Wild by Design: A history of ecological restoration in the U.S.

“This is a superb book. Laura Martin’s research takes us where no restoration literature has gone before, asking, ‘Who gets to decide where and how wildlife management occurs?’ Martin tackles this question with unmatched clarity and insight, illuminating the crucial discussions we must have to secure a future with thriving natural species and spaces.”—Peter Kareiva, President and CEO, Aquarium of the Pacific

The author of Wild by Design, Laura J. Martin, is a professor of environmental history at Williams College.(1) She has written a comprehensive history of ecological restoration in the US that is consistent with my own observations of the restoration industry in the past 25 years.  It’s a story of the gradual transition from a conservation ethic to a preservation ethic and finally to the restoration ethic that we see today.  The story is punctuated by milestone federal laws and actions that facilitated the transition.  Environmental non-profits and academic ecologists used those laws to professionalize and monetize the restoration industry that exists today. 

By the end of the 19th Century, the public began to react to the environmental degradation caused by unregulated resource extraction.  In 1902, a survey of naturalists around the country determined there were 1,143 bison left in the country; virtually all were in captivity.   The American Bison Society was founded in 1905 in reaction to the disappearance of bison in America.  Their activism led to the creation of federal game reserves on former Indian reservations where captive bison were introduced.  The game reserves were the model for the National Wildlife Refuge system that was greatly expanded by President Teddy Roosevelt.

A photograph from 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls in Detroit, Michigan waiting to be ground for fertilizer or charcoal. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

The creation of the Wild Flower Preservation Society (WFPS) in 1901 was modeled on the successful campaign of the Audubon Society to save birds killed to serve as ornaments on fancy hats.  It was as much a campaign to shame women into abandoning the fashion fad as it was an effort to legally ban the practice.  Likewise, the Wildflower Preservation Society applied social pressure.  They were critical of organized excursions to visit wildflowers because they picked and trampled the wildflowers.  WFPS said that “Weddings are a new menace to our native plants” because of their use of wild flowers. Their criticism was initially aimed at their own community, but “it moved toward policing the behavior of so-called new immigrants to the United States—especially children.”  The moralistic scolding by these early native plant advocates was a preview of the finger-wagging now aimed at those who choose to plant a diverse garden. 

These advocacy organizations are precursors to the many environmental non-governmental organizations that are influential in pressuring government to invest in ecological restorations today.

Conservation and Preservation

The goals of conservation and preservation are similar, but some differences were observable in the past 200 years.  Both ethics are committed to protecting the environment, but conservation allows the sustainable use of natural resources while preservation protects nature from use.  The presidencies of both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were committed to conservation. 

Teddy Roosevelt created the US Forest Service based on the premise that government can and should regulate public lands to manage natural resources.  Franklin Roosevelt’s conservation programs were based on the same principle, but were motivated by the economic emergency of the depression as well as the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest.  The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) was created to provide jobs as well as to plant a “shelter belt” of trees across the Midwest of the country as a windbreak to stop dust storms (and many other projects).  Ecologists were critical of CCC projects because they expanded recreational opportunities and put “a stamp of man’s interference on every natural area they invade.” They preferred to exclude humans and their activities from nature. This is another early indicator of the conflicts between preservation and conservation that persist to the present day.

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

Government investment in ecological research

Ecological research in the United States was fundamentally altered after World War II, which ended with the beginning of the atomic era.  Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end the war without much thought given to the consequences.  After WWII, the federal government made big investments in science, creating the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation, which funded ecological research to study the impact of radiation on the environment and those who live in it.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense published an article about those studies and the impact they had on ecological research. 

These studies legitimatized destruction of ecosystems to study effects of the destruction and the concept was expanded from radiation to pesticides in the 1960s.  They also provided funding to the academic profession of ecology that was small and is now enormous.  The dependence of ecological studies on government funding remains to this day and government funding of ecological projects has created the restoration industry that now extends far beyond academia.  Destruction of existing habitat is still considered the prerequisite to restoring a historical landscape.  Often, destruction is the first and only stage of the project because of the persistent fantasy that the native landscape will regenerate without further help. 

In the late 1960s Daniel Simberloff tented and fumigated 6 mangrove islands off the eastern short of Florida with methyl bromide to kill all life on the islands.  The objective of the project was to study how long it would take to repopulate the islands with insects.

From Conservation to Restoration

The post-war economic boom of the 50s and 60s greatly increased the impact of human activities on the environment.  The federal government built a vast highway system that fragmented and disrupted ecosystems.  We built huge dams, and channeled riparian ecosystems.  Open space was rapidly covered by housing and industrial development.  Wetlands were drained and filled with rubble to create more land.

People who cared about the environment began to react to the loss of nature and wildlife that lives in nature.  Although Aldo Leopold is idolized by the native plant movement, his concern about the degradation of nature was primarily for wildlife.  His interest in vegetation was as habitat for wildlife.  He was opposed to government programs devoted to killing animals perceived as predators of game animals because he believed that wildlife is best served by expanding their habitat.  In fact, he was opposed to the expansion of government’s role in conservation because “he believed restoration would be most efficient and effective if pursued by private citizens.” He did not prefer native plants because “Farmers had the opportunity to conserve plants such as ragweed and foxtail (an introduced grass), ones ‘on which game, fur, and feather depend for food.’”  In other words, in the 1940s one of the icons of the native plant movement knew that wildlife is not dependent upon native plants for food.  One wonders if native plant advocates have actually read Leopold’s treatise, A Sand County Almanac. 

Aldo Leopold’s son, Starker Leopold, had as much impact on conservation in the United States as his father.  In 1963, he published the Leopold Report that changed the direction of conservation in the National Park Service.  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. NPS officially changed this policy in 2021, but we don’t see any change locally in their projects because NPS is decentralized and local parks are autonomous.

Restoration Goals

Professor Martin says that “historical fidelity did not become a widespread restoration goal among ecologists and environmental organizations until the 1980s.”  The arrival of Columbus in the new World in 1492 was arbitrarily selected as the date after which all new plant species were “deemed nonnative, unwanted reminders of human (colonist) presence and activity.”  On the West Coast, 1769 is the equally arbitrary date to confer non-native status because it is the date of the first Spanish expedition to California. 

Many now question the goal of replicating historical landscapes.  After 40 years of effort, there is a growing recognition that it is not a realistic goal, especially in a rapidly changing climate.  The Society for Ecological Restoration has changed its definition of ecological restoration from “the goal of intentionally altering a site to establish a defined, indigenous, historic ecosystem” in 1990 to “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed” in 2002.  Try telling that to the restorationists on the ground who are still trying to eradicate naturalized non-native plants that have been here for nearly 200 years.  Non-native annual grassland in California is a case in point. It has been repeatedly burned, mowed, plowed, and poisoned for 25 years without any visible progress toward native perennial grassland.   

Blaming non-native species

Around the same time that historical fidelity was identified as the goal of “restorations,” land managers and ecologists decided that the existence of non-native species is the main threat to native species.  I suppose the “logic” was that the main difference between historical landscapes and present landscapes is the existence of non-native species.  Concern about non-native species spread among federal agencies such as the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began aggressive campaigns to kill non-natives, “which were newly framed as the main threat to wild species…nativity would become a precondition to wildness—of plants and animals both.”   TNC’s methods have become increasingly deadly and destructive: using fire and herbicides to kill plants, poisoning honeybees, aerial hunting of sheep, pigs, and goats.  As a former donor to TNC, their methods finally became intolerable to me.

Professor Martin believes that the identification of non-native species as the scapegoat was not based on experimental evidence, but merely a description of the strategies used by public land managers, as well as The Nature Conservancy.  Non-native species were a convenient scapegoat because they were easily identified and were an easy substitute for identifying and remediating the underlying conditions causing so-called “invasions.”  “Although the role of invasive species in native species extinction has since been challenged by some ecologists, the influence of this fear on species management has been enormous…The US federal budget for invasive species management increased by $400 million between 2002 and 2005, for example.”   

Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973, along with companion laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act and others.  These federal laws created more funding opportunities for ecological projects as well as the legal justification for ecological restoration projects.

Federal laws permit the reintroduction of legally protected plant and animal species to places where they no longer exist.  The ESA confers the same protections for reintroduced species as it does for naturally occurring species.  Such reintroductions have become a tool for the restoration industry.  I have seen that strategy used in the San Francisco Bay Area.  If we had not been successful in preventing the reintroduction of a legally protected turtle, it would have justified the destruction of the non-native forest in my neighborhood park because the turtle requires unshaded nesting habitat within 500 feet of the water source in the park. The park remains largely forested because that is one of the few battles we have won in 25 years. Reintroduced, legally protected species are the Trojan horses of ecological restorations.

Compensatory mitigation is an equally powerful tool for the restoration industry.  Federal law requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for projects that will have a significant impact on the environment, such as big developments like building Disney World in Florida.  Disney World was built on an enormous wetland that was lost by the development of the park.  The EIS for the project agreed that the impact would be great, but it “mitigated” the impact by requiring Disney to fund the creation of a new wetland in a distant location.   

The funding generated to create fake wetlands built a new industry of commercial companies to design and build them.  Academic restoration ecologists questioned the functional equivalency between created and natural wetlands:  “’however accurate [the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan] is the restored community can never be authentic.’”  The tension between commercial and academic restorationists continues today.

The Society for Ecological Restoration published findings that mitigation wetlands were not functionally equivalent to the wetlands they were meant to replace.  In Florida only half of the promised mitigation projects were actually built. Those that were built were colonized by “undesirable plant species” such as cattail and melaleuca in 32 of 40 projects.    

Projects that earn carbon credits are creating the same opportunities to generate funding for restoration projects in distant locations.  The Nature Conservancy was successful in defining carbon offsets as an international market when the Kyoto Protocols were signed in 1997.  They understood that a reforestation project would be cheaper in Costa Rica (for example) than a comparable energy efficiency project in the US.  Such distant projects don’t benefit those in the US who now have a power plant in their backyard that is being offset by a forest in Costa Rica. 

It’s a game for those who know how to play.  I have witnessed local examples in the Bay Area.  An oil spill in the bay generated millions of dollars of compensatory damages to fund unrelated “restoration” projects.  How does planting eel grass compensate for hundreds of birds killed by the oil spill?  When the San Francisco airport expanded runways, the airport had to pay compensatory mitigation that funded the restoration of native plants at India Basin in San Francisco that hardly compensates for the increased air traffic enabled by the new runway.   

Conclusion

Professor Martin is surprisingly frank about the future of ecological restoration in America:

“Whatever paths restorationists choose, restorations must happen in tandem with other changes in human behavior.  If we don’t reduce the ongoing harms of racism, fossil fuel burning, overconsumption by the wealthy, and toxic industrial chemicals, restoration will offer no more than a temporary repair, a way to move a problem to some other place or time.”

I would go one step further in my assessment of the restoration industry.  I would say that the methods used by restorationists are directly contributing to environmental degradation. 

