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The leaking oil rig on the Gulf Coast is an opportunity to think about the current state of environmentalism.  It reminds us that at the height of our commitment to environmentalism, beginning in the 1960s, the need for action was more evident.  Events such as the burning Cuyahoga River in Ohio and the smog alerts in Los Angeles helped us to understand the urgency of cleaning up our water and air. We believe a top priority for environmentalism today should be climate change and how to combat it.  And we aren’t any less committed to keeping our water free of poisons such as herbicides than we were after we read A Silent Spring in the 1960s.  Because the effects of climate change and herbicides are slow and less visible than a burning river or murky air, the public is not giving them the attention they deserve.  The Gallup Poll reported that the percentage of Americans who believe that global warming will “affect them or their way of life in their lifetime” peaked at 40% in 2008 and declined to 32% in 2010.

The environmental movement is now committed to native plant restorations requiring the use of herbicides and deforestation that releases carbon into our atmosphere contributing to climate change.  They are actively opposing projects such as wind and solar farms that would reduce the sources of climate change.  We think they have lost their way.

 Climate Change

 Although there is a range of opinions about the causes of climate change, we subscribe to the theory most scientists support, that greenhouse gases (GHG) are the primary cause.  GHGs create a “ceiling” around the earth that prevents the escape of heat, making our air hotter than it would otherwise be, turning the earth into a “greenhouse,” so to speak.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the predominant GHG and carbon is an element of CO2.  As trees grow, they absorb carbon and store it throughout their lives.  When they die, and as they decay they release their stored carbon back into the air as CO2.  Therefore, when we destroy a tree, we are contributing to climate change by releasing CO2 and by permanently ending the tree’s ability to absorb CO2 in the future.

There are several factors in the extent to which plants and trees can remove CO2.  One is the size of the plant or tree.  Generally, the bigger the plant or tree, the more carbon it is capable of storing.  Therefore, when we destroy a large tree, such as a eucalyptus, and “replace” it with grassland or shrubs, we have significantly reduced the ability of that vegetation to store carbon.

We frequently hear native plant advocates claim that all the trees they wish to destroy will be replaced by native trees.  This claim is not true.  The natural history of the Bay Areas informs us that trees are not a conspicuous feature of the native landscape, which was grassland, scrub, and brush.  Trees were found only in the crevices of hills where they were sheltered from the wind and where the hills funneled water to them.  When native trees have been planted by native plant advocates where they are not adapted to survive, they have died. According to one of its members, the Claremont Canyon Conservancy has planted 5,000 redwoods of which only 20% have survived.

The stage of growth of the tree is also a factor in its ability to store carbon.  Generally, a tree that is actively growing and still in good health is storing carbon at a faster rate than a tree that is diseased or is near the end of its life.  Therefore, the health and the future of the eucalyptus forest are of interest to us.

Frequently those advocating for the destruction of eucalypts tell us they are diseased, or dying, or “infested” with insects.  None of these claims is true.  The predominant species of eucalyptus in the Bay Area is the Blue Gum.  It lives in Southern Australia, with a climate similar to ours, for 400-500 years (Eucalypt ecology, Williams & Woinarski, Cambridge University Press, 1997) and for 100-200 years in climates more arid than ours.  Insect infestations are rare in our eucalypts because they were brought here as seeds, not as plants (The Eucalyptus, Doughty, 2000).   In other words, their insect predators were not brought here with them.

UC Berkeley’s “vegetation management”

The final fate of the carbon that has been sequestered during the life of a tree depends upon what is done with it when it is destroyed.  If it is used to build a house or another object that will “live on,” some of its carbon is retained in that object until it decays.  So, we have an interest in what is done with the eucalypts and other non-native trees and plants when they are destroyed.  Those that are chipped and spread to decay on the forest floor release their carbon as they decay.  This is the method used by the “vegetation management” projects of UC Berkeley.

The “mother-of-all” these destructive projects is the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) project to destroy about 400,000 trees.  EBRPD says that these trees will be “disposed of at a commercial recycling or composting facility (and not a landfill)…”  In other words, these trees will release their carbon into the atmosphere as they decay.

Let’s visit one final canard before we move on, the claim of native plant advocates that if we don’t destroy all the trees, they will burn anyway, and release their sequestered carbon at that time.  To put it another way, we are told that we must destroy them to save them from burning.

We have discussed the claim that non-natives are more flammable than natives on the page, FIRE!!  The Cover Story.  In short, there is no truth to this claim.  The trunk of the eucalyptus—where most of its carbon is stored—is very fire resistant.   The few fires that have occurred in the East Bay have not destroyed the eucalypts.  There has never been a wildfire in the urban forest in San Francisco.

We are reminded of one of the speakers at the recent Board meeting of the East Bay Regional Park District.  As a doctor, he urged the Board to consider that the “cure” their plan proposes is worse than the disease.  His patients prefer to take their chances of testicular cancer rather than have healthy testicles removed.  So, why would they want to destroy their healthy trees to avoid the remote possibility that they might burn in the future?

 Deforestation and Climate Change

Finland, Wikimedia Commons, Tero Laakso

When climate change is discussed the focus is usually on transportation, such as cars.  We should be conscious of the fact that global deforestation is actually a larger contributor of greenhouse gases than transportation. Deforestation is now a major contributor to climate change, representing about 20 percent of global carbon emissions. Emissions from transportation are responsible for 10% of GHG.

