Final chapter for Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan? Maybe not.

The draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for Oakland’s Vegetation Plan (OVMP) has been published.  When the DEIR is approved and funding is identified, implementation will finally begin after a process that began four years ago.  The plan and its EIR are available HERE.  The deadline for public comments on the DEIR is January 22, 2021.  The email address for submitting public comments is DEIR-comments@oaklandvegmanagement.org

The primary purpose of the plan is to reduce fire hazards in High Fire Hazard Zones in Oakland by reducing fuel loads on about 2,000 acres of public land and 300 miles of roadside.  Although there were many issues, the primary battle lines were drawn by these issues at the beginning of the process and they remain:

  • On one side, some people were concerned by the scale of tree removals that were considered and the herbicides that would be needed to control the resprouts of the trees after removal. If the plan as proposed is approved, herbicides will be permitted in places where they were prohibited in the past.
  • On the other side, some survivors of the 1991 Oakland wildfire and native plant advocates who are their allies, want all non-native trees to be destroyed and replaced with native plants. They are not satisfied with plans to thin trees around structures and roadsides.

The consequences of destroying Oakland’s urban forest

The survivors of the 1991 fire in Oakland asked that the OVMP be radically revised at a public hearing about the OVMP DEIR on December 16, 2020.  They called their version of a vegetation management plan Alternative 5.  It is an alternative that does not exist in the DEIR.  These are the major elements of what they asked for:

  • They ask that all non-native trees be destroyed everywhere in the treatment areas. They ask that the trees be clear-cut rather than thinned, as proposed by the plan. They ask that tree removals not be confined to defensible space around structures, as proposed by the plan.
  • They ask that removed trees and non-native vegetation be replaced with native trees and vegetation.
  • They ask that roadside clearance of vegetation occur 100 feet from both sides of the road rather than 30 feet as the OVMP proposes.
  • They expressed concern about dead trees. They are apparently unaware of the epidemic of Sudden Oak Death that has killed 50 million native oaks in the past 15 years and is spreading rapidly.

The OVMP DEIR is responsive to some of these concerns. 

  • The OVMP DEIR makes a commitment to seeding areas that are steep and barren after vegetation removal with seeds of native plants. The purpose of this seeding is to minimize the potential for erosion.
  • The OVMP DEIR makes a commitment to replant trees removed in riparian areas as required by Oakland’s ordinance to protect creeks.
  • The OVMP makes a commitment to remove all dead trees in treatment areas. Sudden Oak Death (SOD) is the probable cause of the dead trees described at the public hearing.  SOD has been found in many treatment areas in the plan:  Garber Park, Shepherds Canyon, Dimond Canyon Park, Joaquin Miller Park, Leona Heights Park, Knowland Park, and Sheffield Village. (OVMP DEIR 3.4-87)

Increasing roadside clearance to 100 feet would increase the acreage of roadside tree removals and vegetation required by the OVMP by 233%.  The consequences of such extensive removals can be seen on Claremont Ave, west of Grizzly Peak.  These removals were done by UC Berkeley.  Catastrophic erosion after intense rainfall looks inevitable.

Claremont Ave, West of Grizzly Peak Blvd. November 2020

Huge piles of wood chips and logs must be disposed of.  Such piles of wood chips are known fire hazards until they are spread or disposed of.  The wood chip piles resulting from roadside clearance on Claremont Ave cannot be spread because the quantity exceeds available land.  UC Berkeley has made a commitment to build a biofuels plant to burn the wood chips to generate electricity for campus facilities.  The OVMP does not make a commitment to build a biofuels plant to properly dispose of wood chips and it mandates a limit of 6 inches of wood chip mulch on the ground. Please look at these pictures of some of the wood debris created by clearcutting less than one mile of roadside on Claremont Ave.  Then consider that the OVMP proposes to treat 300 miles of roadside.  Multiply these piles of wood chips and logs by 300 to consider the consequences of “Alternative 5.”

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

Oakland does not want a biofuels plant because it will significantly increase pollution.  Sierra Club Magazine reports that “The manufacturing of biomass-energy wood pellets requires drying the logged material in a wood-fired process, then pressing the dried wood into pellets—and every step emits significant amounts of air pollution. According to the Environmental Integrity Project study, the emissions from the facilities include fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Wood-pellet manufacturing emits a form of soot and dust called PM 2.5, which can pass deep into the lungs and depress lung function, worsen asthma, and cause heart attacks. Volatile organic compounds, when exposed to sunlight, transform into ozone, which is especially dangerous to children and the elderly.”

This aerial view of the clear cut on Claremont Ave makes it clear that this is a native plant “restoration,” not fire hazard mitigation.  The north side of the road has been clear cut 100 feet from the road where the trees were non-native.  There has been no comparable clearance on the south side of the road where the trees are native.  The native trees are predominantly native bay laurels that are known to be highly flammable.  The leaves of bay laurel contain more oil than the leaves of eucalyptus and the branches grow to the ground, providing a fire ladder to the tree canopy.  If fire hazard mitigation were the goal of this project, both sides of the road would have been treated the same.

This picture of the Claremont Ave project was taken from the west December 2020.  Photo by Doug Prose, courtesy Hills Conservation Network.

The cost of Alternative 5 would be prohibitive. The plan would need to be rewritten and a new EIR prepared.  The first plan took four years to prepare; the second will take nearly as long after new funding is secured for it. Funding for implementing the OVMP has not been identified.  The City of Oakland is currently running an annual budget deficit of $62 million.  Budget cuts are planned to address the deficit, including 10 mandatory furlough days for police and firemen.

One of many reasons why I love my home, Oakland, is its deep commitment to equity.  If Oakland had the resources to fund restoration of approximately 2,000 acres of public land and 300 miles of roadside to native vegetation, it is unlikely to spend those resources in the wealthiest communities in Oakland on a project that would bring little benefit for the poorest communities in Oakland.  Oakland’s Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP) is a case in point.  Its forestry section is devoted to planting trees in the poorest neighborhoods that suffer the most air pollution and have the fewest trees, as it should be.

I am sympathetic to the survivors of the 1991 Oakland fire as well as to those who have been injured by chemicals to which they were exposed.  Fire survivors have had a traumatic experience that has irrevocably altered their perception about the causes of wildfire.  There are also other survivors of the 1991 fire who watched native redwoods and oaks burn.  Their understanding of wildfire is therefore different, but it is more consistent with the wildfires of the past 5 years that have occurred in predominantly native vegetation.  Native vegetation in California is fire adapted and fire dependent.  Non-native vegetation is not inherently more flammable than native vegetation.

Public Policy requires compromise

Thinning of non-native forests and herbicide treatment to prevent resprouting is not without risks.  We will lose some of our protection from wind.  The trees that remain will be more vulnerable to windthrow.  There may be some erosion in steep areas.  The herbicide that is usually used to prevent resprouts (triclopyr) kills tree roots by traveling from the freshly cut stump through the roots of the tree.  The roots of trees are intertwined with the roots of their neighbors that are often damaged by the herbicide and sometimes killed.  The herbicide kills mycorrhizal fungi that live on the roots as well as microbes in the soil.  Their loss reduces the health of the soil, handicapping the survival of remaining and new plants. This damage to soil is one of many reasons why native plant “restorations” are frequently unsuccessful after scorched earth eradications. Both triclopyr and imazapyr are on the list (California Code of Regulations 6800) of pesticides that have “the potential to contaminate groundwater” because they are very mobile and persistent in the soil.

I accept these risks in the interests of reducing fire hazards.  I have asked for a few tweaks to the plan, including continuing to prohibit foliar spraying of herbicides in public parks and open spaces.  These are the compromises that must be made to make public policy.  We cannot paralyze ourselves by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Oakland needs a Vegetation Management Plan that is effective, affordable, and safer than other alternatives.  That’s what the Oakland Vegetation Management Plan is. 

