Parks for the future, not the past

East Bay Regional Park District is preparing to put a parcel tax on the ballot in 2018 that will extend the funding of park improvements for another 15 years.  The public has been invited to tell the park district what improvement projects should be funded by the parcel tax in the future.  We are publishing a series of such public comments that we hope will inspire the public to submit their own suggestions to the park district. 


TO:         publicinformation@ebparks.org

CC:         Board of Directors

FROM:  Park Advocate

RE:          Suggestion for Measure CC Projects

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  The climate has changed and it will continue to change.  If park improvement projects are going to be successful, they must have realistic goals that take into consideration the changes that have occurred and the changes anticipated in the future.

The restoration of native grassland is an example of a project that is not realistic, given current environmental conditions.  Grassland in California has been 98% non-native annual grasses for over 150 years.  Mediterranean annual grasses were brought from Mexico to California by the cattle of the Spaniards in the early 19th century.

David Amme is one of the co-founders of The California Native Grass Association and was one of the authors of East Bay Regional Park District’s “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” while employed by EBRPD. In an article he wrote for Bay Nature he listed a few small remnants of native grasses in the East Bay and advised those who attempt to find them, “As you go searching for these native grasses, you’ll see firsthand that the introduction of the Mediterranean annual grasses is the juggernaut that has forever changed the balance and composition of our grasslands.”   That article is available HERE.

The park district seems to understand the futility of trying to transform non-native annual grassland to native bunch grasses.  Here are two signs in two of the EBRPD’s parks that acknowledge the reality of California’s grassland.

Serpentine Prairie, April 2017
Tilden Park, Inspiration Point, October 2016

Yet, despite this acknowledgement, the park district continues to expand its efforts to transform the parks into native grassland.  Park visitors recently observed a failed experiment to introduce native grasses to one of the parks.  Six plots of ground were fenced.  Two of the plots were control plots in which whatever non-native weeds had naturalized were allowed to grow unmolested.  Two of the plots were mulch/seeded with native grasses and two of the plots were fabric/seeded with native grasses.  There was no observable difference in plant composition or abundance between the seeded and unseeded plots.  There was no observable difference in the outcome of the two different seeding methods that were used.  In other words, native grasses were not successfully introduced to this park.  My correspondence with the EBRPD employee who was responsible for this project is attached.

Albany Bulb, April 2017
Albany Bulb, April 2017

The park in which this experiment was conducted is Albany Bulb.  Albany Bulb is the former garbage dump of the City of Albany.  It was built on landfill in the bay.  The soil is not native and there were never any native plants on it.  It does not seem a promising candidate for a native plant “restoration.”  Unfortunately, Albany Bulb is not an atypical park along the bay.  There are many other parks along the bay that were built on landfill and in which the park district is attempting to establish native plant gardens.  This does not seem a realistic objective for these parks.

 

 

 

 


Albany Bulb April 2018

Update:  One year after the experimental planting of native wildflowers at Albany Bulb, there is no evidence of that effort.  The trail-sides are mowed weeds and the upslope from the trail is studded with blooming non-native oxalis and wild radish. 

Albany Bulb. Non-native wildflowers. April 2018

Albany Bulb will soon be closed to the public for a major “improvement” project.   Albany Landfill Dog Owners Group and Friends expects the park to be closed for about one year.  They are unsure if the park will allow dogs off leash when the park re-opens.  More information about the “improvement” project is available on their website:  http://www.aldog.org/announcements-2.  They suggest that you sign up on their website to be notified of the progress of the project and the status of the re-opening of the park.

 

 


 

This is not to say that there aren’t many worthwhile park improvement projects that are both realistic and needed.  Dredging Lake Temescal is an example of a worthy project.  As you know, Lake Temescal was a popular place for people to swim until recently.  In the past few years it often has been closed to the public because of toxic algal blooms.  The algal blooms are caused by two closely related factors.  The water is warmer than it was in the past because of climate change and the lake is shallower than it was in the past because of sediment deposited into the lake.

