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

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

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

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

The consequences of destroying Oakland’s urban forest

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

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

The OVMP DEIR is responsive to some of these concerns. 

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

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

Claremont Ave, West of Grizzly Peak Blvd. November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Policy requires compromise

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

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

Doug Tallamy’s Blame Game

The fact that insect populations are declining in many places around the world is well known, but the reasons for the decline are not well known.  Where there is uncertainty, there is speculation and where there is speculation, there is debate.

Doug Tallamy recently stepped into that debate by publishing a review article about insects and their use of plants.  The article is a mind-numbing list of studies that find both positive and negative relationships between insects and non-native plants.

Tallamy contends those studies add up to support for his belief that non-native plants are bad for insects and native plants are good for insects.  He suggests that declining populations of native plants should be considered one of the reasons for declining populations of insects, but then he goes one step further. Tallamy suggests that non-native plants are responsible for declining populations of native plants.  It follows that Tallamy blames non-native plants for the disappearance of insects.

My interpretation of the studies in Tallamy’s review is different.  The studies tell me that there is too much variation in insect-plant relationships to generalize about the relative value of native vs. non-native plants to insects.  A more accurate conclusion would be that sometimes insects make a successful transition from a native to a non-native plant—especially in the absence of a native in the same lineage—and sometimes they don’t…or at least they haven’t yet.

Anise swallowtail butterfly is one of many insects that have made a successful transition from a disappearing native plant to an introduced non-native plant in the same lineage. Prior to that transition, swallowtails were able to lay eggs only once a year, when the native was available. The introduced non-native is available year around, which enables the swallowtail to lay its eggs year around. Courtesy urbanwildlife.org

Since evolution is a process and not a historical event, these insect/plant relationships will continue to change.  There are many studies that document such transitions and Tallamy cites some of them in his review.  Tallamy assumes insects will be forever handicapped, if not killed, by whatever deficiencies there are in the non-native substitute.  I assume the insect is more likely to adapt and eventually evolve to cope with those deficiencies.  Both our assumptions are just guesses.  Tallamy considers nature immutable, while I consider it dynamic.  Where Tallamy sees doom and gloom, I see opportunity.

Professor Art Shapiro’s (Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, UC Davis) assessment of Tallamy’s review article is less equivocal than mine.  Keep in mind when reading his assessment that he is far more knowledgeable than I am:

  1. “There is little evidence known to me of alien plants (‘invasives’) competitively displacing natives in ‘communities’ except in highly disturbed environments, except in the case of ‘ecological engineer’ species like Japanese honeysuckle, Himalayan Blackberry, climbing fern in Florida, Purple Loosestrife, etc. — things that drastically alter the ground rules for structuring the vegetation by smothering or prompting fire.

  2. “The use of natives and non-natives by insects has a long and venerable history, going back to T.R.E. Southwood and his comparisons of insect faunas on British trees to Godwin’s history of the British flora, Azevedo’s student study at SF State, etc. — demonstrating overall that enemies accumulate in time on naturalized aliens, but it may be a very slow process if there is no phylogenetic or chemical bridge to their colonization. Experiments using haphazardly-selected species to examine acceptability are basically silly, and very easy to ‘stack’ if one knows one’s phytochemistry.

  3. “As I have repeatedly pointed out, ‘weed’ eradication would lead rapidly to the extirpation of nearly all of the non-tree-feeding urban and suburban butterfly fauna in lowland California (and many other places).”

Why are insect populations declining?

A 2017 study revealed a shocking 76 percent decline in the biomass of flying insects over 27 years in protected areas in Germany.  The German study does not offer specific explanations for the significant decline in insects, but it speculates about probable cause: Agricultural intensification (e.g. pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures) that we could not incorporate in our analyses, may form a plausible cause. The reserves in which the traps were placed are of limited size in this typical fragmented West-European landscape, and almost all locations (94%) are enclosed by agricultural fields. Part of the explanation could therefore be that the protected areas (serving as insect sources) are affected and drained by the agricultural fields in the broader surroundings (serving as sinks or even as ecological traps). Increased agricultural intensification may have aggravated this reduction in insect abundance in the protected areas over the last few decades.”  Presumably “protected areas” in Germany are not landscaped with non-native plants, rendering the use of this study to corroborate Tallamy’s hypothesis irrelevant.

A comprehensive review of 73 reports of declining insect populations around the globe was published in 2019. These studies report the reasons for declining populations: “The main drivers of species declines appear to be in order of importance: i) habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization; ii) pollution, mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilisers; iii) biological factors, including pathogens and introduced species; and iv) climate change. The latter factor is particularly important in tropical regions, but only affects a minority of species in colder climes and mountain settings of temperate zones.” The “introduced species” are usually insects rather than plants.

In a Yale e360 article about Tallamy’s review, one commenter offers his opinion that the over-population of deer and their preference for eating native vegetation is likely a greater threat to native plants than the existence of non-native plants that provide an alternative source of food for deer, thereby reducing predation of native plants.  Tallamy seems to agree that deer are a problem for native plants, while rejecting deer as a greater threat to native plants than the existence of non-native plants.

The list of reasons for declining insect populations is long and will probably get longer as more research is done.  If the existence of non-native plants is on that list, it is unlikely to be higher on a prioritized list than the pesticides that are being used to eradicate non-native plants.  The more herbicide that is used to eradicate non-native plants, the more harm is done to insects.

EPA Biological Evaluation of glyphosate is a black eye for native plant “restorations” that use herbicide

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally published its Biological Evaluation (BE) of the impact of glyphosate products (all registered formulations of glyphosate products were studied) on endangered animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, invertebrates) and plants. The BE reports that 1,676 endangered species are “likely adversely affected” by glyphosate products. That is 93% of the total of 1,795 endangered species evaluated by the study. Of the total of 792 critical habitats of endangered species, 759 (96%) were “likely adversely affected” by glyphosate products.  Most of those critical habitats probably contain predominantly native plants that are clearly not benefiting from herbicides used to kill their competitors.