Norman La Force, a post mortem

I published an article recently about a race for a seat on the Board of the East Bay Regional Park District between Norman La Force and Elizabeth Echols.  Based on my personal experience with La Force and with the help of a considerable public record, I recommended that voters in that Park District vote for Elizabeth Echols because Norman La Force has a long track record as an aggressive—often litigious—opponent of traditional park uses.  La Force prefers parks behind fences, with no public access and he frequently sues the Park District to impose his personal preference that public parks be reserved for wildlife in which people are not welcome.

My article was read by over 2,500 people and may have helped Elizabeth Echols win that race with about 60% of the vote.  Recreational users of the parks probably deserve the most credit for Echols’ victory.  La Force has spent decades trying to prevent kitesurfing, kayak launches, biking, and dog walking in the parks in the district he wanted to represent.  These recreational users of the parks weren’t having it.

I learned a lot about La Force during that campaign and everything I learned confirmed my judgment that he is an enemy of our urban parks with a fundamentally misanthropic view about the role of humans in nature.  I will share a few of the stories about La Force with readers because La Force’s leadership role in the Sierra Club still gives him some power to launch his crusades against land use decisions that do not conform to his purist view of urban nature.

La Force horror stories

Berkeleyside published four op-eds about the race for the Park District Board seat; three endorsed Echols and one endorsed La Force. (1) The comments on those op-eds were instructive.  Many people who participate in land use issues stepped forward to tell their personal stories about their bad experiences with La Force.

  • This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying to prevent a high school girl’s crew team from rowing at Aquatic Park in Berkeley about 20 years ago: I attended a meeting of Berkeley planning staff when the Berkeley High girls crew team was proposing to rent and renovate the club house in Aquatic Park. The team was already rowing on Aquatic Lagoon–indeed, the lagoon is public trust land and they couldn’t be stopped. I had no real interest in that project, but I watched Norman verbally attack the representative of the girl’s team and call him a liar. He later threatened the city with a lawsuit if they leased the clubhouse to the girls team. The City backed down, the clubhouse remained vacant, and the girls were left with a very bad taste in their mouth about the Sierra Club and Norman in particular.”  Jim McGrath
  • This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent a dog park at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley: “I first “met” Norman LaForce over 25 years ago when, as a member of a Mayor’s Task Force on Dog Use in Parks, I phoned to invite him to attend our kickoff meeting. I knew that he, in his position in the Sierra Club, had opposed a plan for an off leash area in Cesar Chavez. So I thought it would be good to get both sides to the table. Sounds reasonable, yes? That was a very rude (in more than one way) awakening to learn about what kind of person he is. He was livid, yelling and swearing at me, he was so loud that my family got to hear his vitriolic outburst as well. Needless to say he didn’t accept my invitation and did everything in his power to stop this dog park from happening—and being who Norman was and is, that means using the backdoor into city hall to thwart it.” Claudia Kawczynska (with permission)
  • This kitesurfer tells the story of La Force trying to prevent boating access to the bay: “I am a kitesurfer who, along with hundreds of local kiters, make heavy use of the VERY limited number of local launch sites in the East Bay. Although we have an incredible opportunity to improve launches and build new launches to expand non-motorized access to the bay and expose more people safely to this vast natural resource, La Force has not only opposed launches, he’s tried to establish a legal basis to fundamentally prohibit non-motorized access to the bay by arguing, among other things, that we destroy eel grass. Most non-motorized sailors, kiters, windsurfers, kayakers and swimmers are keenly aware of and supportive of the environment we recreate in. These are exactly the kinds of coalitions we need to build in order to create the right balance between environmental preservation, ecological health, recreational use of and strong support for our local parks.”  Andrew Sullivan
  • This comment disputes La Force’s claim of responsibility for the creation of the McLaughlin East Shoreline Park: “I ultimately supported the plan in public—I could not oppose Sylvia McLaughlin and Dwight Steele who I revered. That’s how the dynamic on the plan really worked–Dwight and Sylvia commanded respect, and talked to everyone, Robert Cheasty cut the deals, and Norman ranted… I first met Norman at the first Coastal Conservancy charrette for what became the McLaughlin State Park. It was clear from day one that he was an advocate for wildlife and committed to keeping people out of the new park. It is not unusual to see many people claim credit for an undertaking like the park, which required many people. What is astonishing to me is Norman’s willingness to misrepresent, or perhaps forget, the positions he took at the time and represent himself as a consensus builder. Sylvia was much more of a people person, and would not be pleased to see the park named for her with so many fences that keep people out.”  Jim McGrath

Of course, supporters of La Force also commented, but their comments corroborated La Force’s extremism.  Some don’t want dogs in parks.  Some believe boating threatens eel grass.  One commenter believes that public access to parks threatens biodiversity.  Many of their comments used the same antagonistic approach for which La Force is famous.

Another can of worms

The debate about this race opened another can of worms.  Point Molate in Richmond is one of the most hotly contested scraps of land in the park district that will be represented by the Board seat that La Force wanted.

Point Molate, Richmond

The City of Richmond would like to build housing at Point Molate. (Full disclosure:  I consider new housing a high priority in the Bay Area where the cost of housing is prohibitive.) La Force and the Sierra Club are opposed to building any new housing in the Bay Area, whether it is urban infill or suburban open space.  La Force’s original strategy in preventing this project was to promote the building of a huge gambling casino and resort on the property.  He and his allies made a deal with the developers of the gambling casino that they would fund the removal of “invasive species” and the installation of native landscape in exchange for Sierra Club support for the gambling casino. (2)

The City of Richmond held a voters’ referendum to prevent a gambling casino from being built and developed a new plan for housing that would have preserved 70% of the land for parks and open space.  La Force and his allies were forced to develop a new strategy.  Now they claim that the site is a fire hazard with insufficient exits to evacuate in the event of fire.  There was no fire hazard when La Force advocated for a gambling casino with parking for 7,500, a hotel with 1,100 rooms, entertainment complex and retail stores, but now there is, according to La Force and the Sierra Club.  This is the subject of yet another La Force/Sierra Club lawsuit, filed against the City of Richmond, less than a month before the November 3, 2020 election.

La Force’s use of fear of fire as a tool to get what he wants is not new.  He has used the same argument to justify the destruction of all non-native trees in the Bay Area.  Anyone who is paying attention knows that virtually all the wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. Flammability of tree species has nothing to do with nativity of the species and everything to do with the characteristics of the species. For example, native bay laurels are more flammable than eucalyptus.

The SF Chronicle recently reported the new strategy of “environmentalists” of using fear of fire to prevent new housing from being built in suburban open space.  The article quite rightly points out that the same people are equally opposed to building dense housing in urban transit corridors.

There is a grain of truth to concern about building housing in fire/wind corridors.  But given the Sierra Club’s track record of using fear of fire to get what they want, would you trust them to tell us accurately where housing can be safely built?  The Sierra Club has cried wolf too often.  They are no longer a credible source of information regarding safe placement of new housing because they don’t want any housing…or any non-native trees.

Lessons Learned

I learned from following this race that recreational users of our urban parks will fight like hell to retain their access to the parks.  They are less concerned about the loss of our urban forest to nativism or the use of herbicides in the parks, perhaps because herbicides aren’t used in dog parks. They want another park at Point Molate, rather than housing.  Aside from helping to document the confrontational approach of La Force to impose his will on our public lands, I give credit to recreational park users for defeating Norman La Force in this race.

I hope that Norman La Force has learned something too.  I hope he understands that his aspirations for political power are over.  Maybe he also understands the cost of his confrontational behavior and lawsuits that force public agencies to waste taxpayers’ money to defend their sovereignty.

Most importantly, I hope the Sierra Club understands that it has paid dearly for La Force’s behavior.  La Force has tarnished the reputation of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club.  The endorsements of the Sierra Club for candidates for public office are no longer something to be proud of.  They are an indication that the candidate is an extremist who views people as intruders in nature.  This damage to the reputation of the Sierra Club is a loss to everyone because a strong and influential environmental organization is needed, but only if its objectives are to protect the environment rather than furthering the interests of a specific person who has been given more power than he can be trusted with.