The conventional wisdom is also that deforestation is occurring only in tropical countries.  In fact, the United States lost a larger percentage (6%) of its forests than any other country from 2000 to 2005.  Despite that loss, forests in the United States are still responsible for reducing net flux of carbon into the atmosphere according to the EPA: “Forests accounted for approximately 84 percent of total 2008 net CO2 flux, urban trees accounted for 10 percent…The net forest sequestration in urban forests is a result of net tree growth and increased urban forest size.”

The preservation of our urban forest is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.  When we destroy our urban forest, the San Francisco Bay Area is not doing its fair share in our country’s effort to combat climate change.

An update of global deforestation was posted on September 19, 2014.  

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Bev Jo permalink
    August 30, 2010 12:06 am

    This is so excellent! I wish I could make everyone read it. Beautifully written and so true. Thank you so much.

  2. ananya permalink
    November 7, 2011 7:40 am

    we all should conserve trees………………………………………

  3. March 7, 2012 2:10 pm

    Excellent researched article! I was wondering if I can use it on my new website about deforestation as well (with proper credit, of course) in order to give it more exposure!

    Let me know!

    Webmaster: Yes! Please do reprint our “Deforestation” post with attribution. We have added a link to your excellent website to our home page and we hope you will consider adding a link to Million Trees on your site.

    You may also want to read this post about deforestation:

    Thank you for your interest in this important issue. We are losing our trees at an alarming rate and for a variety of reasons, but the most ridiculous reason is the one used by native plant advocates: “They don’t belong here.” We believe that trees “belong” wherever they can be successfully grown. The destruction of trees can only be justified if they are unhealthy and consequently hazardous.

  4. AWESOME PERSON permalink
    August 6, 2012 1:19 pm

    I love trees 🙂

  5. samin permalink
    March 11, 2015 8:33 am

    great i love treesssssssssssss

  6. OKECH MCADAM JOHN permalink
    March 20, 2015 2:32 am

    Uganda green charcoal is concerned with the global environment that has drawn attention on different platforms, highlighting the devastating effects as unfriendly actions continue to exert pressure on the green nature.

    In Uganda, only 10% of the population have access to electricity while the rest use firewood for cooking and other power requiring activities (NEMA 2013). As a result, deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate of 1% approximately 90,000 acres of forest cover annually at the center of deforestation is the lucrative trade, commonly known as “black gold”. This problem is compounded by the high population growth rate of more than seven live birth per adult female. As a result, the country has been plighted with deforestation at a magnitude beyond comprehension.

    To this, realizing the environmental challenges affecting our country, we the founder members resolve to form a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) known as UGANDA GREEN CHARCOAL

  7. May 21, 2015 10:41 am

    Grassland is not normal cause grass can never compete with trees and shrubs, not even in arid areas cause trees and shrubs rely on underground water that is from ten to a few hundred feet deep, not surface water. The landscape that you have been seeing in California for the past several hundred or even thousands of years was a result of human activities.

    Humans killed trees to use them as lumber and to create more farmland. To humans, shrubs that are not edible are like weeds. When farmland became infertile after years of farm activities, farmers abandoned their land which would eventually turn into grassland that was suitable only for grazing. This was exactly what happened in some parts of Greece. There are still many foolish people in Greece who believe in pastoralism which is a main cause of recent desertification there.

    Without trees and shrubs, the ground temperature will be much higher resulting in much lower humidity and hence lower rate of precipitation. A hotter and dryer coastal area will also affect oceanic cloud formation cause the earth is spinning. There are also studies showing that ground vegetation affects seasonal monsoons. Australia is becoming more arid because of the change in monsoon patterns as a result of their extensive farming practice.

    Archaeologists now believe that North Africa was originally covered with a lot of vegetation and much less arid. There were a lot of farm activities at the middle of Sahara more than 5000 years ago. Again, there was a gradual shfit in the monsoon patterns pushing the humid air southward. You can guess what happened to the land when farmers abandon their farmland after years of dry weather. There was no longer seeds of trees and shrubs and grass with it shallow root system could not stand the dry hot summer. The result is a desert.

    Plant trees if you want to save California!

    • May 21, 2015 11:05 am

      Thank you for your visit and for your very interesting comment, which is consistent with our understanding of this issue. The destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees will have devastating consequences for our environment and the animals living in it.

  8. Sharon brink permalink
    November 3, 2019 10:57 am

    We deforest to grow food for cattle, build houses, build infrastructure, etc I gather we should replant when possible, should we not be replanting natives. Here we are inundated with blackberries(non native) and broom(nonnative) and they are smothering everything possible, native or otherwise. I would hate the idea of letting them cover everything.

    • November 4, 2019 3:52 pm

      It depends. Are the trees considered “native” still adapted to current conditions? Will the “native” survive in the current climate? Will there be enough water for the “native?” Is there a new pathogen or insect that is killing the “native” species? Here in California Sudden Oak Death has killed about 50 million native oaks. If a native oak was killed by SOD, there is no point in planting another oak to replace it because the soil is now infected with the pathogen. If a non-native tree is better adapted to current conditions, it will shade the ground and suppress the growth of the non-native shrubs about which you are concerned. The best tree is the one that will survive.


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  4. Celebrating the first anniversary of the Million Trees blog « Death of a Million Trees
  5. Day of the Dead Trees | Death of a Million Trees

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