An Australian friend of eucalyptus

An Australian sheep farmer (we would say “rancher”), Jane Pye, spotted our defense of eucalyptus and got in touch:

“G’day, I stumbled across the SFFA website researching ‘allelopathy’ in eucalypts and was amazed to find so much antipathy towards gum trees over there – like an arboreal cane toad! What I really wanted to know is do you have any evidence of ‘positive allelopathy’ re eucalypts?  I live in the Australian outback with areas of dry sclerophyll forest. The commonest eucalypt here (Eucalyptus populnea) is often surrounded by native scrub trees & bushes. Strangely some of these box trees also have other trees growing out of their trunks which I think were planted there by the traditional owners (Aboriginal). These Tree in Trees are found in clusters around the old indigenous campsites, which are in turn found around good natural water catchments or native wells.”

My article debunking the popular myth that eucalyptus is allelopathic was republished by the San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA).  The myth of allelopathy is that eucalyptus emits a chemical that prevents the germination of other species, eliminating competition with eucalyptus for resources such as water.  But Jane’s experience with eucalyptus goes beyond debunking allelopathy in eucalyptus.  She has documented many examples of different tree species that have seemingly been planted inside the cavities of eucalyptus trees.  The eucalypts are a sheltering host to the guest tree species.  Clearly, eucalyptus is not inhospitable to other plant species.

Wilga (Geijera parviflora) guest in Bimblebox (Eucalyptus populnea) host.
Apophyllum anomalum guest growing from Bimblebox (Eucalyptus populnea) host

Jane believes that these “trees in trees” were intentionally planted by indigenous Aboriginal “farmers.”  She believes that this is one of many techniques that were developed by Aboriginal people to manage the land and vegetation to provide food and cultural implements.  She explains on her website:

“After years of admiring and speculating about these scar trees, I have finally gotten around to photographing most of them. I spend many days in the paddocks mustering sheep and some of these trees are like old friends. They are an important link to our Aboriginal past and a reflection on how innovative and resilient these people were. Surviving out here west of Walgett with our unpredictable climate of harsh droughts and random floods is still tough but these people managed their environment and thrived.

“So I dedicate this website to Freddie Walford, an Aboriginal stockman we had who taught us some bush lore and like many of his people, died too young. I will always remember his natural affinity with livestock, his love of polocrosse and his quiet humour and grace. He never spoke much about the scar trees but did say if I was ever to see bones inside an old coolabah [Eucalyptus coolabah], I should go as fast as possible in the opposite direction! This website aims to increase knowledge and record these trees but not to display any pictures or information that is culturally secret or sacred.”

Australian aborigines. Photo by Thomas Dick, 1920

The land management practices of Australian Aborigines were very similar to those of indigenous Californians for much the same reason.  These were hunter-gatherer cultures living in similar climates with seasonal drought.  They moved around as seasons changed and their diets changed accordingly.  Both cultures used fire as one of their primary tools.  Periodic fires refreshed the grasses that fed the grazing animals they hunted.  The primary grazers in Australia were kangaroos and other marsupials; deer and other ungulates are the original grazers in California.

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

The land management practices of indigenous people are enjoying a renaissance.  A recent study of Aboriginal land management in Australia said, “Indigenous agency and governance is driving innovations in land management worldwide that provide more equitable solutions and strategic approaches to looking after the lands, waters and all living things, particularly in the face of climate change.”

Such intentional burns are now seen as a way to keep the brushy fuels that carry fire to a minimum, reducing wildfire hazards.  Cal Fire’s new “Wildfire and Forest Resilience Plan” and the Governor’s recent annual budget proposal tell us that more prescribed burns are planned in California to reduce fuel loads and fire hazards:  “CAL FIRE will expand its fuels reduction and prescribed fire programs to treat up to 100,000 acres by 2025, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation and other state agencies will also increase the use of prescribed fire on high risk state lands.”

It has taken hundreds of years to appreciate the value of indigenous land management and its context in their culture.  When Europeans arrived in both America and Australia, settlers assumed that their culture was superior to indigenous culture.  Early settlers made no attempt to learn from indigenous people, which was the settler’s loss.  Indigenous people had learned to live off the land, in most cases without cultivating crops and without domesticated animals.  Rather, indigenous people learned what was edible and what had medicinal value.  The first European settlement in America, Jamestown, ended quickly with starvation, because the settlers weren’t able to understand what the land offered them.  In Australia, knowledge of indigenous land management was also delayed by the cultural taboos of the indigenous people that prohibited the revelation of many of their cultural practices outside their ancestral clans.

 Wildfire in Australia

Jane also had some interesting observations about wildfires in Australia that are consistent with our experience in California:

I’m sorry to hear eucalypt forests are being destroyed over there as they are wonderfully useful trees. We don’t have many fires in inland Australia. It’s more of a coastal / high rainfall problem. We just don’t get the fuel build up as it’s a semi-arid region and we have thousands of merino sheep eating the grass and shrubs. There have been no fires on this property in over a century and probably much longer. We also have efficient native grazers – kangaroos and wallabies and now also goats that are increasingly common as an alternative to sheep.”

