most rivers in California are ultimately watersheds into the ocean, therefore cleaning up these “impaired waters” will also improve ocean health.  Many important fish species that migrate from ocean to rivers are killed or harmed by these hazardous contaminants.  The ocean is only as healthy as its watersheds.

Instead of addressing the opportunities to expand wetlands and cleaning up watersheds, the Coastal Waters Panel is proposing an outdated “restoration” approach that begins with killing plants and animals. The attempt to “restore” kelp forests is one of the few specific examples of possible projects that is mentioned in the Panel’s Summary Document.  Like most of these futile projects, that project begins by killing thousands (millions?) of the chosen scapegoat, purple urchins, predators of kelp.  Where urchins are killed kelp is being replanted.  Like most of these projects, the chosen method does not address the underlying causes for declining kelp forests that were killed by ocean heat waves.  Ocean heat waves are a consequence of inexorable climate change.  It is delusional to assume that the heat waves that killed the kelp will not occur again.  Furthermore, the massive die-off of sea stars from a mysterious “wasting syndrome” is an important factor in the explosion of urchin populations that are prey of sea stars.  As you might know, sea stars are making a comeback.  Sea Otters are also predators of urchins.  If their populations weren’t repeatedly suppressed by commercial fishing interests, urchins would have more predators.  In other words, present methods of “restoring” kelp forests are based on inadequate understanding of the food web and the underlying causes of the loss of kelp forests.  Is anyone trying to breed a more heat-tolerant variety of kelp?  Is anyone looking for a functional equivalent in warmer waters?  In other words, the loss of kelp forests is a serious problem, but the methods being used to address it are amateurish and futile.

The Ugly:  Composition of 30X30 panels is deeply flawed

There are representatives of organizations on two 30X30 panels that promote and participate in island eradication projects such as the Farallon Islands project that proposes to kill mice by aerial bombing 1.5 tons of rodenticide on the islands.  One representative on the Biodiversity Panel identifies himself as a “conservation entrepreneur” and the founder of Island Conservation, the organization that has conducted more than 350 island eradications in 65 countries around the world and is participating in the Farallons project.  One member of the Coastal Waters Panel represents Point Blue, an organization that has participated in many deadly projects.  Point Blue actively promotes the Farallons project and has participated in its development. 

The Farallon Islands project is another example of a project that has selected an animal scapegoat for eradication without addressing the underlying cause of the perceived problem, which is a dwindling population of ashy storm petrels.  Mice are the chosen scapegoat despite the fact that they do not harm any birds or their chicks.  The mice are blamed because they are the preferred prey of a small number (8-10) of burrowing owls that prey on the petrel chicks when mice are not available.  The burrowing owls could easily be non-lethally removed from the island (Try walking up to a burrowing owl.  Chances are it won’t flinch.)  The National Park Service removed 44 Golden Eagles from the Channel Islands because they were preying on Channel Island Foxes (after NPS eradicated sheep and goats from the islands that were the Eagles’ preferred prey).  USFWS proposes to kill the mice by aerial bombing 1.5 tons of rodenticides on the Farallons and they acknowledge that hundreds (thousands?) of non-target birds are likely to be collateral damage, as they have been in hundreds of similar projects all over the world.  USFWS claims that the burrowing owls will “go away” if their preferred prey is eliminated.  It seems more likely that the burrowing owls will either be killed by the rodenticide or will eat more birds if that’s all there is to eat.  Second-generation rodenticides were recently banned in California because they are killing non-target birds and mammals.  Unfortunately an exemption for projects considered ecological “restorations” was carved out of that ban. Why the proposed Farallons project is considered a “restoration” is a mystery to me. 

We saw burrowing owls in Argentina in 2010. We walked up to them to test the claim that they are easily disturbed by people. We got even closer than this before the owl reacted.

Similar island eradications have been completed all over the world.  Rats are the usual target of those projects and unlike the mice on the Farallons, there is evidence that rats are capable of harming birds.  However, a significant portion of those projects were unsuccessful because rats are resourceful creatures capable of reproducing quickly after their population is reduced.  More importantly, those projects have killed thousands of non-target birds who ate the poison (or poisoned rats) and contaminated the water around the islands, harming fish and marine mammals that live around the islands.

Island eradications done by Island Conservation

As I told California Natural Resources Agency in my written public comments, Point Blue and Island Conservation should not be represented on 30X30 panels because they are likely applicants for projects that will be funded by the state.  This is a serious conflict of interest.  Point Blue is involved in hundreds of destructive projects all over California, including surveying barred owls in preparation for shooting them. Island Conservation has published a study that identified other islands off the coast of California for potential island eradications.  If these organizations are in a position to influence the types of projects that are funded by the 30X30 initiative, they will be in a position to profit from creating projects they can perform. 

Several of the public commenters at the Coastal Waters workshop on August 17th mentioned that there is no representation on the Coastal Waters Panel of recreational and commercial fishermen.  Other panels include representation of recreational interests because increasing recreational opportunities is one of the primary goals of the 30X30 initiative.  Point Blue should be replaced on the Coastal Waters Panel by representation of recreational and commercial fishermen. 

Where do we go from here?

You can view the 30X30 workshops on CNRA’s You Tube Channel. You can read the recommendations of the 30X30 panels on CNRA’s website.  And you can respond to CNRA’s invitation to send them pictures of successful restoration projects:

“If you or your organization has images of before and after climate smart land management projects, successful nature-based solutions; or iconic California landscapes we would love to feature them!…If your organization is interested in sharing pictures, please email them to Heather Williams at the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) by September 17. Please include a description/caption of the image, the organization’s name, and the image date(s). Send only high-resolution images (1200×800 or larger). By emailing these pictures, you give CNRA the right to use these images in our nature-based solutions and climate-smart land efforts.”

Organizations that will compete for $11 billion of grant funds will undoubtedly provide many beautiful pictures of their projects.  If you have pictures of projects that were not successful, you may send them as well. 

There will be another round of workshops to review draft plans in Fall 2021.  You can ask to be notified of those workshops and register to attend them by sending an email to californianature@ca.gov.  Plans will be finalized for implementation in January 2022. 