(1)
“Support our parks by voting for Elizabeth Echols for East Bay Regional Park District Board”

“Norman La Force is wrong for our East Bay parks”

“As a Park District board member, Elizabeth Echols will balance open space and human recreation” 

“Elect Norman La Force to the Parks Board for his leadership and commitment to environmental goals”

(2) http://www.tombutt.com/forum/2020/20-9-30.html

“Restoration” projects in the Bay Area are more destructive than constructive

I began studying the native plant movement and the “restoration” projects it spawned over 20 years ago when I learned about a proposal to change my neighborhood park in San Francisco in ways that were unacceptable to me.  Virtually all the trees in the park were non-native and the original proposal would have destroyed most of them.  The trees provide protection from the wind as well as a visual and sound screen from the dense residential neighborhood.  A treeless park in a windy location is not a comfortable place to visit.

The original plans would have made the park inhospitable to visitors for several other reasons, particularly by reducing recreational access to the park.  The prospect of losing my neighborhood park turned me into an activist.  I eventually learned there were similar plans for most major parks in San Francisco.  My neighborhood organized to prevent the destruction of our park and to some extent we succeeded.  However, we were unable to prevent the city-wide plan from being approved in 2006, after fighting against it for nearly 10 years.

When I  moved to the East Bay, I learned that similar projects are even more destructive than those in San Francisco,  I have spent the last 20 years informing myself and others of these plans, visiting those places, and using whatever public process that was available to oppose the plans.  The following paragraphs are brief descriptions of the projects I have studied for over 20 years.

Tree Destruction Projects in the East Bay

East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) is the public utility that supplies our water in the East Bay.  To accomplish that task, EBMUD manages 28,000 acres of watershed land.  Like most open space in the Bay Area, the vegetation on EBMUD’s land is a mix of native and non-native species.  EBMUD destroys non-native trees which it believes to be a fire hazard.  EBMUD uses herbicides to “control” non-native vegetation, but it does not use herbicides on tree stumps to prevent resprouting.  EBMUD reports using 409 gallons of herbicide and 6 gallons of insecticide in 2019.  Of the total amount of herbicide, 338 gallons were glyphosate-based projects.  EBMUD says “minor amounts of rodenticide were applied by contractors.”

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) approved the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” and its Environmental Impact Report in 2009.  This plan is removing most eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia from several thousand acres of parkland.  Forests are being thinned from an average density of 600 trees per acre to approximately 60 trees per acre.  These plans are being implemented and funding for completion of the project has been secured.  Herbicides are used to prevent the trees from resprouting and to destroy vegetation deemed “invasive.”

UC Berkeley clear-cut over 18,000 non-native trees from 150 acres in the Berkeley hills in the early 2000s.  UCB applied for a FEMA grant to complete their clear-cutting plans.  The FEMA grant would have clear cut over 50,000 non-native trees from about 300 acres of open space in the Berkeley hills.

Frowning Ridge, UC Berkeley, 2010

In 2016, FEMA cancelled grant funding as a result of a lawsuit and subsequent appeals from UCB were defeated several years later.  In 2019, UCB revised its original plans.  With the exception of clear-cutting ridgelines, the revised plan will thin non-native forests.  Herbicides will be used to prevent the trees from resprouting.

The City of Oakland applied for a FEMA grant in collaboration with UC Berkeley to clear cut non-native trees on over 120 acres in the Oakland hills.  That FEMA grant was cancelled at the same time UC Berkeley lost its grant funding.  Oakland has also revised its plans for “vegetation management” since the FEMA grant was cancelled.  The revised plan will thin non-native forests on over 2,000 acres of parks and open space.  The plan is undergoing environmental review prior to implementation.  Herbicide use to implement the plan is being contested.

Tree Destruction Projects in San Francisco

The Natural Areas Program (now called Natural Resources Division) of the City of San Francisco has destroyed thousands of trees in 32 designated areas of the city’s parks since the program began in 1995.  The management plan for the Natural Areas Program was approved in 2006, after 10 years of opposition.  The plan proposes to destroy an additional 18,500 trees over 15 feet tall and untold numbers of smaller trees that the plan chooses not to define as trees.   Herbicides are used to “control” non-native vegetation and prevent trees from resprouting after they are cut down.

Sutro Forest 2010

University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) began its effort over 20 years ago to destroy most non-native trees on 66 acres of Mount Sutro.  UCSF applied for a FEMA grant to implement those plans based on their claim that the Sutro Forest is a fire hazard.  UCSF withdrew the grant application after FEMA asked for evidence that the forest is a fire hazard.  San Francisco is cool and foggy in the summer, making fires rare and unlikely.

Sutro Forest with resprouts of destroyed trees. November 2019

UCSF’s plans to destroy most trees on Mount Sutro were approved in April 2018.  Many trees on Mount Sutro have been destroyed since the project was approved and more will be destroyed before the project is complete.  UCSF made a commitment to not use pesticides in the Sutro Forest.  Many of the trees that have been destroyed have therefore resprouted.  Unless the resprouts are cut back repeatedly, the forest is likely to regenerate over time.

  Tree Destruction Projects on Federal Lands

The federal government is one of the largest landowners in the Bay Area.  Golden Gate National Recreation Area (75,500 acres), Point Reyes National Seashore (28,800 acres), and Muir Woods National Monument are operated by the National Park Service.  The Presidio in San Francisco is a National Park that is presently controlled by a non-profit trust.  These parks have engaged in extensive tree-removal on the public lands they control.  Information available on their websites does not enable us to quantify the acres or number of trees that have been removed or are planned for removal in the future.  Therefore, we will describe those projects in the broad terms available to us.

There are two main categories of tree-destruction projects on these federal lands.  There are many large-scale “restoration” efforts that have required the removal of all non-native vegetation, including trees.  These attempts to eradicate non-native plants are based on a misguided belief native plants will magically return.  Herbicides are used by National Park Service to destroy non-native vegetation, although specific information is difficult to obtain because NPS is not responsive to inquiries and the federal public records law can take years to respond.

Eradication efforts fail regardless of method used

In “Lessons learned from invasive plant control experiments:  a systematic review and meta-analysis,” scientists analyzed 355 studies of attempts to eradicate non-native plants from 1960 to 2009.  The scientists determined the methods used and the efficacy of those methods.  More than 55% of the projects used herbicides, 34% used mechanical methods (such as mowing, digging, hand-pulling), 24% burned the vegetation, and 19% used all three methods.  The study found that herbicides most effectively reduced “invasive” plant cover, but this did not result in a substantial increase in native species because impacts to native species are greatest when projects involve herbicide application.  Burning projects reduced native coverage and increased non-native coverage. In other words, it doesn’t matter what method is used, eradicating non-native plants does not result in the return of native plants.   We didn’t need a study to tell us this.  We can see the results with our own eyes.

Flammability of plants is unrelated to nativity

The other, larger category of tree-removal projects on these federal lands are the so-called “fuel management projects.”  The flammability of non-native plants and trees is exaggerated in order to justify their destruction.   Native plants are not inherently less flammable than non-native plants.

In fact, native vegetation in California is fire adapted and fire dependent for germination and survival.  The California Native Plant Society recently revised its “Fire Recovery Guide. The Guide now says, “California native plants are not inherently more likely to burn than plants from other areas.”  This statement is the mirror image of what defenders of our urban forest have been saying for 25 years:  “Non-native trees are not inherently more flammable than native trees.”  Both statements are true and they send the same message: flammability is unrelated to the nativity of plants.  “Think instead about characteristics of plants,” according to the CNPS “Fire Recovery Guide.”

There are undoubtedly many other similar projects of which we are unaware.  I report only on projects that I have direct knowledge about and that I have visited.

Why I opposed these projects

The San Francisco Bay Area was nearly treeless before early settlers planted non-native trees.  Non-native trees were planted because they are better adapted to the harsh coastal winds than native trees.  The treeless grassland was grazed by deer and elk and burned by Native Americans to promote the growth of plants they ate and fed the animals they hunted.  Grazing and burning maintained the grassland, preventing natural succession to shrubs and trees.