Black crowned night heron in algal bloom, Lake Temescal, April 2017

The park district has tried to address this issue by using various chemicals to control the growth of the algae.  Although that has occasionally been successful for brief periods of time, it is not a long term solution to the problem.  Furthermore, it is a good example of why the park district uses more chemicals than necessary.  If the park district would address the underlying cause of the problem—that is, the depth of the lake—it would not be necessary to keep pouring chemicals into the lake.  Dredging Lake Temescal should be a candidate for Measure CC funding.

And so I return to the point of this suggestion for Measure CC:  Please plan projects that take into consideration the reality of climate change, that address the underlying causes of environmental issues, and that have some prospect for success.

Thank you for your consideration.


Send your comments regarding Measure CC renewal to publicinformation@ebparks.org

Send copies to staff and board members of East Bay Regional Park District
Robert Doyle, General Manager rdoyle@ebparks.org
Ana Alvarez, Deputy General Manager aalvarez@ebparks.org
Casey Brierley, Manager of Integrated Pest Management cbrierley@ebparks.org

Board of Directors:
Beverly Lane, Board President blane@ebparks.org
Whitney Dotson wdotson@ebparks.org
Dee Rosario drosario@ebparks.org
Dennis Waespi dwaespi@ebparks.org
Ellen Corbett ecorbett@ebparks.org
Ayn Wieskamp awieskamp@ebparks.org
Colin Coffey ccoffey@ebparks.org

“Mulch Madness” and other restoration mistakes

Thanks to Professor Gordon Frankie (UC Berkeley), we have learned a lot about the bees in the Bay Area.  He has been studying our bees for over 20 years and has made a wealth of interesting information available on his website.

Native bee (Anthrophora urbana) approaching nest in ground at Albany Bulb

Unlike the European honeybee, our native bees are usually solitary.  That is, they do not live in social colonies such as the hives of the European honeybee.   Most (60-70%) California native bees live in small nests in the ground.  Although they may produce enough honey to feed their own young, they don’t store an excess of honey like the honeybee.

Professor Frankie has identified one of the biggest challenges to native bees in urban gardens, “Mulch Madness.” 

“[If] you happen to be one of the many ground-nesting bees that looks for garden sites for digging small tunnels where you will lay your eggs in individually-made brood cells that you will provision with pollen and some nectar, [you have a new problem in urban gardens]…Something has happened in recent years to those favored bare dirt sites that makes your task much harder and oftentimes impossible.  MULCH MADNESS has arrived and has become a highly promoted ‘eco-friendly’ method for suppressing weeds, conserving water, and unknowingly discouraging ground-nesting bees!”

Anyone who is familiar with native plant restorations knows that most are covered in a thick layer of mulch.  When tree removals are required for a restoration, the mulch is usually composed of the chips of the trees that have been cut down.  The projects of UC Berkeley for which UC is applying for FEMA funding (based on its claim that the clear-cutting of all non-native trees will reduce fire hazards) say specifically that the clear-cut areas will be covered with 24 inches of mulch composed of the chips of the destroyed trees.

The UC Berkeley projects also claim that native vegetation will return to these clear-cut areas without being planted, based on an assumption that the seeds of native plants are dormant in the soil.  One wonders how these seeds would be able to germinate when covered with 24 inches of mulch, or how the sprouts could penetrate it.  Their proposal contains the fanciful suggestion that squirrels will plant the acorns of oaks in the mulch, which may be true of the oaks, but is an unlikely scenario for the many other native plants and trees which UC claims will populate their “restorations” without being planted.

Accommodating bees in native plant restorations

In the unlikely event that native plants would emerge from this tomb of mulch, they won’t find a population of bees to pollinate them in the future because bees will not be able to populate these projects:  “bees will not dig through a thick layer of mulch.”  Frankie suggests that “about 50% of your garden be left in bare dirt for the bees and other organisms.”  Studies indicate that it will take between 10 and 15 years for 24 inches of mulch to decompose.

