Who supports the Sierra Club agenda?

John Muir is the founder of the Sierra Club. He would disgusted by the Club's advocacy for deforestation. He planted eucalyptus trees on his property in Martinez. He was as fond of eucalyptus as those who fight for their preservation.
John Muir is the founder of the Sierra Club. He would be disgusted by the Club’s advocacy for deforestation. He planted eucalyptus trees on his property in Martinez. He was as fond of eucalyptus as those who fight for their preservation today.

In this post we continue to deconstruct the Sierra Club’s “pre-buttal” to the letter from a Sierra Club member to fellow members.  We will examine the following claim that other environmental organizations support the Sierra Club’s agenda to destroy all non-native trees on 2,000 acres of public land in the East Bay Hills, and to use pesticides to do it:

“Members should know that this strategy also has the support of many fire experts and other environmental organizations, including the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy.” (1)

In 2009, Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society co-signed an “Environmental Green Paper” entitled “Managing the East Bay Hills Wildland/Urban Interface to Preserve Native Habitat and Reduce the Risk of Catastrophic Fire.”  This suggests that at that point in time, these three organizations were in agreement about those issues.

However, by the time the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the FEMA projects that will implement that policy was published in 2013, their public comments on the DEIS suggest that their opinions diverged significantly.  Here are some of the comments they made that suggest substantial disagreement with the planned project.

California Native Plant Society predicts the result of FEMA projects

California Native Plant Society (CNPS) public comment on the DEIS (excerpt):

“The FEMA grants require monitoring and weed maintenance for years to come. Yet the FEMA grants do not supply funding for any of the follow up weed abatement. The East Bay Regional Park District, City of Oakland, and UC Berkeley have great trouble keeping up with acres of weedy species now in their stewardship purview. There just isn’t money available for comprehensive management of weedy invasives. This is demonstrated by the many acres of weedy ‘fuels managed’ areas, including fire roads. 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?” (2)

The rhetorical question asked by CNPS suggests that they share our skepticism about the outcome of the FEMA projects.  The project is not providing any funding for planting native plants or maintaining them in the long run.  CNPS seems to agree with us that the likely outcome of this project will be non-native annual grasses.

The CNPS comment also seems to share our opinion that the annual grasses that are the likely colonizers of the bare ground will be a fire hazard:  “…exotic annual grassland, known for drying out the top layer of soil, and extending the fire season with dried out flashy surface fuel that can act like a fuse to ignite other areas.”  (2)

The CNPS prediction of the landscape resulting from the FEMA grants is in stark contrast to the rosy prediction of the Sierra Club.  The Club claims that native plants will magically emerge from the bare ground after non-native plants and trees are destroyed, without being planted.

Audubon Society “does not support” the FEMA project

Audubon Society’s public comment on the FEMA DEIS identifies many of the same issues that have been raised by critics of the project:

“The proposed tree removals may lead to colonization by broom or other invasive plants with little value to native birds and wildlife, unless native plants are reintroduced.  Although the amount of herbicide to be used on each tree is rather small, the total amount to be used by the project is very large. We believe that alternative methods to prevent resprouting should be used near water and perhaps in other specific circumstances…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.” (3)

In fact, the Audubon Society states explicitly that it does not support the plan as proposed by the DEIS (emphasis added):

“In spite of our approval of the general concept of the plan, the Golden Gate Audubon Society does not support this plan as drafted for the following reasons:

1) The plan calls for the removal of both non-native and native trees and brush with no plans to replant cleared areas with native vegetation;

2) The plan would use herbicides indiscriminately, rather than relying on more benign control of re-sprouting where herbicides are contra-indicated.” (3)

Clearly, the Audubon Society does not agree with the Sierra Club about the FEMA projects.  The Audubon Society agrees with the critics of this project that dangerous amounts of herbicide will be used and the outcome of the project will not be a landscape of native plants.  While the Sierra Club keeps telling us that “minimal amounts of herbicide will be used,” the Audubon Society has done its homework and can see that huge amounts of herbicide will be used.

Who supports the Sierra Club’s position on the FEMA grants?

The California Native Plant Society and the Audubon Society do not agree with the Sierra Club about the FEMA projects.  The fact that they did not join the Sierra Club’s lawsuit demanding 100% eradication of non-native trees in the project acres is another indication that they do not share the Club’s opinion of the projects. 

Update:  Although CNPS did not join the Sierra Club lawsuit against FEMA, it has indicated its support for the suit on its website:   “The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society strongly supports the litigation action by SPRAWLDEF and the Sierra Club, against FEMA’s surprising Record of Decision regarding fuels management in the East Bay Hills.” 

Despite the fact that CNPS understands that the resulting landscape will be predominantly highly flammable non-native annual grasses, it apparently wants all non-native trees to be destroyed.  We don’t understand why CNPS was surprised by the final version of the Environmental Impact Statement, since it was virtually unchanged from the draft on which they submitted a written public comment.

We learned of CNPS’s support for the Sierra Club lawsuit from a member of the Club’s leadership.  Although this information doesn’t literally contradict what we have reported, we post it here in the interests of full disclosure. 

Although the Claremont Canyon Conservancy agrees with the Sierra Club about the FEMA projects, we note that they did not join the Club’s lawsuit either.  The only organization that joined the Sierra Club lawsuit is SPRAWLDEF (Sustainability, Parks, Recycling, and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund). (4) SPRAWLDEF (5) is a non-profit organization created and run by Norman LaForce, the Sierra Club officer who claims to be one of the primary authors of the FEMA projects (6).  SPAWLDEF has sued other public agencies, including the East Bay Regional Park District.

Update:  SPRAWLDEF’s tax return for 2011 reports $250,000 of income for legal settlements from environmental lawsuits.  The tax return is signed by Norman LaForce.

The role of lawsuits in the funding of environmental organizations

Lawsuits against the various governmental agencies have become an important source of revenue for environmental organizations.  The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has mastered this strategy.  The New York Times reports (7) that CBD had filed 700 lawsuits when the article was published in March 2010, and they were successful in those suits 93% of the time, according to CBD.  Those suits forced the government to list 350 endangered species and designate 120 million acres of critical habitat for their recovery.  Revenue generated for CBD by these suits was $1.4 million in 2008, compared with $7.6 million from contributions and grants.

