Digging In: Nativists aggressively defend their use of herbicides

The trial of DeWayne Johnson vs. Monsanto began early in July.  This is the first trial of about 4,000 lawsuits against Monsanto for “product liability.”  Mr. Johnson is dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  He believes that the glyphosate that he sprayed as an employee of the Benicia School District from 2012 to 2015 has caused his terminal cancer.  His lawyer will present evidence at the trial that Monsanto knew the health risks of the glyphosate they manufactured and hid that information from the public. 

This trial could be the turning point that will determine the future of glyphosate in America.  Therefore, this is a suitable opportunity to explain how we got here and why the fate of glyphosate may also determine the fate of the native plant movement.


Update August 10, 2018:  BREAKING NEWS!!!

”A San Francisco jury has found in favor of a school groundskeeper dying of cancer whose lawyers argued that a weed killer made by the agribusiness giant Monsanto likely caused his disease.

“Dewayne Johnson was awarded nearly $290 million in punitive damages and another $39 million in compensatory damages.

“Johnson’s lawsuit against Monsanto was the first case to go to trial in a string of legal complaints alleging the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He sprayed Roundup and another Monsanto product, Ranger Pro, as part of his job as a pest control manager at a San Francisco Bay Area school district, his attorneys have said.

“He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014, when he was 42.

“Monsanto, for its part, vehemently denies a link between Roundup and cancer.

“But jurors at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California, who deliberated for three days, found that the corporation failed to warn Johnson and other consumers about the risks posed by its weed-killing products.

“The outcome of the trial will not have a direct affect on the slew of other Roundup-related suits in state and federal courts. But it could serve as a bellwether for other cases in the queue.”  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/jury-orders-monsanto-pay-290m-roundup-trial-n899811

This could be the beginning of the end for glyphosate.  There will be many appeals of this decision, but there are also many other lawsuits in line by people who believe they were harmed by glyphosate.  This is a significant step forward.


The story begins

I have followed the native plant movement in California for over 20 years.  I knew that herbicides were used by land managers to eradicate plants they consider “invasive” only because I made the effort to inform myself of what they were doing.  It wasn’t easy to figure out that they were using herbicides because many land managers do not post notices of their pesticide applications and even fewer report their pesticide use to the public.  State law does not require posting of pesticide application notices if the manufacturer claims that the product dries within 24 hours, which exempts most of the herbicides used by land managers, including glyphosate (Roundup) and triclopyr (Garlon).

Pesticide use by land managers in California. Source California Invasive Plant Council

I didn’t know how extensive herbicide use is on our public lands until the California Invasive Plant Council conducted a survey in 2014 of 100 land managers about the methods they were using to kill “invasive” plants. Here’s what we learned from that survey:

  • Ninety-four percent of land managers are using herbicides to control plants they consider “invasive.”  Sixty-two percent are using herbicides frequently.
  • Ninety-nine percent of the land managers who use herbicides, use glyphosate products. Seventy-four percent use Garlon, which is one of the most hazardous herbicides available on the market.  The Pesticide Research Institute says that Garlon “poses reproductive and developmental risks to female applicators.”
  • Foliar spray is the method used most frequently by land managers to apply herbicides.  This method of application has the potential to drift into non-target areas and kill non-target plants.

Chapter Two:  World Health Organization takes a position

In 2015, one year after the Cal-IPC survey was done, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.”  That decision suddenly and radically altered the playing field for the use of glyphosate, which is the most heavily used of all herbicides.

Since that decision was made, 25 countries have issued outright bans on glyphosate, imposed restrictions or have issued statements of intention to ban or restrict glyphosate-based herbicides, including Roundup.  Countless US states and cities have also adopted such restrictions. Locally, the Marin Municipal Water District made a commitment to not using pesticides—including glyphosate—in 2015.  MMWD had stopped using pesticides in 2005 in response to the public’s objections, but engaged in a long process of evaluating the risk of continuing use that resulted in a permanent ban in 2015.

Chapter Three:  Nativists dig in

The reaction of native plant advocates to this bad news of the dangers of glyphosate has been to dig in and aggressively defend their use of herbicides.

