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

“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.

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

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)

The Grand Delusion: Controlling Nature

“This is a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s earlier book, The Sixth Extinction was ground-breaking, not because it described the consequences of climate change in the 21st Century, but because it put modern climate change into the context of similar events in the past 500 million years of life on Earth.  Although the current episode of climate change is man-made, five previous mass extinctions were natural events.  What past extinction events have in common with the sixth extinction is the inevitable consequence of such changes in climate:  when the climate changes, all life on Earth changes with it.  Plants and animals will adapt, change, or they will go extinct as they have for 500 million years. (1)

Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky, turns the page on this cataclysmic event in the Earth’s history to focus on the efforts being made to control nature to address environmental problems, including climate change.  To say that Kolbert is skeptical of those efforts is to understate her critical evaluation of them. 

Controlling Nature

In 1990, I was introduced to the human delusion that we can control nature by John McPhee’s The Control of Nature.  His book had a profound influence on my thinking about nature.  It was the basis for my belief that attempts to turn back the botanical clock to 500 years ago to a pre-settlement landscape, mistakenly believed to be pristine, are futile, misguided, and often damaging.  Kolbert’s latest book is written from the same perspective as McPhee’s seminal work and she gives him credit for his pioneering work.

Map of Mississippi River Delta

McPhee’s book predicted the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Human engineering of the Mississippi River for over 100 years set the stage for that disaster.  New Orleans sits at the Gulf end of the Mississippi River.  Historically, the river flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf, accumulating sediment along its way and depositing it as it entered the Gulf, fanning out into streams and swamps that created the Mississippi Delta.  The labyrinth of land and marsh created by the sediment deposited by the river created a barrier that protected New Orleans from storms. 

However, the uncontrolled and episodic flow of the river caused periodic flooding that was not convenient for the human inhabitants of New Orleans and the Delta community.  So, the flow of the river was controlled by levees and pumps were used to return water from the land to the river.  Sediment from the river could no longer replenish the land because it was confined to the constrained river, which put the human engineers onto a never-ending treadmill of building higher levees and bigger pumps.  It was inevitable that the river would eventually overwhelm the defenses built by the engineers and so it did during Katrina in 2005.

Kolbert updates this untenable situation in the Mississippi Delta in her new book.  The underlying cause, as told by McPhee is recapped by Kolbert.  Then new manmade environmental issues are added to the catastrophic circumstances that will inevitably doom the human inhabitants.  Rising sea levels caused by climate change are one factor.  The incursion of salt water into fresh water swamps killed vegetation that acts as a buffer during storms. Oil and gas exploration and extraction in the Delta has caused the land to drop further. 

Many Delta communities and some neighborhoods in New Orleans have been abandoned because they are essentially underwater.  Since Katrina, no serious effort has been made to change the approach to the issues.  Bigger, more powerful pumps have been built and levees have been made higher and stronger.  No one is seriously considering the need to relocate New Orleans or surrounding communities to higher ground.  The delusion that humans can outsmart the river continues. 

A comedy of errors

Kolbert introduces the many projects that are trying to solve problems that were created by bad decisions made earlier by other humans with a quote from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  These wise words from a wise man are clearly not being heeded by the masterminds of the projects Kolbert describes in her book:

Dead carp
  • High on the list of projects in which society is heavily investing is the attempt to prevent carp from entering the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River.  After many different approaches were tried and failed, the current strategy is an electrified fence separating the Chicago River (connecting to the Mississippi River) from Lake Michigan that kills untold thousands of fish every day.  This deadly project is the end stage of previous bad decisions.  A link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River was created by a massive engineering project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1887.  Later, carp was introduced to the Mississippi River from China as biological control to address pollution issues.  One species of carp was introduced to control aquatic weeds and another carp species was introduced to consume nutrients in sewage ponds.  Kolbert says such biological controls became popular after Silent Spring was published because Rachel Carson considered pesticides a curse and biological control a panacea. (Which is not to say that pesticides aren’t a curse.) In other words, we traded one problem for another.
  • Island eradications of introduced mammals such as rats and mice are also popular projects (with some people).  Genetic engineering is being aggressively pursued as a possible substitute for the rodenticides that are being used for these projects.  These projects have the potential to drive an entire species into extinction or alter their physiology such that they could become killers or prevent them from being killers.  Kolbert buys a genetic engineering kit for $209 from a young entrepreneur in Oakland that enables her to make E.coli cells resistant to an antibiotic.  E.coli is a deadly bacteria that can be fatal if untreated by antibiotics.  In other words, anyone with $209 can turn bacteria into killers with no special training or equipment.  What could possibly go wrong, Kolbert asks rhetorically.