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

Brent Plater is a former CBD lawyer who created a non-profit in San Francisco, Wild Equity Institute.  He has sued San Francisco several times about Sharp Park, where he believes that closing the golf course would benefit the endangered red-legged frog.  He has not succeeded in making that case to our judiciary, losing every case. Despite losing, he and his collaborators were awarded $385,809 for “legal expenses” by the court, according to the San Francisco Chronicle: “It turns out that Plater and his organization can win by losing.  Take the ruling in U.S. District Court on July 1, 2013, which, by any measure, rates as a legal smackdown of the institute. As Judge Susan Illston said in her ruling, ‘plaintiffs did not prevail on a single substantive motion before the Court.’” (8)   So, even when they lose, they can walk away with a sizeable chunk of change.  To be clear, it is the taxpayers of San Francisco who paid Wild Equity for suing the City of San Francisco.

So, ponder for a minute the interesting relationship between SPRAWLDEF and the Sierra Club.  The person who connects them is Norman LaForce, who is both a lawyer and an officer in the Sierra Club.  If these organizations prevail in their lawsuit against FEMA, will Norman LaForce share in the spoils?  One wonders.

(1) http://sierraclub.org/san-francisco-bay/hillsfacts

(2) https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/100411.  FEMA DEIS, Appendix R, Part 1, page 681

(3) https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/100411.  FEMA DEIS, Appendix R, Part 5, page 3834

(4) Sierra Club and SPRAWLDEF lawsuit against FEMA available HERE:  Sierra Club lawsuit against FEMA projects

(5) http://www.buzzfile.com/business/Sustainability,-Park,-Recycling,-and-Wildlife-Legal-Defense-Fund-(sprawldef)-510-526-4362

(6) https://milliontrees.me/2015/11/27/public-opposition-to-pesticide-use-in-our-public-parks/

(7) http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/03/30/30greenwire-brazen-environmental-upstart-brings-legal-musc-82242.html?pagewanted=all

(8) http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/nevius/article/Nevius-6378333.php

The court’s award of legal expenses is available here:  https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/california/candce/3:2011cv00958/239217/189.  The award seems to have been made in recognition of the fact that the lawsuit forced the Recreation and Park Department to apply for a permit for park maintenance that results in an “incidental take” of red-legged frog eggs.


Rosalie Edge, conservation hero

Rosalie EdgeWe are grateful to Dyana Furmansky for turning a suitcase full of letters into a fascinating biography of an important conservationist, Rosalie Edge. (1) Rosalie Edge was one of the first ardent defenders of wildlife—particularly birds—in America.  She came to this mission late in life, from unlikely previous experience.  Her life is therefore an interesting story, but it also interests us because her experiences as a conservationist shed light on our struggle to preserve our urban forest.  Specifically her struggle with the Audubon Society foretold our attempts to convince the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) that some of their policies are harmful to birds.

From privilege to the trenches of conservation warfare

Rosalie was born Mabel Rosalie Barrow in New York City in 1877 into a family of great wealth and privilege.  She married Charles Noel Edge in 1909 and followed him around the Orient for several years while he earned his living as a civil engineer and then as an investor.

They returned home, where Rosalie joined the woman’s suffrage movement in 1915.  She wrote passionate pamphlets for the suffragists, which later became her hallmark as a conservationist.   When women won the vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Rosalie didn’t have much time to find another mission.   Her husband fell in love with another woman, effectively ending their marriage, which continued in name only to their death.

At the age of 44, in 1921, Rosalie was grief-stricken about the failure of her marriage.  She found solace in walks in Central Park in New York City and soon discovered that watching the birds gave her comfort.  The birders of Central Park were a community in the 1920s as they still are today.  They took Rosalie under their wing.  Soon she was embroiled in the organizational politics of the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS), the precursor to the National Audubon Society.  She learned that NAAS was engaged in activities that some members considered harmful to birds:

  • The President of the NAAS was taking donations from manufacturers of guns in exchange for adopting policies that were supportive of hunting birds.
  • NAAS also refused to oppose policies and practices that are harmful to birds, such as:
    • Killing birds to use their feathers in women’s hats, and
    • The policy of the federal government that paid large bounties for dead birds of prey, such as bald eagles.
  • NAAS was trapping and selling fur-bearing animals on its bird reserve in Louisiana to pay the salaries of their staff.

With only the force of her strong personality, Rosalie tried to shame the NAAS into abandoning these practices by attending their annual meetings.  When that approach failed, she sued NAAS for its mailing list and won.  With the mailing list of the 11,000 members of NAAS, Rosalie was able to communicate directly with the membership.  This approach put substantially more pressure on NAAS leadership as well as reduced its membership.   She had very little help with this effort.  She named her operation the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC), but she was a proverbial one-woman-band.

Many of the NAAS policies to which Rosalie objected where eventually changed.  However, she was alienated from most members of NAAS and its successor NAS, until shortly before her death in 1962 at the age of 85.  She attended their banquet in 1962, along with 1,200 conservationists, where she was given a standing ovation.  Rosalie said, “’I have made peace with the National Audubon Society.’” (1)

The accomplishments of the Emergency Conservation Committee

The accomplishments of the ECC are particularly impressive if you keep in mind that most were achieved in the 1930s and 40s.  In the 1930s, there was very little money for anything other than creating jobs and putting food on the table.  In the 1940s the cost of World War II was our highest national priority.  Conservation was perceived as a luxury by both the public and the government.  Yet, Rosalie and those who helped her, accomplished many great things.

  • Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary.  Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives
    Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary. Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives

    Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania was a place where wind currents funneled tens of thousands of hawks during their fall migration. It was therefore a popular place for hunters to stand on the mountain and shoot the birds out of the air.  Tens of thousands of hawks were slaughtered every year, which was just too much to bear for Rosalie.  Nearly penniless during the deepest years of the depression, Rosalie borrowed $500 from a friend with an interest in the hawks to lease Hawk Mountain.  Fortunately the land wasn’t useful for most purposes and economic conditions depressed land values, so she was eventually able to buy it.  It was the first privately acquired property for the sole purpose of conservation.  It was considered the model for The Nature Conservancy by one of TNC’s co-founders, Richard Pough.  Today, Hawk Mountain is visited by tens of thousands of visitors every fall to witness the migration.  There are far more visitors to see the birds than there had been to shoot them in the past.  The data gathered at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary about immature hawk and eagle migration were very helpful to Rachel Carson in making her case against DDT.

  • When Franklin Roosevelt became President, things got a little easier for Rosalie because his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, shared her interest in conservation. Together they collaborated to create Olympic National Park in Washington State, to incorporate a sugar-pine forest into Yosemite National Park, and to create King’s Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada in California.  None of these achievements was easy.  The story of how opposition was overcome would sound familiar today.  Timber and other economic interests had to be satisfied or neutralized by overwhelming public support.  Rosalie’s passionate pamphlets were instrumental in creating public support.
Olympic National Park.  NPS photo
Olympic National Park. NPS photo

Familiar themes

Rosalie’s experiences with the National Association of Audubon Societies sound familiar to us.  Despite the organization’s stated mission of protecting birds, economic interests sometimes influence its policies and practices.  The paid staff of an organization is under constant pressure to fund its salaries.  The temptation for quid pro quo arrangements is great, particularly during hard economic times.  Although Rosalie was successful in ending such arrangements, the temptation is always there.  Therefore, constant vigilance is required to prevent it from happening again.

Towards the end of her life, Rosalie’s unpublished memoir explains why her Emergency Conservation Committee was successful:

“In her memoir, she had commended volunteerism as the most meaningful way to bring about change.  ‘I beg each one to keep conservation as his hobby, to keep his independence, his freedom to speak his mind,’ she had written years before.  She had seen too many professionals become jaded or fall captive to special interests.  She, on the other hand, had spoken freely.  There would always be a need for those who could do that, she warned.” (1)

We believe that the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) is supporting projects that are harmful to birds.  We have detailed those projects in a recent post and won’t repeat them here.  The story of Rosalie Edge’s confrontation with the National Association of Audubon Societies warns us that changing those policies will not be easy.  However, we are inspired by Rosalie’s success and we follow her lead:  We are a loose confederation of volunteers who work collaboratively, but independently.   We are compensated solely by the occasional success of our venture to save our urban forest and the animals that live in it.  We cannot be compromised by any economic interests.

(1) Dyana Z. Furmansky, Rosalie Edge Hawk of Mercy, University of Georgia Press, 2009

Polarized views of nature mirror our politics

We recently posted an article about our on-going debate with the Audubon Society regarding its misguided support for the projects that are destroying the urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That article provided a few examples of our widely divergent views of nature:

  • We don’t see how birds will benefit from the destruction of tens of thousands of trees and countless plants that provide food and cover for birds and animals.
  • We don’t enjoy walking in nature with a judgmental eye, which points fingers at plants and animals that others claim “don’t belong there.” We are unwilling to divide nature into “good” and “bad” categories.
  • We don’t think humans have the right to pass a death sentence on wild animals because they prefer another animal, which they claim will benefit from the death of a potential competitor.
  • We don’t consider a “managed” forest a “more natural forest.” We don’t think humans are capable of improving what nature can accomplish without our interference.  We don’t think a public park that is routinely sprayed with herbicides can be accurately described as a “natural area.”
English sparrow.  US Fish & Wildlife photo
English sparrow. US Fish & Wildlife photo

However, these widely divergent viewpoints about nature are not inconsistent with the extremes of our polarized politics in America.  Just as we don’t expect to change the minds of those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, we don’t expect to change the minds of those who view nature through the darkly colored lens of nativism.  Just as elections for public office are decided by the independents in the middle of the political spectrum, the debate about the future of our public lands will be decided by those who have not yet formed an opinion about what is best for nature.  Today’s post is addressed to them.  We will tell the “independents” about two recent op-eds published by The New York Times which represent the two extreme viewpoints about nature.  Both op-eds use sparrows as representatives of the natural world, which we hope will make the differences in these viewpoints starker and therefore clearer.

First a word about how important the “independents” are to the debate about the ecological “restorations” which are dictated by invasion biology.  Political independents are usually not more than a third of the electorate.  But, a survey conducted by University of Florida suggests the majority of the public are still open to learning more about “invasive species.”  They report that 62% of Floridians they surveyed said they are not knowledgeable or only slightly knowledgeable about invasive species.  Ironically, the same survey claimed that “a majority voiced support for raising sales tax to combat invasive species.”  One wonders why voters who acknowledge that they know nothing or next to nothing about invasive species would be willing to tax themselves to combat something they don’t understand.  In any case, if Floridians are typical, the majority of the public needs to know more about invasion biology.  We hope they have access to balanced information that is not written by those who make their living killing animals and poisoning our public lands.  Million Trees was created over four years ago for that purpose.

“The Truth About Sparrows”

Some time ago, we told the story of how sparrows were brought to America in the 1850s by people who believed they would eat the insects that were killing trees.  We concluded that article by saying that 150 years later house sparrows are no longer despised as alien intruders.  We were wrong.

In May 2014, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Truth About Sparrows.”  The op-ed was written by Peyton Marshall, whose mother was an exterminator of house sparrows.  This was no idle pastime for Ms. Marshall’s mother.  It was her mission.

Eastern bluebird, public domain
Eastern bluebird, public domain

Mom’s crusade against house sparrows began when Ms. Marshall was a child.  Mom loved bluebirds at a time when their population was dwindling in the east where they lived.  Mom decided that house sparrows were to blame and so she took it upon herself to kill every house sparrow that had the misfortune of entering her yard or within reach of it.