Both agricultural and non-agricultural uses of glyphosate products were evaluated by the BE. Although only endangered plants and animals were evaluated by the BE, we should assume that all other plants and animals are likewise harmed by glyphosate because the botanical and physiological functions of plants and animals are the same, whether or not they are endangered. Herbicides, specifically glyphosate products, are used by the majority of projects that attempt to eradicate non-native plants. As a result, the crusade against non-native plants is undoubtedly a far more important factor in the decline of insect populations than their mere existence.

Why are native plant populations declining?

There are many reasons why native plant populations are declining, but there is little evidence that non-native plants are the cause of declining populations of native plants. Many of the causes of declining insect populations are also causes of declining populations of native plants. A recent study reports that 65 taxa of native plants in the US and Canada are thought to be extinct. The study did not report a single case in which the extinction was caused by the existence of non-native plants. Sixty-four percent of extinct plants were single-site endemics. The same drivers cited by recent insect studies appear on the list of causes of plant extinctions. Nearly half of the extinctions occurred more than 100 years ago, long before introduced plants were considered an issue.

Butterfly bush is a host plant of Variable checkerspot butterflies. It is also an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees. It is being eradicated on public land because it is not a native plant. butterflybush.com

My New Year’s Wish

Nature is too complex to be reduced to a single cause for changes in the environment.  Human knowledge is insufficient to identify all of the causes.  That’s why we make many mistakes when trying to fix a perceived problem in nature.  Our own priorities influence our evaluation of changes in the environment.  We should not automatically assume that a change is a problem or that it must be reversed.

The existence of novel ecosystems is a case in point.  They can as easily be seen as positive as negative.  If a native plant or animal is no longer adapted to changes in the environment, such as climate change, we should be grateful that a non-native substitute is capable of tolerating the change.  Where some see enemies, others see friends.

I wish you all a very happy New Year in 2021.  I can’t wish 2020 a fond farewell.  I can only say good riddance!  I am hopeful for a more peaceful year, one in which we befriend our enemies and work together for a better world for nature and for humanity.  I am grateful for your readership.

Invasion Biology vs. The “Restoration” Industry

Daniel Simberloff gave the keynote address to the symposium of the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC), entitled “Invasive Species Denialism and the Future of Invasion Management.”  Simberloff is the most vocal academic defender of invasion biology.  His presentation to Cal-IPC contains interesting clues about more effective strategies for the critics of invasion biology, of which I am one.  In a nutshell, Simberloff dismisses critics easily with a few waves of his hand, but he stumbles when faced with the economic and ecological costs of the methods used to eradicate so-called “invasive species.”  He can defend the theoretical hypotheses of invasion biology, but he finds it difficult to defend the “restoration” industry that invasion biology spawned, specifically the use of pesticides.

Simberloff opened his presentation with this rogue’s gallery of the critics of invasion biology.  Some readers will recognize some of these “deniers.”  If not, you might recognize some of the many books the “deniers” have published.

Simberloff categorized the criticisms of invasion biology then flipped them off, one by one.  Keep in mind as you read Simberloff’s summary that it does not do justice to the actual criticisms of invasion biology.

  • Critics say that most non-native species aren’t harmful.
    • Simberloff says we don’t know how harmful non-native species are because few are studied, their impacts are often subtle, and there is often a time lag before they become harmful. He believes that all non-native plants are potentially harmful to ecosystems.
  • Critics say that some non-native species are beneficial.
    • Simberloff says that critics only report the benefits, while ignoring the negative impacts of non-native species.  (Actually, most critics are proposing a cost/benefit analysis that acknowledges both positive and negative impacts.)
  • Critics say that invasion biology is xenophobic.
    • Simberloff says that if you’re looking for xenophobia, you often see it. He calls this the “law of instrument” or if your instrument is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  (Frankly, I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make, but I have tried to describe it accurately based on what he said.)
  • Critics say that trying to eradicate non-native species is futile.
    • Simberloff says this argument ignores the progress that has been made in the technology of eradication methods. He used the “early detection and rapid response” strategy as an example of progress in eradicating non-native plants.  That strategy focuses on small populations of non-native plants, basically acknowledging the futility of trying to eradicate large areas of well-established non-native plants.
    • Much of Simberloff’s presentation was devoted to describing many developments in genetic engineering, such as CRISPR to drive species to extinction and gene silencing. All of the examples of such developments were aimed at killing insects (such as mosquitoes) and animals (such as rats and mice), with one exception. He was particularly enthusiastic about island eradications of which there are hundreds, and hundreds more on the drawing boards.  Only one gene-editing project on plants is trying to develop a genetic method to eradicate phragmites.

Things finally became interesting, when Simberloff took questions:  “Dan, you mention the “futility” argument, but what about the notion that the cost in environmental damage (e.g, pesticide use and nontarget impacts) is too high for some well-established invaders?”  Simberloff’s answer to this question was surprising and encouraging to critics of pesticide use to kill non-native species:

“Absolutely, it’s a huge problem, not only on non-target species, but also the fact that evolution of resistance leads to greater use of pesticides before they are useful and leads to greater impact on non-target species.  I didn’t talk about this, but yes, of course the cost both economically and ecologically might be too great even if management eradication is feasible.  But that’s not what denialism is about.  Denialism willfully denies that there are impacts or they confound arguments about values as if it is an argument about science.”

The Executive Director of Cal-IPC recognized the dangers of Simberloff’s answer because pesticides are the primary tool used by the “restoration” industry and much of the conference was devoted to telling over 650 employees of the “restoration” industry about new developments in pesticide use.  Those new developments are not good news to those who are concerned about the dangers of pesticides.  For example, a new “drizzle” technique increases the concentration of the active ingredient and lowers the volume of the application, increasing toxicity of the application.  Another alarming presentation described the use of drones to spray herbicides on hundreds of acres of phragmites in the Suisun Marsh.