The 30X30 initiative has the potential to be constructive by addressing important issues with viable projects.  It also has the potential to be destructive by destroying harmless plants and animals, poisoning our land, and installing replacement landscapes that are not adapted to current and anticipated environmental conditions.  Our participation in the development of the plans is our only means of influencing the outcome.  California taxpayers will pay for these projects, whether we like them or not.  It is in our hands.

Eucalyptus forests in Pinole, California

This post is an introduction to Bev Wanlin, who is writing a guest article for Conservation Sense and Nonsense about her family’s long relationship with eucalyptus.  Her story begins in Chile, where her ancestors lived before coming to the East Bay in 1849, but I must not steal her thunder with more than that tidbit. Stay tuned for the full story.

While Bev completes her guest article, I am publishing her brief report about the many old eucalypts that have been saved in Pinole, where she lives.  Bev’s narrative also explains the many important roles that eucalyptus plays in California.  Thanks, Bev, for keeping tabs on the eucalyptus forests in Pinole that are constantly threatened by the hardcore nativists who demand that they be destroyed.


View of downtown area of Pinole, CA, in 1960. Noticing the long line of Eucalyptus trees going west to east towards the top of the photo, I decided to search the area and try to locate what was left of them. Courtesy of Pinole Historical Society

I found an old Blue Gum Eucalyptus stand above the Sante Fe Trestle built of wood in 1899-1900 on Tennent Ave. between San Pablo Ave. and the Bay. The Sante Fe ran through Pinole early on.
The Eucalyptus trees were planted on each side of the railroad tracks. This BNSF train seems like it’s emerging from a Eucalyptus forest. But taken from a different angle, (#4) you can see how far apart the rows are.
The rows of trees possibly were planted as a windbreak, or maybe to muffle the noise from the train engines. [Webmaster: I have taken the Capital Corridor Amtrak train to UC Davis many times and am familiar with that stretch of the trip. It is always a treat to pass through that small forest of old trees.]


Very close to the tracks in Pinole (#5) a double row of trees has been converted to a very nice walking trail behind houses in the city of Hercules.
The old trees now line San Pablo Ave. that runs through Hercules to the town of Rodeo. The train tracks, still in use today, run along side.
The RR tracks run through Hercules where nearby town homes have been built (on the left).
Nearby off of Hercules Ave (heading north, then turning right onto Zeus) you’ll find an interesting condo community (150+) that chose not to cut down the old growth Eucalyptus trees (possibly offspring from the original Eucalypts planted next to the tracks). The condo development is called Olympian Hills. I found it to be a wonderful combination of conservation and beauty!
They left the Eucalyptus stand to form a natural fence line for their community park/playground.
They left the lineup of Eucalyptus to act as a windbreak and to provide much needed shade for their tennis courts.
They left stands of Eucalyptus around the condos for wildlife cover and a great view from their windows!
On the hillsides next to the condo buildings, they left the old growth not only to provide a windbreak, but erosion control and soil stability.
A Grand Ol’ Blue Gum standing tall — Beauty and Conservation all in the same place!! [Webmaster: Pictures were taken at Olympian Village just 2 weeks ago. It’s wonderful to see them thriving at a time of severe drought, when most trees are showing signs of stress.]

Photos and captions by Bev Wanlin, Pinole, California

A glimpse of Iceland

“Consistently rated the most peaceable of all countries in the world by the global peace index, Iceland has reduced its military expenditure to zero, has no armed forces, and has reduced the inequality gap between rich and poor.” – Scilla Elworthy

We were traveling when the pandemic began in 2020.  We felt lucky to get home on one of the last flights to leave Buenos Aires on March 15, 2020, before Argentina locked down.  The first stay-at-home order in the Bay Area was announced a few hours after we arrived home on March 16th.  Since then it was never clear when we would be able to travel again.  Frankly, it still isn’t, but we signed onto a trip to Iceland in July anyway because it was the first trip that looked relatively safe and I guess it was.  We were allowed to visit 3 ports before one positive Covid test on our ship cancelled visits to the remaining 3 ports. 

Iceland is one of the most geologically interesting places on the planet.  It is equally interesting culturally because it is a highly functioning society and one of the oldest democracies in the world.  I’ll share a few tidbits about what we learned in Iceland because some are relevant to my interest in natural history.

A New Land

Geologically, biologically, and culturally, Iceland is a new landIt was created about 18 million years ago by molten rock arising from the great rift of the North American and European tectonic plates.  Unlike the junctures of most of the tectonic plates that form the surface layer of Earth, the North American and European tectonic plates are separating, which creates an escape route for the molten material below the surface of the Earth.  This rift is thought to have separated the fused, singular continent of Pangea, creating the Atlantic Ocean.  This separation of the continents began some 180 million years ago, putting the relative youth of Iceland into time perspective.

red triangles are active volcanoes

Iceland remains a geologic hot spot where volcanic eruptions, lava flows, and earthquakes are frequent occurrences.  Geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles are constant reminders that Iceland sits on a rift in the Earth’s crust that provides immediate access to the Earth’s molten interior. Icelanders heat their homes with geothermal hot water and their electricity is generated hydrologically. Their air is cleaner because they are burning little fossil fuel.

Geothermal geyser in Iceland
Geothermal hot spring in Iceland
One of many huge waterfalls in Iceland

Land created by volcanic eruptions is composed of barren rock. Turning rock into soil is a slow process, typically taking thousands of years.  Every new volcanic eruption on Iceland adds more barren rock.  A series of volcanic eruptions that began in 1963 created the island of Surtsey on the southern coast of Iceland.  It was immediately designated as a nature reserve that prohibits all but scientists from visiting.  It is therefore a laboratory to study the lengthy process of colonizing barren rock with plants and animals.

Surtsey, 1963. VisitWestmanIslands.com

The first terrestrial plant was found on Surtsey in 1965, while the eruption was still active. Mosses were found in 1967 and lichens in 1970.  Mosses and lichens now cover much of the island.  Although 20 plant species were observed over the first 20 years, only 10 species became established in the nutrient-poor soil. 