Professor Martin asks the right questions in her concluding chapter:  “Who benefits from restoration?  Who is harmed?”  Those who earn their living in the restoration industry are the primary beneficiaries. According to a 2015 study entitled “Estimating the Size and Impact of the Ecological Restoration Economy,” environmental regulation has created a $25 billion-per-year restoration industry that directly employs more people than coal mining, logging or steel production.  Given recent investments in restoration projects of billions of dollars by California and federal infrastructure funding, this figure is undoubtedly an underestimate. 

Who is harmed?  Wildlife and humans are harmed by the destruction of useful habitat with herbicides.  Harmless animals and plants are killed because they have been arbitrarily classified as “invasive.” And all Americans are harmed by the waste of public funds that could be used to benefit society and/or the environment. 


(1) Laura J. Martin, Wild by Design:  The rise of ecological restoration, Harvard University Press, 2022.  All quotes are from this book.

The Destructive Origins of Ecological Field Studies

Laura J. Martin is an environmental historian at Harvard University.  She wrote two articles (1,2) about the origins of ecological field studies that might help explain the destructive methods still used today by some ecologists.  Professor Martin “contends that the history of ecosystem science cannot be separated from the history of nuclear colonialism and environmental devastation in the Pacific [Nuclear Testing] Grounds” (2)

When the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, little thought was given to the consequences of atomic bombs because ending the war in the Pacific was the only consideration.  Japan surrendered to the US less than one month after the bombs were dropped, effectively ending World War II. 

Few doubt that the use of atomic weapons was instrumental in ending World War II.  After the war, there was a more sober effort to determine the consequences of using atomic weapons.  Some believed that nuclear weapons might replace conventional warfare.  Others wanted to understand the impact on life on the planet before making such a momentous decision.  This effort was focused on practical considerations such as the impact on the world’s fisheries and food supply.  The objective of their initial studies was less concerned about long-term consequences for the environment such as the duration of impacts on living creatures and the environment in which they live.

The US federal government invested heavily in the sciences after World War II. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1946 and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.  The availability of federal grant funding for academic institutions “dramatically reconfigured the relationships among federal, academic, and corporate spheres.” (2) Increased federal funding greatly increased the number of academic research projects.

Between 1945 and 1970, the US detonated 105 nuclear weapons. The Atomic Energy Commission and later the National Science Foundation paid academic ecologists to conduct field studies at the test sites to determine the impact on animals. 

In 1963 the US, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed a Partial Test Ban Treaty that prohibited all non-wartime detonations except for those done below ground.  Testing of the effects of radiation by academic scientists continued because the AEC mass produced radioisotopes and distributed them to American institutions.  Scientists were no longer constrained to field sites where atomic bombs had been detonated.

“Thus began a period in which ecologists purposefully destroyed ‘ecosystems’ to study how they recovered.”

Laura Martin, “The World in Miniature”

The availability of radioisotopes made laboratory testing possible, but it also enabled large-scale atomic irradiation experiments such as a forest irradiation project in Georgia that exposed 300 acres of forest to an air-shielded reaction (?) that produced radiation levels comparable to expected fallout following a nuclear catastrophe.  The purpose of that experiment was to determine the impact of radiation on forests.  The findings were that some tree species were more vulnerable to radiation than others.  This finding contributed to the hypothesis “that the greater number of species in an ecosystem, the better that system will be ‘adjusting to stress.’” (1) This is the familiar theory that greater biodiversity enhances resiliency of ecosystems against stressors such as climate change.  It remains a cornerstone of conservation science. 

These studies are also responsible for the knowledge that radiation—and many other toxic substances such as chemicals—bioaccumulate, first described publicly in 1955, according to Martin.  Many toxic substances persist in our bodies throughout our lifetime.  The longer we are exposed to them, the more dangerous they are to our health.  Women who were exposed to DDT before it was banned in 1972 still have higher levels of DDT in their bodies than women born after 1972.  Many toxic chemicals also bioaccumulate in food webs.  Top predators in the food web are more heavily burdened with poison than animals at the bottom of the food web because of biomagnification

Using pesticides to study impacts and recovery

The concept of destroying an ecosystem for the purpose of studying impacts and recovery from impacts was soon extended to using pesticides.  In a study funded by NSF in the 1960, herbicides were repeatedly applied to clear-cut plots in the White Mountain National Forest to compare the runoff from “disturbed” watershed with “undisturbed” control watersheds.  “They concluded that forest clear-cutting led to the leaching of nutrients from the soil, and ultimately, algal blooms in downstream waters.” (1) (Yet, 60 years later, spraying clear-cuts with herbicides is still the norm in the timber industry.) 

Destructive methods used by Daniel Simberloff

The first publication (3) in 1969 of Daniel Simberloff’s academic career was a report of his Ph.D. dissertation project under the direction of EO Wilson at Harvard University.  He tented and fumigated with methyl bromide 6 mangrove islands off the Eastern shore of Florida to kill all the insects.  His objective was to study how long it would take for insects to recolonize the islands.

Although Simberloff monitored the islands for only one year, he concluded, “The colonization curves plus static observations on untreated islands indicate strongly that a dynamic equilibrium number of species exists for any island.” (3)  This is an example of the generalized conclusions of ecological studies noted by Professor Martin:  “With ecosystem studies, ecologists claimed that fieldwork conducted in one place could be used to understand other distant and different places.  The Pacific Proving Grounds became a model for lakes in Wisconsin, rain forests in Panama, deserts in China…” (2) 

Some 60 years and thousands of ecological studies later, such generalizations are rarely considered credible.  To quote one of the academic scientists who advises me, “If you study a specific site, you know something about THAT site at THAT specific point in time.”  Nature is too dynamic to reach a sustainable equilibrium and its complexity cannot be accurately generalized.  The concept of a sustainable equilibrium ecosystem was rejected by scientists long ago.

Laura Martin says of Simberloff’s study, “Destruction thus became a method of studying ecosystems. As Eugene Odum put it: ‘ecologists need not feel bashful about attacking ecosystems so long as they observe the rules of good science.’” (1)

Methyl bromide used by Simberloff in his thesis project is known to deplete the ozone layer of the atmosphere that shields the Earth from harmful Ultraviolet light that causes skin cancer.  Its use was severely restricted by an international treaty in 1989.  However, it is still used in the US for agricultural crops as a soil sterilant that kills all living organisms in the soil. 

The federally mandated Material Safety Data Sheet for methyl bromide says it is acutely toxic to aquatic life at the highest danger rating (Category 1). 

Nearly 60 years after the publication of his Ph.D. study, Daniel Simberloff remains one of the most vocal advocates for the eradication of non-native plants and animals.  With few exceptions, those eradications require the use of pesticides.  Simberloff may not have known the damage that methyl bromide does in the environment at the time of his study, but surely he knows or should know now.  Yet, he is still committed to the eradication of non-native plants, projects that require the use of pesticides.

Many ecological studies and associated “restoration” projects adopt the same viewpoint that destruction is a justifiable method of studying and “restoring” ecosystems.  “Restoration” projects often begin by killing all non-native plants with herbicides before attempting to create a native landscape.   Rodenticides and insecticides are used to kill non-native animals with the understanding that many native animals will inevitably and unintentionally be killed.  The Endangered Species Act accommodates the by-kills of these projects by issuing permits for “incidental takes.”  The law and the scientific community make a distinction between killing individual animals and killing animals on a scale that threatens the survival of the species. 

Killing and destruction were established as legitimate scientific tools over 70 years ago.  Given what we know now about pesticides and radiation and at a time when habitats are being destroyed by human activities and climate change, is it time to question the legitimacy of habitat destruction as a scientific tool?

A Preview

Professor Martin is also the author of her recently published book, Wild by Design:  The Rise of Ecological Restoration.  I look forward to reading it.  Meanwhile, I hope Professor Martin’s papers about the destructive origins of ecological field studies are a preview of her book. 

Happy New Year! We hope 2023 will be a more peaceful year.

  1. Laura J. Martin, “The World in Miniature”: Ecological Research at the Pacific Proving Grounds and the Materialization of Ecosystems, 2016 (unpublished)
  2. Laura J. Martin, “Proving Grounds: Ecological Fieldwork in the Pacific and the Materialization of Ecosystems,” Environmental History 23 (2018): 567–592
  3. Daniel Simberloff, EO Wilson, “Experimental zoogeography of islands: the colonization of empty islands,” Ecology, 1969

Part III: Appealing to the City of Albany to save its eucalyptus forest

I am publishing my letter to the Albany City Council about the City’s plans to destroy most of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill.  I am publishing it in three segments because it is long.  The first segment explained why it is not necessary to destroy the forest.  The second segment explained the consequences of destroying the forest.  The third and final segment explains why it is unlikely that the forest can be replaced by native trees.

Now you have my version of the full story. If this is a place or an issue you care about, please consider writing a letter of your own to the City Council of the City of Albany.

Conservation Sense and Nonsense

Albany Hill. Source: Google Earth


December 5, 2022

Albany City Council
1000 San Pablo Ave.
Albany, CA 94706

Dear Albany City Council:

SEE Part I and Part II of Appealing to the City of Albany to save its eucalyptus forest.  Part III is the concluding segment:

The uncertain fate of monarchs on Albany Hill is a suitable introduction to my final issue.  The proposed plans for Albany Hill claim the destroyed eucalyptus forest will be replaced by new trees. I will explain why it is unlikely that the eucalyptus forest can be replaced by another forest. Plans for a newly planted forest are described in various ways, some of which seem contradictory:

  • “[Margot] Cunningham’s [Albany’s Natural Areas Coordinator] team is pursuing grants to cut down most of the blue gums and plant the city’s side of the hill with a mix of native species and more drought tolerant trees for monarchs to roost.” (1)
  • “WHEREAS, the City is investigating consultants to design a plan to remove eucalyptus in a way that retains and restores more fire-resilient native plant communities and minimizes soil disturbance and soil erosion.” (2)
  • “More droughty Eucalyptus species can be planted to preserve the butterfly habitat.” (3)
  • “This plan will include but is not limited to: plantings of other tall trees in areas of the hill where monarchs have traditionally clustered; survey of the existing native understory which will be allowed to grow after eucalyptus removal; and analysis and design of additional plants of Albany Hill-sourced native plants.” (4)

Somehow, this diverse, drought-tolerant, fire-resilient, tall, native (with droughty eucalyptus species?) forest is expected to survive without irrigation:  “If drought-tolerant tree species are planted as seedlings, in the fall with sufficient planting site preparation and adequate rain fall, minimal if any irrigation will be required.” (5)  When predicting the fate of the existing eucalyptus forest, the plans assume that the drought will continue.  When predicting the fate of a replacement forest, the plans assume that the drought will end. 

Most public land managers irrigate newly planted trees (whether native or non-native) for at least 3 years.  Established trees rarely require irrigation to survive because they have extensive root systems that have better access to moisture in the soil than newly planted trees without extensive root systems.  Tree species that are drought-tolerant when mature trees, require irrigation as they grow their root systems.  Replacing healthy trees that don’t require irrigation with new trees that require irrigation seems an unwise choice in the middle of an extreme drought. 