The promise and threat of geoengineering

Kolbert visits several different geoengineering projects that are trying to prevent the consequences of climate change without reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the underlying cause of climate change.  One such project is turning CO₂ into stone.  Apparently it CAN be done, but to do it on a scale that would actually prevent climate change would be to devote much of the surface of the Earth to that purpose. 

Kolbert visits a project that believes injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun is the best bet to stop climate change.  The proposal strikes Kolbert as both preposterous and dangerous.  The researcher detects her skepticism and retorts, “People think of all the bad examples of environmental modification.  They forget all the ones that are more or less working.  There’s a weed, tamarisk, originally from Egypt.  It’s spread all around the desert Southwest and has been destructive.  After a bunch of trials, they imported some bug that eats the tamarisk, and apparently it’s kind of working.” 

Tamarisk defoliation along Colorado River, near Needles, California

In fact, the introduced tamarisk beetle is working too well.  It has spread far beyond the regions where it was introduced and produced wastelands of dead trees in Arizona and Southern California.  Since one of the rarest desert birds depends upon tamarisk there isn’t much to celebrate about this over-achiever beetle.

Compounding the problem

Instead of addressing the source of environmental issues, we compound them by creating new problems with our theoretical “fixes.”  The native plant movement, in their zeal to save native plants, sprays herbicides that kill as many native plants as non-native plants and poison the soil while doing so, stunting all new growth, both native and non-native. 

I share Kolbert’s skepticism about the projects she describes for the same reasons she gives.  Every “fix” has the potential to create new problems that could be more disastrous than the problems they are meant to resolve.  And the resources used to develop new techniques such as massive geoengineering projects could be used instead to address the underlying cause of the problem, which is the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  We don’t want to give up our fossil-fuel driven economy, so instead we conjure up even more damaging ways to ameliorate the inconveniences of climate change.  It’s a fantasy that prolongs and exacerbates the consequences of climate change.

Finally, let’s give Kolbert the last word:  “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems…Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and quite disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered?…But to imagine that ‘dimming the fucking sun’ could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but it will be deployed according to plan.  And that’s a lot of imagining…But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong.”  (2)

Thank you, Elizabeth Kolbert, for calling out the grand delusions of humans who mistakenly believe it is possible to control nature to avoid inconveniencing human society. 


  1. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Henry Holt and Co., 2014
  2. Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky, Crown New York, 2021

What does this mean: “Nature-based solutions to achieve California’s climate change and biodiversity goals”?

In October 2020, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-82-20 “enlisting California’s vast network of natural and working lands – forests, rangelands, farms, wetlands, coast, deserts and urban greenspaces – in the fight against climate change. A core pillar of Governor Newsom’s climate agenda, these novel approaches will help clean the air and water for communities throughout the state and support California’s unique biodiversity.”

The California Natural Resources Agency has invited the public to tell them what you think that means.  They are holding a series of virtual on-line workshops (register here) and they are inviting the public to complete a survey (available here) by the deadline of May 14, 2021.  Recordings of workshops that have already taken place are available HERE.   Email address for feedback and questions is californianature@resources.ca.gov.

Click on picture to see San Francisco Bay Area regional workshop

I attended one of the workshops and I’ve read the material available on their website.  This is what little I can tell you about the project.  There seem to be three elements to this initiative:

  • The Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy will “expand climate smart land management across California to achieving carbon neutrality and reduce climate risks to communities and ecosystems and build climate resilience across California.”
  • The 30X30 initiative establishes a state goal of conserving at least 30 percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030, while “safeguarding our State’s economic sustainability and food security, protecting and restoring biodiversity.” Conservation measures will focus on a “broad range of landscapes, including natural areas and working lands, in partnership with land managers and natural resource user groups while building climate resilience and reducing risk from extreme climate events.”  Projects will also “expand equitable outdoor access and recreation for all Californians.”  Approximately 22% of land in California is presently protected, but only 16% of our coastal waters. 
  • “The California Biodiversity Collaborative will bring together groups and leaders from across our state to take bold action to maintain California’s extraordinary natural richness. This Collaborative was a directive set forth in Governor Newsom’s 30×30 Executive Order and is the next generation of the State’s Biodiversity Initiative.”

I have no idea what these vague commitments mean when they are translated into specific land acquisitions and funded projects, but I know that non-governmental organizations see this as an opportunity to obtain funding for what they want. 