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

Modern land use and management policies have suppressed fire and reduced grazing in the Bay Area.  Consequently grasslands are naturally converting to chaparral and scrub.  Although managers of public lands often describe these changes in the landscape as “invasions,” Jon Keeley (Ph.D. biologist, USGS) considers them a natural succession“These changes are commonly referred to as shrub invasion or brush encroachment of grasslands.  Alternatively, this is perhaps best viewed as a natural recolonization of grasslands that have been maintained by millennia of human disturbance.” 

Early settlers planted trees to protect their residential communities and their crops from wind.  The urban forest also provides sound and visual screens around parks that are surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods.  Urban forests are storing carbon that is released as greenhouse gas when they are destroyed. They also reduce air pollution by filtering particulates from the air.

When trees are destroyed, the unshaded ground is quickly colonized by weeds that are then sprayed with herbicide.  Even environmental organizations that support the destruction of non-native trees agree about the results of these projects:

  • The California Native Plant Society predicted the post-project landscape in its written public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) of the FEMA project in the East Bay hills with this rhetorical question: “What mechanism is being instituted by FEMA in this DEIS to guarantee a commitment of money and personnel for management of greatly increased acreages of newly created annual weedy grassland?”
  • The Audubon Society predicted the post-project landscape in its written public comment on the DEIS: “There is no support for the conclusion that native vegetation will return on its own.  This plan may not result in an increase in native trees and plants…Heavy mulching will delay or prevent the growth of native species.”

To summarize:  I am opposed to destroying our urban forests because they perform many important ecological functions, including providing habitat for wildlife.  Furthermore, the herbicides used to destroy the forest and control weeds that thrive in the absence of shade, damage the soil and create unnecessary health hazards to humans and other animals.

Deforestation and Climate Change

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  The fact that the climate is warming is indisputable and the consequences of the changes are becoming more evident.  Much of California has warmed over 3⁰ F since 1980.

Source: NASA

Consequences of Climate Change

The impact of climate change on biotic and abiotic realms has been far-reaching:

  • Sea Level Rise:  Temperatures in Polar Regions have increased the most because the ice is melting and sunlight that was reflected by the ice is now absorbed by the darker surface.  Melting ice has raised sea levels between 1993 and 2017 on average 3.1 mm (1/8th inch) per year at an accelerating rate.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will rise .8 meter (2.6 feet) by the end of the century.  Coastal cities are flooding during high tides and storm surges.  Islands are disappearing.
  • Warming Ocean:  Marine life is dying in warming waters and coral reefs are dying because the water becomes more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide (CO₂).
  • Extreme Weather Events:  The increase in the frequency and severity of droughts, hurricanes, tornados, heat waves, etc. is attributed to climate change.  These events kill plants and animals.  Extreme temperatures will eventually make some places in the world uninhabitable for most life.
  • WildfiresIncreased frequency and intensity of wildfires all over the world are caused by global warming and associated drought.

Given the life-threatening conditions created by the warming planet, it seems a small quibble to argue about whether or not the landscape must be transformed into some semblance of what it was in the 14th century, prior to global explorations and colonization by Europeans.  We are doing next to nothing to address the causes of climate change, yet we are spending approximately $25 billion per year on such “restorations” of historical landscapes.  When these projects kill trees, they make climate change worse.  California is considered a leader in addressing climate change in the US.  Yet, when calculating carbon loss to meet stated targets for reduction, California does not include carbon loss in the trees that are destroyed.

Causes of Climate Change

There is nearly universal agreement in the scientific community that climate change is caused by greenhouse gasses emitted by the activities of humans.

Note that “forestry” (more accurately described as “deforestation”) contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.  In both cases, carbon dioxide (CO₂) is the specific greenhouse gas that is emitted by these sectors of the economy.  In the case of transportation cars, airplanes, ships, etc. are using fossil fuels that emit CO₂ when burned.  In the case of deforestation, the CO₂ that is stored by trees during their lifetime is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas when the tree is destroyed and its wood decays.  And the loss of the trees means there will be less carbon storage in the future. Even if new trees were planted, less carbon would be stored because carbon storage is largely a function of biomass; that is, bigger trees store more carbon:

Carbon Storage and Sequestration in San Francisco’s Urban Forest

d.b.h. = diameter at breast height, is the standard measure of tree size.  The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores.  Source:  US Forest Service inventory of San Francisco’s urban forest, 2007.

Forests cover 31% of the land area on Earth and annually 75,700 square kilometers (18.7 million acres) of the forest is lost as a result of wildfire, clearing for agriculture and grazing, and logging for timber.  For the past 25 years, we have also been destroying trees just because they aren’t native.  In California we destroy eucalyptus, Monterey pine and cypress outside their small native range, and a few other non-native species.  In the Southwest we destroy tamarisk trees that were planted to control erosion.  On the East Coast we destroy ailanthus (tree of heaven).  In Florida we destroy malaleuca trees.  Native plant advocates call these trees “invasive,” but a more accurate description is that they are successful trees, well adapted to current climate conditions.  There are probably many other non-native trees on the long hit list of native plant advocates.

Other benefits of trees

Trees are valuable members of our communities for many reasons in addition to storing carbon.

  • Trees provide the windbreak that makes our parks and open spaces comfortable in windy coastal locations.
  • Trees are a visual and sound screen around our urban parks and residential properties.
  • Trees remove particulates from the air, reducing the air pollution that makes urban environments unhealthy.
  • The San Francisco Bay Area is very foggy during summer months.  Tall trees condense the fog, which falls to the ground as rain, adding 10 inches of annual precipitation in East Bay eucalyptus forests and 16 inches of annual precipitation in San Francisco’s eucalyptus forests.
  • Forests transpire water from their leaves that falls back to earth as rainfall.  Where forests are destroyed, rainfall decreases significantly.
Transpiration is the process by which moisture is carried from tree and plant roots to the leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Interestingly, a large oak tree can draw 40,000 gallons of water a year up through the roots and evaporate that moisture through the leaves.  Source:  USGS
  • Trees stabilize the soil with their roots, preventing erosion on steep hillsides that become unstable when trees are destroyed.
  • The roots of trees absorb rainfall that would otherwise run off the land without being absorbed into the soil.  The run off washes the top soil away, clogging rivers and streams and reducing the fertility of the soil.

Case Studies

We don’t need to speculate about the consequences of destroying trees because there are many specific examples of the negative impact of destroying large numbers of trees.  Here are two examples, one modern and one historical.

The island nation of Comoros, off East Africa, once had an extensive cloud forest, a forest in which trees are often surrounded by low-level cloud cover. Cloud forests, such as the eucalyptus trees shrouded in fog on Mount Sutro in San Francisco, condense large amounts of moisture out of the clouds that then falls onto the ground. Fog drip in San Francisco’s eucalyptus forests adds sixteen inches of rainfall each year in those forests.

Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction began. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

The delicate ecosystem on Comoros was disrupted when the cloud forests were cleared to make way for farmland. Between 1995 and 2014 about 80% of the remaining forest was cut down. The loss of trees disrupted the rainfall cycle on the islands. The moisture that the cloud forest was condensing from the fog was lost to the ground when the trees were destroyed. That ground moisture was then no longer transpired back into the air by the trees that had been destroyed, resulting in less rainfall. The disruption caused waterways to dry out, and left once-fertile soil exposed to erosion, with the loss of nutrients in the soil that remains. Comoros has lost 40 permanent rivers in the last 50 years. There is no longer enough water for agriculture or the daily household needs of the population.

Restoring forests is a challenge, and cloud forest can be particularly difficult. “It’s impossible to replace it,” said a cloud forest specialist at the University of York in England. “You need to save them before they’re gone.” Comoros could be a lesson for those who want to cut down the cloud forest on Mount Sutro and elsewhere in the Bay Area. Disrupting the rainfall cycle could make our drought even more extreme.

Sutro forest on a typical summer day. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest.