The absence of good alternatives to pesticide use in eradication projects is another source of pressure on the “restoration” industry and therefore on Cal-IPC:

  • Jon Keeley’s presentation about the interaction of fire, fire prevention, and plant invasions included the observation that using prescribed burns to eradicate non-native plants results in more non-native plants, not more native plants.
  • A land manager in Southern California acknowledged that pressures to reduce pesticide use threaten the future of his project: “Natural herbicides result in more time intensive and costly weed control, with less confidence of success. Where herbicide application is completely restricted, other weed control methods like hand weeding or mowing can be implemented successfully, but they often fall short of herbicide in effectiveness. This resulting reduction in effective weed control must be taken into account in future plans for habitat restoration and management, and our existing programs will have to reevaluate the proposed efforts, cost of those efforts, and expectations for success, both short and long term.” (Scott McMillan, abstract)
  • Finally, with the exception of a few timid questions from participants, no mention was made about the threat of climate change on the future of native ecosystems. Simberloff likened critics of invasion biology to “climate change deniers.”  In fact, it’s fair to say that those who demand that we replicate native ranges existing 250-500 years ago are more accurately called climate change deniers.

The Executive Director of Cal-IPC tried to save the day by portraying those who oppose pesticides as extremists, based on what he considers “unscientific” studies.  But Simberloff wouldn’t take the bait.  He wasn’t willing to dismiss the concerns about pesticides.  Instead, Simberloff passed the buck:

“I’ll beg off on answering that question on grounds that I’m not a social scientist or psychologist.  This is not my area of expertise.  There is some reason for the extremists because Monsanto has sometimes lied to us and there have been problems associated with pesticides.  I leave this question to policy scientists.”

Simberloff reveals the flaw in the “restoration” industry

As a critic of invasion biology and the use of pesticides, I have always been frustrated that critics of invasion biology do not use the damage done by eradications as a reason for their criticism.  With the exception of Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species, none of the books written by critics have used this argument.  It is a missed opportunity and Simberloff’s presentation to Cal-IPC is an indication that it is the strongest argument against eradication projects that are inspired by invasion biology.

Invasion biology is a theoretical construct.  It does no harm to ecosystems until it justifies the use of harmful methods to eradicate non-native species.  I humbly ask that critics of invasion biology wake up to this opportunity.  Pesticides are a winning argument against “restoration” projects that eradicate non-native plants.  Any cost/benefit analysis of new eradication projects should include the ecological and economic costs of pesticides in the equation.

Beyond Pesticides points the way forward

I try not to leave the field without offering a compromise because opposition without solutions is not constructive.  I offer this sage advice from Beyond Pesticides about case-by-case evaluations of weed invasions that will reduce damage to ecosystems.  Beyond Pesticides responded to this question:  “I’m working on a pesticide policy in my community and am interested in how you might suggest we deal with “invasive” species. Can you point us in the right direction? Martin, Boston, MA.”  This is BP’s thoughtful answer:

“It’s Beyond Pesticides position that invasives, or opportunistic species, should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with established priorities and a plan. With any unwanted species, there needs to be an understanding of the ecological context. We need to be asking the right questions: What role is the plant currently playing in a landscape—what niche is it currently filling? If we remove this plant, what will fill that niche? Will we be replanting the right native species to fill that niche? What are the detrimental impacts of letting it spread? Is there a way we can isolate it to stop its spread? Can we ever remove this plant altogether, or will we be working at control indefinitely? These are important questions that we need to be asking before we even consider management methods. Regarding policy, requiring an individualized invasive species management plan seems to be the right answer, though unfortunately many pesticide reform policies sidestep the issue and simply exempt invasives to avoid opposition. Just like all organic approaches, we’ll want to place a focus on prevention and working with ecological systems, rather than against them, making even least-toxic pesticide use a last resort. There is a strong potential to undermine the stability of an ecosystem if we simply go in and immediately break out the strongest tools in the toolbox without a plant replacement strategy. On a turf system with common weeds a simple answer is grass plants. But, in forested areas already subject to intrusion (from construction/logging, etc.), rights-of-way, and urban areas, the focus is on alternative vegetation or ground cover. Sometimes, little should be done except simple mechanical cutting to keep these species in balance. This is an interesting and, at times, contentious issue that environmentalists grapple with, so there is certainly room for fresh ideas on how to approach opportunistic species without the use of toxic pesticides. For more information, we encourage you to watch the talk given at Beyond Pesticides 37th National Pesticide Forum in New York City by Peter Del Tredici, PhD, senior research scientist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum (www.bp-dc.org/ invasives).”

 

Re-upping on Reality

A book review by Marlene A. Condon©of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden:  Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books 2006; information at www.marlenecondon.com).  Please visit her blog, In Defense of Nature.  You can reach her at marlenecondon@aol.com

To the farmer’s eye, Eastern Redcedar trees “invade” his cow fields where he would prefer only grass to grow. To the ecologist’s eye, the trees signify the need for soil remediation. Photo credit Marlene A. Condon

Prefatory Comments

When I was a student in the mid-1970s at Virginia Tech, small farms surrounded the town of Blacksburg. I spent time at many of the cow farms, where I constantly heard complaints by agriculturalists about the Eastern Redcedar (Juniperous virginiana) perpetually invading their fields.

After getting my degree in physics, I moved north to Charlottesville, a 140-mile highway drive through rural areas. In the ensuing decades, numerous small farms were abandoned as it became more difficult for farmers to make a living from them.

On frequent trips back to Blacksburg, I watched as the forsaken cow fields began to fill with cedar trees. Then, as time went on, Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) shrubs began to show up as well. It took decades for those fields to become a forest of cedars, olives, or a mix of both; succession was a slow process because the soils had been emptied of their nutrients, and they were compacted by the generations of half-ton animals that had trod upon them.

What the farmers didn’t understand in the 70s, and what most people still don’t understand today, is that Mother Nature tries constantly to replenish degraded areas by sending in colonizers—plants capable of growing in and enriching exhausted soil. Because very few kinds of plants can perform this natural restorative work, their presence in an area is a sure sign of impoverished land.

Virginia Cedar, Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana), and Broomsedge (Andropogon virgincus) comprise the most-common native species that move into old Virginia cow fields, sometimes accompanied by Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) that is somewhat beyond its original range. But Autumn Olive, from Asia, is a far superior restorer. It not only enriches the soil with nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth, but also provides for wildlife far better than these other plants. I can’t think of another species that feeds such an abundance of pollinators in the spring with its fragrant blooms, and birds and mammals in mid-to-late summer with fruits and again in late winter by way of its buds.