Mom began by trapping the house sparrows.  “Good” birds caught in the traps were freed, but the house sparrows were put into plastic garbage bags and asphyxiated.  Mom started the family car in the garage and wrapped the open end of the garbage bag around the tailpipe.  When the birds did not die, she consulted her husband who informed her that the car was a diesel and would not produce enough carbon monoxide to kill the birds.

So, mom took her operation on the road.  She helped elderly ladies with their groceries in the parking lot in exchange for a shot at their tailpipe.  When dropping off her children for play dates and birthday parties, she asked their parents if she could make brief use of their cars to kill birds.  Polite parents watched in horror as they became accessories to this execution.

Ms. Marshall concludes her story by noting that the population of bluebirds has rebounded since she was a child.  But mom continues to trap house sparrows in her yard and now uses a less public means of killing them:  “Now, she uses a carving knife and cutting board, at her leisure, in the privacy of her own kitchen.”

Although Ms. Marshall doesn’t say so, we doubt that the recovery of the bluebird population has much to do with the extermination of house sparrows in her mother’s backyard.  The recovery of the bluebird population is attributed to building nest boxes that substitute for the dead trees which are their preferred nest sites.  There are few dead trees in urban and suburban areas because people consider them hazardous and unsightly.  Once again, animals pay the price for the choices of humans.

“What the Sparrows Told Me”

The New York Times published “What the Sparrows Told Me” in August 2014.  It is a fitting antidote to the grisly tale of the sparrow exterminator.

Trish O’Kane, the author, was a human rights investigative journalist in Central America for 10 years before moving to New Orleans to teach journalism.  Less than a month after arriving in New Orleans, she and her family were displaced by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Four months after the hurricane, she rented a room in a dry part of town so that she could return to her teaching job.  It was a hard time for everyone in New Orleans, but her gloom was deepened by learning of her father’s terminal cancer which would kill him in a matter of months.

Ms. O’Kane had never had an interest in birds before, but she knew she needed “to focus on something beautiful, something positive, something alive,” and so she did:

“I bought two bird feeders.  Each morning I sat on that back stoop and watched those sparrows.  Instead of wondering what was going to happen to the city, to the Gulf Coast, to the planet, I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed.  I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs.  If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else.  If they lost a nest, they built another.  They had no time or energy for grief.  They clung to the fence in raggedy lines heckling one another like drunken revelers on Bourbon Street.  Their sparring made me laugh.“

Audubon Park, New Orleans.  Public domain
Audubon Park, New Orleans. Public domain

Ms. O’Kane started holding her classes in Audubon Park, named for John James Audubon.  Her students began to find the same solace in watching the birds going about their business, finding a way to survive, carrying on.  And that gave her and her students the strength and the will to do the same at a time when life was hard in New Orleans.

Ms. O’Kane is now a doctoral student in environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  She has found a way to connect her interest in human rights with her new found interest in birds.  She teaches an undergraduate course in environmental justice in which she pairs undergraduate students with middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers.  Many of the middle school children are immigrants from Central America.  She finds that they enjoy learning about the birds that migrate between Central America and Wisconsin, just as their families did.  The birds, like the people of America, are citizens of the world.

Ms. O’Kane tells us that many of her undergraduate students are frightened of the future of our planet.  She likes to start each new class with the story of the sparrows in New Orleans:  “I tell them that the birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance.”

Whose eyes do you choose to look through?

It’s no secret that our viewpoint regarding nature is more closely aligned with Ms. O’Kane’s.  If you haven’t yet taken a stand on the issue of what plants and animals are welcome in your ideal nature, think for a moment.  Which of these starkly different viewpoints do you prefer?

Open letter: Does Audubon Society advocate for birds or birders?

Our family was a member of the Audubon Society for decades because we love birds and birding all over the world is our primary hobby.  So, it was painful to give up that membership a few years ago when we were unable to convince the Bay Area chapter of Audubon (Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS)) that its support for the projects that are destroying hundreds of thousands of trees, are harmful to birds.  We didn’t give up easily.  We tried for many years to convince GGAS that their policy is harmful to birds.  Since leaving Audubon, the GGAS has become progressively more aggressive in its support for these projects.  Here are a few recent examples of policy decisions they have made:

  • GGAS signed a letter of support for the planned project that proposes to aerial bomb 1.3 metric tons of rodenticide on the Farallon Islands to kill mice.  You can read about that horrible project HERE.
  • GGAS is also supporting the US Fish & Wildlife project that is shooting barred owls based on the belief that another native bird will benefit.  Read about that project HERE.
  • Recently they sent a letter to University of California, San Francisco, asking them to proceed with their original plans to destroy approximately 30,000 trees on Mount Sutro.  These plans are presently on hold in response to the objections of the public.

Today, we are going to take a closer look at Audubon’s support for the destruction of most trees on Mount Sutro.  Jack Dumbacher, member of the GGAS Board of Directors and Chairman of the GGAS “Conservation” Committee, has written an article for the GGAS blog about that project, which gives us this opportunity.

Who are “WE?”

Mr. Dumbacher’s article begins with a litany of “what WE want:”

  •  “We understand that just seeing birds is not enough – we want diversity. It is not enough to have a life list of one species that you’ve seen really well.
  • We want a long life list with many species. We want to count as many species as we can on each field trip.
  • We want to see birds doing a variety of interesting things.
  • We want reasons to visit a variety of habitats and regions. And we love seeing that occasional rare, out-of-place species.”