Icelanders appreciate their trees because they have few of them.  Iceland was heavily forested, mostly with birch trees, when the Vikings arrived in the 9th century.  Within 100 years, settlers cut down 97% of original forests to build housing and make way for grazing pastures.  Now only 0.5% of the Iceland’s surface is forested, despite extensive reforestation efforts since the 1950s.  Lack of trees means there isn’t vegetation to protect the soil from erosion and to store water, leading to extensive desertification.

Reforestation efforts in Iceland did not attempt to restore native birch forests because they store little carbon and they are not useful for timber.  Seeds of pine and poplar from Alaska were introduced, but growth has been slow because the soil is nitrogen poor and the climate is very cold.  The growth rate is estimated to be only one-tenth of the growth rate of tropical forests in the Amazon.

Both of these examples illustrate that when forests are destroyed, they are not easily replaced.  Much like the historical landscape, we can’t go back.  Nature is dynamic.  It moves forward, not back.

Consequences of deforestation in San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies—only 14%–of any major city in the Country:

Source:  Data from Urban Forestry Plan, SF Planning Department, 2016. Graphic by San Francisco Forest Alliance

The small urban forest in San Francisco is storing carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change.  “Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, grasses, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (trunks, branches, foliage, and roots) and soils. The sink of carbon sequestration in forests and wood products helps to offset sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, such as deforestation, forest fires, and fossil fuel emissions.”  (US Forest Service)

Carbon capture by above ground vegetation is proportional to biomass. Because Blue Gum eucalyptus is the largest and most common tree in San Francisco, most carbon storage in San Francisco’s urban forest is in eucalyptus trees, according to an inventory done by the US Forest Service, as illustrated by this graph of the inventory.

Carbon storage by tree species in San Francisco

Source: US Forest Service

All other trees in San Francisco inventoried by US Forest Service are also non-native because there are few native trees in San Francisco.  There are few native trees in San Francisco because they are not well adapted to challenging conditions.  The wind is strong and constant.  The soil is sand, rock, or clay.  It doesn’t rain for 7 months of the year.  The trees that were planted in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 19th century by European settlers were non-native because they were the species that could survive these harsh conditions. 

The non-native trees that are being destroyed by public land managers in the San Francisco Bay Area will not be replaced because the goal of the land managers is to restore grassland that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 18th Century.  All the benefits of trees and forests, including carbon storage will not be replaced.

Forests store more carbon than grassland

Native plant advocates defend the destruction of our urban forest by making the inaccurate claim that grassland stores more carbon than trees.  While it is true that more carbon is stored in the soil than in above-ground vegetation, it does not follow that the soil in grassland contains more carbon than the soil in forests.  The US Department of Agriculture report, “Considering Forest and Grassland Carbon in Land Management” (2017) graphically illustrates that forests in the US store far more carbon per hectare than any other land type and grasslands store the least amount of carbon per hectare of undeveloped land in the Western United States:

The differences in carbon storage per hectare in Western and Eastern United States are caused by differences in climate, soil, and specific vegetation types.  The USDA report also makes these statements about the value of forests for carbon storage:

  • The conversion of forest to non-forest should be avoided to preserve carbon storage, “Because mature forest stands are more likely to be carbon rich from the high volume of tree biomass and recovery takes a long time through afforestation…Further, soil carbon generally declines after deforestation from accelerated decomposition of organic matter such as litter and tree roots.”
  • “Across forest systems, the ‘no harvest’ option commonly produces the highest forest carbon stocks.  Managed stands have lower levels of forest biomass than unmanaged stands…”  In other words, from the standpoint of maximizing carbon storage, leave the forest alone!
  • “Fuel-reduction treatments lower the density of the forest stand, and, therefore, reduce forest carbon.”  Again, the message is leave the forest alone!
  • “…carbon emissions from prescribed fire, the machinery used to conduct treatments, or the production of wood for bioenergy may reduce or negate the carbon benefit associated with fuel treatments…”

Misplaced priorities

I am mystified by the obsession with native plants.  Still, I respect everyone’s horticulture preferences.  If you prefer native plants, by all means, plant them.  We make just one request:  quit destroying everything else because the loss of our urban forest is contributing to climate change and depriving our communities of the many benefits of trees and forests.

Forest Action Brigade: “Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan is significantly improved”

The City of Oakland began the process of developing a Vegetation Management Plan (VMP) over three years ago.  The purpose of the VMP is “to evaluate the specific wildfire hazard factors in the Plan Area [2,000 acres of city-owned parks and open space and 300 miles of roadsides] and provide a framework for managing vegetative fuel loads…such that wildfire hazard is reduced and negative environmental effects resulting from vegetation management activities are avoided or minimized.” (revised VMP, page 3)

The first draft of the VMP was published in June 2018.  There were significant issues with the first draft that were described by Million Trees HERE.

The VMP was revised and published on November 1, 2019.  It is available HERE.  Written comments can be submitted until December 12, 2019. Scoping comments may be submitted by email (arobinsonpinon@oaklandca.gov) or by mail to Angela Robinson Piñon, 250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 4314, Oakland California 94612.  “Scoping” is the first step in the process of preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The purpose of scoping is to identify the issues that must be evaluated by the EIR.

The Forest Action Brigade accepts the revised VMP because fire hazards are real and compromise is needed to address them.  Public comments submitted by the Forest Action Brigade regarding scoping for the EIR explain our reasoning. See below. We believe the revised VMP will reduce fire hazards in Oakland without destroying more trees than necessary and limiting herbicide use primarily to preventing trees from resprouting after they are removed.  It is counterproductive to destroy more trees than necessary because climate change has made wildfires more frequent and destructive and carbon sequestered by mature trees is one of the most effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

TO: Angela Robinson Pinon, Oakland Fire Department
arobinsonpinon@oaklandca.gov
FROM: Forest Action Brigade
RE: Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan, Scoping Comments for EIR

The revised Vegetation Management Plan is a significant improvement over the first draft.  We accept the revised Vegetation Management Plan for the City of Oakland because:

  • Standards for creating and maintaining defensible space around structures, along roadsides, and on ridgelines are reasonable and consistent with both fire science and State law.
  • Forests will be thinned, but “broad based tree removal is not proposed.” Mature trees will be retained, which reduces carbon loss.  Fire ladders to tree canopies will be eliminated.
  • Forest canopy will be retained so the forest floor is shaded and growth of flammable understory grasses and shrubs is suppressed. Density of the canopy will be reduced, but the canopy will be intact.
  • Herbicide will be used to prevent resprouts of trees that are removed, but foliar spraying will be “minimized.” The VMP acknowledges that vegetation killed by foliar spraying is left in place and becomes dry, easily ignited fuel.
  • Best Management Practices for herbicide use require that all applications be done by certified applicators and requests for herbicide application be approved by a licensed pest control advisor.
  • The revised VMP acknowledges that the flammability of plants and trees is unrelated to the nativity of the species. The VMP classifies some species of both native and non-native plants and trees as “pyrophytic.” Non-native plants are not inherently more flammability than native plants.  Flammability is related to the physical and chemical characteristics of plants, not their nativity.
  • The VMP clearly states that the implementation of the VMP is the responsibility of the Oakland Fire Department. OFD is not obligated to respond to the wishes of advocacy organizations unless their proposals are consistent with fire hazard mitigation.

The revised VMP will reduce fuel loads and risk of ignition.  The revised VMP is a fire hazard reduction project with one exception:  the VMP continues to propose the destruction of individual non-native trees within stands of native trees.    However, that proposal is ranked as Priority 3 and is therefore unlikely to be funded. Oakland’s Tree Services Division is inadequately funded and severely understaffed.  Tree Services does not have the resources to remove trees unless they are dead or pose a hazard to the public.  Neither Tree Services nor this VMP is responsible for landscape type conversion: “This VMP does not propose vegetation type conversion as an end goal or strategy…” (Page 1)  Moreover, such unnecessary removal of mature trees damages the surrounding environment, especially in riparian areas, and increases carbon loss, contributing to climate change.