Soil conditions began to improve when birds began nesting on the island.  By 2008, 69 plant species had been found on Surtsey, of which 30 species were established.  More species continue to arrive at the rate of 2-5 species per year, but Surtsey’s plant life is a small fraction of the 490 plant species found on mainland Iceland. 

Scientists give the birds on Surtsey credit for much of its flora:  “Birds use the plants for nesting material, but also continue to assist in the spreading of seeds, and fertilize the soil with their guano. Birds first began nesting on Surtsey three years after the eruptions ended…Twelve species are now regularly found on the island.”  This is a reminder that humans are not the sole dispersers of plants to new locations.

Insects were first detected on Surtsey in 1964.  “The original arrivals were flying insects, carried to the island by winds and their own power. Some were believed to have been blown across from as far away as mainland Europe. Later insect life arrived on floating driftwood, and both live animals and carcasses washed up on the island. When a large, grass-covered tussock was washed ashore in 1974, scientists took half of it for analysis and discovered 663 land invertebrates, mostly mites and springtails, the great majority of which had survived the crossing. The establishment of insect life provided some food for birds, and birds in turn helped many species to become established on the island.”  Wind, storms, ocean currents are other methods of natural dispersal of species to new locations

Although we saw many cosmopolitan plant species on Iceland that are found all over the world, such as dandelions and clover, only one introduced plant seemed to be controversial.  Lupine was introduced to Iceland in about 1970 to deal with soil erosion in coastal areas.  It has spread far beyond where it was introduced and has earned a reputation as an “invader.”  That reputation can be the beginning of a poisonous eradication campaign.

Lupine blooming in Iceland. Our cruise ship can be seen in the distance.

However, although we saw lupine wherever we went, most of our guides and lecturers were more positive than negative about it.  They acknowledged that some people don’t like the spreading lupine, but they explained that lupine is a nitrogen-fixing plant that builds soil in a place that is dominated by rocky, nutrient-poor soil.  Based on our limited experience in Iceland it seems that lupine is selling itself to the people of Iceland as a non-native plant that brings more benefits than problems. 


Update:  Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson is the Deputy director of the Icelandic Forest Service.  He has given his permission to publish his Facebook comment to this article: “I fully agree with you, in your analysis of the discourse in Iceland on the Nootka lupin. The general public favors the plant, as it is able to “invade” derelict soils on eroded land and replenish the nitrogen stocks in the soils. However, as elsewhere in Western societies, “people who favor native plants are invading our local, state, and national governments, spending taxpayer dollars on the destruction of our environment.” (http://lazycompost.com/the-invasiveness-of-native…/…).

“Iceland’s history since settlement in the 9th century is one of nearly wholesale deforestation, soil erosion and ecosystem destruction. A likely underlying reason for this state of affairs is the lack of nitrogen-fixing plants in our native flora (lack of biodiversity in general, on a remote island in the N-Atlantic). The few native nitrogen-fixers have been introduced since settlement and these can only grow if fenced off from the omnipresent, free-roaming TGBs (tree-gobbling bastards, i.e. sheep). Icelandic volcanic soils are rich in all plant nutrients, save nitrogen.” https://www.skogur.is/…/history-of-forests-in-iceland


A new culture and an old democracy

Iceland was inhabited by humans about 1,100 years ago, one of the last patches of land on Earth to be colonized by humans.  Our hominoid species, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa over 300,000 years ago and began migrating out of Africa shortly after.  Humans occupied Australia, another island nation, about 60,000 years ago and one of the most recent human migrations occurred about 13,000 years ago to North America.  In other words, Iceland is one the last places on Earth occupied by humans.

This is the narrow canyon created by the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates, where the Iceland parliament, called the Althing, first met in 930 A.D.

Shortly after being colonized by Vikings, Iceland formed one of the first parliamentary bodies in the world.  The first meeting of the Althing was in 930.  Ironically, it occurred in one of the most geologically interesting places in Iceland where the rift separating the North American and European tectonic plates forms a narrow canyon. The early settlers had no way of knowing they were meeting in a place of great geologic importance.  They selected it because the towering walls of the canyon provided shelter in an extreme climate for their annual meeting that required a temporary encampment of chieftains coming from all over Iceland. 

A highly functioning society

The population of Iceland is less than 360,000, less than the population of my hometown, Oakland, where about 425,000 people live and actively participate in a complex, diverse society where democratic decisions are made, but not without heated debate and frequent conflict.  Based on my experiences at home, I admire Icelandic culture. 

The unique manner in which Iceland dealt with the economic collapse of 2008 that caused financial hardship all over the world is one example of how problems are solved in Iceland.  Bankers in Iceland engaged in the same risky borrowing and lending that caused the financial collapse in the US and the government was complicit because it did not enforce the laws that could have prevented some of those risks.  However, Iceland is the only country that reacted to that collapse by replacing the government, closing the banks, prosecuting and jailing the bankers who broke the laws.  Once again, Iceland’s economy is strong despite 18 months of collapse of their tourist industry, which is second only to the fishing industry in creating jobs in Iceland. 

Cemetery in Iceland

On the last day of our visit to Iceland we had our only opportunity to wander freely in Reykjavik before boarding our plane.  We were able to visit a cemetery close to the museum that was functioning as our waiting room before our flight.  Early on a Saturday morning a large group of people was visiting the grave of family or friend.  It seemed to be a festive occasion for them and their mood was consistent with the cemetery itself.  Every gravesite was decorated with a small garden of blooming annual plants that must be planted every year after their extreme winters.  Every gravesite said that families and ancestors are respected and loved.  We are regular visitors to a historical cemetery in our neighborhood in Oakland.  Although it is well tended by cemetery staff, there is little evidence of the active participation by the families of those buried there. 

Gravesite in Iceland

One of the gravestones in the Icelandic cemetery was inscribed with “I did it my way,” a clue to the influence of America in Iceland where we have had a strategically important military presence since World War II.  Iceland is the midpoint on the flyway between Europe and North America and therefore crucially important militarily. 

 Thank you, Iceland, for graciously hosting our first voyage back into the world. 