Yet Autumn Olive is one of the most despised plants of people going after so-called invasive-plant species, the presence of which in our environment they don’t understand and have misinterpreted. For example, University of Delaware entomology professor Doug Tallamy starts Bringing Nature Home (published in 2007) with an explanation of how he came to write his book: He and his wife had moved seven years earlier to 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania where he found “at least 35 percent of the vegetation on our property (yes, I measured it) consisted of aggressive plant species from other continents that were replacing what native plants we did have.”

Despite his knowledge that the area “had been farmed for centuries before being subdivided and sold to people like [him and his wife]”, this entomologist clearly had no clue about the full story of the landscape he had bought. The presence of Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Autumn Olive, and other much denigrated alien species that occupied about a third of his property revealed a prior history that Dr. Tallamy and other invasion proponents ignore.

The farmer’s land had obviously stood idle for some years, giving the variety of plants mentioned plenty of time to move in to rehabilitate the soil. These alien species didn’t suddenly appear and grow to full size overnight; we know the plants had been growing for a long time because the author tells us: “In places on [his] land, bittersweet…was supported at the base by vines with six-inch diameters.”

They weren’t “taking over the land” by “push[ing] out any existing natives,” as Dr. Tallamy erroneously asserts. Ecological succession is defined as “a gradual and orderly process of change brought about by the progressive replacement of one community [herbaceous plants to woody shrubs] by another until a stable climax [forest] is established.” (1) If Professor Tallamy truly understood how the natural world works, he would realize he can now grow his preferred climax community of native trees only because the alien “invaders” prepared the site for him to do so.

It’s unfortunate that Doug Tallamy’s false version of nature has been given much credence and publicity. Thanks to conservationists and governments at all levels rallying around his contrived version of reality, huge areas of well functioning habitat have been, and continue to be, destroyed throughout the United States. Adding insult to injury, the “mission” to get rid of supposedly invasive plants has usually been accomplished with the use of herbicides deadly to wildlife.

Book review of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by Peter Del Tredici

The natural world would currently be in far better shape if years ago the press had instead taken note of urban ecologist and Harvard botanist Peter Del Tredici’s book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (first published by Cornell Press in 2010, with an expanded version out this year). Unlike Dr. Tallamy, Dr. Del Tredici recognizes the substantial modifications to our environment wrought by development and climate change, such as soil degradation that goes hand in hand with construction, and drought that is more severe and more frequent due to climate warming.

Anyone knowledgeable about plants should recognize that these changes are quite consequential for these organisms. Perhaps Professor Tallamy doesn’t “get it” because he’s focused only on insects and knows very little about animal/plant relationships. For example, he erroneously writes (2) that the Tulip Poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) “is one of the least productive forest species in terms of its ability to support wildlife—insects and vertebrates alike.” He doesn’t know Tulip Poplar blooms feed a myriad of insects along with hummingbirds, and its seeds are taken by the Eastern Gray Squirrel and other rodents, as well as birds like the Carolina Chickadee, the mascot for his cause célѐbre.

It’s a shame that Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast is referred to as a field guide on its cover and in advertisements. People are bound to think this book is mainly for identification of plants growing in urban areas, but it is so much more. Conservationists and gardeners throughout the entire country—and certainly students learning about plants—would do well to read the 29-page “Introduction”.

 The true value of this work lies in the author’s explanatory text about why the 268 covered species show up in the cracks and crevices of city sidewalks and deserted parking lots, as well as from the walls of decrepit buildings. It’s an ecology lesson that is far more illustrative than the dry text you might read in a book devoted to the subject for the classroom.

An urban Krakatoa. This sea of urban blacktop is like a volcanic lava flow, and the plants that grow here, including mullein (Verbascum thapsus) , chicory (Cichorium intybus), New England hawkweed (Hiercium saubadum), and white heath aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), can tolerate extreme heat and drought.  Courtesy Peter Del Tredici

For example, in Wild Urban Plants, the reader views a photo of an abandoned building with its fissured parking lot in which a variety of wildflowers grow. The caption likens the “sea of urban blacktop” to “a volcanic lava flow” where plants must be able to tolerate extreme heat and drought. What a superb metaphor! It conveys the environmental conditions to which these plants are subjected while also making very clear to the reader why only certain plants germinate and survive well in such places.

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) colonizing an abandoned building in New London, Connecticut. From the plants’ perspective, a decaying brick wall is just a limestone cliff. Courtesy Peter Tredici.

In Wild Urban Plants, Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is seen growing out the side of a neglected painted-brick building in New London, Connecticut. The caption informs us that, “From the plants’ perspective, a decaying brick wall is just a limestone cliff.” How marvelously enlightening!

The urban glacier leaves a trail of compacted glacial till in its wake. Courtesy Peter Del Tredici

Perhaps the most unique metaphor of all can be found in the picture of a  backhoe sitting atop a hill of dirt. The author tells us “The urban glacier [referring to the backhoe] leaves a trail of compacted glacial till in its wake.” A conglomerate of unsorted broken rocks, till does not provide amenable growing conditions for very many species of plants.

The author doesn’t go into this subject, but moss is often the first colonizing organism to move in. It secretes organic acids that break down the rocks into soil, paving the way for plants with the ability to fix nitrogen to come in, and over time, as plants die, the soil is enriched via their nitrogen, allowing other kinds of plants to live here. An understanding of this process is sorely lacking among those conservationists who insist that “invasive” plant species serve no useful purpose in the environment. In fact, it’s a darned good thing they are here, given their ability to flourish under present environmental conditions. This is the explanation, after all, for their apparent invasiveness.

Dr. Tredici’s “Introduction” should be required reading for everyone involved in conservation. With a better comprehension of how the natural world works, people should be able to realize that the United States is wasting many millions of taxpayer dollars every year to remove alien plants. And annually putting millions of pounds of herbicides into our environment (according to a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report (3)) manifests a horrendous crime against nature.

This counterproductive war on nonnative plants must be stopped quickly; far too much damage has already been done. Spread the word about this book to everyone you know.