Jane Pye’s home. Gingie Station, Walgett, NSW, Australia. There are many places in California’s Central Valley that look much the same.

This is the strategy that I promote on this website.  If we reduce ground fuels that ignite easily, we can prevent most fires from igniting tree canopies that are harder to ignite.  Fire travels fast on the ground if given a continuous field of dry grass during the dry season.  Grazing animals are a far safer way of reducing these grassy ground fuels than the herbicides that are often used.  Herbicides leave a dead, dry thatch on the ground that is very flammable and grazing does not.

Walgett, Australia. Average Hi Temp 80 degrees. Average Lo Temp 54 degrees. Average rainfall 19 inches.

“Also we are very used to fire over here and many people regard those foolish enough to build in fire prone areas have only themselves to blame. Some of our small coastal towns are totally surrounded by National park and State forest and only have one road in – that’s why there were so many images of people sheltering on beaches last summer. It’s a hard issue but better hazard reduction burns and more fire fighting aircraft seem to be the way forward here. Also better fire retardant building materials.”

These observations are also consistent with the strategy that makes sense to me.  We must learn to live with fire because it is an essential element in Mediterranean ecosystems.  We can’t prevent it, but we can work around it with zoning that prevents building in extremely hazardous areas, using fire retardant building materials, and creating safe evacuation routes.

Thanks, mate!

 Alerted by Jane, I noticed this woody shrub sprouting from a eucalyptus stump in Stern Grove a few days after I heard from Jane.  Clearly, eucalyptus does not retard the growth of other species.

Stern Grove, San Francisco

Many thanks to Jane for getting in touch with us.  Thanks for her admiration of eucalyptus and Aboriginal culture.  I’ve had some lovely email chats with Jane.  Perhaps you would like to drop her a line to thank her as well:  janepye6@gmail.com

Cal Fire grant has created fire hazards in the East Bay Hills

Hoping to get the public’s attention, I will begin this story with its ending.  This is the concluding paragraph of my formal complaint to Cal Fire about its grant to UC Berkeley for a project that has increased fire hazards in the East Bay Hills, caused other significant environmental damage, and created conditions for further damage:

“In conclusion, the grant application for this project makes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that is based on the assumption that a biofuels plant will generate electricity from the wood debris.  Such a plant has not been built and UC Berkeley apparently does not intend to build such a plant.  Other claims made in the grant application about carbon storage are based on inaccurate claims about carbon storage.  Grant guidelines state, “Failure to meet the agreed upon terms of achieving required GHG reduction may result in project termination and recovery of funds.”  In other words, Cal Fire should terminate this project and recover any funds that have been remitted to UC Berkeley.  The project is a misuse of grant funds because it will increase fire hazards and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  Without imputing motives, on the face of it, the grant application looks fraudulent.”

I published an article about this project last week that I invite you to revisit if you need a reminder of a project that has clear cut all non-native trees 100 feet on the north side of Claremont Ave. in Berkeley, leaving equally flammable native trees in place on the south side.  Huge piles of wood chips and logs are stacked along the road that were supposed to have been disposed of by generating electricity in a biofuels plant.  No such biofuels plant exists and there are no plans to build it.  The disposition of these potential bonfires is at the moment unknown.

The source of the funding for Cal Fire grants is California’s carbon cap-and-trade law that is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon emissions.  Therefore, the grant application required the applicant to prove that the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to qualify for the grant.  The grant application submitted by UC Berkeley claimed to meet this requirement by making a commitment to use the grant to build a biofuels plant. The biofuels plant would have generated electricity by burning wood fuel instead of burning fossil fuels. In fact, the project has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions by destroying large, mature, healthy trees.  The carbon the trees have stored throughout their lifetimes is now being released into the atmosphere as the wood debris decays along the roadside.

UC Berkeley made other inaccurate claims about carbon storage in order to qualify for the grant:

  • Statements made in the grant application about carbon loss and storage by planting oaks are not accurate:
    1. Coast Live Oaks (CLO) do not live for “hundreds of years,” as erroneously claimed by the grant application. USDA plant data base says CLOs live about 250 years in the wild.  However, that estimate of longevity does not take into account that Sudden Oak Death has killed over 50 million oaks (CLOs and tan oaks) in California in the past 15 years.
    2. Blue Gum eucalyptus lives in its native range 200-400 years. It has lived in California for 160 years, where it has fewer predators than in its native range.
    3. The grant application states that carbon storage will be increased by “changing species composition to hardwoods.” In fact, eucalyptus is also a hardwood tree, making this an inaccurate, discriminatory distinction.
    4. Above-ground carbon storage in trees is largely a function of biomass of the tree. Therefore, larger trees store more carbon.  It follows that carbon storage is not increased by destroying large, mature, healthy trees and replacing them with saplings of smaller trees, such as oaks.  The carbon lost by destroying mature trees is never recovered by their smaller replacements with shorter lifespans.
  • Plans to plant oaks where non-native trees have been clear cut willfully ignore the realities of the accelerating epidemic of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in the East Bay Hills. According to the press release for the 2020 SOD Blitz, “…overall the rate of SOD infections increased in the wildland urban interface, in spite of reduced rainfall. This is the first time in 13 years of SOD Blitz survey that infection rates increase in spite of reduced rainfall, suggesting SOD is becoming endemic at least on the Central coast of California.”  As Cal Fire knows, dead trees are a greater fire hazard than living trees.
  • The grant budget commits the grantee (UCB) to pay “volunteers” to plant oaks.  That budget line item is described in the budget narrative as being funded by volunteer, non-profit organizations over which UC Berkeley has no authority. A “volunteer” is, by definition, not required to perform the assigned task.  It follows, that calculations regarding carbon storage resulting from this project are not ensured by the project because the planting of oak trees is not ensured by the project.  The “cost” of this line item in the budget seems more theoretical than real.
  • Planting young trees will require frequent irrigation that is not funded by the grant. Given continuing and worsening drought, planting young trees without making a commitment to irrigating them is throwing good money after bad.  Rainfall to date is 26% of the previous year.  Rainfall the previous year was less than half the year before that.  Oaks are not more drought tolerant than eucalyptus that are native to an equally dry climate.

The grant application also displays ignorance of trees and the functions they perform in the environment. 

  • The trees that remain on the north side of the road are now more vulnerable to windthrow because they have lost protection from their neighbors on their windward side. Trees develop their defenses against the wind while they grow in response to the wind to which they are exposed.  In California, most wildfire events are associated with high winds, making windthrow and wildfire probable simultaneous events.
  • The run off from the eroded hillside will undoubtedly pollute the creek on the south side of the road with sediment and road run off.
Claremont Ave. west of Grizzly Peak Blvd, December 2020. Photo by Doug Prose.

The project is not a suitable evacuation route

Claremont Ave, west of the Cal Fire/UCB project is a residential neighborhood, heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.   Source Google Earth.

The justification for this project was to provide an evacuation route. It is a premise that makes little sense. There are no residences east of Grizzly Peak Blvd, where the project begins. The residential community on Claremont Ave. is downhill, west of the project. If the residential community needs to evacuate, it won’t be fleeing up hill. Residents will need to flee downhill, through a tunnel of native trees. The roadside through the residential community is heavily wooded in native oaks, bays, and buckeyes. High voltage power lines overhang the road.  Nothing has been done to clear that road for possible evacuation.  This residential community would benefit from the creation of a safe evacuation route, not the pointless project that was done.

Claremont Ave, west of Cal Fire/UCB project is heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.  There are also high-voltage power lines hanging over the road.  Source Google Earth.

What’s next?

I received the following promising reply from Cal Fire by the end of the day I sent the complaint:  We are in receipt of your email dated 1/14/2021 in regards to a Fire Prevention Grant awarded to the University of California Berkeley (UCB).  We will promptly begin investigating your concerns and allegations of UCB non-compliance with the grant’s guidelines and contractual agreement.  I will respond to you within 30 days with the results of our findings.  CAL FIRE takes the grant assistance programs very seriously so we will investigate thoroughly.”

What’s done cannot be undone.  The best we can hope for is that the strategy used to reduce fuel loads on Claremont Ave. won’t be used elsewhere.  My primary goal is to prevent this destructive approach from being used on 300 miles of roadside in Oakland, as the supporters of the UCB project on less than one mile on Claremont Ave are demanding.

Governor Newsom has proposed that the State budget should invest an additional $1 billion in reducing fire hazards in California.  The proposal includes $512 million for landscape-scale vegetation projects.  Cal Fire will probably administer those grants.  It is critically important that Cal Fire improve its evaluation of grant applications to avoid funding disastrous projects such as the project done by UC Berkeley on Claremont Ave.  There are many worthwhile projects that deserve funding, such as providing the residential community on Claremont Ave a safe evacuation route.  

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.”

Update:  Since publishing this article, I have learned that UC Berkeley has NOT built a biofuels plant to dispose of the wood debris to meet Cal Fire grant requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Nor does UC Berkeley intend to build a biofuels plant.  The disposition of the wood debris from this project has not yet been determined.  This is the final paragraph of my formal complaint to Cal Fire about this project:  “In conclusion, the grant application for this project makes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that is based on the assumption that a biofuels plant will generate electricity from the wood debris.  Such a plant has not been built and UC Berkeley apparently does not intend to build such a plant.  Other claims made in the grant application about carbon storage are based on inaccurate claims about carbon storage.  Grant guidelines state, “Failure to meet the agreed upon terms of achieving required GHG reduction may result in project termination and recovery of funds.”  In other words, Cal Fire should terminate this project and recover any funds that have been remitted to UC Berkeley.  The project is a misuse of grant funds because it will increase fire hazards and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  Without imputing motives, on the face of it, the grant application looks fraudulent.” The full story of how this project has violated grant guidelines as well as the description of the project itself in the grant application is told HERE.  January 18, 2021 

One of many piles of wood chips, Claremont Ave, November 2020

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.