Native plant restorations also require the use of herbicides.  A particularly toxic herbicide, Garlon, is used to kill the roots of the non-native trees after they have been cut down.  If the stump isn’t sprayed with this herbicide immediately, the tree will resprout.  The plans for the UC Berkeley projects say that retreatment with this herbicide is required twice per year for 10 years.  Although insecticides are considered one of the primary reasons why bee populations are declining in the United States, less is known about the effect of herbicides on bees and other insects, because testing of these chemicals is minimal. Some scientists believe that all pesticides (both insecticides and herbicides) are more harmful to bees and other animals than we presently know.*  Professor Frankie recommends against the use of all “synthetic chemicals” in a garden in which bees are welcome.

Would native plant restorations benefit from more bees?

The restorations with which we are familiar in the San Francisco Bay Area are often unsuccessful.  That is, they are not usually populated by native plants unless they have been intensively planted, weeded, and irrigated.  Few managers of public lands have the resources for such intensive gardening.  UC Berkeley has been clear-cutting non-native trees on its properties for about 10 years, so we can visit some of those areas to see the results of such projects.  They are now weedy messes, as shown in this photograph.

Results of clear-cutting non-native trees, UC Berkeley project

The use of heavy mulches and herbicides in native plant restorations raises these questions:    Would using less mulch and herbicide attract more bees?  Would more bees benefit the native plants?  Would restorations be more successful if they were more attractive places for bees?  We don’t claim to know the answers to these questions.  However, we don’t think that the managers of these projects know the answers either.

Would scientific methods produce more successful native plant restorations?

What the managers of these projects call “adaptive management,” we call “trial-and-error.”  There is no science involved in these projects.  Control areas are not set up to test questions such as “Will a more bee-friendly environment benefit our projects?”    We think a more methodical approach to these efforts would be less wasteful and more successful.  If we could see more success, perhaps we would be less opposed to what seems like the needless destruction of non-native trees.  As it is, the consistently poor results do not justify the destruction that we witness.


* Schacker, Michael, A Spring without Bees, Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2008.

The Bees of Berkeley

Gordon Frankie is a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.  He has been studying the preferences of bees in northern California for over 20 years.  In 2002 he published an article in Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, reporting on the preliminary results of his study.*

First, a word about the methods used in his study.  His research team visited the residential gardens of north Berkeley and Albany twice per week for three years, 1999 to 2002.  In the first stage of the study, the team identified the plants that were being visited by bees.  In the third year, they focused on counting the number of visits made to the identified “bee plants” by each species of bee.

The plants of Berkeley

Frankie’s team reports having identified 600-700 different varieties of non-native plants in the study area.  Native plants were defined as those that occur historically only in northern California.  Only 50 species of native plants were identified in the study area.

The bees of Berkeley

Frankie was surprised by the diversity of the bee population found by his research team.  They report having identified 74 different species of bees (updated on his website to 81).  Of those, only two were non-native bees (the European honeybee and the leaf cutting alfalfa bee).  Putting these numbers into perspective, there are approximately 1,600 species of bees in California and about 4,000 known to occur in the U.S.  Frankie reported that the population of European honeybees in the study area has declined significantly in the past 10 to 15 years.

What do the bees of Berkeley want?

The bees were observed visiting a small number of the total number of flowering plants available to them.  Only 72 species of flowering plants were visited by bees often enough to be counted by this study as “bee plants,” about 10% of the total number of flowering plants available to them.  Fifty-three of the “bee plants” were non-native and 19 were natives. 

Native bumblebee on non-native cotoneaster, Albany Bulb, Albany, California

While the bees of Berkeley are using a higher percentage of the available native plants (38%) than they are of non-native plants (8%), the percentage of non-native plants they are using is nearly 75% of all the flowers they are using.   Clearly, the non-native plants are important to the bees of Berkeley.

