Money and Fire: 2022 Conference of California Native Plant Society

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

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

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

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

Money

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

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

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

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

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

Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The futility of trying to eradicate non-native plants

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco

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

Sunset Blvd being built on barren sand in 1931

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

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

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

Planting Sunset Blvd. with native plants, December 2020

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

Sunset Blvd and Taraval, spring 2022

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

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

Sunset Blvd & Taraval, October 23, 2022

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Draft of California’s Climate Smart Strategy looks promising

California has made a $15 Billion budget commitment to address climate change and protect biodiversity. The California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) held a series of workshops to explain the initiative and give the public an opportunity to provide feedback to CNRA.  Sixteen hundred Californians participated in those workshops, including me. 

California Natural Resources Agency recently published a draft of the first installment of implementation plans:  “Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy.”  The public is invited to comment on this draft.  The deadline for comment is November 9, 2021.  There are three ways you can send your comments and feedback:  Email: CaliforniaNature@Resources.ca.gov; Letter via postal mail: California Natural Resources Agency, 715 P Street, 20th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814; Voice message: 1 (800) 417-0668.

Update: The deadline for public comment has been extended to Wednesday, November 24, 2021.

Below is the comment that I submitted today.  I focused my attention on the portions of the draft that are relevant to my urban home, such as developed land and urban forests.  My comment may not be relevant to your concerns, so I encourage you to write a comment of our own.  If you find issues in the draft that I haven’t mentioned please post a comment here to alert other readers.


TO:  California Natural Resources Agency

RE: Public Comment on “Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy”

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the draft of California’s Climate Smart Land Stretegy.

I find much to like in the draft of California’s Climate Smart Land Strategy.  In particular:

  • The draft makes a commitment to reduce pesticide use on public lands, for example:

Priority nature-based solutions for developed lands: 

“low-chemical management of parks and open spaces in and around cities to beneft underserved communities who are often the most negatively affected by health impacts related to air pollution and extreme heat caused by urban heat islands.”

“Prioritize protection of public safety by ecologically treating vegetation near roads and energy infrastructure.”

“Utilize safer, more sustainable pest management tools and practices to combat invasive species and accelerate the transition away from harmful pesticides.”

  • The draft makes a commitment to expanding, maintaining and preserving urban forests:

Priority nature-based solutions for developed lands: 

“Increase development and maintenance of both urban tree canopy and green spaces to moderate urban heat islands, decrease energy use, and contribute to carbon sequestration.”

“Maintain urban trees to provide vital ecosystem services for as long as feasible”

  • The State of California defines the urban forest broadly and the draft acknowledges its importance in climate smart land management:

“California Public Resources Code defines urban forests as “those native or introduced trees and related vegetation in the urban and near‐urban areas, including, but not limited to, urban watersheds, soils and related habitats, street trees, park trees, residential trees, natural riparian habitats, and trees on other private and public properties.”  Urban forests are our opportunity to apply climate smart land management in the places most Californians call home. The character of urban forests is diverse, which heavily influences the localized selection of management options and outcomes related to both carbon storage and co-benefits.”

  • The draft acknowledges that suitability to a specific location and climate are the appropriate criteria for planting in the urban forest.  Because native ranges are changing in response to changes in the climate, whether or not a tree is native to a specific location is no longer a suitable criterion.

Utilize place-based tree and plant selection and intensity, to ensure the species selection process considers climate, water, and locally-specific circumstances.”

  • The draft acknowledges the importance of forests to maintain carbon sinks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.  The urgent need to address climate change must trump nativists’ desire to replicate treeless historical landscapes. 

“Healthy forests can serve as reliable carbon sinks, both because they are able to store significant amounts of carbon and because they are at a lower risk of carbon loss due to climate impacts such as wildfire and drought. After large, high-severity fires, some of California’s forests may convert to shrublands and grasslands59 that are not capable of supporting the same level of carbon storage as forests.

“…shrublands and chaparral store substantially less carbon, and the dynamics of their growth and disturbance are less well known. Evidence indicates that shrublands in California are burning more frequently than they would have historically, leading to degraded conditions, possible conversion to grasslands, and reduced carbon storage in above ground biomass.”

Making these commitments operational implies that the State must also make these commitments:

  • The State of California should not fund projects that destroy healthy trees for the sole purpose of replicating treeless historical landscapes, especially on developed lands.
  • The State of California should not fund projects that destroy functional landscapes and healthy trees, particularly by using herbicides.

