Bay Nature recently published an article about the 1991 fire in the East Bay Hills and the closely related belief that such a fire can be prevented in the future by destroying all non-native trees. To Bay Nature’s credit, it was a more balanced article than most. Although the article was heavily weighted in favor of those who want to destroy all non-native trees in the hills, several defenders of our urban forest were also interviewed.
However, the article contains a fantasy about future fires that feeds into the fear of fire that has been fostered by those who advocate for removing all non-native trees:
“A strong wind begins blowing over the hills from the east. And then somehow—maybe a spark from a car, maybe a tossed cigarette—the whole dry, airy mess catches fire. Now the flames on the ground are 30 feet high and even higher off the boughs, roaring like a jet engine. At the fire’s edges, trees appear to explode as the volatile oils in their leaves reach their boiling point and vaporize. The heat of the fire forms a convection column, with 60-mile-per-hour winds that rip burning strips of bark from the trees and toss them upward. This is another of blue gums’ talents—its bark makes ideal braziers. Tucked away inside a rolled-up strip of bark, a fire might live for close to an hour and fly 20 miles.” (1)
Although we have read many times in the plans to destroy trees that eucalyptus casts embers starting spot fires, we have never seen such an extreme description of how far embers could travel while still on fire and capable of starting a spot fire. So, we tracked down the source of this theoretical scenario with the help of the author who cited this as the source of the theoretical scenario: “The potential for an internally convoluted cylinder of bark to be transported tens of kilometres in a continuously flaming state is indicated by the sample that maintained flaming combustion for the entire experiment…This would correspond to a flameout time of almost 2000 s for a sample 2700 mm long, a lofted height of 9600 m and a spotting distance of ~37 km.” (2)
First let’s translate that quote into measurements we commonly use to appreciate how extreme this particular test was: “This would correspond to a flameout time of almost 33 minutes for a sample 9 feet long, a lofted height of 6 miles and a spotting distance of 23 miles, traveling at 41 miles per hour.” That is a very long ember, lofted a great distance at a great speed (but NOT 60 mph), staying lit for a long time (but NOT “close to an hour”).
Theory vs. Reality
The study that was the source of the extreme prediction in Bay Nature about the distance that burning embers can travel was conducted on samples of Eucalyptus viminalis bark (NOT Blue Gum Eucalyptus, E. globulus) “tethered in a vertical wind tunnel.” These are not real-world conditions. So, how does this theoretical study compare to real-world conditions?
The FEMA Technical Report about the 1991 fire in the East Bay Hillscontains a map of the full extent of the 1991 fire. As you can see on this map, the maximum distance from the northern-most edge of the fire to the southern edge of the fire is less than 3 miles…not remotely close to 20 miles. In other words, embers could not have started fires 20 miles away because the fire wasn’t even close to 20 miles long.
The FEMA Technical Report doesn’t tell us what the wind speeds were during the 1991 fire, although they describe the wind as being strong at several times during the fire. If there is any evidence that winds were as much as 60 miles per hour, it’s not evidence we have been able to find. We found a source of wind speeds measured on the Bay Bridge, including historical records. This website says the strongest wind measured since 2010 was 31 miles per hour in April 2013. That suggests that 60 mph winds are probably unusual in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The FEMA Technical Report doesn’t report any observations of firebrands or burning embers from eucalyptus. The report mentions embers twelve times, but identifies the source of those embers only once. In that one case, the source of embers was “a growth of brush”….not a eucalyptus tree or any tree, for that matter. There are anecdotal reports of finding debris from the fire as far as San Francisco, but no reports that the debris was still on fire or that it started another fire.
US Forest Service study of embers in actual fires
US Forest Service participated in a comprehensive study of “spotting ignition by lofted firebrands” based on actual wildfires all over the world, including the 1991 fire in the East Bay Hills. (3) There is nothing in that study that corroborates the claim that eucalyptus bark embers are capable of travelling 20 miles while remaining lit and therefore capable of starting spot fires:
“In the wildland-urban interface fires in California—Berkeley in 1923, Bel-Air in 1961, Oakland 1991—wooden shingles which were popular in California as roof material, assisted fire spread. Wooden shingles increase fire hazard owing to both ease of ignition and subsequent firebrand production.”