Only 10% of the audience for the San Francisco Bay Region workshop was the general public. Over 50% of the 280 people at the workshop (by far the largest constituency at the workshop) I attended were employees of non-governmental organizations.  The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) asked their members to attend the workshops and participate in them:  “This is a critical opportunity to make sure the need for invasive plant management is heard, loud and clear. We encourage you to attend to learn more about 30×30 and share your ideas.”  These are Cal-IPC’s suggestions for participants:  “Several points to consider making: (1) the definition of “protected” — and the metrics used to measure 30×30 success — need to include adequate funding for ongoing stewardship; (2) funding for the Weed Management Area (WMA) program is critical for county collaborations staying on top of high priority invasive plants across jurisdictional boundaries; (3) wildfire fuels reduction should follow best practices, including control of invasive plants, so that habitat is enhanced, not damaged.” California Native Plant Society is also asking its membership to participate in the 30 X 30 public outreach effort in support of CNPS objectives.

If you have your own priorities for how your tax dollars are used, you may want to participate in this public process as well because the projects will have an impact on land management practices throughout the State of California.  Please consider attending a workshop and completing the long, complex, and vague on-line survey by May 14, 2021.  I have no idea if the California Natural Resources Agency will take the public’s input into consideration, but I know this:  If you don’t participate, you will take whatever you get. 

What I WANT it to mean

This initiative is going to be a major public investment and non-governmental non-profit organizations see it as an opportunity to fund their projects.  The disparate goals of this initiative are often in conflict.  If climate change solutions and related wildfire hazard reduction goals conflict with biodiversity goals, addressing climate change hazards must be the top priority because all life is threatened by the consequences of climate change.  The public must understand that when the climate changes, the vegetation changes.  The ranges of native plants and animals have changed and will continue to change in response to climate change.  Native vegetation is not inherently less flammable than non-native vegetation.

On August 18, 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire swept through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, burning over 97% of the land, forested in native redwood trees. (AP Photo/NicCoury published by CA State Parks)

The native plant movement is a form of climate change denial.  We cannot replicate the landscape of 250 years ago, as native plant advocates wish, because it is not adapted to the current and anticipated climate.  Biodiversity is appropriately defined as all species of plants and animals, regardless of their origins.  Forests are major carbon sinks, whether they are native or considered non-native by people with a short-term perspective of nature and evolution.

Over 160 million native conifers have died in California in the past 8 years. They were killed by high temperatures, drought, and native bark beetles. All of these factors are consequences of climate change.

The survey for this project is not user friendly.  Within its constraints, here is a sample of the specific points I was able to make:  “Do not fund projects that use pesticides, including herbicides.  Do not replace established vegetation that does not require irrigation with vegetation that will require irrigation to become established.  Do not fund projects that will require recreational access restrictions. Stop eradicating non-native spartina marsh grass with herbicides because it protects wetlands year around from storm surges.  Where afforestation is possible, plant only trees that are adapted to the current and anticipated climate. Fund projects that protect residential communities from coastal flooding and salt-water incursion into ground water. Fuels management projects must assume that native and non-native vegetation is equally flammable because flammability is unrelated to the origin of plants.  If climate solutions conflict with biodiversity goals, climate solutions should be the top priority because all life is threatened by climate change.  If fuels management goals conflict with biodiversity goals, fire safety should be the top priority.”

Computer models predict the future? Garbage in, garbage out

Computer modeling is an increasingly popular tool used in ecological studies.  The rapidly changing climate is putting pressure on scientists to predict the trajectory of the change and the impacts those changes will have on the environment.  However, a computer model is only as predictive as the assumptions used to build it.  In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.”

That sets the stage for a study published in 2018 that predicted that “grassland may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests in California.”(1) The study was quickly adopted by native plant advocates as a weapon in their battle to destroy non-native trees in favor of grassland they prefer. (2) They prefer grassland because it was the pre-settlement coastal landscape.  They don’t acknowledge that burning by Native Americans and grazing by native ungulates were the primary reasons why grassland did not succeed to shrubs and forests prior to settlement. Pre-settlement grassland was as much a human creation as any modern landscape.

Source: US EPA, 2018

Most carbon storage is below ground, in roots and soil.  That is true of both grassland and forests. If the forest burns, the carbon it has stored in soil remains, just as the below ground carbon sink of grassland remains. 

The study (1) that claims grassland may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests reaches its erroneous conclusion by comparing below ground carbon storage in grassland with above ground carbon storage in forests. It’s a classic case of inappropriately comparing apples with oranges to the disadvantage of forests.  It seemed such an unlikely comparison that I asked the study’s authors to confirm they had compared below ground carbon storage in grassland with above ground carbon storage in forests.  They confirmed that they did, indeed, make that inappropriate comparison.