Suggested improvements in the draft

These commitments in the draft should be revised:

Implement healthy soils practices, including through native plant landscaping and mulch and compost application.”

The word “native” should be deleted because the nativity of a plant is irrelevant to soil health.  Introduced plants do not damage soil, but using herbicides to kill them does damage the soil by killing beneficial microbes and mycorrhizae.   

“Increase drought-tolerant yards and landscaping through, for example, native plant species replacements and lawn removal and by adopting, implementing and enforcing the State’s Model Water Efficient Landscaping Ordinance.”

The word “native” should be replaced by “drought-tolerant,” which would include many native species, but not all.  Redwoods are an example of a native tree that is definitely not drought-tolerant.  Many species of drought-tolerant plants have been introduced to California from other Mediterranean climates that are well adapted to our climate and the anticipated climate in the future.

California’s urban forest is predominantly non-native because these are the tree species that are adapted to our climate and can survive harsh urban conditions. Professor Matt Ritter of CalPoly is the source of these data. He presented this slide at a conference of the California Urban Forest Council on October 14, 2021.

Where appropriate and applicable, Departments should rely on the Class 33 categorical exemption for small habitat restoration projects in the CEQA Guidelines”

Such exemptions should not be granted to projects that will use pesticides because they will damage the environment, including the soil, and the wildlife that lives there.  Such a specific limitation is consistent with commitments in the draft to reduce pesticide use in parks and open spaces around cities because those are the places where such small projects (5 acres or less) are likely to be proposed.  Such a limitation on the use of this exemption to CEQA requirements should be added to the final draft because it does not explicitly exist in the code.

The importance of setting priorities

The strength of the draft is its emphasis on addressing the sources of climate change.  All projects funded by this initiative must be consistent with that over-riding mission because climate change is the primary threat to all ecosystems. Reducing the sources of greenhouse gases causing climate change is a prerequisite for protecting biodiversity.

I appreciate the mention of opportunities to remediate brownfields, but I believe a broader commitment to addressing sources of pollution is needed:

“Ensure brownfield revitalization supports community efforts to become more resilient to climate change impacts by incorporating adaptation and mitigation strategies throughout the cleanup and redevelopment process. These efforts also increase equity, as many climate vulnerable communities live close to brownfields and other blighted properties.”

Julie Bargmann was recently awarded the Oberlander Prize in Landscape Architecture for her ground-breaking work to bring blighted land back to useful life in the heart of post-industrial cities. Her work is unique because it transforms abandoned industrial land into beautiful public space while honoring and preserving its history.  She brings new meaning to the word “restoration.”  She does not begin by destroying functional landscapes.  She provides a model for a new approach that is particularly important to underserved inner-city communities.  I live in Oakland, where I see many such opportunities to restore public land to useful life without the scorched-earth strategies commonly used by ecological “restorations.”

Julie Bargmann projects. Source: NPR News Hour

When ecological restorations are funded without addressing sources of pollution, valuable resources are often wasted.  The recent oil leak from an oil platform off the coast of Southern California is a case in point.  Millions of dollars were spent restoring a wetland that was doused with oil for the second time. Yet, some of the oil platforms in California waters are no longer productive, but have not been safely decommissioned.  This is putting the conservation cart before the horse. 

Talbert Marsh. Source: Huntington Beach Wetland Conservancy

We are about to make enormous investments in the expansion of wetlands, as we should.  At the same time, we should address the sources of pollution that will despoil those wetlands, such as many miles of impaired waters in the watersheds that drain into the wetlands.  For example, the draft touts seagrasses as carbon sinks and acknowledges pollution as one of the major threats to seagrass:  “The leading causes of seagrass loss are nutrient pollution, poor water clarity, disease, and disturbance.”

At every turn, climate smart solutions should stay focused on the underlying causes of problems in the environment, rather than cosmetic solutions that don’t address those causes.  Quibbling about whether or not marsh grass is native or non-native is like arguing about the color of the lifeboat. Let’s focus on whether or not a landscape is functional as a carbon sink.

In conclusion

The draft gives me hope that the State of California can do something useful with our tax dollars to address climate change without damaging the environment further.  The draft shows the influence of learned hands with good intentions.  Now let’s see specific projects funded that are consistent with the goals defined by the draft.  That’s where the rubber meets the road.