Many birders and Audubon members have tried unsuccessfully to engage Mr. Dumbacher in a dialogue, so we are resorting to this “open letter” venue to ask these questions:

  • Who are “WE” in this list of what Mr. Dumbacher claims “WE want?”  Does he speak for you?  Does he speak for the birds?  If not, is he speaking for himself?  Is he speaking for all Audubon members?  If you are an Audubon member, is he speaking for you?
  • If this isn’t a list that speaks for you, what do YOU want?  Do you want to be able to walk in a forest in which many birds live now?  Or do you prefer grassland and dune scrub, which is what the forest in San Francisco is being converted to by native plant advocates?
  • If Mr. Dumbacher’s wish list doesn’t speak for the birds, what do you think the birds want?  Where do you think the owls and raptors will nest if all the tall trees are destroyed?  Where do you think the bats will live if the tall trees are destroyed?  What do you think the hummingbirds will eat in the winter if all the eucalypts that flower in the winter are destroyed?
Red-tailed hawk nesting in eucalyptus.  Courtesy urbanwildness.org
Red-tailed hawk nesting in eucalyptus. Courtesy urbanwildness.org

We are too ignorant to understand what THEY want

Mr. Dumbacher wonders how those who share his opinions regarding nature can convince us to want what they want:  “…how do we make the case for diversity?”  Then he proceeds to try to make the case, by looking back on his childhood experiences in nature and passing judgment on them: 

“My father spent much of his spare time in open green spaces. Sometimes I would go with him, and we heard birds and saw squirrels and geese, and we believed that we loved and understood nature. After spending many more years of my life studying biology, I realized that we were just golfers on a relatively impoverished golf course landscape.”

It struck us as unspeakably sad that he would look back on his childhood experience in nature with such condescension.  It seems that each of us should have the right to enter nature with whatever level of knowledge we can bring to that experience.  Mr. Dumbacher has a Ph.D. degree.  Does he think a Ph.D. degree is required to appreciate nature?  Such a prerequisite would leave most of us out.  Don’t we have a right to enjoy nature too?

Burdened with too much knowledge

Trilium in Virginia
Trilium in Virginia

We will use our personal experience to present a contrarian viewpoint.  A few years ago we had the opportunity to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Highway from the Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia to the heart of Tennessee.  Of course, we had many walks in the woods.  It was early spring.  The dogwoods were blooming.  The birds were actively starting their nesting season.  As much as we enjoy a walk in the woods here in California, there was even greater pleasure in those walks in the eastern woods because we have almost no knowledge of what is native or non-native there.  It was a great relief to be able to walk without passing judgment, as we have been taught to do in California.  There was no need to point fingers and declare that something “doesn’t belong there.”  We could accept the beauty of everything we saw on equal terms.  Ignorance was bliss.

Dogwood, Virginia
Dogwood, Virginia
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.  Tilden Botanical Garden
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Tilden Botanical Garden

We will contrast that experience with a more recent experience in the East Bay Regional Park District Botanical Garden in Tilden Park.  We were taking a course in which several participants in the class were members of the California Native Plant Society.  You might think that a botanical garden in which solely natives are planted, would be a pleasant place for them to walk.  It wasn’t.  They were outraged by the few non-native “weeds” we saw.  They crawled over the plantings to pull the uninvited plants from their roots.  One was a lovely scarlet pimpernel, blooming in its bright coral amongst native plants in their dormant, brown phase.   Their destructive attitude detracted from our enjoyment of the garden.

The “tiny minority” myth

As the “restoration” projects in the Bay Area have become progressively more destructive, the public has become progressively more opposed to them.   Mr. Dumbacher calls us a “vocal minority” in his article.  He is mistaken.  We consistently outnumber native plant advocates (sometimes ten to one) whenever we have an opportunity to express our opinion in a public venue:  in public hearings, on petitions, during written public comment periods.  We are not a minority.

Mr. Dumbacher is also mistaken in his description of the project which he is defending in his article.  He says, “…a Sutro Management Plan was formed that balanced incremental thinning with incremental planting of native species, in order to increase diversity and reduce the fire threat.”  We will give Mr. Dumbacher the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he has not read the Environmental Impact Report of February 2013, in which the project was described in detail.  Within a year five years, that project would have destroyed 90% of the trees (about 30,000 trees) and understory on 75% of the acres of Mount Sutro.  It proposed no planting of native plants, with the exception of a few small areas if money became available to pay for them.   The word “thinning” is used by native plant advocates to describe their plans to destroy the forest because it sounds less destructive.  However, it is not a word that accurately describes the destruction of 90% of the forest.

What happens to the birds that are there now?

Blackberries in the Sutro forest.  Courtesy Save Sutro Forest
Blackberries in the Sutro forest. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest

Unfortunately, we can’t share with our readers the lovely pictures in Mr. Dumbacher’s article because we don’t have permission, although you can visit the article to see for yourself.  You will see beautiful birds sitting on plants that exist now on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson.  They are native plants that thrive in the understory of the forest and are unlikely to survive the devastation of the destruction of the trees and understory.  There are also non-native plants in the understory.  Many of them, such as blackberry, are valuable sources of food for birds.  There is no evidence, and no reason to believe, that destroying the Sutro forest will increase the number of bird species in San Francisco. 

Native red elderberry on Mount Sutro.  Courtesy Save Sutro Forest
Native red elderberry on Mount Sutro. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest

One wonders if Mr. Dumbacher isn’t aware of this obvious contradiction:  he illustrates his article with birds that live in the forest now while trying to make the case that the forest must be destroyed so he can see more birds.  Perhaps the answer is that he doesn’t really want more birds, he is only interested in certain birds:  “But If you want migrants to visit your city, if you want rare birds to breed in your local parks, and if you want a county list that exceeds 200 species, then please get involved in local habitat management and restoration, and be ready to speak up for nature in your city.”

The "managed" portion of the Sutro forest:  orange flags and weeds
The “managed” portion of the Sutro forest: orange flags and weeds

Here is another contradiction in Mr. Dumbacher’s appeal for your support for destroying most of the Sutro forest:  “we should try to manage a more natural forest.” In what sense is a “managed” forest also a “more natural” forest?  The Sutro forest is natural now, wild and unmanaged, a delightful mess.  We see no benefit in “managing” it.  Our experience with the managed summit of Mount Sutro is herbicide use (in the past), irrigation, wood chips, and dry weeds populated with colored flags where someone has apparently planted something that didn’t emerge from the wood chips.

Does Mr. Dumbacher speak for you?  Do you share his view of “nature?”