Frankie explains that many non-native plants are not useful to bees because they have been cultivated for looks, rather than for the nectar and pollen needed by the bees.  However, on his website, he updates his research with some strong recommendations to include both natives and non-natives in our gardens both for the benefit of the bees and the benefit of native plants.

Non-native plants extend the blooming period in our gardens, which provides food to the bees for a longer period of time:

“California native [plants] tend to flower in early spring and summer, while non-native ornamentals bloom mainly in late summer to fall, so a combination of both would be ideal for attracting the highest potential density of bees.”

Also, when our gardens attract more bees, all the plants in our gardens benefit from their pollination services, which will also benefit the native plants in our gardens:

“If your priority is a healthy garden, it makes good ecological sense to consider your plants’ bee-attractiveness, rather than focusing exclusively on whether one hundred percent of your plants are natives.  Even if your priority is to have a native garden, it can be highly advantageous to include even a couple of exotic plants on the basis of their bee-attractiveness.  The bees they attract will help your natives thrive.”

Frankie reminds us that the bees don’t care about the nativity of the plants that they use. 

Insects and other wild animals make no distinction between weeds and plants we put in our gardens.  From the perspective of the bee, any plant that provides quality pollen and nectar is attractive.  For the short period they are in bloom, weeds such as dandelions and white clover provide bees with good sources of pollen and nectar.”

Opening our minds to the benefits of non-native plants

The bees of Berkeley remind us that the obsession with native plants is a human hang up that is not shared by animals.  They consider the nativity of the plants that are useful to them to be irrelevant.  So should we. 


* Gordon Frankie, et al, “Bees in Berkeley,” Fremontia, July/October 2002

Fortress Conservation: The loss of recreational access

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

The recent publication of an article about Sharp Park in Pacifica, featuring a photo of this sign has inspired us to consider the recreational access restrictions that often accompany native plant and animal conservation projects.

In this case, an 18-hole golf course in Sharp Park is at stake.  A coalition of environmental organizations (1) recently sued the City of San Francisco to close this golf course, based on their claim that the golf course violates the Endangered Species Act by harming two endangered species (Red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake).  The City of San Francisco claims that the golf course can be reconfigured to accommodate these species.  Meanwhile, conservation efforts requiring closure of recreational areas, according to this sign, are continuing.

The organizations that have sued San Francisco also claim that the closures they demand will actually improve recreational opportunities.  This claim is based on an assumption that the preferred form of “recreation” is standing on a trail or boardwalk behind a fence, looking at wildlife through binoculars.  Naturally, people who play golf see it otherwise.

We don’t claim to know the needs of these particular endangered species.  However, based on similar claims in other parks, we are skeptical.  In our experience, environmentalists—and sometimes park managers—often claim that animals are more fragile than scientific evidence or actual experience suggests.  We therefore suspect that animals are sometimes used by environmentalists and park managers to justify closing recreational areas. 

Loss of recreational access at Fort Funston, San Francisco

In a series of closures from 1997 to 2000, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) fenced visitors out of more than 28 acres of Fort Funston (about 15% of total acreage), claiming the land was “bank swallow habitat” and that the swallows needed the closures for protection of their breeding colony.  In fact, the fenced land is not bank swallow habitat.  The swallows do not nest, breed, feed, roost, or do any of the normal activities a bird does in its habitat, inside the closures.  The swallows fly over it on their way from their nests on the cliff face above the beach to Lake Merced where they feed on insects.  The GGNRA sponsored a study(2) of wildlife in the fenced areas during the breeding season of the swallows, when the swallows were present.  The study included a census of all birds observed inside the enclosure and reported not a single bank swallow.

A swallow expert, William M. Shields, SUNY Professor of Biology, said of the closures, “I do not believe that a closure of the size and type described by the park service is required or even would benefit the Bank Swallow at all.”  He said that the closure was based on “…their [GGNRA’s] misrepresentations about the needs and safety of the Bank Swallows breeding in the cliffs.”  Dr. Shields classified GGNRA’s claims of providing improved feeding habitat as, “…a major stretch and smacks of special pleading to me.”