If the VMP is ultimately funded by renewal of the parcel tax for fuels management, revenues should not be used to hire contractors to destroy individual non-native trees within stands of native trees because that would not reduce fire hazards.  The previous parcel tax was cancelled by voters partly because it was misused to fund native plant projects that conflict with fire hazard mitigation.  When native plant advocates plant rare, protected plants in Oakland’s parks and open spaces (which they do), they then oppose fuels management that threatens the plants they prefer.  It is not possible to mow a meadow of grass to prevent ignition without simultaneously destroying individual plants in that meadow.  We saw that principle at work at the public hearing by the Planning Commission on November 20, 2019.  The parcel tax that we would vote for would explicitly prohibit the use of the revenue for vegetation type conversion that is incompatible with fire hazard mitigation.

Scoping Issues

These issues must be addressed by the Environmental Impact Report for the revised VMP, as required by CEQA State law:

  • Carbon loss resulting from tree removals must be estimated. Mitigation for carbon loss must be proposed or negative environmental impact must be acknowledged and estimated. Carbon loss contributes to climate change and climate change is making wildfires more frequent and intense.  Therefore carbon loss increases wildfire hazards and must be estimated by the EIR for this project.
  • The EIR must identify the herbicides and estimate the quantities that will be used to implement the VMP. The amount and impact of pesticides to be used in the VMP should be compared with Oakland’s current levels of herbicide use in the city, including roadside applications. Known hazards of the herbicides that will be used should be acknowledged by the EIR, such as collateral damage to non-target trees and vegetation, damage to the soil, risks to wildlife and human health, mobility and persistence in the environment, etc.  The EIR should mitigate for the increased herbicide use by providing mechanisms for accountability to the public, such as a yearly publicly accessible report on pesticides used in this project, including brand names, location, date, method of application, and quantities. Prohibition of herbicide applications by “volunteers” who are not employees or contractors of the City of Oakland should also be added to Best Management Practices to prevent unauthorized herbicide applications in Oakland.
  • CEQA requires that alternative plans must be considered by an EIR. Typically, “no project” is one of the alternatives.  A third alternative should be less destructive, not more destructive than the proposed project.  For example, an alternative to destroying only non-native trees, as proposed by the VMP, would be to destroy bay laurels that are also a pyrophytic species, as well as vectors for Sudden Oak Death that has killed 50 million oaks in California since 1995.  In 2019, the rate of SOD infection increased from 1% to 12% in one year in sampled trees between Richmond and San Leandro.   Source:  https://www.sfchronicle.com/environment/article/Sudden-oak-death-spreading-fast-California-s-14815683.php?cmpid=gsa-sfgate-result

There are several advantages to thinning bays and Monterey pines rather than eucalyptus:

  • Every dead oak becomes fuel. Therefore, reducing SOD infections prevents oaks from becoming fuel.
  • Bays branch to the ground, providing fuel ladders that are difficult to eliminate because the tree trunk often sprawls on the ground.
  • Removing bays instead of eucalyptus also reduces carbon loss because bays are smaller trees and they have shorter lives than eucalyptus trees, which are expected to live another 200-300 years in the Bay Area based on their longevity in their native range.
  • Monterey pine has a shorter lifespan than eucalyptus and it is a soft-wood tree. Therefore, removal of Monterey pine will result is less carbon loss than destruction of eucalyptus. Furthermore, Monterey pines do not resprout after destruction.  Therefore, they will not require herbicide treatment to prevent resprouts as eucalyptus does.  Many Monterey pines in the East Bay are nearing the end of their lives because of when they were planted as well as pine pitch canker infection.
  • “We ask that a 4th alternative be considered by the EIR.  A “no pesticides” alternative would acknowledge the public’s concerns about the potential for increased pesticide use in Oakland that could be enabled by the completion of the EIR.  That alternative must propose a method of preventing tree resprouts without using herbicides.  There are precedents for such methods.  East Bay Municipal Utilities District does not use herbicides to prevent resprouts.  UCSF does not use any pesticides in the Sutro Forest where thousands of trees have been destroyed and thousands more will be destroyed in the future.”  Addendum 12/2/19
  • CEQA requires that cumulative impacts of similar projects be identified by the EIR. Fuels management projects similar to the VMP are being implemented all over the East Bay. Tree removals by PG&E should be included. The cumulative impact of all fuels management projects in the East Bay must be acknowledged by the EIR.

We hope the revised VMP will survive the public process required to bring it to fruition because we believe it will reduce fire hazards in its present form.  We believe that fire hazards are real and that compromise is needed to address them.  We congratulate the consultants who prepared the VMP and OFD for shepherding it to completion. Those who were involved in its preparation listened patiently and were responsive to the public’s concerns.  We are grateful.

Forest Action Brigade

Tilden Park, October 2016. East Bay Regional Park District has thinned this area to distances of 25 feet between remaining trees. The forest floor is still shaded because the canopy is intact.

Happy New Year and Farewell

The Million Trees blog is folding its tent and moving on because most of the projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that I have followed for 20 years have been approved, funded, and are being implemented.  Every public land manager in the Bay Area has made a commitment to destroying most non-native trees and using pesticides for that purpose.

If you wish to continue following the development of these projects, I recommend these websites:  San Francisco Forest Alliance Defend East Bay Forests, Save the East Bay Hills, and Hills Conservation Network.

For the record, this is a brief summary of my beliefs about the environment:

If I return to the blogosphere in the future, the title and mission of a new blog would change.  The focus would be the science that informs my commitment to the cosmopolitan landscape that exists, rather than the fantasized landscape of the past.  I will also continue to inform readers of new studies that find evidence of the damage that pesticides do to the environment and its inhabitants.  If you are a subscriber to the Million Trees blog, you will be informed if I publish a new blog.

Thank you for your readership.

Million Trees

Action Opportunity: Speak up about Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan

The stated purpose of Oakland’s Vegetation Management is to reduce fire hazards in Oakland.  Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan will determine the fate of 2,000 acres of public parks and open spaces and 300 miles of roadside in Oakland.  It will also substantially increase the use of pesticides if approved in its present form.  Two public meetings will take place in November to discuss revisions of the draft plan:

Date: Thursday, November 15, 2018
Time: 5:30-7:30 PM
Location: Richard C. Trudeau Training Center, 11500 Skyline Blvd, Oakland, CA 94619

Date: Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Time: 5:30-7:30 PM
Location: Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Hearing Room 2, Oakland, CA 94612

The agenda for these meetings has been carefully crafted to accommodate the wishes of native plant advocates, as expressed in their public comments on the draft plan.  This is the agenda for these public meetings:

  1. “The Plan should better incorporate the role of volunteers and stewardship groups that actively maintain vegetation at various City-managed parks/open space areas. The City should conduct additional outreach to such groups to continue to receive their input and feedback.”
  2. “The Plan should include more specificity regarding vegetation management recommendations at each City-managed parcel.”
  3. “The Plan should include cost estimates, or a range of potential costs, for the recommended treatments to assist the City for longer-term work budgeting and planning. The cost estimates and site-specific plans for City-managed parks would also help identify activities that volunteers can conduct.”

The first meeting on November 15th is “targeted towards the park steward/volunteer groups working on City-owned parcels.”  The second meeting on November 20th “will focus on the issue of plan specificity.  It is requested that participants come prepared to discuss their recommended edits/comments.  At each meeting we will briefly discuss each project site/area, and your feedback will be collected and considered for the revised draft Plan to be released in 2019.”

In other words, the public process that will result in a Vegetation Management Plan for Oakland is now entirely in the hands of native plant advocates (“park stewards/volunteer groups”), despite the fact that there were other important issues raised in the public comments.  Only the public comments of native plant advocates are being considered in the revision of the draft.  None of their requested revisions have anything to do with reducing fire hazards.  Their revisions are intended to greatly increase Oakland’s commitment to native plant “restorations.”

These are the issues being ignored

If you are an Oakland resident with a sincere interest in fire hazard mitigation, who does not believe the draft plan will reduce fire hazards, please attend one of these meetings.  These are the issues we believe are being ignored and must be addressed by the City of Oakland.