The City of Albany should have learned that lesson when they built Peggy Thomsen Pierce Street Park at the western foot of Albany Hill.  Only native trees were planted in that park.  They weren’t irrigated.  Five years after the park opened in 2017, most of the trees are dead (see below):

Peggy Thomsen Pierce Street Park, November 2022.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

The City of Albany’s list of approved street trees is a valuable source of information about what tree species are capable of growing in Albany.  A tree species that cannot survive conditions for street trees is also unlikely to survive on the ridgeline of Albany Hill, where wind conditions are extreme and there is little moisture.  There are about 65 tree species approved for planting as street trees in Albany.  Five are native to California, but only three are native to the Bay Area.  Native big leaf maples are said to be “in decline.”  Buckeyes aren’t suitable street trees, but may be suitable for open space.  None of the listed native trees are suitable monarch habitat for a variety of reasons:  canopy too dense to provide sufficient sunshine; deciduous therefore bare in winter; short stature, etc. 

Historically, areas on Albany Hill that are now forested with eucalyptus were treeless because native trees are not adapted to the challenging climate conditions.  If the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill is destroyed, Albany Hill is likely to be treeless again.  That is the horticultural reality of Albany Hill. 

In conclusion:

  • It is not necessary to destroy the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill because it is not dead.
  • Destroying the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill will increase fire hazards and safety hazards.
  • Destroying the eucalyptus forest will destroy habitat of monarch butterflies.
  • Plans to replace the eucalyptus forest with native trees are unrealistic.

Please consider reinstating the 2012 Albany Hill Creekside Master Plan.  It is still a good plan that will not do unnecessary damage to Albany Hill and its human and animal visitors.

cc: Albany Fire Chief
Albany Natural Areas Coordinator
Albany Urban Forester
Creekside Science


  1. Bay Nature:  https://baynature.org/2022/10/20/the-nearly-unkillable-eucalyptus-meets-its-match/
  2. Resolution No. 2021-105.  A resolution of the Albany City Council, authorizing the appropriation of funds to the Albany Hill Eucalyptus Project in the amount of $100,000
  3. https://www.albanyca.org/home/showpublisheddocument/52453/638028259461770000
  4. Staff Report to City Council regarding Albany Hill Eucalyptus Project, May 2, 2022
  5. https://www.albanyca.org/home/showpublisheddocument/52453/638028259461770000

Part II: Appealing to the City of Albany to save its eucalyptus forest

I am publishing my letter to the Albany City Council about the City’s plans to destroy most of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill.  I am publishing it in three segments because it is long.  The first segment explained why it is not necessary to destroy the forest.  The second segment explains the consequences of destroying the forest.  The final segment will explain why it is unlikely that the forest can be replaced by native trees. 

Conservation Sense and Nonsense

Albany Hill. Source: Google Earth


December 5, 2022

Albany City Council
1000 San Pablo Ave
Albany, CA 94706

Dear Albany City Council:

SEE Part I:  Appealing to the City of Albany to save its eucalyptus forest.  Part II continues:

The premature destruction of the eucalyptus forest will have many negative consequences:

  • The loss of significant amounts of fog drop from the tall trees.
  • The creation of tons of wood debris that will contribute to fire hazards
  • The regrowth of the trees into unstable multi-stemmed trees with lower fire ladders
  • The loss of habitat for overwintering monarch butterflies

Harold Gilliam in Weather of the San Francisco Bay Area informs us that tall non-native trees in the East Bay produce significant amounts of water by condensing fog drip: “Eucalyptus and pine groves planted there long ago intercept large amounts of fog and cause a rainlike deposit of moisture. The fog drip during the summer months has been measured at a surprising 10 inches, an amount nearly half as great as the total rainfall…”  Average rainfall in the East Bay is 21 inches per year, so this fog precipitation adds nearly 50% to total precipitation.  

Foggy morning, Redwood Park. Conservation Sense and Nonsense

One of the planning documents for the tree removal project on Albany Hill speculates that there is less fog than in the past in the San Francisco Bay Area.  According to an article in the New York Times, many people disagree with that assumption.

By precipitating fog drip during the otherwise dry time of the year, tall non-native trees reduce fire danger during the fire season.  Moisture on the forest floor helps to retard ignition and slow the spread of fire.  This was observed recently on the west side of Albany Hill when an arsonist set the forest afire in June 2022:  “The Albany Hill fire, which was initially estimated around three acres with a slow rate of spread…”  The fire was quickly extinguished.

This is where the fire in June 2022 occurred on Pierce St.  Note resprouts of the burned trees in November 2022.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

Fog drip from the eucalyptus overstory is also irrigating the forest understory of many native shrub species, predominantly toyon.  Historical records of Albany Hill tell us toyon was not there before eucalyptus was planted.  The top of the hill is the driest area because it does not benefit from run off compared to lower elevations of the hill.  The side of the hill facing the southwest is drier than northeast face of the hill because it is exposed to more sun and wind.  Historically, oaks grew only on the northeast side of the hill where they were sheltered from the wind and the soil was moister.  One of many questions about the new plans for Albany Hill that should be asked and answered is how the existing native understory can survive without fog drip and the wind shelter of the tall trees. 

The City of Albany’s application for a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy predicts this future for Albany Hill: “The project will create more fire-resilient and healthy ecosystems by allowing native plant communities to return after eucalyptus removal…”  In fact, the opposite outcome seems more likely.  Without the benefit of fog drop from the tall trees and shelter from the wind, the existing native understory is unlikely to survive.  The existing native understory did not exist on Albany Hill prior to the planting of eucalyptus. 

This map (see below) of tree removal plans for Albany Hill shows where approximately 400 trees will be removed at the top of the hill.  (The number of each tree planned for removal is listed on this map, some in sequences such as 1-25, indicating that 25 trees will be removed between the arrows on the map.)

Source:  Arborist Report, SBCA Tree Consulting

Returning to the question of fire hazards, what will happen to all that dead wood?  We get a preview of the answer to that question because the City of Albany recently destroyed between 14 and 20 eucalyptus trees (reports on the number of destroyed trees vary).  We can see what happened to some of the wood (see below):

Some of the destroyed trees are still lying on the ground (see below).  This tree has already resprouted.

Multiply that flammable wood debris by 400 to get a picture of the amount of wood debris the proposed project on Albany Hill will create.  The arborist’s report for the eucalyptus removal project makes this recommendation regarding wood debris:  “Logs and chips to remain – Cut trees, chip brush and allow mulch and logs to remain on the slope.”

We had a recent experience with the wood debris created by similar projects when UC Berkeley destroyed all non-native trees within 100 feet of the north side of Claremont Ave in fall 2020.  Huge piles of wood chips and logs were stacked along the road, which the grant application claimed would be disposed of by generating electricity in a biofuels plant.  No such biofuels plant exists and there are no plans to build it.  Here is a photo (see below) of one of the wood piles that remained along the road for about 9 months before being distributed elsewhere throughout the Berkeley hills:          

One of many piles of logs, Claremont Ave, November 2020. Photo by Doug Prose, courtesy Hills Conservation Network.

Bay Nature recently explained why we are unable to dispose of wood debris from the many fuels management projects being done in California. If you ever wondered why there are piles of wood chips in your parks or why the roads in the hills are lined with logs, this article explains. There aren’t enough lumber mills in California to keep up with all the logs or biofuel plants to keep up with the wood chips. Most of the trees killed by bark beetles or by wildfire can’t be salvaged because of the shortage of mills. The wood debris is the fuel for the next wildfire. Turning living trees into dead wood debris does not reduce fire hazards. 

In addition to reducing fire hazards, Albany’s new plans for the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill are also intended to address safety concerns.  Based on the assumption that the eucalyptus trees will soon die, Albany wishes to reduce public safety hazards by pre-emptively taking trees down before they fall down.  As I’ve said before, the assumption that the trees will soon be dead is mistaken.  Furthermore, Albany does not intend to use herbicides on the tree stumps to prevent resprouts, which guarantees that they will resprout, creating multi-stemmed trees that will be less stable than the trees are now. 

According to the arborist’s report for Albany Hill, there is also a history of unstable trees that grew from resprouts of destroyed trees:  Stump sprouts – Sixty-nine (69) trees have developed as stump sprouts, or trees that have grown back from the stump after being cut down. Because the prior tree stump eventually rots, the new growth is not always well anchored.” The staff report to the City Council on May 13, 2021 about the project said, “Multi-trunk trees are weaker structurally and produce more fire-hazardous debris than single-trunk trees.”

Trees develop their defenses against the wind as they grow in a particular environment.  When their tree neighbors are destroyed, they are suddenly subjected to more wind than they can withstand. The arborist employed by the City of Albany acknowledges the potential for increased risk of windthrow: “Stands of trees act together to resist wind forces.  When trees are removed from a stand or grove, the wind forces on the remaining trees are increased.  This can be a concern when trees, which are currently considered low risk, receive increased wind exposure due to adjacent tree removal.”

 The unstable multi-stemmed trees that grow from resprouts will also be subjected to more wind without the protection of other trees that have been destroyed.  The proposed plans for extensive tree removals will result in a more dangerous forest of resprouts that are vulnerable to windthrow. 

Destroying 400 eucalyptus trees on Albany Hill would create an overwhelming commitment to control resprouts mechanically. It is a challenge that the City of Albany has not been able to meet in the past, as evidenced by recent resprouts and multi-stemmed trees from past resprouts. However, I don’t mean to imply that I prefer the use of herbicides to prevent resprouts.  A new forest of young, unstable eucalyptus trees with lower fire ladders is better than a forest that has been poisoned and the understory with it.  Herbicides are also harmful to monarch butterflies and other insects.

My last visit to the City park at the top of Albany Hill was on Sunday, November 20th, the weekend before Thanksgiving, which is the optimal time to see monarch butterflies in their winter roost.  We saw many monarchs in the trees that are slated for destruction and as it got warmer in the early afternoon, we watched them flutter to nearby trees.  There were many other park visitors.  Some were frequent visitors who helped us find the biggest clusters.  Other visitors were as excited as we were to find the monarchs for the first time.  This is to say, the disappearance of monarchs on Albany Hill would be a disappointment to the visitors to the park.

Monarchs roosting in epicormic sprouts of eucalyptus on the top of Albany Hill, November 20, 2022.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

According to Stuart Weiss of Creekside Science, that’s where monarchs begin their visit to Albany Hill:  “…monarchs begin the season on the ridgetop, likely attracted by high insolation [sunshine].  Following the first storms of the season accompanied by strong winds, they move down the SW slope when storm winds (generally southerly) are too strong.  The structure of the forest in the Cluster zone consists of a series of openings surrounded by denser forest, allowing some insolation with adequate wind shelter.  These cluster sites tend to have visible sky overhead with relatively few canopy openings toward the horizon and moderate exposure to the SW (which may be related to afternoon insolation.”

Stuart Weiss was also interviewed by Bay Nature about the monarch butterflies on Albany Hill:  “Weiss wants to preserve the eucalyptuses—invasive non-natives that they are—for the butterflies’ sake. The monarchs made their choice,’ says Weiss. ‘They go for the eucalyptus, so we have to honor that.’ The key to a cozy roost, according to Weiss, is a configuration of mature trees that provide just the right mix of sunshine and protection from wind and storms. Monarchs prefer to cluster along Albany Hill’s city-owned ridgetop early in the season. Later in winter, they cluster on the hill’s privately owned southwestern slope, and near the condos at the foot of the hill’s western flank. The fate of the trees and the butterflies roosting on that land is unclear.”