“Unlike the flying brush brands which are often consumed before rising to great heights, the flat wood roofing materials soared to higher altitudes carried by strong vertical drafts…”
The only firebrand found in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire was found approximately 1 km (.6 mile) west from the perimeter of the fire. It was a cedar shingle. Here is a photograph of that shingle:
Cylinder shaped embers do not travel as far as flat particles. Firebrands in the shape of cylinders were found to have a maximum spotting distance of 2050 meters, because “cylinders always fall tumbling.”
“The increased burning time inherent in larger firebrands was cancelled out by an increased time of flight because larger firebrands move more slowly.”
In a study of 245 extinguished fires, experiments and simulations, and observing 48 wildfires, “The longest spotting distance was observed as 2.4 km.”
This comprehensive study of actual wildfires all over the world finds no evidence of embers capable of travelling 20 miles while still burning and starting spot fires. It reports that wooden shingles were the only observed burning embers in the 1991 fire and that wooden shingles are particularly vulnerable to being lofted as embers in a wildfire. There are countless houses in the East Bay Hills covered in wooden shingles, yet instead of addressing that obvious source of embers, we are destroying blameless trees.
Developing the Cover Story
Claims about the extreme flammability of eucalyptus have escalated in the past 15 years as opposition to destroying trees and associated pesticide use has escalated. Nativists have become increasingly dependent on flogging the fear factor as their other storylines have been dismantled by empirical studies and reality:
The “invasiveness” of eucalyptus has been downgraded by the California Invasive Plant Council from “moderate” to “limited,” their lowest rating. There is little evidence that eucalyptus is invasive unless planted along streams and swales that carry their seeds.
There are many empirical studies that find that all forms of wildlife—such as insects and birds—are served equally well by both native and non-native plants. Some iconic species—such as Monarch butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, hawks, owls—are dependent upon eucalyptus for winter nectar and safe nesting habitat.
These studies have left nativists with few tools to justify the eradication of non-native plants. We can see the development of the FIRE!! cover story in the archives of the conferences of the California Invasive Plant Council. In 2004 Cal-IPC held a workshop regarding exotic trees and shrubs. Over 30 representatives of major managers of public lands attended, such as National Park Service, San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program, Marin County Open Space, etc. The record of this meeting reflects the dependence upon fire to justify the eradication of non-native shrubs and trees: “Golden Gate National Recreation Area: ‘inform public ahead of time; use threat of fire danger to help build support for invasive plant removal projects.’”The Golden Gate National Recreation Area—a National Park–advises other land managers to frighten the public into accepting the loss of their trees.
Subterfuge is also recommended to land managers to hide the eradication of shrubs and trees from the public: “To avoid public upset, drilling around into tree buttress roots and injecting 25% glyphosate…Trees die slow and branches fall slowly, so won’t pose an immediate hazard.” In other words, land managers were advised to kill trees using a method that won’t be visible to the public.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that those who attended this workshop admit that they don’t really know if eucalyptus trees are more flammable than native vegetation and some doubt that they are: “People are afraid of fire. Help them understand Eucalyptus trees and other invasive plants are very fire hazardous. Is there any solid research about Eucalyptus and fire? Are Eucalyptus and brooms any greater fire danger than native chaparral?” In other words, even those who wish to destroy non-native shrubs and trees seem to understand that fire is a cover story for which no supporting evidence exists. The evidence has been fabricated to support the cover story.
We now seem to live in a fact-free world in which various interests can make things up and distribute them on the internet with impunity. The mainstream press is dying and is being replaced by fact-free social media. If we are to protect ourselves from such manipulation, we must drill down into these storylines. In the case of eucalyptus, we have debunked the myth that it is more dangerous than the replacement landscape. Now it’s up to us to disseminate that information far and wide as an antidote to fear-driven nativism.