The study also bolsters its mistaken conclusions by erroneously claiming that forests are more likely to burn than grasses:

“The fire resistance for grasses is 0.5 while that of trees range from 0.1−0.3, making grasses more resistant to wildfires than trees, which is roughly consistent with field-observations since in the event of a wildfire, when compared to trees, a smaller fraction of the biomass of grass is damaged.” (1)

However, the study cited as the source of this statement (3) says exactly the opposite:

“The fraction of individuals killed depends upon the prescribed PFT fire resistance, which represents the PFT survivorship during a fire (see Table 1). In the fire model, grasses and litter are fully consumed.” (3)

Table 1 PFT parameter values for fire resistance
PFTFire Resistance (%)
Woody
Tropical broad-leaved evergreen12.0
Tropical broad-leaved raingreen50.0
Temperate needle-leaved evergreen12.0
Temperate broad-leaved evergreen50.0
Temperate broad-leaved summergreen12.0
Boreal needle-leaved evergreen12.0
Boreal summergreen12.0
Grasses
C3 grass100.0
C4 grass100.0

Table 1 is consistent with this statement in the abstract of the cited study:  “Estimated litter moisture is the main driver of day‐to‐day fire probability.”  (3) Forests retain more moisture in the soil and leaf litter because of the shade provided by the tree canopy.  I wrote to the study author again, asking “where is the source of your statement that grasses are more fire resistant than trees?”  He did not reply.

If a study doesn’t seem to make sense, or it contradicts other sources of information, it is worthwhile to look under the hood.  What is driving the model?  Is it fueled by hot air?  Is it serving an activist agenda? Are cited studies accurately quoted? 

Some truth emerges from the model’s black box

Despite the erroneous assumptions of the computer model used by this study, there is some truth in the conclusions it reaches.  Vegetation type conversions are occurring now and they will continue as the climate continues to change because when the climate changes, the vegetation changes. We are presently witnessing the transition of native conifers at high altitudes to lower altitude hardwood trees. Although these changes will occur gradually and there will be many intermediary transitions, the fact is that grassland is more likely to survive than forests in a warmer, drier climate in the long run. 

The Guardian has published a comprehensive report about the loss of forests all over the world.  In the Rocky Mountains, one-third of places where trees burned 20 years ago are now occupied by shrubs and flowers.  About 15% of forests in the Rocky Mountains are not expected to grow back if killed by fire because the climate is no longer suitable for them.  About half of existing forests in Alberta, Canada are expected to vanish by 2100.  The “megadrought” in south-western US is expected to convert 30% of forests to shrubland or another type of ecosystem.

In the short run, the loss of forests can be mitigated by reforestation with tree species that are better adapted to a warmer, drier climate.  The study (1) acknowledges the potential for mitigation to preserve forest ecosystems:  Factors such as species traits, biodiversity, rapid evolution, and human management intervention could alter our model-based findings from the projections provided here. Consequently, our results indicate the potential direction of change as opposed to predictions that consider the full ensemble of ecological, physiological and management factors that can alter pathways and responses of ecosystems to climate change.”

From the standpoint of carbon storage, it is not good news that grassland is likely to inherit hot, dry lands previously occupied by forests.  Forests and wetlands store more carbon than grasslands, as the above chart in a USDA publication about carbon storage shows.  Sustaining below ground carbon sinks will depend on carbon sequestration by above-ground plants and trees.  Because above-ground carbon sequestration is primarily dependent upon the biomass, forests will always do a better job than grassland in the long run.  In the short-run, grassland will grow back more quickly than forests, but it will never achieve comparable biomass. 

Forests are presently absorbing about one-quarter of all human carbon emissions annually. Forests make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions, but planting trees is not a panacea as long we continue to burn fossil fuels to generate energy. The loss of carbon-sequestering capabilities of forests will exacerbate climate change in the long-run.  It’s one of many dreaded feedback loops that are reaching tipping points:  the impacts of climate change are destroying the mechanisms that mitigate climate change. 

The study (1) acknowledges that by the end of the 21st Century, under current climate conditions (warming limited to 0.3⁰ – 1.7⁰ Centigrade) forests will have removed 5 times more net carbon (carbon storage minus carbon loss) per hectare from the atmosphere than grassland in California.  See Table 1 in the study (1).  Thus, the study agrees that forests store more carbon than grassland.

From the standpoint of wildlife, it is not good news that grassland is likely to replace forests in a warmer climate. The insects, birds, and animals that live in the forest will lose their habitat. Forests are home to over 80% of terrestrial species.  We will lose our shade in a warming climate and our windbreak. 