  • Pesticides are being used in the parks of the East Bay Regional Park District after completion of an Environmental Impact Report in 2009. The pesticide applications of the Park District are a preview of what will happen in Oakland city parks if the Vegetation Management Plan is approved as presently drafted.

    Pesticide use in Oakland city parks and open spaces is presently prohibited by Oakland’s city ordinance because no Environmental Impact Report has been completed for a revision of the ordinance that was proposed by the City Council in 2005. If the draft Vegetation Management Plan is approved and an Environmental Impact Report is completed as planned, pesticides will be permitted in Oakland’s parks, open spaces, and roadsides. 

  • Pesticide use will increase greatly because pesticides are required to prevent the tens of thousands of trees that the draft plan proposes to destroy from resprouting. Pesticides will also be needed to eradicate the flammable weeds that will colonize the unshaded ground.
  • Native plant advocates are opposed to goat grazing because goats eat both native and non-native plants. Goat grazing is a non-toxic alternative to pesticides.  Shade is the most benign method of weed control.
  • Native plant “restorations” do not mitigate fire hazards because native vegetation is as flammable as non-native vegetation. When non-native trees are destroyed, as proposed by the plan, no native trees will be planted to replace them.  Therefore, the moist forest will be replaced by grassland that ignites more easily than forests.
  • Every wildfire we have witnessed in California in the past 20 years has occurred exclusively in native vegetation. Wildfires in California have become more frequent and more intense because of climate change.  Deforestation is the second greatest cause of climate change because trees release the carbon they have stored throughout their lives, and in their absence carbon storage is reduced in the future.

The native plant movement has a death grip on our public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Few would object to their advocacy if their projects were as constructive as they are destructive.  They are welcome to plant whatever they want, but they should not have the right to destroy everything that is non-native, particularly using pesticides, which is their preferred method.

I would like to believe that public policy is in our hands if we will participate in the political process.  It is becoming more difficult to believe in that ideal.  Please attend one of these meetings, if only to keep our democracy alive and well.

More opposition to Measure FF

As you make the important decision about voting on Measure FF, please take into consideration that Million Trees and the Forest Action Brigade are not the only East Bay residents who plan to vote against Measure FF.  Today we tell you more about why many East Bay voters have made that decision.

Post-election update:  Measure FF passed easily.  In Alameda County 85% of voters approved Measure FF.  In Contra Costa County 80% of voters approved Measure FF.  These were the vote tallies on the day after the election, on November 7th.  

A ’91 fire victim and survivor tells us why he will vote against Measure FF

The East Bay Times published the following op-ed about Measure FF on October 4th. It was written by Peter Scott. He states his opposition to Measure FF clearly and emphatically.  Emphasis and photo have been added.

“Save trees, ‘no’ on Alameda County’s Measure FF”

“Alameda County’s proposed Measure FF, East Bay Regional Park District Parcel Tax Renewal, appears innocent enough: improvements in area parks, safety, a 20-year continuation of a 2004 plan to enhance the public’s enjoyment of East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) properties.

And the tax — a dollar a month per single-family residence and $69 a month for multifamily units in Alameda County — seems affordable. But wait: Half of the money raised by this measure would fund destruction of thousands of healthy, mature trees in the East Bay hills.

This isn’t the first time this deforestation has been proposed. In 2013, FEMA offered a similar plan, to be implemented by UC Berkeley, the city of Oakland and the EBRPD. After the plan’s environmental impact was discussed in three public hearings, citizens responded with 13,000 written comments, which, by FEMA’s count, were 90 percent against the plan.

The reason, subsequently confirmed in litigation, was that the plan would involve significant, permanent negative impacts to the environment but would still fail to achieve its stated goal — to reduce risk of fire in the hills. The U.S. Forest Service commented that in terms of mitigating risk, it would be better to do nothing than to proceed with FEMA’s plan. The reason this type of proposal keeps popping up is because it is the object of long-term lobbying by a clique of nativists who want to rid the hills of species they don’t like. Their reasoning depends on myths such as these:

  • Once upon a time, before white people came and changed things, the hills were a stable environment of so-called native vegetation that was healthy and inherently fire-resistant;
  • “native” species tend to be less likely to ignite, and they have manageable flame lengths (the distance at the ground from the flame’s leading edge to its tip);
  • and trees are the culprit and were the primary reason that the 1991 fire burned out of control.

These statements are not only incorrect, they are the opposite of the truth. The old landscape burned regularly; the flame lengths of “native” brush and grasses are multiples of mature trees’ flame lengths and create conflagrations that fire personnel won’t fight because they spread and change direction so fast; the 1991 fire was a STRUCTURE fire, not a vegetation fire: houses set fire to trees, not the other way around.

Factually, the ’91 fire was human-caused. First, it was a contractor’s construction debris fire that escaped into the brush; secondly, it was a reignition from embers that the Oakland Fire Department had failed to extinguish. The official report examining the causes doesn’t mention trees but does criticize the OFD’s failures in its incident command’s preparation, training and management during the fire. Of the 16 major fires in the hills since 1905, there are basically two categories: human-caused (10 fires) and “unknown cause” — it’s a safe bet most of those “unknowns” were also human-caused.

If Measure FF is truly focused on fire risk mitigation, it would fund regular removal of fine fuels around the base of the trees — as EBMUD does so successfully — because it is the brush, grasses and debris on or near the ground that are most likely to ignite and are key to the fire’s spread and ferocity. Leave the tall trees alone, because they reduce wind, shade the ground, catch fog drip and discourage growth of flammable, weedy plants. If trees are not cut down, then repeated applications of herbicides to kill re-sprouts are unnecessary.

Measure FF proposes to fund some good things — maintenance and improvements in the parks — but they make FF a Trojan horse. They are sugar-coating on a foul and foolish enterprise: deforestation to create so-called “oak-bay savannahs,” which are actually grass- and brush-covered hills, dotted with occasional low trees — the type of landscape that has been burning so fast and ferociously in Lake and Sonoma counties and throughout the state. We must send the FF authors back to the drawing board, telling them to come back to us when they have plan that will actually reduce, not increase, the fire hazard.”

Peter Scott, Oakland, California

No one is more knowledgeable about East Bay fire history and fire hazard mitigation than Peter Scott.  He is a founding member of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy and the Hills Conservation Network.  He is passionate about fire safety in the East Bay partly because of his personal loss.  His home burned down in 1970 and 1991 and his mother was killed in the 1991 fire.  Since 1991, he has made fire hazard mitigation one of his personal priorities.  Peter Scott and his wife, Teresa Ferguson, instigated the Civil Grand Jury report about the ’91 fire.

Alameda County Green Party says “NO on Measure FF”

The Alameda County Green Party has recommended that “green” voters vote NO on Measure FF, with reservations. This was a difficult decision for the Green Party, as it was for us. We all love the parks and we know that some of the money raised by Measure FF will be used to make needed and appropriate park improvements. They explain their reservations and the reluctant conclusion they reached in their Green Voter Guide that is available on line. Here’s what they say about their decision (emphasis added):

“The Green Party of Alameda County recommends a NO vote, with reservations, on Measure FF (Alameda/Contra Costa Counties):

If approved by voters, Measure FF would simply continue existing Measure CC funding. Voters passed Measure CC in 2004 to provide local funding for park infrastructure, maintenance, safety, and services. Measure CC is a $12/year parcel tax that is set to expire in 2020. Measure FF is expected to raise approximately $3.3 million annually until it expires in 20 years.

Measure CC boasts a long list of successful improvement to East Bay Regional Parks in areas of public safety, wildfire mitigation, healthy forest management, shoreline protection, environmental stewardship, habitat preservation, park infrastructure and maintenance, recreational and educational programming, and visitor services.

While impacts of the Measure have been wide-ranging and largely celebrated, record California wildfires in 2018 have caused both opponents and proponents of the Measure to highlight the wildfire mitigation aspect of the program. Neither Measure CC nor Measure FF contains language that details how to approach reducing wildfires, however, Measure CC’s funds helped in developing the Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan (“Plan”) that was approved in 2010 by the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) Board of Directors.