Eucalypts are the preferred trees for over-wintering monarchs in California according to an analytical study of 205 over-wintering sites:  “Three types of trees were used most frequently by roosting monarchs:  eucalyptus (75% of the habitats primarily Eucalyptus globulus), pine (20% of the habitats primarily Pinus radiata), and cypress (16% of the habitats Cupressus macrocarpa).  Twelve other tree species were identified…with a combined prevalence of only 10%…habitats had smaller populations when the roosting tree type was a species other than eucalyptus, pine, or cypress.”(1) (Three different studies by different authors are the source of these data, therefore they don’t add up to 100%.) In other words, virtually all of the trees used by monarchs for their winter roost are not native to the San Francisco Bay Area. 


The third and final segment of my letter to the Albany City Council will be published tomorrow. It will explain why the eucalyptus forest cannot be replaced by native trees. Thank you for your visit today.

  1. Dennis Frey and Andrew Schaffner, “Spatial and Temporal Pattern of Monarch Overwintering Abundance in Western North America,” in The Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation, Cornell University Press, 2004.

Part I: Appealing to the City of Albany to save its eucalyptus forest

I am publishing my letter to the Albany City Council about the City’s plans to destroy most of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill.  I will publish it in three segments because it is long.  The first segment explains why it is not necessary to destroy the forest.  The second segment will explain the consequences of destroying the forest.  The final segment will explain why it is unlikely that the forest can be replaced by native trees. 

Conservation Sense and Nonsense

Albany Hill. Source: Google Earth


December 5, 2022

Albany City Council
1000 San Pablo Ave
Albany, CA 94707

RE:  Albany Hill Eucalyptus Project

Dear Albany City Council:

I have a sentimental attachment to the City of Albany because I lived there for 5 years at the beginning of my marriage.  We still enjoy regular visits to the city’s beauty spots of Albany Hill and the Albany Bulb, as well as Albany’s great restaurants. 

As you know, many public land managers have destroyed eucalyptus trees, but the City of Albany was not planning to destroy the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill until recently.  According to the 2012 “Albany Hill Creekside Master Plan,” the eucalyptus forest would be “phased out” slowly over time by removing hazardous trees as necessary to ensure public safety, removing new seedlings where the forest interfaces with native oak woodland, and not replacing trees that die of old age.  I expressed my support for this approach to management of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill on my website, Conservation Sense and Nonsense.

The recently published Bay Nature article about Albany Hill alerted me to Albany’s new plans to destroy most of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill.  I’ve studied the documents about these new plans and I’m writing to express my reservations about the feasibility of the plans.  I ask for your consideration of these concerns:

  • Is it necessary to destroy the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill?
  • What are the consequences of destroying the eucalyptus forest?
  • Is it possible to replace the eucalyptus forest with native trees?

All plants and trees in California are showing signs of drought stress and many are dead because of drought stress, especially in unirrigated parks and open spaces.  Eucalyptus trees are not immune to drought stress, although they are coping better than some species that require more water, such as redwood trees.

Native Madrone, north side of Cerritos Creek, 2013.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

SAME Native Madrone on north side of Cerritos Creek is now dead, November 2022.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, over 160 million native conifers have been killed by bark beetles in California’s Sierra Nevada in the past 10 years. As the climate continues to warm, bark beetles are moving north and west into coastal counties. The worst outbreak has been in Lake County, followed by Napa County. 15-25% of conifers on the east side of Napa Valley are dead. Drought conditions are so extreme that oaks are succumbing to drought stress: “That’s how you know things are kind of really bad, when you see oaks succumb to drought stress.’”

Plans to destroy most eucalyptus on Albany Hill are based on observed die-back of the eucalyptus tree canopy.  The trees were studied by Matteo Garbelotto’s pathology lab at UC Berkeley.  Their report described the impact of the infection:  “First, symptoms observed in Eucalyptus were more markedly limited to the foliage and twigs. Leaf blight and twig necrosis were the only symptoms common across all the six areas surveyed and sampled. Branch and stem cankers, wood discoloration and fungal mats were present, but generally were site-specific or shared by trees only in 2 or 3 cases. Extensive heartrot (i.e. decay of the stem core) was not observed in any tree, although, some wood decay was observed both at the base of stems and on branches.”

The City of Albany’s application for a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy assumes that the eucalyptus trees will never recover:  “The scientific analysis…determined the trees were in irreversible decline due to drought stress and resulting vulnerability of pathogen attack…”  Since all unirrigated trees and plants are showing the same signs of stress, such a verdict would obligate us to destroy most trees in our open space.  Given the remarkable regenerative abilities of eucalyptus, they are more likely to survive than most tree species. 

Top of Albany Hill, 2015.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

Top of Albany Hill, November 2022.  The tops of the canopy are a little thinner than they were in 2015, but not significantly.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense

These symptoms were caused by a fungus that infects most eucalyptus in California.  The fungus does not usually cause visible damage.  Damage is now visible because the trees are stressed by drought.  The situation is similar to the death of native conifers in California; native bark beetles have always been present but are now capable of killing the conifers because the trees are weakened by drought.  The difference is that it’s not clear the fungus is capable of killing eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus has remarkable regenerative ability to resprout after it has been cut down or burned.  One of the goals of the proposed project is a “fire-resilient” ecosystem, which suggests a landscape that is capable of recovering from the inevitable wildfires in a Mediterranean climate.  In fact, eucalyptus is a fire-resilient tree species because it resprouts after it is burned.  When it is under stress, it drops mature leaves and recovers by producing epicormic sprouts.  Eucalyptus trees on the top of Albany Hill are covered in epicormic sprouts, which indicate the trees are not dead and they are trying to recover.  Albany’s plans to destroy most of the eucalyptus forest on Albany Hill is based on the mistaken assumption that the trees will eventually die.  That is an assumption that is not consistent with the present status of the trees on Albany Hill or with comparable situations in the Bay Area.

Source:  Mount Sutro Forest That Was

This picture (see above) was taken in Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco in 2015.  The eucalyptus trees were producing epicormic sprouts in response to drought and a few had been girdled by those who want all eucalyptus in San Francisco destroyed.  Native plant advocates predicted that the trees would die and they advocated for their destruction.  The trees survived.


Part II of my letter to the Albany City Council will be published tomorrow. Part II will describe the negative consequences of destroying the eucalyptus forest on the top of Albany Hill. Please visit again tomorrow for the next segment of my letter to the Albany City Council. Thank you for your visit today.

How animals perceive their environment

Ed Yong introduces us to the topic of his book, An Immense World (1), by inviting us into an imaginary gymnasium populated by a menagerie of animals who perceive their environment in different ways because they have different sensory mechanisms.  The elephant is waving its trunk in the air like a periscope, using its strongest sense to smell and taste the room.  The mosquito is also relying on its sense of smell to find the source of carbon dioxide that its prey emits as it breathes.  The rattlesnake detects the smell of the mouse by flicking its smelling and tasting tongue into the air.  The bat finds the spider ensconced in its web by using echolocation sonar to locate it.  The human in the room can’t hear the sonar clicks emitted by the bat because the sound is beyond her limited range of hearing.  When Yong turns the lights off in the gym, different senses are deployed by different animals.  Those who rely on light to perceive the room suddenly lose much information about what’s happening in the room, while other animals suddenly have an advantage. 

Yong wants his readers to know about the extraordinary diversity of sensory perception in the animal kingdom.  He asks us to appreciate that diversity while resisting the temptation to compare them to the capabilities of humans:  “…this is a book not about superiority, but about diversity.” The dominance of one sense over another is usually logical in the context of the environment in which the animal lives. For example, animals that live in a dark environment or are active only at night need a different suite of senses than animals that live above ground and are active only in daylight.  In his concluding chapter, Yong urges us to understand how animals perceive the world so that we can mitigate the impacts of human activities on the animals with whom we share the world.

The chemical senses:  smell and taste

Yong begins with our weakest senses:  smell and taste.  Anyone who has walked a dog knows the dog senses the world primarily through its nose.  Although dogs can be distracted by a moving squirrel or another dog, they are not there to enjoy the view because they are walking with their nose to the ground.  Their nose is informing them of who has been there and many of the characteristics of that animal, such as species and gender.  They are also searching for food and their taste in food is radically different from our own.  Goose poop is as attractive as the treats we carry to distract them from the squirrels, suggesting subjectivity in the perception of smells and tastes.  I doubt that humans would find either the odor or the taste of goose poop appealing and opinions of odors and tastes vary widely among humans whose sensory perception of odor and taste are equally astute.     

Our noses are structurally similar to the dog’s nose, but dogs have “more extensive olfactory epithelium, dozens of times more neurons in that epithelium, almost twice as many kinds of olfactory receptors, and a larger olfactory bulb.”  Consequently, they can be trained to detect “bombs, drugs, landmines, missing people, bodies, smuggled cash, truffles, invasive weeds, agricultural diseases, low blood sugar, bedbugs, oil pipeline leaks, and tumors.”

“The lives of elephants are dominated by smell.”  Their nose is their most conspicuous feature and it is in constant motion to inform the elephant of where it is, where its companions and family members are, and where it is going.  Their nose, which both smells and tastes, helps them find water and food. 

Our comprehension of what animals smell is limited partly by our own limited sense of smell.  The myth that birds can’t smell originated by James Audubon in the 19th Century was not dispelled by research until the 1960s.  Yong reports many other errors of scientists in reporting the sensory capabilities of animals.  He suspects that many of those errors are yet to be corrected.

The ability to detect and identify odors in the environment are important to many animals because they enable animals to both avoid predators and find prey to eat.  The odors that animals emit as pheromones help many animals find and attract their mates.  Humans also emit pheromones in sweat and other secretions and they are said to play a role in choosing our mates, although we are rarely conscious of their role in our choices. 

Vision and Color

The diversity of the tools of vision in the animal kingdom is remarkable.  Our two symmetrical, frontal-facing eyes are not the norm:  “eyes can come in eights or hundreds…they can be the size of soccer balls or the size of a amoeba’s nucleus…they can be made of protein or rock…they can appear on mouths, arms, and armor…they can accomplish all of the tasks our eyes can perform, or just a few.”  Each variation produces a different visual perception from seeing crisp detail to blurry blotches of light and dark, from seeing in the dark to blindness in bright daylight, from slow-motion snap-shots to high-speed images of motion, from a narrow view of what’s in front of the animal to a 360⁰ view.

Our vision is one of our strongest senses, yet many animals are able to see “better” than we can.  (I put “better” in quotes because like everything in the natural world there are pros and cons to every animal’s suite of senses and the judgment depends on the specific environment in which the animal lives.) We can see three colors (red, green, and blue) and all combinations of those colors, but many animals can see another spectrum of color called ultraviolet (commonly abbreviated UV light), adding many colors that we can’t see.  Many animals see only gradations of black and white.  Color is a function of the eye in coordination with the brain, rather than inherent in the object we perceive.