Not an argument for destroying forests

This study (1) is unfortunately being used by the native plant movement to advocate for the preemptive destruction of healthy urban forests that are not more likely than native forests to burn in wildfires.  Virtually all wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. There is no advantage to destroying healthy forests that are expected to live for another 100-200 years.  We don’t amputate our limbs to avoid breaking them.  Nor should we destroy our forests before they die.

(1)“Grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in California,” Pawlok Dass, Benjamin Z Houlton, Yingping Wang and David Warlind, 10 July 2018, Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 7 

(2) “Importance of Grasslands for Carbon Storage,” Yerba Buena Chapter of California Native Plant Council, Quarterly Newsletter, March 2021, page 6. 

(3) “The role of fire disturbance for global vegetation dynamics: coupling fire into a dynamic global vegetation model,” Thonicke K, Venevsky S, Sitch S and Cramer W 2001,  Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr.10 661–77

Migration: Life on the move

Sonia Shah’s recently published book, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, takes a deep dive into the past to trace the ancient history of migrating life on Earth. For as long as life has existed on Earth, life has been on the move, as needed to survive the constantly changing environment in which all plants and animals live.

1 Homo sapiens
2 Neanderthals
3 Homo erectus

Shah’s is an ambitious attempt to tell this story, not confined to human migration, but encompassing plants and animals as well because all of these migrations are connected. Scientists speculate the earliest migrations of human ancestors, some 100,000 years ago out of Africa, were in pursuit of the migrating animals that humans hunted.  On balance, the movements of plants and animals are beneficial to life on Earth because they are necessary to survive. When they aren’t beneficial, the problems are usually short-lived and humans are usually unable to stop them because nature is more powerful than we are.

Click on map for animated movement of animals in response to changing climate conditions.

Migrations are even more frequent at a time of rapid and extreme climate change. As crops fail in the withering heat and drought caused by global warming, farmers are abandoning their farms to find the food they need to survive. Hence, Shah’s prediction that we are about to witness the “next great migration” because of the challenges of climate change. When the climate changes, the vegetation changes. When the vegetation changes, animals must move to find the food they need. Humans wish to put ourselves in a special category that denies our kinship with animals. But we are as dependent upon our food as any animal and the changing climate will challenge our existence as much as other forms of life.

Shah also traces the brief history of human knowledge of migrations about which little was known before the development of the scientific tools to study it.  Paleontology could dig up fossils that would raise more questions than answers about the residents of deep time, but it wasn’t until the development of molecular analysis that fossils could inform scientists of the evolutionary history of and close relationships among plants and animals that reflect migrations in the distant past.  New technology is capable of tracing the movements of animals that were unknown in the distant past, when animals seemed to mysteriously disappear at the end of one season and returned at the beginning of another season.

Invasion Biology is based on ignorance of migration

The fact that animal migration was largely unknown led to some fundamental misunderstandings about nature, including the unfortunate rise of nativism in the natural world that was spawned by the mistaken hypotheses of invasion biology. Shah explained the consequences of inadequate knowledge of migration in a recently published article in New York Times Magazine:

“When scientists considered movements across barriers and borders, they characterized them as disruptive and outside the norm, even in the absence of direct evidence of either the movements themselves or the negative consequences they purportedly triggered…Influential subdisciplines of biological inquiry focused on the negative impact of long-distance translocations of wild species, presuming that the most significant of these occurred not through the agency of animals on the move but when human trade and travel inadvertently deposited creatures into novel places.  The result, experts in invasion biology and restoration biology said, could be so catastrophic for already-resident species that the interlopers should be repelled or, if already present, eradicated, even before they could cause any detectable damage.”

In turn, Invasion Biology spawned pointless and destructive eradication projects

Conservation Sense and Nonsense has followed the destructive and futile attempts to eradicate plants and animals that nativists say “don’t belong here:”

  • Hawaii is an extreme case of attempts to eradicate non-native plants and animals: frogs, owls, egrets, seals, fruit trees, mangroves, parrots, etc.  These eradication projects often do more harm than good.  The “logic” for these projects is muddled, partly because the Hawaiian Islands emerged from the sea as barren volcanoes.  The question of “what belongs there” is a matter of opinion and debate in Hawaii and elsewhere.

Bird migration routes

Migration enables survival

I hope that improved knowledge of migration will help people understand that migration is a natural phenomenon that is essential to the survival of all life on Earth.  Migration enables life to adapt to changes in the environment, facilitating evolution and reducing frequency of extinction.