Proponents state that passing Measure FF is critical to continue to reduce risk of wildfires along the wildland-urban interface. They accept that thinning of certain tree species and controlled use of herbicides are tools outlined in the Plan to accomplish the task.

Opponents are against unnecessary removal of non-native species and use of herbicides (EBRPD has expanded use of herbicides and clear-cutting), arguing that extreme fires are driven by effects of climate change, not a particular tree species. Opponents agree with many fire experts that the key defense of homes against wildfire is defensible space, and argue that clear-cutting removes trees that sequester carbon (mitigating climate change) and removes the canopy that provides habitat for species and helps cool the environment. On pesticide use, they simply say: “If organic farmers can do it, so can EBRPD!”

We agree with the opponents: There are environmentally-sensitive alternate approaches to reducing wildfire risk that do not involve removing so many trees and applying poisons in East Bay parks, but the EBRPD Board must be willing to implement them. Vote “No” to send a message to the Board that we can do better. Our reservations are that we like the parks and want to protect them, and we appreciate most of the improvements that Measure FF funds.”

Alameda County Green Party

We are deeply grateful to the Green Party for their decision and we commend them for considering all sides of this complex issue, which is seldom done by political organizations.

Deliver the message to the Park District

Whatever the outcome of this election, votes against Measure FF will deliver a clear message to the Park District:  STOP destroying healthy trees and killing harmless plants and trees with dangerous pesticides!! 

This is the big, beautiful yard sign that you can put in your yard and neighborhood road medians in the East Bay.

Peter Scott and the Green Party have delivered this message and you have the opportunity to add your voice by placing a yard sign in your own yard and in the road medians in your neighborhood in the East Bay.  The Forest Action Brigade is offering yard signs at no cost to you.  Request your yard sign by contacting the Forest Action Brigade:  forestactionbrigade@gmail.com or call (510) 612-8566.

Vote NO on Measure FF!!

A vote against Measure FF on the ballot for the November 6, 2018 election is a vote against pesticide use in the East Bay.  If Measure FF passes, it will renew a parcel tax for 20 years.  For the past 15 years, the parcel tax has funded the destruction of thousands of trees on thousands of acres of public parks in the East Bay.  The renewal of the parcel tax will increase the percentage of available funds for tree removals and associated pesticide use from 30% to 40% of funds raised by the parcel tax.

Post-election update:  Measure FF passed easily.  In Alameda County 85% of voters approved Measure FF.  In Contra Costa County 80% of voters approved Measure FF.  These were the vote tallies on the day after the election, on November 7th.  

Tree removals increase pesticide use because herbicides are required to prevent the trees from resprouting.  Also, when the shade of trees is eliminated, the unshaded ground is soon colonized by weeds that are then sprayed with herbicide.  The destruction of trees has put public land managers on the pesticide treadmill.

The public tried hard to convince the East Bay Regional Park District to stop destroying healthy trees and quit using pesticides in our parks.  We attended public hearings and wrote letters to Park District leadership and its governing board.  We made many suggestions for useful park improvements that would be constructive, rather than destructive.  Our requests and suggestions were ignored.

After making every effort to avoid opposition to Measure FF, we reluctantly take a stand against it.  The parks are important to us and we would much prefer to support park improvements.  Unfortunately, Measure FF will not improve the parks.  Rather, it will continue down the destructive path the Park District has been on for the past 15 years. In fact, Measure FF would escalate the destruction and poisoning of our public lands.

On Friday, August 31st, the Forest Action Brigade participated in a press conference rally at Bayer headquarters in Berkeley. Bayer is the new owner of Monsanto, the manufacturer of glyphosate. The rally was sponsored by a labor organization that is concerned about exposing workers to glyphosate, which is probably a carcinogen.  The President of the Forest Action Brigade, Marg Hall, spoke at the rally.

The Voter Information Guides in Contra Costa and Alameda counties have published the following argument against Measure FF that was submitted by the Forest Action Brigade.  We hope you will read it and take this important opportunity to protect our public parks from being needlessly damaged.

Million Trees

Argument Against Measure FF

“We love public parks, and we support taxation which benefits the common good. Nevertheless, We urge a NO vote. East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) has previously used this measure to destroy, unnecessarily, thousands of healthy trees under pretexts such as “hazardous tree” designations and “protection against wildfires”. But fire experts point out that tree shade retains moisture, thereby reducing fire danger. The measure has also funded so-called “restoration”—destruction of “non-native” plants, in a futile attempt to transform the landscape back to some idealized previous “native” era.

EBRPD’s restoration and tree-cutting projects often utilize pesticides, including glyphosate (Roundup), triclopyr, and imazapyr. We agree with the groundswell of public sentiment opposing the spending of tax dollars on pesticides applied to public lands. Not only do pesticides destroy the soil microbiome; they also migrate into air, water arid soil, severely harming plants, animals, and humans. Because EPA pesticide regulation, especially under the current administration, is inadequate, it is imperative that local jurisdictions exercise greater oversight. While EBRPD utilizes “Integrated Pest Management” which limits pesticide use, we strongly advocate a no pesticide policy, with a concomitant commitment of resources.

Given the terrifying pace of climate change, it is indefensible to target certain species of trees for eradication. All trees—not just “natives” —are the planet’s “lungs,” breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. When a tree is destroyed, its air-cleansing function is forever eliminated, and its stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, thus worsening climate change.

Throughout history, plants, animals, and humans have migrated when their given habitats became unlivable. Adaptation to new environments is at the heart of evolutionary resilience. To claim that some species “belong here” and others do not strikes us as unscientific xenophobia.

Until EBRPD modifies its approach, we urge a NO vote.”

Forest Action Brigade

Do not be misled

The arguments in favor of Measure FF are misleading.  East Bay Regional Parks District attempts to portray a destructive agenda as a constructive agenda.  Please look beneath these pretty-sounding euphemisms for the destructive projects of Measure FF:

·       EBRPD claims Measure FF will “protect against wildfires.”  Destroying harmless trees miles away from any residential structures and replacing the shaded, moist forest with dry grassland that easily ignites will NOT “protect against wildfires.”

·       EBRPD claims Measure FF will “enhance public safety” and “preserve water quality.”  Spraying thousands of acres of open space in our water shed with pesticides will endanger the public and contaminate our water supply.

·       EBRPD claims Measure FF will “protect redwoods and parklands in a changing climate.”  Destroying hundreds of thousands of healthy trees, storing millions of tons of carbon, will exacerbate climate change.  Our redwood forest in the East Bay was confined to less than 5 square miles prior to settlement because of the restrictive horticultural requirements of this treasured native tree.  Because redwoods require more water than most of our urban forest, it is a fantasy that they can be expanded beyond their native footprint.  Where they have been planted outside of that range, many are already dead.

·       EBRPD claims Measure FF will “restore natural areas.”  Our pre-settlement landscape in the East Bay was predominantly grassland in which fire hazards are greatest.  A landscape that has been sprayed with pesticide cannot be accurately described as “natural.”  Previous attempts to convert non-native annual grassland to native grassland have consistently failed, partly because the soil has been poisoned with herbicide.

You can help

The Forest Action Brigade is offering yard signs in opposition to Measure FF (shown below).  Request your yard sign by contacting the Forest Action Brigade: forestactionbrigade@gmail.com or call (510) 612-8566.  Please state how many signs you would like and the neighborhood where you plan to place them.  These are the East Bay cities in which Measure FF will be on the ballot:  Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, Berkeley, Emeryville, Albany, Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito.  These cities are the top priority for yard sign placement.

Million Trees

Wildfire cover story is the lie that binds

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

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

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

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

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

Sierra Club caught in the wringer of its own making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sibley Volcanic Reserve. Photo by Larry Danos, March 2018

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

Local nativists change their tune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serpentine Prairie restoration. East Bay Regional Park District

The elusive truth

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


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