References:

  1. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Plant+succession
  2. Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy
  3. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-01/documents/pesticides-industry-sales-usage-2016_0.pdf

Observations of the Blue Ridge Naturalist

I’ve been a nature writer/photographer in Crozet, Virginia, for more than 25 years. My freelance articles have been published in numerous national and state magazines and newspapers, and I’ve written nature columns for many newspapers, as well as Virginia Wildlife, the magazine of our state wildlife department. My yard was featured on Virginia PBS stations in 1994 and again in 2005, and is the basis of my book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books, 2006).  In all of these venues, I discussed nonnative plants, including some considered “invasive”, without suffering much, if indeed any, blowback.

Home of Marlene Condon in Crozet, Virginia. Photo credit Marlene Condon

However, over the past quarter century, there has been more-and-more of a push by native-plant societies to get government entities and environmental groups to rid the natural world of so-called invasive plants, including even native plants considered “thugs” because their growth is exuberant.  Because I was concerned about the destruction of habitat and the often-extensive use of pesticides to accomplish their mission, I started writing explicitly about this movement, as in the article below.

After the publication of this article last year, nativists mounted a smear campaign against me personally, a sure sign of how weak their invasive-plant arguments are.  The lead writer never even publicly disclosed her affiliation with the Blue Ridge PRISM, a group “targeting common invasive plants in the Blue Ridge”, which would have allowed readers to question whether her comments about me were suspect. My editor certainly was duped, placing a headline of “Blue Ridge Naturalist–NOT!” over their comments. And perhaps not coincidentally, shortly thereafter, he fired me, even though I’d written for–and received high praise from–him for 11 years.

Since then, I’ve found it virtually impossible to write openly about any nonnative plants.  Media and environmental groups are cowed by these people, thanks to their numbers and involvement with various organizations and governments (local, state, and federal). Sadly, this movement is highly detrimental to our natural world that is already in very bad shape and can hardly withstand yet more negative impacts upon it. Folks who understand the senselessness of destroying functioning habitat and poisoning the Earth with pesticides must speak out publicly for the benefit of nature.

Marlene Condon, Blue Ridge Naturalist

FEBRUARY 2019
The Blue Ridge Naturalist
© Marlene A. Condon

Bees and other kinds of insects obtain nourishment from the blooms of Weigela, a spring-blooming shrub native to Asia. Photo credit Marlene Condon

Ecologists Recognizing Value of Alien Plants

Scientists are either waking up to what I’ve been saying for years, or finally becoming brave enough to speak out against the wide-spread invasive-plant movement. In an opinion piece signed by 19 ecologists in the journal Nature, they argue that “policy and management decisions must take into account the positive effects of many invaders.”

Recognizing that “It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some ‘rightful’ historical state”, they go on to point out that eradicating or drastically reducing the abundance of invasive plants is “an impossible goal.”

Critical thinking is a must for deciding invasive-plant policy to avoid harming wildlife and wasting millions in tax dollars. A situation in California illustrates the foolishness of blindly pushing an agenda without giving any thought to the real-world consequences of doing so.

In the name of “saving” the environment from so-called invasive plants, a movement has sprung up to remove Eucalypt (Eucalyptus globulus) trees from California. These trees, brought in from Australia, now serve as the most frequented overwintering sites for the western Monarch butterfly population.

Monarchs originally roosted in native conifer stands of Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus maculatum) and Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Sadly, extensive development, logging, and poor land-management decisions have reduced the number of these native-tree stands, leaving the butterflies to rely upon non-native Eucalypts.

Ignoring the fact that overwintering Monarchs are very much dependent upon isolated stands of these trees, government plans are mandating removal of them. Does this make environmental sense? Absolutely not; eradication of the Eucalypts means no wintering habitat for Monarchs, which means they will die.

In other words, this deliberate destruction of habitat is taking place because of ideology, an illustration of the danger posed by people who have been led to believe they are part of an environmentally moral crusade. Native-plant folks out west have managed, as they have here in the East, to convince environmental organizations and government entities at every level that it is a moral imperative to remove plants deemed invasive.

But, the whole point of conservation of the environment is conservation of wildlife, without which the environment cannot function properly. Yet, absolutely no thought is given to how much so-called invasive plants support wildlife or serve important environmental functions in degraded areas.

Thus, for example, in the city of Waynesboro, Virginia, the Parks and Rec department decided it had to remove Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, formerly known as Polygonum cuspidatum) from growing along the South River greenway (Waynesboro News Virginian, March 9, 2018, “War on Weeds”). The main reason given for the removal of these plants was that they are preventing native plants from growing, but this statement is nothing more than invasive-plant folklore that gains credence by the act of repetition.

Read about virtually any “invasive” species and you will find that these plants are typically growing in disturbed areas where man or a weather event destroyed the original soil profile. As a result, the plants that had been growing there previously did not come back because they could not handle the altered physical conditions of the site. It’s why you see so-called invasive plants mainly along roadways, in parks, and along river trails—all areas easily seen by people who then mistakenly believe the exotic plants pushed out native species.

The newspaper stated that knotweed is a “formidable culprit to the river’s health”, but the true threat lies in its removal. This plant has superbly performed erosion control of soil in which native plants struggle to grow; feeds numerous kinds of pollinators when it blooms; and provides wonderful cover and nesting sites for numerous species of birds and the non-herbivorous insects that feed them. One need only to walk the trail with open eyes and an open mind to ascertain the truth of this statement.

Additionally, park employees would use herbicides to kill the knotweed. How can poisoning the Earth be less harmful than allowing alien plants to grow in areas where they are currently the most suited to thrive and thus provide badly needed habitat for wildlife?

You might wonder how the invasive-plant movement became so entrenched in environmental and governmental circles. The answer lies in the treatment of it as a moral cause in which those who agree with removing “bad” plants are virtuous; those who disagree must be bad like the plants themselves. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for folks to take a stand in opposition; no one wants to be considered immoral.

However, this undertaking is deeply flawed. Rather than critically analyzing each situation and dealing with it in the most appropriate manner, plant nativists (people who practice a policy of favoring native plants over nonnative) take the simplistic approach that demands removal of every plant designated as “invasive”, no matter what function it is fulfilling in the local environment or how well it fills what would be an otherwise empty ecological niche.