Zach St George, “Burning Question in the East Bay Hills: Eucalyptus is flammable compared to what? Bay Nature, October-December 2016
James Hall, et. al., “Long-distance spotting potential of bark strips of a ribbon gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2015, 24, 1109-1117
Eunmo Koo, et. al., “Firebrands and spotting ignition in large-scale fires,” International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2010, 19, 818-843
The Farallon Islands are a National Wildlife Sanctuary just 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco, where millions of birds and marine animals are legally protected. Plans of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to aerial bomb 1.3 metric tons of rodenticide to kill mice on the Farallon Islands originated over 5 years ago.
The stated purpose of this project was to protect the ashy storm petrel, a legally protected species of concern. The mice are not a direct threat to the petrel. Rather, USFWS claims that another legally protected species of concern, the burrowing owl, eats the chicks of the petrel when the population of mice dwindles. Because the average population of burrowing owls on the Farallons is said to be only 6 burrowing owls, the scale of their predation of petrel chicks seems minimal given that their preferred prey is mice. USFWS theorizes that if the mice are killed, the burrowing owls will leave the Farallons. This rather fanciful scenario is less credible than the more likely outcome that the burrowing owls will either be killed by the poison or eat yet more petrel chicks if their mice diet is eliminated.
Aside from the convoluted and questionable rationale for this project, the main concern is the anticipated collateral damage caused by aerial bombing huge quantities of rodenticide (brodifacoum). The planned rodenticide is an anti-coagulant that is highly persistent and causes all vertebrate animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, etc.) to bleed to death. Death is not quick; the poisoned animals stumble around before dying and are easy prey for other animals that are then killed by the poison. Dead, poisoned mice are equally attractive food for some birds. The poison pellets are also as appealing to other animals as to mice. Even the supporters of this project readily admit that many animals other than mice are likely to be killed directly by the rodenticide or as secondary victims. “Stuff happens,” they say with a shrug.
The author of the Environmental Impact Statement is the same organization—Island Conservation—that will implement the project, if and when it is approved. This conflict of interest seems one of many unwise decisions made by US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The opposition to this project has been loud and clear. Maggie Sergio, who reported this project on Huffington Post, published a petition in opposition to the project that was signed by over 32,000 people. And many prestigious organizations including the EPA, American Bird Conservancy, City of San Francisco, The Ocean Foundation, and several retired USFWS scientists, have also criticized the project. Yet, five years later approval of the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement is still pending. Theoretically this project is still alive.
Unfortunately, we were under-estimating the power and influence of the supporters of this project. Bay Nature, a local nature magazine, recently published an article about the Farallons project and island eradications in general. That article seems to assume there is consensus that mice must be eradicated on the Farallons and that the only question is the method that will be used (more about Bay Nature’s proposed method later). And the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) has published an endorsement of island eradications—including the Farallons—in its most recent newsletter (available here: Cal-IPCNews_Summer2016). Cal-IPC’s preferred strategy for eradications is aerial application of rodenticide. Therefore, our concern about the proposed Farallons project has once again been elevated to crisis levels. When two local organizations, which claim to advocate for conservation endorse the Farallons project, we must take it seriously.
History of island eradications
Since learning about plans to eradicate mice using rodenticides, we have learned that the practice originated in New Zealand, where poison applications began over 60 years ago to kill a wide range of non-native animals. Bill Benfield tells the entire story of eradications in New Zealand in his book, At War With Nature.(1) We have relied on that valuable resource for this article. That history is relevant to us because there are some striking similarities between the North American and New Zealand versions of invasion biology, the ideology that drives eradication attempts in North America and New Zealand.
Humans occupied New Zealand more recently than their arrival in North America. Prior to their arrival, New Zealand was inhabited by many flightless birds that were successful because they had no predators. The moa was the largest of those birds. Although it has been extinct for hundreds of years, palaeontologists tell us the moa was about 12 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds. It was easy prey for the first humans who arrived in New Zealand about 800 hundred years ago from Polynesian islands. As most sea-faring humans do, they unintentionally brought with them a species of rat, the kiore.
The climate of New Zealand is much colder than the Polynesian home of the first humans and their agriculture was not well suited to the climate of their new home. The moa quickly became the main source of food for the humans. The moa were rapidly driven to extinction by hunting, which forced the humans to retreat to the northern end of New Zealand where the climate is milder and their agriculture was more successful.