Birds and bees undoubtedly benefit from their ability to see a full spectrum of color to find and identify plants they need for food.   Before the advent of molecular analysis, scientists speculated that birds evolved the ability to see color after plants produced colorful flowers.  Now that we know more about the evolutionary sequence of events, we know that plants produced colorful flowers after birds evolved their perception of color.  Plants benefit from the visits of birds and bees for pollination services and to spread their seeds to expand their range.  Natural selection gave plants with colorful flowers the edge over colorless flowers. 

Dogs and many other animals can see only two colors:  blue and yellow.  About 8% of men and .5% of women are red-green color blind.  Their perception of color is the same as dogs.  This picture from An Immense World shows the difference between perceiving two compared to three colors:

As late as the 1980s many scientists believed that dogs are color blind.  Although the knowledge that dogs can perceive two colors has been known by scientists for some time, many people still don’t know that.  This is an ad for colored buttons that are sold to train dogs how to communicate with their guardians.  This product is based on the mistaken assumption that dogs can see the same colors that most humans can see.

This product and others like it are still for sale.  Apparently our dog companions are so anxious to please that they figure out how to play this game with their guardians.  Perhaps they use the location of the button to make their choice. 

The consequences of our ignorance of the perceptions of animals

When considering the importance of understanding the perception of animals, there is more at stake than selling products that are based on our knowledge of what animals perceive.  The last chapter of Yong’s book is asking us to understand how animals navigate the world so that we can keep them in mind as we continue to alter the environment for our entertainment and convenience.

In particular, Yong is concerned about light and noise pollution that are disruptive to the animal kingdom.  When we illuminate our world with 24-hours of light we deprive many animals of the darkness they need to migrate and hunt.  When the twin-towers in New York City were destroyed in 2001, they were replaced by a memorial that casts a laser light into the sky to the height of the missing twin-towers on 9/11.  The timing is unfortunate for the birds that migrate at that time of year.  They become “trapped” in the laser light and are often killed when their navigation is confused by the light.  This is just one of many examples of how human activities intrude on the animal kingdom.

Likewise, our activities make so much noise in the environment that we drown out the signals of animals that they need to communicate, hunt, and find their mates. 

Unfortunately, Yong misses the opportunity to advocate for reducing the chemical pollution that is equally harmful to animals.  The pesticides we spray are masking the chemical cues that enable animals to hunt, avoid their predators, and communicate with their mates and other insects.  Professor Ann Rypstra (Miami University, Ohio) gave a presentation to the Beyond Pesticides Forum about this issue in 2021.  She said, “the presence of herbicides at non-toxic levels often act as “info-disruptors” when they interfere with the natural flow of information in ways that alter the interactions between and among predators and their prey as well as impacting the landscape for sexual selection.”  You can see her presentation HERE.

What’s missing?

I have covered a small fraction of the diversity of sensory perception in the animal kingdom.  I provide this brief list of some of the topics that I haven’t covered, hoping that you will be inspired to look further into this fascinating topic:

  • The perception of sound
  • Tactile perception
  • The perception of vibrations
  • Echolocation:  using sonar to find prey and explore the environment
  • The use of electric and magnetic fields to perceive the environment and navigate

Humans do not have some of these sensory capabilities, but in many cases we have developed tools that compensate for our limited inherent sensory abilities.  Humans have used a compass for over 1,000 years to detect the Earth’s magnetic field to assist navigation.  We have learned how to use sonar to emit sounds we cannot hear to locate and explore objects that aren’t visible to us.  We have developed night-vision goggles to improve our limited ability to see in darkness.  More recently, we have developed microphone equipment to turn the vibrations that insects make into sound we can hear.  The sensory capabilities of other animals has alerted us to these opportunities to enhance our sensory capabilities. 

An Immense World will give you the full picture. If you want a more detailed summary of the topic than this article provides, I recommend Ed Yong’s article in Atlantic Magazine, available HERE. 


  1. Ed Yong, An Immense World:  How animal senses reveal the hidden realms around us, Random House, 2022.  Most quotes in this article are from this book unless indicated otherwise.
My corgis doing their surveillance duties. I wonder what they see.

The Timber Wars in the Pacific Northwest could have been avoided

Tree Thieves (1) is a non-fiction version of Damnation Spring, a novel that tells the story of the Timber Wars that ended with the death of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.  Although the industry collapsed throughout the Pacific Northwest, both books focus on the redwood forests of coastal Northern California. 

Sequence of Events

When the timber industry began in earnest after the Gold Rush of the 1850s, there were said to be 2 million acres of redwood forest on the coast of California.  The demand for timber during the Gold Rush fueled the unrestricted clear-cut methods that decimated the forest, provoking a backlash.

The city-slickers who established the Save the Redwoods League in 1918

The National Park Service invited three well known conservationists to visit the redwood forests of Northern California, which led to the creation of the Save the Redwoods League in 1918.  Two members of that team–Madison Grant and Henry Osborn—were also advocates for eugenics, the control of human reproduction for the purpose of increasing characteristics considered desirable.  The author of Tree Thieves, Lyndsie Bourgon, describes their purpose for creating the Save the Redwoods League: “They considered protecting the redwoods as part of a mission to enshrine White, masculine dominance over the wilderness.” (1) Save the Redwoods League purchased several parcels of redwood forest for preservation, setting the stage for the continuing perception of environmentalism as the hobby of wealthy city dwellers, with little understanding of the lives of those who live and work in resource extraction industries such as forestry.  The League has acquired a total of 66 redwood forests as of 2018, according to Wikipedia. 

In the 1930s the government imposed restrictions on the timber industry that limited clear-cutting methods because of concern about dwindling timber stocks.  The industry returned to clear-cutting methods after World War II in response to the demand for new housing.  By 1968 90% of redwood forests had been logged, according to Tree Thieves.

Consequences of clear-cut logging

The author of Tree Thieves believes that the turning point leading to the Timber Wars was a flood in 1955 that triggered a landslide that “toppled 1,000 year old redwoods and covered the region in silt and mud.”  The landslide was the result of decades of clear-cutting the forest:  “During clear-cut logging, topsoil is lost and streams are bulldozed for roads…In Humboldt [County’s] forests, the root system could no longer contain the immense annual rainfall and waterways began to flood.  Mangled roots, lack of second growth, and flattened shrubs made the earth unstable and the construction of roads deep in the woods to transport logged wood had hastened erosion and habitat destruction.”

This is what remains of Orick, Ca. Google Earth

Clear-cut logging didn’t stop after the first flood and landslide and in 1964 another flood and landslide swept through the town of Orick.  The town of Orick is at the center of Tree Thieves’ telling of events.  Orick is said to be a Yurok word for “mouth of the river,” perhaps referring to Redwood Creek that bisects Orick. Yuroks were one of several tribes of Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants of the region.  At the height of the post-war timber boom, there were about 2,000 inhabitants of Orick.  The 2010 census downgraded Orick from a town to a “census designated place” with fewer than 400 inhabitants. 

These catastrophic floods alerted the Sierra Club to the issue of clear-cut logging and the government was becoming concerned about the environmental devastation it caused.  In 1968, the government established the Redwood National Forest, which ended logging in the park. The government believed—or said they believed–the park would create a tourist trade, replacing the logging economy.  Timber corporations were compensated by the government for the loss of their properties, but there wasn’t government relief for the loggers.

The Timber Wars

The promise of a tourist industry proved to be a fantasy, which forewarned the loggers of the consequences of expanding the national park that occurred in 1978.  This time the loggers fought back and environmentalists organized to engage in that war.  In the 1970s, Humboldt County became a rural refuge for hippies fleeing the druggy disorder of cities as described by Joan Didion in Slouching towards Bethlehem.  They were the foot-soldiers opposing the loggers in the Timber Wars.

Both sides of the Timber Wars engaged in violence and vandalism, as well as degrading rhetoric.  “ARE YOU AN ENVIRONMENTALIST, OR DO YOU WORK FOR A LIVING?” was a typical protest sticker worn by loggers.  One of the leaders of the environmentalists, Judi Bari, described the loggers as “the equivalent of the white racists in Mississippi…They’re being used by the system.  But they are people who are not real bright who have bought into it.”

The battle lines need not have been drawn between loggers and environmentalistsIf they had worked together to find a solution to environmental issues, the battle lines could have been the timber corporations vs. the government.  The decision to clear-cut and spray with herbicides was made by the corporations, not by the loggers.  Many of the loggers had learned their profession by taking individual trees in the forest, which quickly recovered from single tree removals.  They knew that clear-cutting was destructive and they probably would have been glad to return to less destructive methods of logging.  Many of them also knew that herbicides used for road clearance and destroying competing vegetation after clear-cuts were poisoning the watershed and sickening their community.  That aspect of the story is best told by Damnation Spring

If loggers and environmentalists had worked together to pressure the government to regulate the destructive aspects of the timber industry, the environmental issue could have been resolved without a war that permanently alienated both loggers and environmentalists.  Government has the right to regulate pesticide use and it could restrict clear-cutting, but it didn’t and it won’t.  The Timber Wars also alienated some people from environmentalism and others from the logging industry.  There is a lesson here for those who wish to learn it. 

The loggers were also disrespected by the government.  While the plan to expand the national park was being debated, the loggers organized a convoy of logging trucks across the country to Washington DC in 1977.  They carved a redwood log into the shape of a peanut, intended as a gift to President Carter, a former peanut farmer, hoping to engage him in a dialogue.  President Carter refused the gift and the request for a meeting.  He said the peanut-log was a waste of a valuable resource.  The logging convoy not only failed, but it subjected the loggers to abuse across the entire country and back.

The decision to expand Redwood National Park in 1978 incorporated the forests protected by the Save the Redwoods League and California state parks into a total of 139,000 acres, protecting approximately 45% of remaining redwood forests.  Once again, the timber corporations were compensated for the loss of their properties.  This time, the federal government tried to compensate loggers for the loss of their employment by funding a job training program, community development projects, watershed restoration, and direct compensation to unemployed loggers.   

The failure of the job retraining effort was very disappointing:  “By 1988, $104 million had been spent on about 3,500 people, of whom fewer than 13% had received retraining….’Never have so many given so much for so few,’ one critic noted of the funding.”

The fate of the loggers and their community

When spotted owls and several other forest species were designated as threatened species by the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, much of the timber industry was also shuttered in Washington and Oregon.  Between 1980 and 1998, 23% of logging jobs were lost. 

Using the community of Orick in California as an example, Tree Thieves describes the consequences of the loss of the timber industry.  Many people moved away.  Those who remained pieced together a meager living of odd jobs.  Many of those odd jobs were criminal.  Poaching of whole trees in the national park is still common, but poaching the valuable redwood burls is more lucrative. 

Redwood burl. California State Parks

Redwood burls are the tree’s means of recovering from wounds.  The burls have artistic patterns in their wood grain that make them valuable to make furniture, art objects, and veneers for the dashboards of luxury cars.  The tree is damaged by the removal of its burls and is sometimes killed by the damage. 