Earlier this year, for example, someone removed a Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) that was growing in a swath of red dirt along the road where I exercise. It was one of the few plants that had survived the highway department’s installation of a new guardrail. No native plants had been able to grow in the poor, dry soil exposed a few years earlier by construction, leaving an area several feet wide and long mostly devoid of plants to assist wildlife.

The Mahonia (a native of China) would have provided a very early source of nectar desperately needed by the first pollinators to become active in spring at a time when native plants in bloom are very few. Its fruits would later feed birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Now, not much exists in this area to feed either insects or birds, making the land a wasted resource.

Native or not, plants provide habitat whereas bare ground does not. Nativists disregard the reality that native plants struggle to survive under the adverse conditions of road salt, mowing, drought, and disturbed, compacted, and depleted soil. They would do better by the environment if, instead of pulling and pesticiding, they focused on eliminating the actual causes of alien-plant spread.

Removing the Mahonia near the bridge resulted in no benefit to the environment, whereas it very much negatively impacted ease of survival for many insects and birds. And in California, removing Eucalypts may well doom the wintering Monarch butterfly population.

Eradication of marsh grass on East and West Coasts doesn’t make sense

New York State agencies have been trying to destroy the Piermont Marsh since 2013, because most of the marsh grass is not native. Piermont Marsh is adjacent to the small village of Piermont on the west side of the Hudson River, less than 30 miles north of New York City.

The community of Piermont organized to prevent the destruction of their marsh for two reasons:

  • They believed that the marsh had protected them from the devastating storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2011. The village sustained damages of $11.8 million in that storm, but villagers believed it would have been much worse without the protection of the marsh.
  • The initial plan to eradicate 200 acres of non-native phragmites proposed the use of herbicides to kill the marsh grass. The villagers were concerned about large quantities of herbicides being sprayed into their waterways.
The Piermont Marsh is also very beautiful.

I have followed the attempt to save the Piermont Marsh because it is nearly identical to our West Coast version of the same issue.  Non-native spartina grass has been nearly eradicated on the entire West Coast using herbicides over the past 15 years.  After witnessing the unintended consequences of the eradication of spartina, I was sympathetic to the community of Piermont and hopeful that their organized resistance might be successful.

Opposition to the proposed project to destroy the Piermont Marsh has accomplished a great deal.  The first round of public comment and negotiation resulted in a reduction in the size of the project from 200 acres to 40 acres.  The Piermont community was also given a commitment to conduct an analysis of the damage done to the village by the destructive storm surge in the 2011 hurricane Sandy to determine the role the marsh played in protecting the village from even greater damage.

The scientist who conducted that study reported the results of the study in July 2020.  He concluded that “the presence of the Marsh is estimated to have avoided $902,000 worth of property damage and loss.” (1) He made other significant observations:

  • The native marsh grass that the project wishes to restore does not provide as much storm protection in the spring: “Typha [the native species of marsh grass] shows far more seasonal variation than phragmites.  Unlike phragmites, which maintains its height and density year-round, Typha is shorter and sparser in the spring.” (1)
  • The scientist predicted that by 2100 the Piermont Marsh will likely be overwhelmed by sea level rise. Whatever vegetation is at the Piermont Marsh, it will be gone within 80 years.

For the moment, the Piermont Marsh project is on hold:  “[The plan] will be redrafted and the new draft should be presented to the public in 2021.” (1) Meanwhile, herbicides will not be used in the marsh and experiments will be conducted to kill marsh grass by covering it with a geotextile that deprives the vegetation of light.  However, project managers have not made a commitment to avoid herbicides in the future.

Based on my experience with opposition to such destructive projects,  delays are often ultimately victories.  Funding priorities often change and more scientific information becomes available to inform a better decision.  For example, the current draft plan contains outdated information about glyphosate.  It claims that “Glyphosate is a non-selective, systemic herbicide that controls weeds by inhibiting a specific pathway for amino acid synthesis that is unique to plants and not present in animals.”

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

In defense of phragmites

According to a study conducted in 2017, phragmites is playing the same ecological roles as their native predecessors:

“An invasive species of marsh grass that spreads, kudzu-like, throughout North American wetlands, may provide similar benefits to protected wetlands as native marsh grasses. According to new research from North Carolina State University, the invasive marsh grass’s effects on carbon storage, erosion prevention and plant diversity in protected wetlands are neutral… studies have shown that Phragmites may help reduce shoreline erosion in marshlands and store carbon at faster rates than native grasses…The team found no significant differences between ecosystem services of the marshes they studied, indicating that Phragmites’ effect was largely neutral.” 

Land managers and contractors have been trying to eradicate phragmites in the Delaware River and its estuary for nearly 40 years.  Although the contractors are still committed to that project, critics are getting louder and scientists are finding more evidence of the benefits of phragmites.  It is no longer clear that eradicating phragmites is possible, nor is it clear that it would be beneficial.

Rising sea levels as ice melts in warmer temperatures are bringing the benefits of phragmites into focus:  “Some scientists have been arguing that phragmites…could be a key line of defense against rising sea level, particularly in areas like the Mid-Atlantic where land is sinking while water continues to rise… Research from 20 years ago found that phragmites help marshes elevate faster than some other plants…”

The herbicides used to kill phragmites are aerial sprayed from helicopters, killing both native and non-native plants, resulting in barren mudflats that are more vulnerable to erosion:  “The herbicide treatment of phragmites can also mean other native plants become casualties in the process, leaving an unvegetated landscape behind. With no plants to hold sediment in place, an open mudflat can be extremely vulnerable to flooding in the face of storms or unsuccessful regrowth… ‘You know, the Phrag marsh is certainly a whole lot better than no marsh,’ [a Rutgers scientist] said.”

Trying to eradicate phragmites no longer makes sense.  So why is it continuing to happen?  A Rutgers marine biologist explains:   “Well, might I say…there’s a whole army of environmental consultants that get paid to remove phragmites and don’t get paid to leave it alone.”  That is really the heart of the matter.  The projects are designed to create jobs and apply for government funds, not to protect the environment.