Although there is some debate about the size and range of the moa population, Dr. Graeme Caughley reported that the moa population was very large and widely spread, based on a calculation of the available sustainable bio-mass. He believes moa populations existed in all vegetation types, including forests where they would have browsed the forests. Intense browsing of the forests would have encouraged the growth of the slower growing and unpalatable browse-resistant trees that became the forest giants. The faster growing species of trees were the palatable browse- tolerant species that were held back by browse, allowing the growth of slower growing trees that would in time become the forest giants. The moa also would have spread the seeds of the trees they ate and inhibited the growth of an understory. In other words, the forest that humans found when they arrived in New Zealand around 1200 AD was adapted to the big population of moa.
In the absence of moa the composition of the forest quickly responded to the absence of browsing. Fast growing trees that were formerly held back by browse were no longer at a disadvantage compared to slow growing and unpalatable browse-resistant trees; the forest under-story became denser. The composition of the forest that was found by Europeans when they arrived in New Zealand several hundred years later was in transition.
The first humans on New Zealand did not have a written language. The landscape they found when they arrived is not recorded in history and is only known to the extent that archaeological and paleontological evidence is accurately used to reconstruct it. As all human science does, these disciplines are continually evolving and therefore did not inform the earliest versions of ecology that spawned the eradication movement on New Zealand. In other words, the forest found by Europeans when they arrived in New Zealand is still considered the pristine ideal that ecologists wish to replicate. In fact, that landscape was just as modified by human habitation as any modern, “novel” ecosystem.
This fantasy of a pristine, pre-human landscape is similar to the fantasy in North America that the landscape found by Europeans when they arrived on the East Coast in the 16th century and the West Coast in the 18th Century was the “natural” landscape, unaltered by humans. They are just as mistaken in that assumption as they are in New Zealand. Native Americans actively managed the landscape to serve their horticultural and cultural needs. The consequences of that fantasy have been just as deadly and destructive in New Zealand as they have been here in California.
The deadly crusade in New Zealand
Europeans brought many animals with them to New Zealand, just as they did to North America. They brought both domesticated animals such as sheep and wild animals such as deer that they could hunt. The deer browse the forest, just as they do here, and the impact they have on the forest is similar to the impact moa had on the forest. The deer and other browsers are the functional substitute for the extinct moa. Fast growing palatable species of trees are disadvantaged by browsing and these are the trees that early ecologists considered the “natural” forests of New Zealand because they were the trees that were found when Europeans arrived.
Hence, aerial poisoning of the land began over 60 years ago to kill all browsing animals in New Zealand except domesticated animals kept behind fences. Smaller non-native animals such as possum are also targets for eradication because they are assumed to be predators of the few flightless birds that remain in New Zealand. This accusation is refuted by Bill Benfield who tells us that possum are primarily vegetarians and that a study of the contents of possum stomachs found no evidence of bird predation. Possum are also accused of being carriers of bovine TB, a disease that infects domesticated animals. However, recent laboratory tests find no evidence that possum are infected with bovine TB, beyond minute levels. In any case, the possum population is small because it is a species that rears only one pup per year, so its population would grow only slowly if they weren’t being exterminated in New Zealand.
The killing fields
A different poison is used in New Zealand–called Compound 1080–that operates in a different way than anti-coagulant rodenticide. It kills indiscriminately any life form that requires oxygen. It was developed as an insecticide in Europe, and was initially used in the US where it was briefly used to kill coyotes and other wildlife considered inconvenient predators until its use was severely restricted because of its extreme toxicity. It is entirely banned in California, which is why our local version of island eradications use anti-coagulant rodenticide instead of 1080.
We could turn a blind eye to what is happening in New Zealand if this strategy were not being exported all over the “civilized” world. Amazingly, such island eradications have happened in many places and are being proposed in many places where local resistance is trying to prevent them from being implemented. What have we learned from the projects that have been done? The record is sketchy because very little after-the-fact monitoring of completed projects has been done. What we DO know, suggests that it is not in the interests of the promoters of these projects to monitor the outcome of their projects because the results are consistently deadly and unsuccessful.