Tree Thieves interviews many of the former loggers, now poachers.  They are an angry bunch who feel justified in their thievery.  Their livelihoods and self-respect have been taken from them and they have been subjected to decades of abuse by self-righteous environmentalists and government enforcement.  They now feel owed. 

Having won the Timber Wars, environmentalists are rarely directly engaged in confrontational encounters. Now the anger of dispossessed loggers is directed at government employees who are trying—with little success—to stop poaching and punish poachers.  Government employees are also imposing new restrictions on the communities surrounding the national park, opening new wounds.  For example, these poor communities are now prohibited from collecting drift wood on the beach, which was used to fuel wood-burning stoves in the past. 

Timber corporations were not blamed for the Timber Wars.  They were compensated by the government for the loss of their land.  They had already logged much of the land and didn’t see much future in the few forests that remained.  They were responsible for much of the loss of employment because they had mechanized much of the work and reduced availability of unlogged forests after clear-cutting for decades.  They walked away unharmed. 

Making, selling, and using methamphetamines is also a common way to survive in Humboldt County.  Those who choose that mode of survival frequently engage in other criminal behavior and their lives are often ruined in the process.

The marijuana trade in Humboldt County is also a popular career choice.  Ironically, the damage to the environment caused by large marijuana farms hidden in the forests is one of the consequences of the transition from a logging economy to an odd-job economy.

This scenario is probably similar to many other small towns and rural communities in America.  There are devastated communities in former coal country and in the rust-belt where manufacturing industries have been closed as the result of global trade agreements that enabled industries to move to countries with lower labor costs.  Those are the places where angry people no longer trust the government, where environmentalists and other “experts” are hated.  And those are the places where desperate, resentful people have turned to an angry, resentful politician to lead our country.  We reap what we have sown.


  1. Lyndsie Bourgon, Tree Thieves:  Crime and survival in North America’s woods, Little, Brown Stark, The Hatchett Group, 2022.  All quotes are from this book.  Some factual information is from Wikipedia.   

Money and Fire: 2022 Conference of California Native Plant Society

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) held a conference in October for the first time since 2018.  There were two main themes of the conference:

Money:  The State of California is making a huge investment in the environment with many interrelated goals:

  • “30 X 30” is shorthand for the goal of protecting 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.
  • Developing “nature-based solutions” to address the threats of climate change.
  • Vegetation and forest management to reduce wildfire hazards.
  • Protecting and enhancing California’s biodiversity.

Fire:  The frequency and intensity of wildfire is of concern to all Californians, but the California Native Society has a particular interest in fire because it is viewed as a tool to enhance native plant abundance and control the spread of non-native plants that outcompete native plants.

Money

If attendance were the sole measure of success, the conference was a resounding success.  The conference was sold out with record-breaking attendance of 1,200 people.  That’s a 50% increase in attendance since 2018, when 800 people attended.  People came to learn about the many opportunities for public funding of their “restoration” projects and they were not disappointed.

Jennifer Norris, Deputy Secretary for Biodiversity and Habitat for the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) was one of the keynote speakers.  She and many other staff of CNRA made presentations at the conference to inform the community of native plant advocates about the many new opportunities to obtain grants for their projects.  This slide (below) shown at the conference, itemized by state agencies the $1.631 Billion budget for just the 30 X 30 portion of the CNRA’s environmental grant programs.  It does not include Cal-Fire funding for forestry projects to reduce wildfire hazards and address climate change.  Nor does it include $10 million of new funding for Weed Management Areas, which funds projects that attempt to eradicate non-native plants and $10 million of new funding for the state council for invasive species. State funding is also supplemented by new federal funding in support of a national goal of achieving 30 X 30. 

But money isn’t the only element of this state program that native plant advocates are excited about.  They have also been gifted a three-year moratorium on requirements for Environmental Impact Reports for their projects.  There will therefore be no requirements for a public process to review plans and comment on them. 

An anxious applicant for state grant funding asked a speaker representing the Wildlife Conservation Board about a rumor that projects using herbicides would not be funded.  The speaker’s reassuring answer was, “We are not rejecting projects using herbicides.” Applicants are being asked to complete a questionnaire about herbicides they plan to use, but the speaker was quick to add, “We have not rejected any [such applications] so far.”  She assured the audience that “You are all careful” in your use of herbicides.

Huge buckets of money are being distributed with no restrictions on the use of herbicides and no vetting process such as an environmental impact review with opportunities for the public to comment.  It seems inevitable that some of the projects will unintentionally do more harm than good, and the public will have nothing to say about which projects are funded. 

Fire

Alexii Sigona was the first keynote speaker for the conference.  He is a member of the Amah Mutsun-Ohlone Tribal Band (not a federally recognized tribe) and a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science.  He explained that there are 600 recognized members of the Amah Mutsun Band in a wide region around Pescadero, Hollister, and San Juan Bautista.  They collaborate with organizations such as CNPS because they don’t have the resources to manage their ancestral tribal lands.  He described some of the projects they engage in:

  • Landscape scale removal of “invasive” plants.
  • Plug planting of 120,000 native grass plants.
  • Creating “native hedgerows” for food sources.
  • Removal of native Douglas Firs “encroaching” on grassland.  They have removed 5,000 native Douglas fir trees.  He acknowledged that this project caused some concern about erosion and aesthetics.  Removal of native Douglas fir was mentioned by several other speakers during the conference.  It is an example of the preference of native plant advocates for grassland because it is the pre-settlement vegetation.  Native coyote brush is another target of eradication projects that attempt to prevent natural succession of grassland to other vegetation types. 

There is great interest among native plant advocates in the land management practices of Native Americans because controlled burns were Native Americans’ most important tool to maintain grassland species needed for food and for their prey.  Controlled burns are important to native plant advocates because they believe they are beneficial to native plants and help to control non-native plants.  Prescribed burns are also currently popular with many public land managers and they are the current fad among many fire scientists. 

Two presentations at the conference suggest that prescribed burns are not compatible with the preservation of native chaparral, nor are they capable of converting non-native grassland to native grassland.

This (above) is the concluding slide of Jon E. Keeley’s presentation.  Dr. Keeley is a respected fire scientist with US Geological Service with expertise in chaparral species.  He explained that 60% of native chaparral species (notably manzanita and ceanothus) are obligate seeders that do not resprout after fire and therefore depend on the existence of their dormant seed bank for regeneration.  In recent decades the fire interval in chaparral has decreased due to climate change and associated drought.  In many places, the fire interval has become too short to establish the seed bank needed for regeneration.  In those places Dr. Keeley has observed vegetation type conversion to non-native annual grasses. 

Dr. Keeley Is concerned that vegetation type conversion from forests in some cases and shrublands in others to non-native annual grassland may be the result of shortening fire intervals further “because of the upsurge in state and federal programs to utilize prescription burning to reduce fire hazard.” (1) This concern extends to some conifer species that do not resprout.  Some are serotinous conifers whose cones are sealed shut and do not release their seeds in the absence of fire. 

This is a familiar theme for much of Dr. Keeley’s research.  He asks that land managers balance the conflicting goals of resource management and fire hazard reduction. 

This (above) is the concluding slide (sorry for the poor quality of my photo) of a presentation about a 20-year effort at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve to convert non-native annual grassland to native grassland, using annual (sometimes bi-annual) prescribed burns.  Many different methods were used, varying timing, intensity, etc.  The abstract for this presentation reports failure of the 20-year effort:  “Non-native grass cover significantly decreased after prescribed fire but recovered to pre-fire cover or higher one year after fire.  Native grass cover decreased after prescribed fire then recovered to pre-burn levels within five years, but never increased over time.  The response of native grass to fire (wild and prescribed) was different across time and within management units, but overall native grass declined.” (1)

The audience was audibly unhappy with this presentation.  One person asked if the speaker was aware of other places where non-native grass was successfully converted to native grass.  The speaker chuckled and emphatically said, “NO.  I am not aware of any place where native grasses were successfully reintroduced.” 

Another questioner prefaced her question with the admission that “I’m new here and all this is new to me.”  Then she suggested that Native Americans are having some success using prescribed fire and that they should be consulted.  The speaker graciously replied that she planned to do so. 

Keep in mind that Native Americans weren’t historically using prescribed fire to convert annual grasses to native grasses.  Their burns were intended to maintain native grassland in the absence of competing non-native annual grassland.  Their objectives were different and they were operating in a very different climate and environment. 

Estimates of the pre-settlement population of Native Americans in California range from 138,000 to 750,000.  The population of Native Americans is estimated to have been reduced to as few as 25,000 after the arrival of Europeans due to disease and violence.  There are now over 39 million Californians and only 630,000 of them were Native Americans in the 2020 census.  Land management practices that are suitable for a population of less than 1 million seasonally migrating Californians are not necessarily suitable for a population of over 39 million sedentary Californians.   

The futility of trying to eradicate non-native plants

The Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) is another 20-year eradication project that is doomed to failure.  The presentation about the ISP was bravely made by Dr. Debra Ayres, one of the creators of the ISP in 1998.  With intensive effort and hundreds of gallons of herbicide (imazapyr), non-native spartina marsh grass has been greatly reduced in the San Francisco Bay, but the hybrid of non-native S. alterniflora and native S. foliosa persists.  Dr. Ayres explained why:

The spartina hybrid is reproductively stronger in every way than either of its parent species.  Dr. Ayres predicts that the hybrid will eventually replace both of its parent species:

If the goal of this project was to eradicate non-native spartina, hybrid spartina will accomplish that goal. You might think that this prediction would end the futile attempt to eradicate the hybrid, but you would be wrong.  There is no intention of abandoning this 20-year project.  More funding is assured by the California Coastal Conservancy and the project continues to provide well-paid jobs. 

Dr. Ayres ended her presentation with this enigmatic statement:  Evolution doesn’t stop just because we think it has to.”  She seems to acknowledge that humans cannot stop evolution, yet she seems to recommend that we continue to try doing so.  If those positions seem contradictory, that’s because they are.  The bottom line is that as long as public funding continues to be available, this project will continue.

A central theme of the nativist agenda is the futile desire to prevent hybridization because it has the potential to replace a species considered “native.”  They fail to understand that hybridization is an important evolutionary tool that helps plant and animal species adapt to changes in environmental conditions by favoring traits that are better adapted to new conditions.  Humans cannot stop evolution, nor should we try.

San Francisco

I have a special interest in San Francisco because I lived there for nearly 30 years.  The native plant movement is very strong in San Francisco and there were several presentations about the success of the movement at the conference.

Sunset Blvd being built on barren sand in 1931

One of the projects is trying to turn Sunset Blvd on the western side of San Francisco into a native plant garden.  I lived in that district and am therefore familiar with Sunset Blvd as the major north-south traffic artery through the district.  It is important as the only wind break in the windiest district of the city, which is only 13 short blocks from the ocean.  The district is virtually treeless because of wind conditions and the pre-settlement landscape of barren sand.  Sunset Blvd is therefore the oasis of the Sunset District.  In the past, it was the only place to take a long walk in the shelter of the tall Monterey pines and cypress and tall-shrub understory.  The lawn beneath the trees was the only place for children to play close to their homes.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) is responsible for maintaining the medians in San Francisco.  It was therefore DPW’s responsibility to replace the wind break on Sunset Blvd that is dying of old age.  That’s not what they chose to do.  They are replacing the lawn with native shrubs and the tall trees with small native trees that won’t provide shelter from the wind. 