Collaboration triumphs over competition in the forest

“Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system.” Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree

Suzanne Simard is an academic scientist of forestry of some renown because her research has revealed that the forest is a community of plants and trees that share resources to their mutual and communal benefit.  Her recently published memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, about her 40-year career in forestry is deeply personal and informative. 

Simard grew up in the forests of British Columbia in an extended family of traditional loggers who used manual methods to selectively remove individual trees, leaving forests intact.  This is physically demanding and dangerous work, making it a predominantly male occupation. 

After her education as a forester, Simard joined the Canadian Forest Service and a profession dominated by men and committed to maximizing profit by clear cutting patches of forest with mechanized methods.  This policy requires the destruction of all vegetation in clear cuts considered potential competition for the next crop of timber.  After mechanical removal, the ground is sprayed with herbicide from helicopters before being replanted with tree seedlings.  This policy is called “free to grow,” a misnomer that was eventually revealed by Simard’s research.  The plant and tree neighbors of the seedlings are their collaborators in the enterprise of the entire forest, functioning as an ecosystem that creates a home for every life form in the community.

Suzanne Simard’s lonely professional journey in forestry

One of Simard’s first assignments as a forester was to assess the health of seedlings planted in a clear cut.  The seedlings were not doing well.  It became her mission to find out why.  A lifetime of observing healthy forests had taught her that the soil is occupied by vast networks of fungi that connect the plants and trees.  These mycorrhizal fungi transfer moisture and nutrients from the soil to the trees and plants, to their benefit.  She speculated that the destruction of all vegetation in clear cuts was eliminating that support structure and she designed experiments to test her hypothesis. 

Douglas fir forest, MacMillan Provincial Forest, Vancouver, British Columbia

Her experimental plots were divided into areas with varying degrees of vegetation clearance.  At one extreme, seedlings were isolated by sheets of metal buried deep into the soil that prevented development of mycorrhizal networks to support the seedlings.  Decades later, these isolated seedlings were the most likely to have died.  The seedlings that survived most often were on the perimeter of clear cuts, with access to the surrounding intact forest.

The relationships between tree and plant species and their mycorrhizal networks vary by plant and fungi species.  There are thousands of mycorrhizal fungi species associated with trees and about half are generalists that associate with most tree species.  Specialist species of fungi are confined to a narrower range of tree species, genera, or families.  There are fewer species of mycorrhizae associated with plants and most are generalists. 

The specifics of fungal associations between trees also varies, which requires that we describe a specific relationship.  Simard’s original studies focused on the fungal associations between Douglas fir and birch trees.  Birch trees were destroyed in the clear cuts that were then planted with Douglas fir seedlings that were not doing well.  Simard’s experiments eventually revealed that birch trees and firs mutually benefit one another through their fungal networks.  Carbon stored and the sugar produced by photosynthesis by firs are shared with deciduous birch during winter months while they are leafless.  In summer months when birch are foliated, they store more carbon that is shared with firs.  Birch is resistant to a root pathogen to which firs are susceptible.  In a sharing fungal relationship between birch and firs, birch confers some of that resistance to the root pathogen onto their fir neighbors.

Nitrogen is essential to plant and tree health, but not all species are capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen to soil nitrogen available to plants.  When a nitrogen-fixing plant is associated with a plant without that capability, it can share its nitrogen with its neighbor through their fungal network. 

A mature tree can store more moisture than its young seedlings without extensive root structure.  The mature tree can share its stored moisture with struggling seedlings through its fungal network.  Seedlings with access to that network are more likely to survive while establishing their own root structures.  Research of Simard’s graduate students and collaborators eventually found that such sharing of resources between mature and young trees occurs more frequently within the same species, but sharing also occurs with unrelated tree species.  The mature trees nurture their offspring, enabling their survival and the survival of the species.  They are, in effect, Mother Trees.

MacMillan Provincial Forest, Vancouver, British Columbia

Herbicides used to kill vegetation in clear cuts

Another early assignment by the forest service required that Simard determine the most effective herbicide regimen to kill plants in clear cuts perceived to be potential competitors of the seedlings of the next timber crop.  Simard and her sister applied several different concentrations of herbicide to vegetation and predictably determined that the most concentrated formulation of herbicide was the most deadly.  Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide for this purpose.

This particular episode in Simard’s early career was disturbing in view of the fact that she eventually developed breast cancer that nearly killed her.  Simard and her sister were uncomfortable about their assignment and they suited up cautiously as best they knew how while applying herbicide.  The Simard sisters felt ill after an application and they sought medical help from whom they learned that their masks did not contain the necessary filters.  Required safety measures for herbicide applicators are only as good as the knowledge on which they are based.  That knowledge moves slowly forward and becomes more alarming as we learn more.

What has the timber industry learned from Simard’s research?

The short answer to that question is very little.  The strategy of the timber industry in both Canada and the US remains clear cuts that destroy all trees and vegetation followed by herbicide application by helicopter to kill all herbaceous vegetation before seedlings are planted.  Simard reports that concentrations of herbicide have been reduced recently.  She also says that a few large, mature trees are sometimes spared by clear cuts. 

Recent knowledge of the health effects of glyphosate is causing some concern, but few changes in policy or practice have been made.  Declining moose populations in a region of Canada led to decreased herbicide applications.  Legislators in the State of Maine recently passed a law to ban herbicide applications in timber clear cuts.  That legislation was then vetoed by the Governor of Maine.

Strangely, none of these reports of reduced herbicide use by the timber industry mention that herbicides are known to damage mycorrhizae.  Health concerns are cited as the sole reason for reducing herbicide use despite the fact that we now know the importance of mycorrhizal networks to the health and survival of forests.  While Simard opposes the use of herbicides in forests, she does not explicitly connect herbicides with the destruction of mycorrhizal networks that enable the survival of tree seedlings. 

Are these studies relevant to our urban forest?

Those who are looking for support for our urban forest in Simard’s work will be disappointed.  Her focus is on the health and preservation of native forests. In fact, she has harsh words for “exotic weed invasions:” She says they are accelerating the decline of native grassland “possibly by sending the native grasses some poisons or an infection to finish the murder.  Or starving them, taking over their energy, degrading the native prairie. Like the invasion of the body snatchers.  Or the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.”  Note that her indictment is speculative and not the conclusion of an empirical study.   