Postscript:  Mr. Dumbacher’s viewpoint is particularly troubling because he is Chair of the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy at California Academy of Sciences, the Bay Area’s leading institution of science education.    It seems that there is little science in Mr. Dumbacher’s viewpoint as expressed in his article.

Eucalyptus in the news

Because our mission is to inform our readers of the many projects all over California that are destroying non-native trees and vegetation in order to “restore” the native landscape of grassland and dune scrub, we are obligated to tell many sad stories.  So, we are always pleased when we have the opportunity to relay some good news for a change.  In this post we will tell you about several articles in the media that have treated our non-native landscape, as well as those who defend it, with more respect.

High Country News

Taking these articles in chronological order, we’ll start with an article in the High Country News which was published December 23, 2013. (1)  We considered it our Christmas present!

The article was informed by Jared Farmer’s Trees in ParadiseWe have reported extensively about this book, so we’ll leave that information aside to focus on what is new in this article.  It is written in the context of a specific project which had originally planned to destroy about 120 of 450 eucalypts on a 32-acre preserve managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society.  The Sweet Springs Nature Preserve is in Los Osos, California, near San Luis Obispo.

Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, Los Osos, California
Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, Los Osos, California

When the project was announced, defenders of eucalyptus objected:  “the Morro Coast Audubon Society was so stunned by the outcry when it filed for a county permit to remove some of the…blue gums that they put the project on hold,”  The defenders of the eucalypts are treated with respect by the author of the High Country News article.  She portrays the controversy as a question of different conservation priorities.  The eucalypts are serving a population of monarch butterflies and raptors.  Those who want to destroy the eucalypts believe they are shading out rare native plants that would theoretically serve a different species of native butterfly.  The author implies that these are all worthy goals.

She seeks the advice of a local scientist, Matt Ritter of Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo.  He tells us that  of the 38 species of eucalyptus that are widespread in California, only 18 have naturalized and only two—blue gums and red gums—are considered “moderately invasive, and then only in places refreshed by perennial moisture in the form of streams, springs or summer fog. “  He shows the author photographs of a place where eucalypts spread at a rate of 2 feet per year during the period 1931 to 2001.  Mr. Ritter concedes that that isn’t a particularly fast rate of spread compared to other plants.  For example, we wonder how it would compare to the spread of coyote brush into grassland that isn’t burned periodically to prevent natural succession to shrubs.

The article isn’t specific about the location of the photographs except to say it is “150 miles north” of San Luis Obispo.  That would put the location south of Santa Cruz.  That technique was also used In “Vegetation Change and Fire Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area Open Spaces” by William Russell (USGS) and Joe McBride (UC Berkeley). (2) They used aerial photos of Bay Area parks taken over a 60 year period from 1939 to 1997, to study changes in vegetation types.  They studied photos of 3 parks in the East Bay (Chabot, Tilden, Redwood), 2 parks in the North Bay (Pt Reyes, Bolinas Ridge), and one on the Peninsula (Skyline).  These photos revealed that grasslands are succeeding to shrubland, dominated by native coyote brush and manzanita.  Eucalyptus and Monterey pine forests actually decreased during the period of study.  In those cases in which forests increased in size, they were native forests of oaks or Douglas fir.  In other words, they found no evidence that non-native trees are invading native trees or shrubs. 

The High Country News article ends with this happy ending:  “…the Morro Coast Audubon Society board backpedaled on its plan to remove blue gums.  While approving the removal of small trees—those with trunk diameters of eight inches or less—it took the larger trees off the table.  Flagged as exceptions to be considered on a case-by-case basis were trees that pose risks to life or property.”  This is the kind of compromise that we hope will ultimately resolve this conflict.  This particular compromise is especially welcome because a chapter of the Audubon Society made this decision.  We hope that the Bay Area chapter of the Audubon Society—Golden Gate Audubon—will note this compromise and learn from it.  To date, they have reflexively supported every destructive project in the Bay Area. 

High Country News is often quoted in Jake Sigg’s Nature News, which suggests it is influential with native plant advocates.  We hope this even-handed treatment of those who object to the destruction of eucalyptus will come to their attention.

San Francisco Chronicle

Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer
Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer

On Sunday, January 12, 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Jared Farmer, the author of Trees in Paradise. (3) It was also a balanced article that treated both sides of the debate about eucalyptus with respect.  We won’t describe the op-ed in this post because we have covered the book extensively in earlier posts.

To date, the article has drawn 115 on-line comments and three letters to the editor.  They are typical of the highly polarized debate about eucalyptus.  Here is the letter to the editor from the “other side:”

“I have never read such unsubstantiated, unscientific, navel-gazing in 50 years of reading The Chronicle. The logic of celebrating this invasive human-introduced species is the same as celebrating the hydraulic mining of the Sierra foothills or the decimation of the native Californians by disease and organized murder. We may never be able to restore our oaks and redwoods to their previous place, but a euke is as natural as a strip mine – and even more dangerous to life through falling limbs and fire.”

The commenter equates “human-introduced” trees to genocide and “organized murder” of Native Americans.  My, my…such hyperbole.  “Euke” rhymes with “nuke”…how clever.  He also reveals his ignorance of our natural history in the Bay Area where eucalyptus did not displace oaks and redwoods because there were virtually no trees here.  We won’t be looking to this person for the compromise that we seek.  This is the religious fervor which is standing in the way of compromise.

Bay Nature

The following day, January 13, 2014, Bay Nature published an excellent article about eucalyptus, featuring the reforestation effort at the Presidio in San Francisco. (4)  The article informs readers of Bay Nature of these facts which we know to be true:

  • Pre-settlement San Francisco was virtually treeless:  “Looking out along the high western ridge of the vista would have unfolded in rolling waves of sand and grass, dotted with scrubby plants that unfurled all the way to sea.  A few oaks lined the creek beds, and everything was bent to the wind and salt air.”
  • Non-native trees were planted to provide protection from the wind which enabled establishment of the entire landscape:  “The native oaks that grew in the area were too short to serve as protection from the wind and sand, and the dune habitat looked nothing like the forests that Easterners knew and loved.  And after the dunes of Golden Gate Park were forested in the 1880s, confidence mounted that the same transformation could take place at the Presidio.”
  • Non-native trees and native plants can and do thrive together:  “Like sentinels [cypresses planted just a few years ago] preside over the Presidio, but they also co-exist with the original settlers of the area:  native plants.”
  • Non-native trees provide valuable habitat for native birds:  “…the forest has also increased habitat for native species of birds that wouldn’t normally be able to nest here…”
The San Francisco Presidio, painting by Richard Beechey, 1826
The San Francisco Presidio, painting by Richard Beechey, 1826

Bay Nature is also widely read by native plant advocates and it often defends their destructive projects.  This article represents a significant change of tune, one that is very welcome.   We hope it predicts the compromise we are seeking.