The West Coast version of marsh grass eradication

If the word “spartina” is substituted for the word “phragmites” the Piermont Marsh project and the questions it raises apply to similar projects on the West Coast.  For over 15 years, non-native spartina marsh grass has been eradicated using herbicides along the entire West Coast.  The result of spartina eradication projects on the West Coast is also barren mud shoreline that is poisoned with herbicide and miles of coastline that is vulnerable to rising sea levels and erosion.

The Ridgway Rail was collateral damage of the spartina eradication project. The population of this endangered bird plummeted because its nesting habitat was destroyed.

There is another similarity between the East Coast and West Coast versions of eradicating marsh grass.  Like the native typho (cattail) that is the goal of the East Coast project, native spartina that was the goal of the West Coast project is inferior protection of the coastline against storm surges.  The native species of spartina on the West Coast that was the theoretical goal of the eradication project is shorter and less dense than the non-native species.  It also dies back in the winter, unlike the non-native species that persists throughout the year.  In other words, the native species does not provide the same protection for the shoreline that is provided by the non-native species.  In any case, plantings of the native species failed in the poisoned ground, so its benefits claimed by the project are entirely irrelevant.

These eradication projects don’t make any more sense on the West Coast than their mirror image on the East Coast. 


  1. The Piermont Marsh Alliance Report on July 16 Webinar regarding Piermont Marsh

Baseless generalizations in Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope

Doug Tallamy’s latest book, Nature’s Best Hope, continues his crusade against non-native plants.  He now calls invasive plants “ecological tumors.”  You might be tempted to respond that invasive plants are a small subset of non-native plants until you realize that Tallamy calls 3,300 plant species in North America “invasive.”  There are approximately 6,500 species of native plants in California, which reminds us that introduced plants are often a significant portion of our urban landscapes.  The title of Tallamy’s book is a misnomer.  Nature is not confined to native plants, as Tallamy wishes it to be.

Tallamy makes no meaningful distinction between “invasive” and “non-native.”  The classification of berry-producing non-native plants as “invasive” is a case in point.  Although Himalayan blackberries are invasive, most other berry-producing non-natives in California are not.  Cotoneaster, pyracantha, and holly are a few examples of berry-producing plants being eradicated in the Bay Area that are not inherently “invasive.”  They spread because birds eat the berries and deposit the seeds elsewhere.

Cedar Waxwings in crab apple tree. Wikimedia Commons

Eradicating berry-producing plants deprives birds of an important source of food.  If herbicides are used to kill the plant, the birds are also exposed to harmful chemicals, known to reduce reproductive success and cause other sub-lethal health issues in wildlife. In the case of Himalayan blackberries, they are frequently eaten by children and adults, who are then exposed to the herbicides used to kill the shrubs that are often widespread in our parks and open spaces.  San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department sprayed blackberries in San Francisco’s parks and open spaces 23 times in 2019.

Tallamy and his nativist allies claim that native plants are beneficial to wildlife, especially birds.  How can they claim that eradicating berry-producing plants benefits birds?  They do so by claiming that native berries are more nutritious than non-native berries.  In particular, they claim that native berries contain more fat than sugar and that migrating birds require berries with high fat content.   Tallamy cites one study in support of that claim, a study that compared fat and sugar levels in the berries of 9 species of plants in the Northeast, 5 native species and 4 introduced species.  They found that the native species they analyzed had more fat content than the introduced species they analyzed. (1)

Generalizations unsupported by evidence

From that single study of nine plant species, Tallamy generalizes that berries of plants that are considered native in Asia are less nutritious for migrating birds than the berries of native plants in North America are. (None of the nine plant species studied occurs in California.)  Does that generalization make sense?

  • Tallamy does not provide any evidence that there are fewer migratory birds in Asia, or that the nutritional needs of migratory birds in Asia are different than those in North America. In fact, looking at the migratory patterns of birds confirms that migratory routes of birds span several continents.  The intercontinental flights of birds sometimes span both Asia and North America.  There is no logical or evidentiary explanation for berries of native plants in Asia being uniformly less nutritious than native plants in North America.
  • However, Tallamy offers evidence of the similarity between plants in Asia and closely related plants in North America. Wooly adelgids quickly made a transition to native hemlocks when they arrived in North America from Asia because its native host in Asia is closely related to the American native.  The adelgid has “all but eliminated hemlocks” in America, according to Tallamy.  The emerald ash borer has killed millions of ash trees in America when it arrived from Asia, where its native host was closely related.  On one hand, Tallamy claims that native plants in America are unique, completely different from plants in Asia, yet he recognizes that insects from Asia rapidly adapt to closely related host plants in America.
  • Asian species are not so foreign to America as Tallamy wishes us to believe. There are relicts of vegetation that extended completely around the Northern Hemisphere about 50 million years ago that were broken up by a combination of mountain-building and climate change. Tree of Heaven, Gingko, and Dawn Redwood, now considered introduced trees from Asia, occurred here naturally during that geologic period.  Tallamy says we must confine our choices to plants that “share an evolutionary history.”  In fact, many plants now considered non-native shared an evolutionary history with plants now considered native. Trees are time travelers, marching to the beat of the Earth’s geologic and climate drum.  Now they must be on the move to survive our changing climate.  We should not stand in their way.

Such generalizations unsupported by evidence are typical of Tallamy’s work.  In “Native plants improve breeding and foraging habitat for an insectivorous bird,” Tallamy and his collaborators conclude, “We demonstrate that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants have lower arthropod abundance…that function as population sinks for insectivorous birds.”  The data provided do not support such a broad generalization.  They studied one species of bird, in one geographic location, in a short period of time.  They inventoried arthropods for two years in a single month time-frame.  They quantify only one variable (plant foliage biomass) in addition to the nativity of plants, the abundance of insects, and the breeding success of one bird species.  They have not taken into consideration intervening variables such as variations in temperature, rainfall, pesticide use, etc.  The bird species studied is abundant within its range.  Its conservation status is “Least Concern.”  The abundance of this bird species does not justify the dire predictions of Tallamy’s study.