But the principles of Simard’s findings are relevant to our concerns for the destruction of our urban forests and the herbicides used for that purpose.  Mycorrhizal fungi are as essential to urban forests as they are to native forests.  Herbicides used in our urban forests are as damaging to fungal networks as they are to clear cuts of native forests. 

Trees, Truffles, and Beasts (1) was written by academic foresters in Oregon and Australia who are primarily concerned about the destructive consequences of destroying native forests and replacing them with timber plantations, often of another, faster growing species.  Ironically, in the case of old growth eucalyptus forests in Australia, the choice of replacement species is often Monterey pines.  Since some species of mycorrhizal fungi are specific to certain species or types of trees, this change of species is not successful without the inoculation of appropriate species of fungi.  For example, some of the mycorrhizal fungi that grow on the roots of conifers are not found on eucalyptus species.

I corresponded with the authors of Trees, Truffles, and Beasts to confirm that fungi are found in the eucalyptus forests of California.  Since eucalyptus was brought to California as seeds, rather than potted plants, I needed confirmation that our eucalyptus forests are also enjoying the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi.  We are grateful that the authors replied.  They report that eucalyptus forests in California are indeed populated with generalist fungi, including some species that are native to Australia.  Therefore, we can assure our readers that our description of how the forest functions as a community applies to the eucalyptus forest in California, as well as in Australia.

When eucalyptus is destroyed in California their stumps are immediately sprayed with herbicide (usually Garlon) so the tree does not resprout.  The herbicide is carried into the roots of the tree through the cambium layer that is briefly functional after the tree is destroyed.  Garlon is known to damage mycorrhizal fungi.

Herbicide is also used to destroy the non-native vegetation that thrives in the full sun after trees are destroyed.  Glyposate that is commonly used for that purpose is known to kill microbes that are essential to soil health, handicapping any replacement planting. 

Suzanne Simard’s mission

Before leaving the Canadian Forest Service, Suzanne Simard made every effort to inform her colleagues of the damage being done by the timber industry and the potential for more successful planting of a new generation of timber if policy and practice were revised to preserve soil health.  In a male-dominated profession that was committed to the methods being used, her message fell on deaf ears.  In fact, her colleagues were openly hostile to her message, making the offer of an academic position welcome relief that gave her more freedom to conduct research and deliver her message.

After recovering from a nearly fatal bout of breast cancer, Simard became more committed to bringing her research to the attention of the public.  She has delivered inspiring and wildly successful TED talks and she was immortalized as the heroine of The Overstory (2), the barely fictional account of defenders of the forest that made Simard’s research accessible to the general public.

Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard’s memoir, is a sad reminder of the difficulty of bucking conventional wisdom that is deeply rooted in the profit motive.  In the case of the timber industry, competition remains the dominant narrative that drives policy and the consequences of that approach are unnecessarily destructive.    


  1. Chris Maser, Andrew W. Claridge, James M. Trappe, Trees, Truffles, and Beasts, Rutgers University Press, 2008
  2. The Overstory, Richard Powers, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.

Nativism turns a blind eye to climate change

“Reflexive demonization of alien species ignores the beautiful but complex truth that nature fights to find a way—and for a planet navigating the pressures of climate change and overpopulation, that just might be our saving grace.” – Marianne Willburn, Garden Rant

Margaret Renkl writes an opinion column for the New York Times that I usually enjoy because she frequently writes about nature, often based on observations of wildlife in her own garden.  She lives in her childhood home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Much of her garden was planted with non-native plants and trees decades ago by her deceased mother.  Yet, in a recent column, Ms. Renkl blames non-native plants for a variety of crimes against nature. 

  • She suggests that non-native trees are blooming earlier than native trees, which she says has “skewed our experience of spring.”  She is apparently unaware that spring does indeed arrive earlier than it has in the past because of climate change.  Warmer weather arrives earlier, triggering the blooms of spring, not vice versa.  Both native and non-native plants are blooming earlier than they did in the past. 
  • She suggests that gardens planted with non-native plants are “blooming wastelands where the flowers feed nobody at all,” yet her columns are usually filled with the wildlife that lives in her own garden, with introduced plant species.
  • Although she does not use pesticides in her own garden, she believes that her neighbors’ non-native gardens require them to use pesticides that kill wildlife.  She says, “The typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.” She does not seem to know that most herbicide is used to kill non-native plants, not native plants nor does she seem to realize the contradiction in her indictment of gardening with non-native plants.  If there are more insects living in native gardens than non-native gardens, why would more pesticide be needed in non-native gardens?  If people could learn to love the clover, dandelions, and English daisies in their lawns as much as I do, they would use less “weed killers” on their lawns.

Ms. Renkl’s misperceptions about non-native plants seem to be based on a mistaken belief in their origins.  She says, “Ambulatory and omnivorous, human beings are a migratory species. That’s not true for the vast majority of plants.”  In fact, plants are just as mobile as animals, including humans.  Plants are carried by birds, animals, wind, ocean currents, etc.  They come and go as the climate changes, as it has many times in the past 500 million years that plants have existed on Earth.  Plants now considered non-native existed here in the distant past, in a different climate.  Here are a few examples of such dispersals; most occurred before humans even existed:

The ability to migrate is essential to the survival of plant and animal species.  As the climate changes, this survival strategy is quickly becoming even more important.  When we demand that plants be restricted to their historical “native” ranges, we doom them to extinction because when the climate changes, the vegetation must change.

Where did Ms. Renkl learn these myths?

Ms. Renkl’s cites Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope as one of the sources of her mistaken beliefs.  Tallamy considers the existence of non-native plants the root of all evil in nature.  He calls them “ecological tumors.” He blames non-native plants for declining populations of both native plants and insects, and by extension to declining populations of birds that eat insects. 

In Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy says, “…we must not use climate change as an excuse to do nothing.  Most species of plants and animals are far more resilient to climate variability than we give them credit for.  Besides, increasing the number and biomass of the plantings in our yards and public spaces is one of our most accessible and convenient tools to fight climate change.”  The problem with Tallamy’s dogma is that it inspires the public and land managers to eradicate established landscapes that are not native based on Tallamy’s claims that non-natives are “crowding out” native species and depriving wildlife of food. All native plant “restorations” begin by eradicating non-native plants, usually with herbicides that retard new growth.  In other words, the native plant ideology is causing the loss of vegetation and therefore the loss of stored carbon and the reduced capacity for carbon sequestration in the future.  The native plant ideology is not increasing biodiversity, nor is it “fighting climate change.”  It is more destructive than constructive. 

I’m not looking for “an excuse to do nothing.”  On the contrary, I believe every effort must be made to stop or at least slow down the inexorable advance of climate change.  The most basic effort we can make is to stop destroying functional vegetation, especially trees.  Then, there is a lengthy list of what we should be doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is another, equally important topic. 

Native plant advocates consider climate change irrelevant because they believe the existence of non-native plants is the sole culprit of all problems in the environment.  They see every environmental issue through the narrow lens of their dogma.  This comment on an article about the value of non-native plants by Marlene Condon published in [Chesapeake] Bay Journal is an example of such a misinterpretation of an environmental issue:

“English ivy is an evergreen, non-native, invasive groundcover that has demolished undisturbed natural areas…In salmon country that’s the difference between clean, cold streams and warmer streams filled with sediment.”

Eradicating ivy on stream banks is likely to produce more sediment because it will take some time for replacement vegetation to cover the ground, especially if herbicides are used to eradicate the ivy. Water is warmer in streams because of climate change and because there is less water due to water diversion and droughts. There are many other reasons for declining populations of salmon, particularly dams that prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.

Treat the cause, not the symptom

The native plant ideology ignores the underlying causes of changing ecosystems. Most changes are caused by the activities of humans, such as agriculture, development, water diversion, and pesticides.  Climate change is the underlying cause of some changes in nature and it will steadily become a more important factor.  Eradicating non-native plants will not reverse any of those changes nor will it prevent changes in the climate.    


  1. Alan de Queiroz, “The resurrection of oceanic dispersal in historical biogeography,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20 No. 2, February 2005

Photo credit for featured photo: Garden Rant, Marianne Willburn

Science meets the “restoration” industry

I was encouraged to hear a presentation by an academic scientist at the recent Beyond Pesticides Forum that was another indication of the paradigm shift in invasive species management toward a less destructive approach.  Dr. Bernd Blossey is a Professor at Cornell University, where he directs the Ecology and Management of Invasive Plants Program in the Department of Natural Resources.  His many years of studying invasive plants, such as purple loosestrife, garlic mustard, water chestnut, Japanese knotweed, and phragmites have convinced him that there are often “multiple stressors” that contribute to such invasions.  Some factors such as the presence of earthworms and deer can be more important factors in the Northeast than the non-native plants themselves. 

Based on his research experience, Dr. Blossey delivered wise advice to land managers at the Beyond Pesticide Forum.  The featured photo at the top of this article was his introductory slide. 

Before a restoration project begins, these questions should be asked and answered:

Source: Dr. Blossey’s presentation to Beyond Pesticides Forum on June 8, 2021

If the project seems worthwhile after such analysis is done, this is Dr. Blossey’s advice about monitoring the project and measuring its success:

Source: Dr. Blossey’s presentation to Beyond Pesticides Forum on June 8, 2021

Practicing what he preaches

Dr. Blossey used these principles in his study of garlic mustard in the forests of the northeast. (1) Over a period of more than 10 years, Dr. Blossey and his collaborators measured the abundance of garlic mustard in 16 plots from New Jersey to Illinois where no attempt had been made to control or eradicate it.  They found that growth rates initially increased, but decreased over time and eventually the population started to decline.  Dr. Blossey explained their findings in a recent webinar that is available HERE:

Garlic mustard was first recorded in North America in 1868 on Long Island, New York.  It spread west from there and is now found from southern Canada to Georgia and from New York and Quebec to Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.  Because land managers believed that garlic mustard suppresses populations of native plants, they have been trying to eradicate garlic mustard in northern forests for decades, with little long term success.  Dr. Blossey addressed that concern in his webinar. 

Source: Dr. Blossey’s webinar about garlic mustard

Earthworms are the prerequisite for garlic mustard invasion.  Earthworms in northern forests are also considered alien invaders because they were killed, along with forests, by advancing glaciers during the Ice Age.  When forests returned after the Ice Age over 10,000 years ago, they evolved without earthworms that were reintroduced by European settlers less than 500 years ago. 

When deer are excluded from areas by fencing plots with garlic mustard populations, abundance of native vegetation does not decline.  Deer have a strong preference for native vegetation.  Absent deer, garlic mustard does not seem to suppress the growth of native plants in northern forests.

In other words, garlic mustard is not guilty as charged.  Dr. Blossey explains the disadvantages of attempting to eradicate it.  The decline of garlic mustard abundance over time is attributed to negative soil feedback that builds over time as the soil microbial community responds to the new plant. Removing garlic mustard episodically prolongs the process of building that negative soil feedback.  When groups of well-meaning young people are sent into the forest to pull garlic mustard, they trample the very native plants they are trying to save. 

Are there lessons for land managers in the Bay Area?

Because garlic mustard doesn’t exist in California and our native earthworms are considered beneficial to soil health, you might wonder if this study is relevant here.  California was not glaciated during the Ice Age.  Our earthworms survived the Ice Age and they evolved with our forests. 

So, what can we learn from this study?  The pattern of initial growth and eventual decline of populations of introduced plants is not unique to garlic mustard“A phenomenon that has received increased attention is whether introduced species go through boom and bust cycles, ultimately becoming non-threatening members of local communities.” (1)  One recently published study was based on nearly 5,000 vegetation inventories collected in 49 National Parks in the eastern United States.  It reported that non-native plants appeared to decline after 100-200 years: 

Residence time appears a core part of invasion that interacts with other mechanisms, such as climate matching, propagule pressure and empty niche. Initially, time appears to benefit non-native species as they establish in a novel range. They likely face low enemy loads, and any successful dispersal increases their populations and invaded range. As they spread, initial barriers, such as distance or suboptimal habitat, were overcome, as was resistance from native relatives. However, their biggest challenge appeared to be time, as they all declined after ~1 to 2 centuries, suggesting that pathogens and herbivores caught up with them.” (2)

The message for land managers everywhere is that patience is needed to judge the impact of introduced species.  Most will fit into ecosystems eventually and attempts to speed up that process often do more harm than good.  We can’t judge changes in nature by the short-term perspective of human lifetimes because the evolution of nature is a continual process that began long before humans existed and is likely to persist long after we are gone. 