San Francisco Examiner

On Sunday, January 19, 2014, the San Francisco Examiner published an op-ed by Joel Engardio about San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. (5)  In a perfectly balanced article, he accurately describes the two sides of the conflict about the destruction of trees by the Natural Areas Program.  Frankly, Mr. Engardio implies that he thinks the passion of the conflict is a bit silly, but he also makes it perfectly clear that he considers it a waste of taxpayers’ money to engage in needless tree destruction on the scale proposed by the plans of the Natural Areas Program.

A particularly nasty on-line comment on the article ends with this sentence:  “Not only does it display an impossible amount of ignorance, but a complete lack of ethics or morality.”  Having lost the debate on scientific grounds, native plant advocates now resort to self-righteous moral arguments.  Surely that is weaker ground.  Managers of our public lands are not obligated to deliver the moral imperatives of a particular interest group.

What does all this add up to?

Together, these articles represent a sea change of attitude on the part of publications that in the past were consistently supportive of the ecological “restorations” that are destroying much of our urban forest.  Critics of these projects have not been treated with such respect in the past.  Supporters of the projects were called “environmentalists” in the past.  Now the conflict is portrayed as a conflict amongst environmentalists.  That is a big step forward.

We hope that this significant improvement in media coverage of this controversy will create the atmosphere needed to find a compromise with which we can all live in peace.  We won’t predict the exact nature of that compromise because we know there is a range of opinions.  Speaking for the Million Trees blog—and no one else—we will say that the word “eradication” must be expunged from the debate and whatever the compromise is, it must include a commitment to quit using pesticides in our public parks for the sole purpose of killing non-native vegetation.

We are grateful to all of these publications for their participation in this debate.  That is the balanced reporting we are looking for from a socially responsible media.


(1)    Madeleine Nash, “Eucalyptus:  Beauty or Beast?,” High Country News, December 23, 2013. 

2)    Russell, W. H., and J. R. McBride. 2002.  “Vegetation change and fire hazard in the San Francisco bay area open spaces.”  Pages 27-38 in:  Blonski, K.S., M.E., and T.J. Morales.  Proceedings of the California’s 2001 Wildfire Conference:  Ten Years After the East Bay Hills Fire; October 10-12, Oakland California.  Technical Report 35.01.462.  Richmond CA:  University of California Forest Products Laboratory.

(3)    Jared Farmer, “Going out on a limb to defend eucalyptus,” SF Chronicle, January 12, 2014

(4)    Rachel Diaz-Bastin, “New Life for Presidio’s Historic Forest,” Bay Nature, January 13, 2014

(5)    Joel Engardio, “Tree war is Campos vs.Chiu wild card,” San Francisco Examiner, January 19, 2014

Another Eucalyptus Myth: Bird Death According to Audubon

As we have said in other posts on Million Trees, those who demand the destruction of non-native trees justify their demand by making many critical claims about them.  One of the most disturbing of these claims is that eucalypts kill birds.  Reprinted here with permission is an excerpt from an article in the April 2010 newsletter of the Hills Conservation Network which debunks this myth.

The Hills Conservation Network is a group of residents in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills who advocate for fire safety without clear-cutting non-native trees.  Most of the members of the network are survivors of the 1991 fire in their neighborhood.  Some lost their homes.  Some lost members of their family.  They are highly motivated to improve fire safety in their neighborhood and they strongly believe that fire hazard mitigation can be achieved without destroying all non-native trees. 

Please visit their website  to see other issues of their newsletter which is a valuable source of information on the subject of fire hazard mitigation.  You may subscribe to their free on-line newsletter by sending an email to inquiries@hillsconservationetwork.org.



Brochures distributed by various agencies in northern California state that the flowers of eucalyptus trees kill birds. According to these brochures, birds feeding on insects or on the nectar of eucalyptus flowers may have their faces covered with “gum” and die of suffocation. Luckily for the birds, according to one brochure, most of them prefer native vegetation, and avoid eucalyptus groves.

These stories are, of course, extremely upsetting to all of us who love birds.

The bird-suffocation story began with a 1996 article by Rich Stallcup, a legendary birder who writes for the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory. In the PRBO Observer, he reported that, on one day in late December, he counted, in one eucalyptus tree:  20 Anna’s Hummingbirds, 20 Audubon Warblers, 3 Orange-crowned Warblers, 10 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a few starlings, 2 kinds of orioles, a Palm Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a warbling Vireo, and a summer Tanager.

That was an unusually large number of birds, even for Stallcup to see in one tree, but what most surprised him, he says, is what he found under that blue gum eucalyptus tree: a dead Ruby-crowned Kinglet, its face “matted flat from black, tar-like pitch.”

Years before, Stallcup recalled in the article, he had found “a dead hummingbird with black tar covering its bill” under eucalyptus trees. This was all Stallcup needed to come up with his theory about what had happened.

This theory is now stated as fact in restorationist literature and it is stated three times as fact in the “Wildfire Plan”/EIR issued by the East Bay Regional Park District in August 2009.

Stallcup theorizes that North American birds are different from birds indigenous to Australia. He speculates that North American birds such as kinglets, warblers, and hummingbirds have evolved short, straight bills while Australian birds evolved long, curved bills. Thus, he says, when American birds with short bills seek nectar or insects on eucalyptus flowers, they have to insert their whole head into the blossom, so they get gummy black tar all over their faces.