One of the first indications of this reaction was an article about the IARC decision in the Fall 2015 newsletter of the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) that concludes:  “In the final analysis, this means that there’s no good reason to stop using glyphosate whether it’s a carcinogen or not.”  If the IARC decision isn’t a good reason, what is?  If the prospect of cancer isn’t a legitimate reason not to use glyphosate, what is?

In its Fall 2016 newsletter, Cal-IPC stepped up the volume.  The Executive Director’s introductory letter stated the highest priorities for Cal-IPC, including, “the increased need for Cal-IPC to publicly support the appropriate use of herbicides.”

That edition of the Cal-IPC newsletter also includes a review of Tao Orion’s book, Beyond the War on Invasive SpeciesTao Orion is a practicing permaculturalist who shares many of the objectives of native plant advocates. Permaculture is committed to conservation, preservation, and restoration, but practitioners achieve those objectives without using pesticides.  They focus on restoring ecological functions by identifying and correcting the underlying causes of change, such as loss of water resources.

Given Cal-IPC’s commitment to herbicide use, it was unable to find value in Orion’s book.  Much of their criticism seemed unfair.  They said that Orion’s recommendations for using restoration methods such as burning or grazing that don’t require the use of pesticides are preaching to the choir.  They claim that native plant restoration projects are, in fact, doing the same thing.  Yet, the survey Cal-IPC conducted in 2014 says otherwise.  Forty-seven percent of land managers said they “never” use grazing to control “invasive” plants, compared to 94% who said they use pesticides.  Burning was not mentioned by any land manager as a method they use.

The survey and accompanying risk assessment of the herbicides used by those who took the survey was presented at the annual Cal-IPC conference in fall 2014.  It was available on the Cal-IPC website until very recently, when it was scrubbed.  The risk assessment is still available on the website of the Pesticide Research Institute, which conducted that evaluation.

In October 2017, Cal-IPC published a position statement regarding glyphosate, “The Use of Glyphosate for Invasive Plant Management.”  Cal-IPC’s “position on the issue” is:  “Cal-IPC supports the use of glyphosate in invasive plant management as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. When using glyphosate according to the label, with appropriate personal protective equipment and best practices, glyphosate is low-risk for wildlife, applicators and the public.”  Their position is primarily based on their belief that doses of glyphosate used in wildland weed management are too low to be a health hazard.

Several new studies, published after the IARC decision, strengthen the case against glyphosate.  New research suggests that glyphosate is a health hazard at low doses considered “safe” by the EPA.  The Global Glyphosate Study is being conducted by six scientific institutions all over the world. This international consortium of scientific institutions recently published preliminary results of their study: “The results of the short-term pilot study showed that glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) were able to alter certain important biological parameters in rats, mainly relating to sexual development, genotoxicity and the alteration of the intestinal microbiome, at the ‘safe’ level of 1.75 mg/kg/day set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”  In other words, at doses deemed safe by the US EPA, significant negative health effects were found in animals used in testing.

Another recent study of glyphosate found that the formulated product is considerably more toxic than the active ingredient alone.  US National Toxicology Program recently conducted tests on formulated glyphosate products for the first time. In the past, tests were conducted only on the active ingredient…that is glyphosate alone. The formulated products that are actually applied as weed killers contain many other chemicals, some of which are not even known. The head of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, told The Guardian newspaper the agency’s work is ongoing but its early findings are clear on one key point. “We see the formulations are much more toxic. The formulations were killing the cells. The glyphosate really didn’t do it,” DeVito said. A summary of the NTP analysis said that “glyphosate formulations decreased human cell ‘viability’, disrupting cell membranes. Cell viability was ‘significantly altered’ by the formulations, it stated.”

Two empirical studies found that low levels of exposure to the weed killer Roundup (glyphosate) over a long period of time can cause liver disease.

Is Cal-IPC aware of these recent studies?  Are the people who apply glyphosate aware of these studies?  Are the employers of these applicators aware of these studies?  Are these applicators the plaintiffs of future product liability lawsuits against Monsanto?

Chapter Four:  California Native Plant Society defends herbicides with fantasies

If you read the publications of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) or attend their conferences, you know that little mention is made of herbicides by their followers and those who engage in “restoration” projects.  In the past, the best defense was to turn a blind eye to herbicide use.