In conclusion

I have focused on just one of the many controversies discussed in Doug Tallamy’s new book.  I haven’t touched on the two most fundamental errors in Tallamy’s work:

  • Tallamy underestimates the speed of adaptation and evolution. There is ample evidence of rapid adaptation to non-native vegetation, including Tallamy’s examples of wooly adelgid and emerald ash borer making a quick transition to North American native trees after arriving from Asia.
  • He exaggerates the degree of specialization among insects. For example, he claims that 30% of native bees are “host-plant specialists,” yet Bees of the World (Michener, Johns Hopkins University) estimates a global average of 9% of bee species use plants within the same genus and it is “exceedingly rare” for bee species to be confined to only one plant species.

We have explored those issues in Tallamy’s work in previous articles:

  • Doug Tallamy claims that insects eat only native plants, yet his own study proves otherwise: HERE
  • Doug Tallamy claims that non-native plants are “ecological traps for birds.”  HERE is an article that disputes that theory.
  • Doug Tallamy claims that native and non-native plants in the same genus are not equally useful to wildlife, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy advocates for the eradication of butterfly bush (Buddleia) because it is not native.  He claims it is not useful to butterflies, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy publishes a laboratory study that he believes contradicts field studies, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy speaks to Smithsonian Magazine, Art Shapiro responds, Million Trees fills in the gaps:  HERE

(1) B. Smith, et. al., “The value of native and invasive fruit-bearing shrubs for migrating birds,” Northeastern Naturalist, 2013, 20(1): 171-84.

Open letter to Sierra Club about its racist roots and elitist policies



The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, has published a mea culpa about the club’s racist roots. John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. He considered the Indigenous people of California despoilers of nature and was responsible for evicting them from Yosemite when it was established as a National Park. Indigenous people had lived in peace in Yosemite Valley for thousands of years and their eviction was a tragedy.

More recently, the club’s policies promoted population control in the 1960s.  In the 1990s and again in the 2000s many club members tried to force the club to adopt an anti-immigration policy. The membership organized to prevent the club from adopting an anti-immigration policy and it’s time for the membership to express itself again, in support of Brune’s commitment to reverse course.

Mr. Brune apologizes for these racist policies and makes a commitment to reversing the club’s tradition of promoting the interests of wealthy, white people by investing in staff and leadership who are people of color.  I have written to Michael Brune to express my support for his commitment and make suggestions for addressing several closely related issues.  If you are a Sierra Club member, I urge you to write to Mr. Brune.  Perhaps you can make other suggestions for improving the club’s democratic functioning, as well as increasing the diversity of its membership and leadership.

Here is my letter to Michael Brune.  You can send your own letter to him at michael.brune@sierraclub.org


Michael Brune
Executive Director
Sierra Club

Dear Mr. Brune,

Thank you for making a commitment to confront the racist roots of the Sierra Club and take actions needed to broaden the club’s membership and leadership.  As a member, I am writing to ask that the club take this opportunity to address closely related issues that have turned it into the exclusive club that it is today.  The club’s policies are as much misanthropic as they are racist.

  • The club’s support for eradicating non-native plants and trees by using herbicides is a short-step away from its history of opposition to legal immigration. The connection between hatred of non-native plants and human immigrants is not lost on people of color.  High Country News recently published this thoughtful article by a young woman of Chinese descent who has suddenly realized that the demonization of non-native plants and animals is indistinguishable from similar attitudes toward human immigrants:  “Until this spring, I would have supported a concerted public effort to eradicate a threatening invasive species. But I’m no longer able to separate this environmental management strategy from the harm that the Trump administration’s insistent characterization of COVID-19 as an Asian disease has caused to Asian Americans, targeted anew for their race. I have yet to reconcile my training as an ecologist with my growing sense that what I learned reifies violent white norms far beyond the realm of natural resources.”
  • The club’s opposition to virtually every new housing project in the Bay Area serves the interests of wealthy home owners who object to greater housing density. At a time when thousands of people are living on the streets and thousands more are about to be evicted, the elected leadership of the Bay Area Chapter has become the “I’ve Got Mine Club.”  The club is as guilty of classism as it is of racism.
  • The club’s opposition to recreational use of public parks and open space is also a reflection of its elitism. The Bay Area Chapter was opposed to the proposed revision of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan because “The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.”  In the same Yodeler article, the club redefines recreation:  “…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing…”  The club consistently demands that people be fenced out of parks because people “damage” nature and the club frequently sues to enforce its demands.  Wealthy people don’t need parks.  They can go to the gym.  The public is welcome to walk around their fenced enclosures to observe nature, to look but not touch nature.  Please visit the Berkeley Meadow to see an example of one of the many fenced pens that the club advocated for in the East Bay.

I close with specific suggestions for how the club can welcome everyone into its tent.  Complaints are most effective when accompanied by suggestions for addressing those complaints.

  • The club needs term limits for its elected leadership positions. I have closely followed the club’s policies for 30 years.  Many of the elected leaders have been in their positions for decades.  The longer they are in those positions, the more entrenched their attitudes have become.  They arrived with an agenda to which they continue to adhere.  Younger people with different perspectives are needed to inject life into the club, people who engage in active recreation and don’t own their homes, for example.
  • The club needs to improve its democratic functioning. The Chapter leadership refuses to put issues on its meeting agenda with which it does not agree.  There must be some mechanism for members to influence club policies.  When the club takes a position on a specific local policy issue, it has an obligation is hear from both sides first.  The club does not do its due diligence before making such policy decisions.
  • The club needs more scientists and fewer lawyers. When the club takes a position on a complex environmental issue, it has an obligation to be accurate about the information it uses in its public comments and publications.  For example, fundamental and elementary errors are made by the club when advocating for the use of pesticides.

I wish you the best of luck in addressing the weaknesses of the club that have taken decades to develop and will undoubtedly take decades to turn around.  The club has an important role to play.  It is in everyone’s interests that the club survive and be as strong as possible.  At the moment, the club wields more political power than it deserves because it is not using that power responsibly.

Sincerely,

Sierra Club Member

cc: Ramón Cruz
Sierra Club President
c/o board.liaison@sierraclub.org

 

“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.