The spokesperson for DPW acknowledged that the project is controversial.  Neighbors of Sunset Blvd valued the sheltered recreational space provided by the 2.5 mile-long and wide median.  Native plant advocates and their allies want to create a wildlife corridor through the western edge of the city.  The spokesperson for DPW said that their plans are a compromise between these different viewpoints.  I don’t know if the neighbors agree, but I can say that native plant advocates are thrilled with the new native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd based on their presentation at the CNPS conference.

Planting Sunset Blvd. with native plants, December 2020

Native plant advocates prevailed on Sunset Blvd because CNPS bought or raised all the native plants and provided volunteers to plant them and maintain them for 3 years.  DPW couldn’t look their gift horse in the mouth. DPW hired 6 new gardeners to support maintenance of Sunset Blvd. This is an example of how the money that is flowing into such projects will transform many places into native plant gardens. 

Sunset Blvd and Taraval, spring 2022

So, let’s look at the result of these projects.  Presenters of these projects showed many beautiful pictures of newly planted native gardens on Sunset Blvd (above).  The pictures were taken in spring, when native plants briefly flower.  But that’s not what these places look like most of the year.  They will look better if they are irrigated year-round, but that would defeat the purpose of replacing the lawn to reduce water usage.  Unlike native plants, lawn turns brown during the dry season if it isn’t watered, but it is still functional as walkable ground. 

Here’s what that garden at Sunset Blvd and Taraval looks like most of the year:

Sunset Blvd & Taraval, October 23, 2022

There was also a presentation by a spokesperson from San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the creation of rain gardens in San Francisco.  San Francisco’s sewer system was built long ago when regulations did not require the separation of street run off from residential sewage.  When it rains, the sewage treatment plant is overwhelmed by street run off.  The sewage treatment plant releases untreated sewage and run off into the ocean, in violation of federal standards for water treatment. 

Rain garden on Sunset Blvd as shown at the CNPS Conference
Rain Garden on Sunset Blvd in August 2022. They aren’t pretty year around.

The PUC is developing rain gardens to redirect street run off away from sewage treatment plants into the ground so that treatment plants are not overwhelmed during heavy rain.  The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that 151 rain gardens have been installed so far. It seems a very good idea, but native plant advocates are not happy with the rain gardens because the PUC has not made a commitment to plant exclusively native plants in the rain gardens.  The audience pressured the speaker about this issue.  He advised them to lobby the PUC to make a commitment to plant only native plants in the rain gardens.  I have no doubt that they will take his advice.  Given their influence and their access to public funding, I would be surprised if the PUC continues to resist their demands.

Conclusion

I have undoubtedly exhausted your patience, although there is much more I could tell you about, including several projects that look promising because they are exploring the importance of soil health to achieve successful results.

The conference themes in 2022 were consistent with the previous two conferences I have attended since 2015.  This is my summary of the fundamental errors of the nativist agenda in the natural world.  They are as apparent in 2022 as they were in 2015: 

  • The futility of trying to eradicate non-native plants that are better adapted to current environmental conditions.
  • The futile and harmful attempts to prevent natural succession and hybridization.
  • The contradictory goals of fuels management and resource management.
  • The lack of understanding that vegetation changes when the climate changes.  The ranges of native plants have changed and will continue to change.  The pre-settlement landscape of the 18th century cannot be recreated.
  • The lack of understanding of the importance of soil health to ecological restoration and associated ignorance (or denial) of the damage that pesticides do to the soil. 

(1) Abstracts for all presentations are available on the CNPS website.

The Treeline: Where forests meet ice

“The way out of the depression and grief and guilt of the carbon cul-de-sac we have driven down is to contemplate the world without us. To know that the Earth, that life, will continue its evolutionary journey in all its mystery and wonder.” — Ben Rawlence in The Treeline

Ben Rawlence, the author of The Treeline:  The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, visited forests in Arctic regions to report the impact of climate change on forests and indigenous communities who inhabit those regions.  The climate is changing more drastically and quickly in Arctic regions, compared to temperate regions because rapidly melting ice is no longer reflecting light back into the atmosphere.  The dark ocean waters and forest canopy are absorbing heat, accelerating global warming.  As ice retreats on land and melts into oceans, mosses and lichens grow on bared ground and the forest spreads northward aided by elevated levels of carbon dioxide, which increases photosynthesis, boosting plant growth.

Rawlence visited Arctic regions in Scotland, Norway, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Source: CIA World Fact Book

As forests advance north, hybridization enables the selection of the species best adapted to the changed and rapidly changing conditions:  “Sorbus are found all around the boreal region, from Scandinavia to Siberia, and everywhere have shown an ability to adapt by hybridizing vigorously. The capacity to hybridize is a survival strategy, a useful skill for the Anthropocene, and the rowan is a survivor par excellence.” (1) 

While forests advance north, the southern edge of forests in northern latitudes is dying in the warming climate from drought, wildfires, insects and pathogens that are fostered by warmer temperatures.  Where permafrost is melting in warming temperatures, trees are drowning in water. Boreal forests in Arctic regions are a pock-marked mosaic of dead and dying trees, burned skeletons in some places, standing dead, clothed in brown canopies in other places.

NASA satellite photo of dozens of wildfires in Eastern Siberian forests in July 2022

These changes in vegetation have an impact on every other living inhabitant of Arctic regions.  Where vast herds of caribou and reindeer lived in the past and indigenous people migrated to follow them, changes in vegetation have drastically reduced their numbers.  Where winter snow was dry and crisp in the past, reindeer could dig to find lichen that sustained them during the winter.  Snow is wetter during warmer winters and episodically freezes to form a hard crust, making lichen inaccessible to reindeer. 

Range of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) known as caribou in North America.

Indigenous people such as Sámi in Norway and Nganasen in Siberia no longer migrate to follow reindeer herds.  Rawlence visits these communities and reports that they are fatalistic about the changes in the environment.  They understand why their lives have changed and they anticipate more changes in the future, but they also understand that they are powerless to change this trajectory.  Inuits in Alaska must periodically move homes to escape rising sea levels, yet they support the development of fossil fuels in Alaska because their primary source of income is tax revenue from the fossil fuel industry:  “Sure, there’s change.  There are cherry trees in Fairbanks.  But everyone has five hundred dollars a month in their pockets.  We haven’t paid state income tax for thirty years and there’s zero unemployment.  It still looks pretty nice.” (1)  Rawlence calls this the hydrocarbon compromise.

On a trip to Norway in 2017, one of our stops on an organized excursion above the Arctic circle was to visit this staged performance by a Sámi with his sole reindeer.

Global significance of changes in Arctic regions

Those who live in temperate regions, such as the US, might wonder what these changes in Arctic regions have to do with us.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Those who are inclined to shrug at the news about the Arctic would be wise to read The Treeline to understand the impact of changes in the Arctic on the entire world. 

Impact on marine life

Rising sea levels are the most immediate and obvious consequence of melting ice sheets and glaciers as well as warming ocean temperatures.  Water trapped in ice and snow is fresh water.  Adding fresh water to the oceans lowers salinity with consequences for the circulation of nutrients in the ocean“Siberia’s rivers are discharging 15 percent more water into the ocean than a decade ago…This seems to be changing the salinity of the Arctic Ocean, and may in turn affect the Arctic pump.  This is the process by which salty water sinks to the bottom, causing a cycle in which the deeper water mixes with nutrients from the sea floor and rises again to the surface feed phytoplankton.”  Phytoplankton are the foundation of the marine food web“This stimulation of plankton growth is also the reason the entry points to the Arctic Ocean…are among the richest feeding grounds on earth for marine animals and birds.” (1)

As forests die in riparian corridors that feed into the ocean, phytoplankton are also robbed of the iron needed to reproduce and divide“Iron made available by trees is the foundation of the food web in the ocean.” (1)

Impact on global weather

Weather on the planet is a finely tuned balance of air and ocean currents that are easily disrupted by small changes in temperature and chemical composition of the atmosphere.  The loss of sea ice changes the course of ocean currents that alter food webs and atmospheric currents associated with ocean currents.  The loss of trees disrupts air currents that carry moist air from oceans to continental interiors, causing drought.  The chaotic weather events that we now experience are the result of these disruptions in the delicate balance of air and water currents that determine our weather.

The seasonal pulse of oxygen in the spring when deciduous trees leaf out is muddled by unseasonal heat that suppresses photosynthesis.  Trees close the pores of their leaves (stomata) to reduce the loss of moisture as protection against the heat, which stops photosynthesis, in turn stopping the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen.  Tree growth stops without photosynthesis.  Seasonal patterns of life are disrupted such as the nesting season of birds and the availability of insects that must coincide with nesting season for reproductive success.  The daily pulse of temperatures from day to night is shallow and indistinct.   Warmer nights no longer provide a respite from the stress caused by high heat during the day.

Consequences of thawing permafrost

Long before the last ice age that ended about 10,000 years ago, northern latitudes now dominated by ice were covered in dense forest.  The remains of those forests now buried by ice are frozen peatlands called permafrost. Carbon stored by plants during their lifetimes is returned to the atmosphere when the plant dies and decomposes in dry climates.  Peatlands are unique in accumulating carbon in layers of dead vegetation that does not decompose in the watery bogs that limit surface oxygen.  “Canada’s Hudson Bay Lowlands, the largest intact peatland in the world, stores as much as five times more carbon than the equivalent area in the Amazon rainforest.” (2)

Warming temperatures and wildfires in the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia are thawing permafrost, destabilizing infrastructure such as roads and gas pipelines.  According to Rawlence, Conoco Phillips, which is drilling for oil in Alaska, is refrigerating permafrost to prevent fracturing their pipelines. 

The nightmare scenario that could be triggered by the sudden release of carbon dioxide and methane by thawing permafrost in Siberia, is described by a Dutch climate scientist in The Treeline: “There is twice as much greenhouse gas—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—stored in the permafrost as currently is in the atmosphere, enough to accelerate warming exponentially and effectively end life on earth as we know it if it were released at once…’The larger public still thinks that climate change will be gradual.  They are not alive to the fact that it will be abrupt and what that means in terms of climate disasters and the suffering of our children.’” (1)

A Caveat

The author of The Treeline, Ben Rawlence, is a British writer.  His previous books were Radio Congo: Signals of Hope From Africa’s Deadliest War about civil war in Congo and City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp about a refugee camp in Somalia.  He was a researcher for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.  He is not a trained ecologist or botanist. 

The Treeline reflects Rawlence’s background and lack of background.  He is passionate about the dire consequences of climate change, but his inadequate botanical knowledge requires readers to beware. Professor Art Shapiro wrote a review available on Amazon that details some of the inaccuracies in The Treeline and puts these issues in perspective:  “Reading this book is like listening to a great symphony while one instrument, say an oboe, is infuriatingly out of tune.” (3) I took Professor Shapiro’s advice and read The Treeline for the big picture, not for the details, of which many are speculative in any case. Our understanding of the consequences of climate change is imperfect. Still, I believe The Treeline is well worth reading and Rawlence’s elegant writing is also a reward. 