Bank swallow burrows (circled) in cliff above beach at Fort Funston

The bank swallows nest in burrows in the cliff faces at Fort Funston, where they are out of reach of recreational visitors who seldom even notice the presence of the birds.  Furthermore, as Dr. Shields notes, “The Bank Swallow like other swallows is quite suited to live with humans and their pets.”  Another swallow expert, Barrett Garrison says in his monograph Bank Swallow, Bank Swallows appear relatively insensitive to moderate levels of human-induced disturbance.”  Garrison lists documented land uses around Bank Swallow colonies:  hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, recreational boating, commercial agriculture, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and livestock grazing.

Bank swallow nests in……
…a sheep pasture

When the public was fenced out of large areas of Fort Funston, the bank swallow was just a phony excuse.  We try to avoid speculating about the motivation of others, but in this case the massive native plant “restoration” that followed the closure seems the likely goal of the closure. 

Loss of recreational access at Albany Bulb in the East Bay

Frenced enclosure at Albany Plateau for theoretical burrowing owls

In 2008, 8 acres of the Albany Plateau (the flat area at the east end of the Albany Bulb) was fenced at a cost of $125,700.  The stated purpose of this fenced enclosure was to create habitat for the burrowing owl, although owls had never been seen nesting there.  Three years later there are still no burrowing owls in this fenced enclosure.  In fact, there is nothing in this fenced area and nothing is happening there.  Update:  Ten years later, no owls have been seen nesting there.  November 2017

How did we lose this recreational resource?  That is a fascinating story:  “During the planning process for the Eastshore State Park…the demonstration of community need for sports fields led to the designation of the eastern side of the Albany Plateau as “active recreation” land use category.  This was problematic because of its proximity to the Albany Mudflats State Sanctuary and because State Parks is not in the practice of operating formal sports fields facilities.”(3)  Consequently, the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex south of Golden Gate Fields was approved for development as sports fields.  Unfortunately one burrowing owl had been seen (but was not nesting) in that area two years before.  Therefore, environmentalists demanded “mitigation” for the development of a sports field in that area.  The “mitigation” was the creation of the 8-acre fenced enclosure on the Albany Plateau.  So far, burrowing owls have not elected to use the fenced area.

But why would a burrowing owl choose to nest on the Albany Plateau when it has a nesting area just a few miles down the road at the Cesar Chavez Park?  Burrowing owls can be seen nesting at Cesar Chavez Park every year from October to April.  There are post-and-rope fences that designate their nesting area, but those fences are not impenetrable as is the chain link fence on the Albany Plateau.  People (often with their dogs on leash) walk on trails within 20 feet of the owls.  The owls don’t seem disturbed by this activity and apparently prefer the busy Cesar Chavez Park to the fenced Albany Plateau.

Burrowing owl, Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley

Are animals being used as tools to restrict recreational access?

We wish the animals could speak for themselves.  Do they require the enclosures that environmentalists demand for them?  We think the answer to that question is sometimes “NO!”  And when environmentalists make these claims repeatedly, do they lose their credibility when the evidence indicates that such restrictions are in fact not needed?  In other words, are environmentalists crying wolf?  Or do they accomplish their true goals by successfully fencing people out of our parks?  Is their goal an example of Fortress Conservation or a sincere effort to protect animals from harm?  Do park managers prefer parks without people?


(1) Wild Equity Institute, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity

(2) “Evaluating Wildlife Response to Coastal Dune Habitat Restoration in San Francisco, California” by Will Russell, Jennifer Shulzitski and Asha Setty, Ecological Restoration, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2009

(3) City of Albany City Council Agenda Staff Report

Oyster Bay: A preview of plans for the Albany Bulb

The Albany Bulb is the former dump of the city of Albany, CA.  It was built on landfill.  The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) recently announced its intention to “restore” it as a native plant garden, though it admits that the word “restore” is a misnomer for a place that was never populated by native plants.  Presently, the Bulb contains an eclectic collection of art built from the junk that remains from the dump.  Non-native plants and trees thrive there with no care.  Please visit our post about the Albany Bulb for photos of this colorful and unique recreational and artistic resource. 