Killing one species of plant or animal does not restore an ecosystem
Readers of Million Trees will not be surprised to learn that killing one species does not magically “restore” an ecosystem to some historic ideal because ecosystems are very complex and their occupants live in communities with many, complex interactions that are not perfectly understood by humans, even humans calling themselves invasion biologists.
One study of islands off the coast of New Zealand compared the vegetation structure and ecosystems of three island systems: islands that never had rats, islands with rats, and islands on which rats had been “controlled.” They concluded that, “The extent to which structure and function of islands where rats have been eradicated will converge on uninvaded islands remains unclear…Since most impacts of rats were mediated through seabird density, the removal of rats without seabird recolonization is unlikely to result in a reversal of these processes. Even if seabirds return, a novel plant community may emerge.” (2)
There are many other factors that prevent the re-creation of historical landscapes, such as climate change. There are undoubtedly many factors that are not known to us, which prevents us from “fixing” something we do not understand. In any case, many of us don’t consider it necessary to “fix” something that we don’t consider broken.
Collateral damage and incompetent execution
In those few cases when after-the-fact monitoring was done, there is considerable evidence that many non-target animals were killed and the water was polluted.
In the case of Rat Island, off the coast of Alaska, no monitoring was planned after the aerial bombing of 46 metric tons of anti-coagulant rodenticide to kill rats. However, neighbors of Rat Island demanded an investigation when they saw dead birds and animals floating in the vicinity of the island after the project was done. That investigation (available HERE) was done by USFWS Law Enforcement. The investigation found that the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding dosage were exceeded, that instructions to collect dead rats so they would not be eaten by birds were not followed, and that hundreds of birds died, including many legally protected bald eagles. The investigation was not done until 7 months after the project was completed. We should assume that the number of dead animals found would have been greater if the investigation had been done promptly after the project was completed.
In the case of Palmyra Island, off the coast of Hawaii, the scientific study conducted after the aerial bombing of rodenticides reported, “We documented brodifacoum [rodenticide] residues in soil, water, and biota, and documented mortality of non-target organisms. Some bait (14–19% of the target application rate) entered the marine environment to distances 7 m from the shore. After the application commenced, carcasses of 84 animals representing 15 species of birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates were collected opportunistically as potential non-target mortalities. In addition, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates were systematically collected for residue analysis. Brodifacoum residues were detected in most (84.3%) of the animal samples analyzed. Although detection of residues in samples was anticipated, the extent and concentrations in many parts of the food web were greater than expected.” (3)
The rats return
The most damning evidence of all is that after killing untold numbers of animals, including those not meant to be killed, and poisoning the environment with a deadly toxin that bioaccumulates and persists in our bodies, the rat population often returns to pre-project levels within a few years.
Henderson atoll in the Pacific is an example of such a failure. Eighty tons of rodenticide pellets were aerial bombed on Henderson in 2011. Apparently, at least two rats survived, one presumably male and one presumably female. Within a few years the rat population had returned to pre-projects levels of 50,000 to 100,000 rats.
The rats were said to have been introduced to Henderson over 800 years ago. Surely they had reached some balance between population size and available food sources. Rats are an ancient species that would not be here if they completely wiped out their food sources. Rat population growth is modulated by available food sources. Hence, when almost completely eradicated, the rats rapidly reproduced back to equilibrium with food sources.
Claims that the Henderson project was urgently needed to prevent the extinction of a bird species with which rats had co-existed for over 800 years were bogus. If rats had not exterminated the birds within 800 years, they weren’t likely to do so before this pointless project killed tens of thousands of animals, probably including many birds.
Like most “restoration” projects, claims are made about a conservation crisis that is often just an emotional appeal without any scientific basis. Money is raised and spent in response to these fabricated crises and many “non-profit,” untaxed organizations subsist on these campaigns. In the case of New Zealand, the poison they are using is manufactured by the government, creating an unholy financial incentive for these eradication projects.
The failure of the extermination attempt on Henderson is not an isolated incident. Lehua is one of the Hawaiian islands on which extermination was attempted and failed. An evaluation of that attempt was published in 2011 to determine the cause of the failure so that a subsequent attempt would be more successful. That evaluation included this report on the success of similar attempts all over the world: “An analysis of 206 previous eradication attempts against five species of rodents on islands using brodifacoum or diphacinone is presented in an appendix to this report. For all methods, 19.6% of 184 attempts using brodifacoum failed, while 31.8% of 22 attempts using diphacinone failed.” Brodifacoum and diphacinone are both anti-coagulant rodenticides. Diphacinone is considered less toxic and less persistent than brodifacoum.