Misleading illustration from Stallcup article

We have great respect for Stallcup’s ability to identify birds.  But we have a few problems with his theory.


Australian Weebill. Credit: Stuart Harris

1. A bird-loving friend who has photographed birds in Australia points out that Australian field guides show birds with a wide variety of bill length and curvature.  When he was in Australia, he saw birds with small bills just like American kinglets and warblers.  “How do you suppose the Australian Weebill got its name?” our friend asked.  Many of us not so familiar with Australian birds have seen parakeets and other small small-billed parrots native to Australia. Weebills  and many other American and Australian birds with small bills forage on eucalyptus leaves or flowers.

To see more birds of Australia, go to this terrific website. It features photos of many small-billed birds. 



Blue gum eucalyptus flowers on tree, March, 2010. Credit: John Hovland



2. Where’s the gum? The flower of a blue gum eucalyptus tree has no gum, glue, or tarlike substance on it or in it. The gum in “gum trees” refers to the sap or resin that, in some species, comes from the trunk. Other species of gum trees, such as the sweet gum (Liquidambar) are common sidewalk trees in Berkeley and Oakland. The flowers on the blue gum eucalyptus are white or cream-colored with light yellow or light green centers. There is no black, sticky, gummy or tarry substance in or on the living flower. In fact, both the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Australian Weebill are leaf-gleaners. They take insects off leaf surfaces, not from flowers. If the kinglet had gum on its face, the gum did not come from a eucalyptus blossom.

3. A euc flower looks most like a chrysanthemum, with longer petals. Unlike a morning glory, the euc flower is not shaped like a tube that a bird would need to poke its bill into to get nectar or insects. A hummingbird is more likely to pick up a sticky substance from inside a cup-shaped tulip, poppy, or any of the tiny tube-flowers such as California fuchsia, Indian paintbrush, watsonia, or honeysuckle that hummingbirds love. Common sense tells us that no bird, even a tiny one, could suffocate while feeding on a euc flower or leaf.


Watsonia, Willow Walk, Berkeley, 2010. Credit: John Hovland

4. We have all seen hummingbirds poking their beaks into tube-like flowers. If you peel back these tube-like flowers, you will sometimes find a sticky substance on your finger.  You’ve probably seen birds, especially tiny hummingbirds, sipping from these flowers. How do they escape getting nectar on their faces? An article in the NY Times proves truth is stranger than the fiction of suffocated hummingbirds. The article explains that a hummingbird gets nectar from a flower by wrapping its tongue into a cylinder to create a straw about ¾ inch long extending from its bill. This means that a hummingbird’s face does not touch the surface of a flat type of flower such as the flower of a blue gum eucalyptus.

After Stallcup wrote his article in 1996, it was accepted by birders and eucaphobes all across America. In January, 2002, Ted Williams, wrote about the “dark side” of eucalyptus in his opinion column called “Incite” for Audubon Magazine

Stallcup, he wrote, had told him he had found 300 dead birds over the years “with eucalyptus glue all over their faces.” Williams wrote that the bird artist, Keith Hansen, who illustrates Stallcup’s articles, had found “about 200 victims.”(How did one kinglet and one hummingbird in 1996 add up to 500 victims by 2002 even though few if any other people have seen even a single victim?)  Williams and Hansen also describe the suffocating material as “gum.”

Williams, in that same over-the-top column, dares to contradict Stallcup, claiming that he has heard only one Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a eucalyptus grove, and has never actually seen any birds in eucalyptus trees. Yet he repeats (and exaggerates) Stallcup’s story about eucalyptus suffocating birds. The National Park Service, U.C.,  EBRPD, and the Audubon Society   have spread Williams’ interpretation of Stallcup’s story—apparently without questioning any part of it.

Stallcup and Williams are bird-lovers and writers. They are not scientists. David Suddjian, a wildlife biologist, has read Stallcup’s theory about birds suffocating on the “black pitch” of eucalyptus flowers, but in his article, “Birds and Eucalyptus on the Central California Coast: A Love-Hate Relationship,” he casts doubt on Stallcup’s claim that the kinglet (and other birds) could have been suffocated by eucalyptus flowers. Here is an excerpt from his article:

“. . . in my experience and the experience of a number of other long-term field ornithologists, we have seen very little evidence of such mortality.  It has been argued that the bird carcasses do not last long on the ground before they are scavenged. However, when observers spend hundreds of hours under these trees over many years but find hardly any evidence of such  mortality, then it seems fair to question whether the incidence of mortality is as high as has been suggested. Not all bird carcasses are scavenged rapidly, and large amounts of time under the trees should produce observations of dead birds, if such mortality were a frequent event. . .more evidence is needed.”

The Suddjian article is not generally favorable to eucalyptus trees. However, Suddjian notes that more than 90 species of birds in the Monterey Bay Region use eucalyptus on a regular basis. Additionally some rare migratory birds bring the total to 120 birds seen in euc groves. These include birds that use eucalyptus trees, leaves, seeds, or flowers for breeding, nesting, foraging, and roosting. A complete list of birds that depend on eucalyptus trees is too long to include here. We encourage you to click on the link to the Suddjian article so you can look for the names of the various bird species and note how they use—and depend on—eucalyptus trees.

Lynn Hovland


Million Trees Webmaster:  Shortly after this urban legend surfaced over 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to ask a local scientist about it. While attending an open house at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I was able to talk to the head of its ornithology division at the time.

He started by saying that although he had never seen a dead bird in a eucalyptus forest, there weren’t as many birds there because the eucalypts don’t offer as much food for birds as other vegetation types. (Those who bird in the eucalyptus forest without a nativist bias don’t agree with this generalization about a lack of birds, however.) He also said he hadn’t heard the claim.

Then, the scientist said that the story didn’t seem consistent with bird anatomy. He said that birds are capable of lifting their feet to their heads and clearing whatever might be accumulating there with their toes.   

Ten years and many walks in the eucalyptus forest later, we have yet to see a dead bird, but the myth lives on.