We recently had the opportunity to express our opinion of plans for the Albany Bulb in a conversation with the Assistant General Manager of Planning/Stewardship & Development of EBRPD.   We told the manager that it is pointless to destroy the Albany Bulb because it is an artificial place in which native plants are not more native than what grows there now without any care.  It is a heavily used place that does not require any “improvements.”  It is therefore a waste of money to destroy something that everyone loves just as it is.

The manager told us that we would also love the native plant garden once it is done.  He said that visitors often object to plans for changes in their park, but that when the project is done, they are always happy with it.  He urged us to visit Oyster Bay, a former dump for the city of San Leandro, also built on landfill.  He said it is now a beautiful native plant garden that everyone is delighted to visit.  And so, of course, we had to see this transformation because we want to know what is in store for the Albany Bulb.

This is what we found at Oyster Bay. 

Oyster Bay, April 2011

We found hundreds of stumps of trees that have been destroyed.  Many of the trees are now resprouting.  We wondered if the resprouts would be poisoned to prevent the trees from regenerating.  If not, we wondered how long it would take for the trees to return. 

Resprouts

The ground around the tree stumps was a labyrinth of the holes made by animals that had lived in them in the past.  The animals have moved on, perhaps to the cover provided by trees nearby. 

Pittosporum, Oyster Bay

We found a green sea of non-native grass.

Non-native annual grass

We found non-native broom and native coyote brush and close by huge piles of those same shrubs that have been mechanically cleared.  We don’t know why they have been mowed down.  We doubt that anyone would consider these debris piles a “park improvement.”

Non-native broom & Pride of Madeira, native coyote brush
One of many piles of destroyed vegetation

We found a small patch of native plants at the entrance of the park and a sign informing us that this scene of destruction is a “park improvement” project.

We also spoke to one of the few visitors we encountered on this beautiful spring Saturday.  We asked if they had been coming to the park for a long time.  They said that had.  We asked how they felt about the changes in the park, without giving them any clues as to our own assessment.  They readily volunteered that they didn’t understand why the trees were destroyed. 

 

A few native plants at the park entrance

Once again, we are reminded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Assuming that the park manager with whom we spoke about Oyster Bay has actually seen this park, and that he sincerely believes that it is a lovely native plant garden, we must beg to differ.  Although it is a beautiful park, it has not been improved by the needless destruction of trees and vegetationThe beauty of this park derives from its diverse collection of predominantly non-native plants and trees.  We hope that it will not be further damaged by an agenda that is devoted to native plants, not to the enjoyment of park visitors. Likewise, the Albany Bulb is unlikely to be improved by destroying plants, trees, and art that is all doing just fine without any intervention by the East Bay Regional Park District.  We urge the Park District to LET IT BE! 

We don't think so!

“Mother Nature’s Melting Pot”

The Sunday New York Times of April 3rd published an op ed in defense of non-native plants.  In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot” Professor Hugh Raffles (New School) reminds us that our country was built by immigrants.  Despite our origins, we also have a long tradition of opposition to immigration.  As each generation becomes established, it wishes to pull up the welcome carpet to new immigrants.  During times of economic crisis this anti-immigration sentiment is particularly strong.

Professor Raffles notes the extension of this anti-immigration sentiment to non-native plants and animals.  Just as immigrants have contributed to the dynamism and creativity of our society, non-native plants are contributing to our natural world as, “They arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar conditions and proceed to remake each other and their surroundings.” (1)

He provides many examples of non-native plants and animals that benefit both humans and native animals, including several examples that are locally relevant.  He reminds us that the eucalyptus is a rare source of winter nectar for the honeybees that were imported in the 1600s and now pollinate about one-third of our food crops.  He also reminds us that ice plant can stabilize sandy soils that might otherwise inundate our roads and neighborhoods as they shift in the wind.