The silver bullet?
The “restoration” industry is meeting with a great deal of public opposition. Because some of the opposition is based on concerns about polluting the environment with pesticides–such as herbicides used to kill plants and rodenticides used to kill animals–the “restoration” industry is looking for a less controversial method of accomplishing their deadly goals.
This brings us back to the recently published article in Bay Nature about island eradications. The article informs us that a genetic modification of mice is now being developed, which would drive that species to extinction by ensuring that all off-spring would be males, thereby ending reproduction of the species. This method has a seductive appeal because it would not poison the environment. However, it is an insidious proposal and we will let some of the commenters on the Bay Nature article tell us why, because some of them sound like knowledgeable scientists with ethical concerns:
“Has the conservation movement lost its mind? Gene drive is unsafe, unproven and unethical. It is the most insane idea I have heard of in my 20 years reporting on genetic engineering. And it is presented here with no critical analysis, scientific, ethical, or environmental. I have spent my life in conservation and want to do all I can for to stop extinction but using extinction to stop extinction? Gene Drive is a technology that says one species (us) gets to decide which other species live or die. This is not populations that will be eradicated, it is aimed at an entire species. Who likes pests like rats or mosquitoes? But think. What’s next? Could this be a cynical ploy to use conservation to test this dangerous technology? Because once accepted it can then be used for many far less “acceptable purposes – such as a bioweapon.” – Claire Cummings
“The Alison Hawkes article reminds me (as a Kiwi i.e. New Zealander) of the mad and dangerously flawed science that is rampant in New Zealand. And just because it’s labelled science, don’t unquestioningly believe in it. Scientists here have to operate under a commissioned, paid science regime. The science becomes warped and inaccurate. Too often pseudo science (e.g. New Zealand’s destructive 1080 programme) intrudes and disrupts the natural ecosystem with disastrous consequences. In NZ, objectives are often founded on unrealistic goals, i.e. turning NZ ‘s ecological clock back to 500AD. That’s impossible while humans and mad science remain.” – Tony Orman
“It is extremely disappointing to see Bay Nature carry an article on such a controversial and risky plan with such lack of balance or even basic journalistic diligence. Contrary to the impression presented here CRISPR CAS9 gene drives are highly immature – it being barely 15 months since the first proof of principle of the ‘mutagenic chain reaction’s shown and they already have generated enormous controversy including a 200 page National Academy of Sciences Study that warned against open release and growing discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity where there have been strong calls for a moratorium on this risky new technology.” – Jim Thomas
It seems that destructive “restoration” techniques are developing faster than human common sense can keep up with. What can we do to slow it down? What can we do to prevent the pointless poisoning of our environment and the needless killing of defenseless animals and harmless plants? I don’t know the answer, but I will keep asking the questions and I hope my readers will as well.
Update: The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the mouse eradication project on the Farallon Islands was published on March 15, 2019. The Final Environmental Impact Statement recommends the original plan as the “preferred alternative.” In other words, despite intense opposition to this plan, its implementation is now eminent.
No public comments are allowed on a Final Environmental Impact Statement, so there’s nothing further we can say about what seems to be an unnatural disaster in the making. At this stage of a project, lawsuits are the only way to stop it. I don’t know if anyone is willing and able to sue.
William F Benfield, At War With Nature: Corporate Conservation and the Industry of Extinction, 2015, available on Amazon.com in digital format
Christa Mulder et.al., “Direct and indirect effects of rats: does rat eradication restore ecosystem functioning of New Zealand seabird islands?” Biological Invasions, August 2009, 1671-1688
William Pitt, et. al., “Non-target species mortality and the measurement of brodifacoum rodenticide residues after a rat (Rattus rattus) eradication on Palmyra Atoll, tropical Pacific,” Biological Conservation, May 2015, 36-46
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 Paradise. We 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.
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
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.
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…”
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.
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.