Applying Dr. Blossey’s “Core Knowledge” to local projects

What if Dr. Blossey’s “Core Knowledge” had been applied to projects in the San Francisco Bay Area?  Here are examples of local eradication projects that might have benefitted:

  • San Francisco has been trying to eradicate oxalis in its parks for over 20 years by spraying a selective herbicide (Garlon).  There seems to be more oxalis now than there was 20 years ago.  Oxalis is visible only about 2 months of the year.  When it dies back in the spring it leaves behind the native plants with which it co-exists.  If a control plot had been set aside before they started eradicating oxalis perhaps we would know the answer to these important questions:  Does oxalis suppress the growth of native plants?  Does attempting to eradicate oxalis produce more or less oxalis?
  • California, Oregon, and Washington have been trying to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass along the entire West Coast for over 20 years.  Here in the Bay Area, non-native species of spartina have been 99% eradicated, but a hybrid of the native and the non-native remains and is poisoned with imazapyr annually.  According to a recent presentation by the Invasive Spartina Project, the hybrid is visually indistinguishable from the native and it occupies the same elevation of the marsh.  Over 500 genetic tests are needed every year to distinguish the hybrid from the native in order to poison the hybrid.  Dr. Blossey’s approach might ask these important questions:  What harm is hybrid spartina doing?  Do more or fewer animals live in hybrid spartina?  What effect has 20 years of spraying imazapyr had on the soil and the microbes that live in it?  Is the eradication project doing more harm than good? 
oxalis bloom, February 2021

We don’t know the answers to these important questions because projects were initiated and implemented without the analysis and monitoring metrics needed to answer the questions.  The projects continue without being accountable for the damage they are doing.  Public money is funding these projects without requiring the projects to be accountable for the consequences. 

California has made a commitment to spend billions of dollars on “nature based solutions” and achieving “biodiversity goals.”  This is an opportunity to start new projects off on the right foot by:

  • Requiring the analysis needed to determine the impacts and causes of perceived problems in the environment.
  • Requiring control plots so that the effects of the project can be compared with the option of not doing the project.
  • Requiring that projects be monitored, using established metrics so that the success of the project can be measured.

  1. Bernd Blossey, et. al., “Residence time determines invasiveness and performance of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolota) in North America, Ecology Letters, February 2021.  
  2. Robert Warren, et. al., “Multiple mechanisms in woodland plant species invasion,”  Plant Ecology, April 2019.

The National Park Service has an epiphany

“We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.” – NPS Scientist

During the Trump administration federal agencies were forced to be silent about climate change.  Behind closed doors, many federal agencies were quietly preparing for the day when they would be able to begin the process of adapting to climate change. 

Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, the National Park Service published a natural resources report that announced a radical departure from traditional conservation strategy that was based on an assumption that nature is static and evolution a historical event.  “Resist-Accept-Direct—A framework for the 21st century resource manager” acknowledged that the rapidly changing climate requires a new approach based on the knowledge that nature is dynamic and evolution is a current and continuous event.  Many other federal agencies participated in the preparation of the report, which implies that other federal agencies may adopt the new conservation strategy. (1)

In April 2021, the National Park Service published policy guidance for park managers based on the principles of “Resist-Accept-Direct.” The New York Times interviewed the lead author of the policy guidance, who described the new conservation strategy of the National Park Service:   “The concept of things going back to some historical fixed condition is really just no longer tenable.” 

Acadia National Park, Maine

An ecologist and the science coordinator of Acadia National Park in Maine told NY Times what this new strategy meant to him and his colleagues.  He said that as recently as 2007 protected areas like the national parks were still being thought about as static places that could be preserved forever with the right techniques. “We weren’t being trained on how to manage for change,” he said. “We were being trained on how to keep things like they were in the past.”  That means nearly everyone in his line of work was caught unprepared for the current reality. “You have a whole profession of people having to shift how we think.  We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.”

Evolution of National Park Service Policy:  From preservation to restoration

The federal law that established the National Park Service in 1916, defined its mission:

“…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

H.R. 15522, An Act to establish a National Park Service, engrossed August 5, 1916 (1)

Preservation was the original mission of the National Park Service.  In 1963, the mission of the National Park Service was radically changed by the Leopold Report, written by A. Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold.  The Leopold Report recommended a goal for national parks of maintaining historical conditions as closely as possible to those “of primitive America.”  When the Leopold Report was adopted as official policy by the National Park Service in 1967, it committed NPS to restoring park lands to pre-settlement conditions:

“Passive protection is not enough. Active management of the natural environment, plus a sensitive application of discipline in park planning, use, and development, are requirements for today’ Simultaneously, that edition of NPS policies also described the primary management task as a seemingly simple undertaking: ‘[safeguard] forests, wildlife, and natural features against direct removal, impairment, or destruction,’ and ‘[apply] ecological management techniques to neutralize the unnatural influences of man, thus permitting the natural environment to be maintained essentially by natural agents’” (1)

In 1967, the land management goals of the National Park Service became more ambitious.  The goal of “preservation” was replaced by the goal of “restoring” historic landscapes and ecosystems.  The pre-settlement landscape of 500 years ago on the East Coast and 250 years ago on the West Coast was established as the baseline landscape that NPS was committed to re-creating.  The baseline landscape was presumed to be “pristine” although it had been actively gardened by indigenous people for thousands of years.