Painted Lady butterfly on ice plant. Bug Squad, UC Davis

He notes that attempts to eradicate non-native plants and animals are often futile once the species become firmly established and that attempts to do so often harm the environment.   Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are acutely aware of the harm being done by attempts to eradicate non-native plants.  We witness hundreds of thousands of healthy, mature trees being needlessly destroyed.  We see acres of park land being sprayed with toxic herbicides.  We watch precious recreational space being fenced off for “restorations” in places that are completely artificial, yet also entirely natural in the sense that they are sustained without being actively gardened.

The most recent example is the announcement that the Albany Bulb (in Albany, CA) will soon be transformed into a native plant garden.  The Albany Bulb is composed of landfill that was used for decades as a city dump and is now a heavily used park, populated by art created from the junk that remains from the dump.  Non-native plants and trees thrive there without any care.  It is pointless to destroy this valuable artistic and recreational resource, yet native plant advocates demand its “restoration.” 

Wild radish (non-native), “junk” art on Albany Bulb

Professor Raffles makes the logical connection between anti-immigration sentiment and the native plant movement’s commitment to the eradication of non-native plants and animals.  This connection is relevant in the Bay Area because a prominent leader of the native plant movement here is strongly opposed to immigration.

Jake Sigg has been an officer in the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society for many years.  He was a gardener in San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department for 31 years.  He was awarded the “Jake Sigg Award for Vision and Dedicated Service” by the California Invasive Plant Council in 2003.  This award was named for him, “For years of tireless service and leadership on invasive plant issues in California.”

For many years, Mr. Sigg has published a “Nature News” newsletter several times each week.  This newsletter is widely distributed throughout the Bay Area and is a valuable source of information about nature-related activities.  It is also Mr. Sigg’s podium from which he expresses his opinion on a range of topics.  In most issues, he expresses his deep concern about immigration, both legal and illegal.

“Virtually All Of California’s Problems Can Be Traced Back To Too Many People…Virtually All Of California’s Population Growth In The Last 10 Years Was Due To Immigration…If We Don’t Do Something About Immigration, Our Problems Will Get Much Worse.”  April 2, 2011, Nature News

He is equally concerned about related issues such as granting visas to workers with unique skills and granting citizenship to children born to undocumented immigrants.

“The Ever Expanding Pool of Cheap Labor and the Case For Fewer Visas By Joe Guzzardi”  January 25, 2011, Nature News

“Current U.S. policy results in over 300,000 additional citizens from anchor babies each year.  The demographic impact is far greater because their families stay and bring in additional relatives. Anchor babies are eligible to sponsor their illegal alien parents and other relatives when they turn 21. Moreover, taxpayers pick up the tab for the medical costs and subsequent welfare outlays because of the child’s citizenship status. ACTION NEEDED  Please ask your Congressional representative to co-sponsor HR 140.”  January 13, 2011, Nature News

And so, we conclude that Professor Raffles is not making an idle philosophical connection between the native plant movement and anti-immigration sentiment.  There IS a connection because we see it discussed repeatedly by a prominent voice in the community of native plant advocates.  Occasionally, one of Mr. Sigg’s allies challenges his opinion on this subject.  However, such a debate is apparently rare in his community of interests.

We thank Professor Raffles for making explicit what is implicit in the native plant movement.  We believe that the connection between the eradication of non-native plants and animals and opposition to immigration should be acknowledged and discussed.  The desire to be rid of immigrants—both plants and animals, including humans—is grounded in a need to find someone or something to blame for problems that we are unprepared to face or are powerless to change. 

In the case of human immigration, our living standards are declining primarily because of the globalization of the economy.  Building a wall around our country will not isolate us from the fact that developing countries with lower standards of living are presently more economically competitive.