  1. Ben Rawlence, The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, St. Martin’s Press, 2022
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/05/19/headway/peatlands-bog-questions.html?searchResultPosition=1
  3. https://www.amazon.com/Treeline-Last-Forest-Future-Earth/product-reviews/1250270235/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_paging_btm_next_2?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&pageNumber=2  Professor Shapiro has corresponded with Ben Rawlence, who has graciously agreed to make needed corrections in the next edition of his book, which is expected soon. 

Bringing Botany into Medical Science

In American Eden, Victoria Johnson tells the remarkable story of an American physician, David Hosack, who brought knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants to America at the end of the 18th century.  The medicinal properties of plants have been known to humans for thousands of years, but incorporating that knowledge into modern medical science began only in the 18th century. 

Traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was closely tied to many religious superstitions.  The Doctrine of Signatures seemed a logical botanical belief at a time when plants were one of man’s few medicinal tools and religion was a powerful influence in human society.  The Doctrine of Signatures, which was actively promoted by the church in 17th century Europe, was based on a belief that God had “signed” plants with certain suggestive shapes and colors to inform humans of their medicinal properties.  For example, a heart-shaped leaf was considered God’s message to us that a particular plant would be beneficial to the human heart and this message was strengthened by a flesh-colored flower. Every plant was believed to be useful in some way if man could only discern its use.  Else why would they have been created, since the Garden of Eden was created for the benefit of man?  The church encouraged man’s study of plants as a way to worship God’s creation. (2)

David Hosack

Medical science was equally burdened with harmful, often deadly, medical practices such as bleeding and prescribing mercury.  When David Hosack began practicing medicine in New York at the end of the 18th century he was acutely aware of the limitations of the tools of his profession.  He could see the promise of prescribing plant extracts to his patients, but he was frustrated by his limited knowledge of plants, their uses and his access to them. 

He decided that learning more about botany and horticulture were the prerequisites for developing the medicines his patients needed.  He went to England and Scotland where he studied for two years under the tutelage of the pioneers of the botanical science that was beginning to transform medicine. 

The development of the Linnaean system of classifying species earlier in the 18th century enabled a more systematic study of plants based on their close relationships and similarities.  Physicians and apothecaries had for centuries relied on inaccurate rules to try to divine the medicinal properties of specific plants.  Medicinal properties cannot be determined by a particular color, shape, or smell.  Linnaeus’s new framework classified plants into orders, classes, families, genera, and species, groups with similar medicinal properties because they were chemically similar.  Plants in the same order were expected to share some of the same medical properties.  Plants in the same class share more properties, families still more and the most similarity is found within a genus. “By way of example, Linnaeus noted that the various known species of Convolvulus, a genus in the bindweed family that included morning glories, all appeared to have purgative effects on the body.” (1) 

In Scotland and England the knowledge of the medical uses of plants and the classification of plants according to the Linnaean system led to the development of botanical gardens where new plants with these properties could be studied and medical students were taught to identify the plants and learn their medical uses.  These botanical gardens enabled the incorporation of botanical knowledge into medical knowledge.  The gardens collected plants from all over the world that were recognized as the close relatives to plants from closer to home and were considered equally valuable as potential therapeutic drugs. 

These botanical gardens fostered a cosmopolitan view of plants that actively sought and welcomed new plants from the regions of the world that were being newly explored.  The Linnaean classification system made it possible for new plants to be incorporated into the global family of plants.  We have lost this sense of a global family of plants.  Instead of classifying plants according to their membership in families, orders, and classes, the plant world has been artificially divided into two meaningless categories:  native and non-native.  These categories prevent us from understanding the close relationships between plants.  The native plant movement has turned most of the plant world into aliens. Just as dividing the human race into white and non-white is prejudicial and harmful, dividing the plant world into native and non-native is equally pernicious.

The Consequences of Putting Plants into “Native” Strait-Jackets

Milkweed is an example of the consequences of classifying plants based on their native status.  There are about 200 species of milkweed in the Asclepias genus and they are distributed broadly across Africa, North America, and South America.  There are a few species of milkweed native to the Bay Area, but the most popular species of milkweed, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), is not.  It is popular with home gardeners because it is a strikingly beautiful plant and it is evergreen, unlike our native milkweed, which is deciduous, therefore not available in winter months.

Monarch butterflies are dependent upon milkweed as its host plant.  They lay their eggs on milkweed and their caterpillars eat milkweed.  In the past, monarchs in California spent the winter roosting in trees along the coast of California.  They did not breed during the winter.  They moved inland during summer months where they bred.

Because of global warming, monarchs have begun to breed during the winter months in California and the existence of tropical milkweed in gardens in coastal California has made that possible:  “the [monarch] population boom in the Bay Area had not been seen before.  It was unusually warm that fall, which may have accounted for the numbers.  And tropical milkweed, which unlike native milkweed flowers through the winter and creates a suitable habitat for breeding, was abundant in gardens.” (3)

Scientists with a commitment to the survival of monarchs have welcomed this development:  “But the growth of local, breeding monarchs is seen, at least by some, as a sign of the resilience of the monarchs, their ability to find new ways to persist in the face of an increasingly threatened migration.  Might we be seeing the growth of a resident population of monarchs in the Bay Area?” (3)

The Nature Police have succeeded in getting the sale of tropical milkweed banned in Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and Ventura counties.  Academic entomologist have pushed back against this harmful ban in an article published by The Monterey Herald, San Jose Mercury, Marin Independent Journal, and East Bay Times:

  • “Hugh Dingle, a retired University of California at Davis entomology professor who has studied monarch butterfly migration for more than two decades, said the bans are “basically a wasted effort” and that the focus should be on larger threats such as pesticide and herbicide use. All species of milkweed carry parasites that can affect monarch populations, Dingle said.”
  • “Arthur Shapiro, a UC Davis professor who has studied monarch butterflies for the past six decades, described the rationale behind the bans as “hogwash.”  Shapiro, Dingle and other researchers said winter breeding among monarch butterflies is a relatively new behavior and one influenced by warmer winter temperatures caused by climate change.”
  • “David James, an associate entomology professor at Washington State University who has studied monarch butterfly breeding and migration in the Bay Area, said there is a case to be made about the tropical milkweed as being a vital resource for the monarchs in a changing climate.”
  • “Leslie McGinnis, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate studying monarch populations and working with gardeners in the East Bay, said the bans take a “simplistic view” of the threats that monarchs face, including the fact that many native milkweed plants supplied to nurseries can also be sprayed with pesticides. The bans, she said, can work to disenfranchise or demonize people that have tropical milkweed who instead could be partners in working to help restore monarch populations.”

Native plant advocates are wedded to a past that is long gone.  The climate has changed and it will continue to change. Monarchs and other animals are trying to adapt to the changed conditions.  Their survival depends on their ability to adapt.  The native plant movement has become a form of climate change denial.  Their irrational hatred of introduced plants is damaging the environment with herbicides and harming wildlife. There is no evidence that tropical milkweed is harmful to monarchs.

Update:  Professor Art Shapiro has kindly offered this addition to the many benefits of tropical milkweed, which is also a reminder that both native and non-native plants often have medicinal properties:  “Asclepias curassavica is known as “cancerillo” in rural Latin America and a root extract is reputed to have anti-cancer properties. It has a huge number of ethnobotanical uses. Because steroid cardenolides are highly toxic, it should not be used except under the guidance of an expert herbalist. I do not know if the alleged anti-cancer activity has been formally investigated. Virtually every rural peasant I have asked about it in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile knows its reputation.”  Thank you, Professor Shapiro, for this useful information.  Professor Shapiro has traveled widely in Latin America to visit his butterfly friends.  October 1, 2022

Elgin Botanical Garden

David Hosack studied under the tutelage of the botanical pioneers in England who taught physicians how to use plants to treat their patients.  When he returned home in 1794 he was determined to establish a botanical garden in New York that would be available to medical students at Columbia College, where he taught.  The botanical garden was needed to collect plants from all over the globe, including the unsettled regions of the new nation.  That was his life’s work.

Hosack began his venture by trying to convince Columbia College that a botanical garden was needed to educate physicians and supply them with the medicines they needed for their patients.  It was his intention to collect plants from all over the world to study their medicinal properties and make more therapeutic remedies available to physicians and their patients. Every plant in the world was potentially useful in his opinion. He named the garden Elgin Botanical Garden after his father’s home town in Scotland.

Elgin Botanical Garden, 1810

When Hosack was unable to convince Columbia College to make this investment for their medical school, he built the garden himself at his expense.  He also tirelessly recruited plant specimens from all over the world.  Although he built a world-class institution, he was draining his personal resources.  He tried and eventually convinced the State of New York to buy the garden from him.  The State acquired the garden, but did not provide for its maintenance.  Hosack lost control over the management of the garden and it was quickly gutted by unscrupulous managers who sold the collection for personal gain.  The garden was in ruins when Hosack died in 1835.  The garden is commemorated by a small plaque on the Rockefeller Center that occupies the ground where the Elgin Botanical Garden was built. 

The Historical Context

The story of David Hosack’s extraordinary accomplishments takes place within the context of early American history.  Hosack knew every major player in American politics, government, literature, science, and business.  He was personal friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  He was asked by Hamilton to attend the duel with Aaron Burr and he attended his death after the duel in 1804.  Hosack had strong feelings about the obligations of physicians to remain neutral in all political matters.  Although he had a strong affection for Hamilton, he maintained his friendship with Aaron Burr until his death.  Burr’s sad story appears many times in American Eden, as he descends into a life of obscurity because of his role in Hamilton’s death, a choice he is said not to have regretted.

Many other important people appear in the story as Hosack befriends them and often plays a role in their success.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s botanist is among those who revered Hosack.  When Napolean sent him to America to collect new plants, Hosack took him under his wing.  He studied plants at the Elgin Botanical Garden while earning his degree as a physician.  Hosack and Alire Raffeneau Delile had a life-long correspondence.  Hosack’s son, Dr. Alexander Hosack, visited Delile in France after his father’s death.  Delile recognized him instantly as Hosack’s son and embraced him warmly.  He showed Alexander Hosack his prized possession, his long correspondence with David Hosack. 

David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who named many American native plant species during his expeditions in America was a friend of Hosack.  Douglas visited California where he named Douglas fir and Douglas iris, among others.  Douglas studied with Hosack and later acknowledged his importance to American botany by naming a new genus of wildflower he found in the Western US Hosackia, as a tribute to his favorite American.

Hosackia oblongifolia

American Eden is a rewarding book for many reasons, including an intimate glimpse into the lives and events of early America.  It is also a reminder of the heavy price of botanical ignorance that is relevant to the horticultural controversies of today.


  1. American Eden:  David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic, Victoria Johnson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018
  2. Weeds:  In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey, Profile Books Ltd, London, 2010
  3. “The Story of the Butterflies,” Endria Richardson, Bay Nature, Summer 2022