The new land management strategy of the National Park Service

The National Park Service calls its new land management strategy the RAD framework, an acronym that summarizes three alternative strategies:  

  1. “Resist the trajectory of change, by working to maintain or restore ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition based upon historical or acceptable current conditions.
  2. “Accept the trajectory of change, by allowing ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition to change, without intervening to alter their trajectory.
  3. “Direct the trajectory of change, by actively shaping ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition towards desired new conditions.” (1)

Every land management decision will choose among these alternatives based on an analysis that will begin with a climate assessment. Instead of looking to the past for guidance, the planning process will assess current conditions and project future climate conditions.  Based on that assessment, the purpose of land management plans will be adaptation to current and anticipated conditions.  Every plan will be designed for a specific place, based on specific current and anticipated conditions.  There is no one-size-fits-all plan, only a framework for devising individual plans tailored for specific parks or ecosystems within parks. 

The new strategy also makes a commitment to monitor the project as plans are implemented and modify the strategy as the environment continues to change and the ecosystem responds to land management.  This is called “adaptive management” and it is essential in a rapidly changing environment. The project doesn’t end, because nature never stops changing.  It’s a process for which there is no end-stage.

It’s a challenging strategy, but one that has the potential to be less destructive than the “restoration” paradigm that always began by destroying plants and animals perceived as intruders without historical precedents.  Precisely what it will mean remains to be seen.  There will probably be pockets of resistance from those who remain committed to the “restoration” paradigm and those who are economically dependent on existing projects.  All the more reason to continue to watch what is being done and participate in whatever public process is available

An example of an NPS project that should be abandoned.

There are undoubtedly hundreds, perhaps thousands of NPS projects that are based on the ambitious restoration goals of the 1963 Leopold Report.  Perhaps some were successful.  My personal knowledge of NPS projects is limited to those in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home.

Point Reyes National Seashore

An attempt to eradicate European beach grass in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) is an example of an NPS “restoration” project that should be abandoned if the new RAD framework is implemented.  The PRNS project was described by NPS staff at the 2018 conference of the California Invasive Plant Council, a source and a setting that should be considered credible by the most ardent supporters of ecological “restorations.”

About 60% of sand dunes in the Point Reyes National Seashore were covered in European beach grass when the eradication effort began in 2000.  The goal of the project was to restore native dune plants and increase the population of endangered snowy plovers that nest on bare sand.  The project began by manually pulling beach grass from 30 acres of dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon.  The grass grew back within one year, presumably because the roots of the beach grass are about 10 feet long.  Manually pulling the grass from the surface does not destroy the roots. 

A new method was devised that was more successful with respect to eradicating the beach grass.  The grass and its roots were plowed up by bulldozers and buried deep in the sand.  The cost of that method was prohibitively expensive at $25,000 to $30,000 per acre and the barren sand caused other problems.  The barren dunes were mobile in the wind.  Sand blew into adjacent ranches and residential areas, causing neighbors of the park to object to the project.  The sand also encroached into areas where there were native plants, burying them.  The bare sand was eventually colonized by “secondary invaders.”  Different non-native plants replaced the beach grass because they were more competitive than the desired native plants. 

In 2011, the National Park Service adopted a third strategy for converting beach grass to native dune plants.  They sprayed the beach grass with a mixture of glyphosate and imazapyr.  At $2,500 to $3,000 per acre, this eradication method was significantly cheaper than the mechanical method.  However, it resulted in different problems that prevented the establishment of native dune plants.  The poisoned thatch of dead beach grass was a physical barrier to successful seed germination and establishment of a new landscape.  Where secondary invaders were capable of penetrating the dead thatch, the resulting vegetation does not resemble native dunes. 

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore, November 2018

The concluding slides of the presentation of NPS staff about this project were stunning.  The slides said it is a “Restoration fallacy that killing an invader will result in native vegetation.”  My 20-plus years of watching these futile efforts confirm this reality.  However, I never expected to hear that said by someone actually engaged in this effort.  The presenter mused that such projects are like Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder up hill.

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore. November 2018

Looking forward, not back

The realization—or perhaps acknowledgement—that the NPS strategy of re-creating historical landscapes is unrealistic was a long time coming.  Over the 50 years that the “restoration” strategy was attempted much unnecessary damage was done.  Useful, functional landscapes were destroyed.  Healthy trees were destroyed solely because they were planted by Europeans.  Animals were killed because they were perceived to be competitors of “native” animals.  Herbicides poisoned the soil, preventing regeneration or germination of new vegetation.  Established landscapes that had not needed irrigation were replaced with native plants that required irrigation.  Stabilizing vegetation was destroyed, resulting in erosion and drifting sand. 

The National Park Service has awakened to the failure of their “restoration” strategy because of the combination of failed projects that were based on mistaken assumptions and the impacts of climate change. NPS led public land managers into the dead end of attempting to re-create historical landscapes. Now NPS will lead public land managers out of that dead end into the reality of a changed environment with a rapidly changing future. Better late than never.


  1. Schuurman, G. W., C. Hawkins Hoffman, D. N. Cole, D. J. Lawrence, J. M. Morton, D. R. Magness, A. E. Cravens, S. Covington, R. O’Malley, and N. A. Fisichelli. 2020. Resist-accept-direct (RAD)—a framework for the 21st-century natural resource manager. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/CCRP/NRR—2020/ 2213. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. https://doi.org/10.36967/nrr-2283597
  2. Planning for a Changing Climate: Climate-Smart Planning and Management in the National Park Service, NPS, April 2021.  https://toolkit.climate.gov/reports/planning-changing-climate-climate-smart-planning-and-management-national-park-service

Featured Photo from RAD Natural Resource Report.  Photo caption:

“Multiple federal agencies, including the National Park Service (Bandelier National Monument), tribes, and others steward the East Jemez Mountains ecosystem of New Mexico, an ecologically transforming landscape where massive forest die-off is projected to occur more frequently in the future. Piñon pines, normally evergreen, have reddish-brown foliage in October 2002 (left). By May 2004 (right), the dead piñon pines lost all their needles, exposing gray trunks and branches. The photos were taken from the same vantage point near Los Alamos, N.M. Forest drought stress is strongly correlated with tree mortality from poor growth, bark beetle outbreaks, and high-severity fire. Credit: C. Allen, USGS” (1)