Likewise, eradicating non-native plants and animals will not prevent the climate change and associated changes in air and water quality that make those newcomers more competitive than the natives that thrived in a different environment, one that is gone and is unlikely to return.    In fact, the destruction of healthy, mature non-native trees is exacerbating the climate change that will ultimately exterminate many species of native plants and animals.(2)


(1) Hugh Raffles, “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” New York Times, April 3, 2011

(2) “Multitude of Species Face Threat of Warming,” New York Times, April 4, 2011

What is natural?

The branch of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department dedicated to the preservation and restoration of native plants to the city’s parks calls itself the Natural Areas Program (NAP).  And the 31 parks or portions of parks within NAP’s jurisdiction are called Natural Areas.  In this post we will visit a few of these areas to ask if they are accurately described as “natural.”

Parcel 4, Balboa & Great Highway, 1868

The Natural Area known as Parcel 4 is at the corner of Balboa and the Great Highway.  A photograph taken in 1868 of that location indicates that it has been continuously built upon for nearly 150 years.  Long-term residents of San Francisco will remember it as the location of Playland by the Beach.  After Playland was closed, the city purchased the property for $3.05 million in 1993 with the intention of putting a sewer pipe under it, then restoring it to dune vegetation.  The soil was essentially building rubble, so the city had to buy $47,000 of sand and disk it down 18 inches to amend the soil in preparation for planting dune vegetation.  The sand was bulldozed into simulated dune shapes and planted in 2002.  The restoration was described in the newsletter of the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods in April 2003, in an article entitled “Sand Francisco.”  Does this sound “natural” to you?

Parcel 4 under construction, 2002
Eight years later, 2010

India Basin is a Natural Area on the east side of the city, on the bay.  The east shore of the city was where most industrial development was located until industry left the city beginning in the 1960s.  Much of the soil was landfill.  Like Parcel 4, the landfill was bull-dozed into a simulated wetland, hoping to restore tidal action.  Native pickle-weed was planted several times in the mud-filled basins.  We haven’t visited this area for several years.  Perhaps they have finally been successful in that effort.  This is what we found there on our last visit:  native plants along the trail, surrounded by plastic and woodchips to discourage weeds and huge, empty, mud basins off shore.    It didn’t look natural to us.

India Basin, 2003

Many of the Natural Areas in San Francisco are less artificial than these two extreme examples.  Some of the Natural Areas weren’t built upon in the past, but had no native plants in them when they were designated as Natural Areas.  Pine Lake is an example of such a Natural Area.  Even where native plants actually existed, their populations were small and isolated in comparison to the acreage designated as a Natural Area.  Over 1,000 acres of city-managed parkland have been designated as Natural Areas, 25% of all parkland in San Francisco and 33% if Pacifica is included in the calculation.

Sculpture of “Albany Bulb Greeter”

Now we will visit the Albany Bulb for contrast.  Albany Bulb is also landfill that was for many years the Albany city dump.  When the dump was closed, the Bulb became a park.  It is a wild and wonderful place.  There are few native plants, other than the ubiquitous coyote bush that seems to thrive almost anywhere.  In the spring, Albany Bulb is a riot of color.  These are the competitive non-natives that native plant advocates wring their hands about.  They are there because they are best adapted to the current conditions in this location…the heavily amended soil, the higher levels of CO₂, the warmer climate, the use by humans and their animal companions. 

Valerian and wild mustard, Albany Bulb. Both are non-native plants.

If all of these non-native plants and trees were eradicated from the Albany Bulb, would native plants magically appear?  Based on our experience, we don’t think so.  The conditions that supported the plants that are native to the Bay Area are gone for good.  It is a fantasy that the existence of non-native plants is the only obstacle to the return of the natives.  Visiting a few places where this strategy has been tried will confirm this.  Unless the natives are aggressively planted, irrigated for several years, fenced for protection, weeded or sprayed with herbicides regularly, they do not return.  Can such intensive gardening be called “natural?”