More recently, the intense opposition to the use of herbicides on public lands seems to have forced CNPS to become actively engaged in the defense of herbicides.  The most recent edition of the Journal of the California Native Plant Society, Fremontia (Vol. 46 No. 1) is a “Special Issue on Urban Wildlands.” The introductory article is illustrated with a photo of Oyster Bay.  I nearly choked on this statement in that article:  “In order to control invasive plants, agencies and volunteers have sometimes resorted to using herbicides as a step in integrated pest control.  While use of herbicides is contentious, the use for spot treatments has enabled small groups of volunteers to successfully eliminate invasive weeds in some areas where future herbicide use will not be needed.” Oyster Bay is being doused with herbicides as we reported in a recent article that is available HERE.

Oyster Bay herbicide applications, May 2018

That same edition of Fremontia also includes several articles in which specific native plant “restorations” are described in detail.  All of the projects use herbicides, often repeatedly and often without successfully establishing native plants:

  • “Bull Creek Ecosystem Restoration Project: Not Quite a Success Story”:  This project began in 2008, after over 10 years of planning.  Bull Creek was reconfigured with bull dozers, eliminating the existing landscape.  Although natives were planted, weeds quickly took over the site.  It was weeded by hand initially and considered a success until the creek bank eroded significantly and the artificial oxbow filled with silt.  But “weeds continued to thrive” because the native plants were irrigated and they resorted to herbicide applications in 2010.  Subsequent failures of native plants were blamed on unauthorized public access and the state-wide drought.  Volunteer weeding has been abandoned.  The future of this project is very much in doubt.
  • “Weed Control Efforts in the Sepulveda Basin”: “Based on more than 20 years of experience with attempting to control various weeds in the Sepulveda Basin, and given the lack of support from the city due to budgetary priorities, it is apparent that without herbicide it will be impossible to control non-native weeds that threaten regional biodiversity.”
  • “Nature in the City: Restored Native Habitat Along the LA River…”:  The site was sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate) several times to remove as much of the non-native seed bank as possible.  Weeding continued throughout the habitat restoration and construction period.”

Did CNPS notice the contradiction between their first article and subsequent articles in the same publication?  Their introductory article claims they rarely use herbicides and when they do it is only temporary.  But subsequent articles about specific projects make it clear that herbicides are routinely and repeatedly used and even then, weeds persist.

Pesticides used in San Francisco’s “natural areas.” Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

In the Bay Area, one of the oldest native plant “restorations” is in San Francisco, where the so-called Natural Areas Program (now called Natural Resources Division) started in 1998.  They have used pesticides consistently since the program began.  The San Francisco Forest Alliance began tracking their use of pesticides in 2008.  In their most recent report, the Forest Alliance informs us that pesticide use in the so-called “natural areas” has increased significantly in the first half of 2018.  This increase was anticipated because the program plan and its Environmental Impact Report were finally approved in spring 2017, after 20 years of being hotly contested.  The approval of the program enabled them to increase the staff of pesticide applicators from one to five.  Most of the increase in pesticide use in 2018 is of Garlon, one of the most toxic pesticides available on the market.  San Francisco’s native plant restorations are a specific example of the long term use of large quantities of herbicide.  You can visit those areas to see for yourself that 20 years of effort and herbicides have not successfully established native plant gardens.

Good luck to DeWayne Johnson

It is difficult to understand how nativists can continue to advocate for the use of herbicides.  It is even more difficult to understand how land managers can continue to use public money to spray herbicides on our public parks and open spaces.  Since they are apparently impervious to scientific assessment of the health hazards of herbicides and blind to the failures of their projects, we can only hope that DeWayne Johnson will prevail in his lawsuit against Monsanto.  We would like to see justice for Mr. Johnson and his family and the bonus will be the legal liabilities and associated economic costs of continuing to use a dangerous herbicide that damages the environment and everyone who lives in it.

Highs and Lows of the 2018 Conference of the California Native Plant Society

I am pleased to publish the following report of one of our readers who attended the conference of the California Native Plant Society in Los Angeles at the beginning of February 2018. 

Million Trees


I attended the last conference of the California Native Plant Society in San Jose in January 2015.  It was interesting to note a few significant new themes in the recent conference in 2018.  Both fire and climate change were much more prominent themes in the recent conference.  While both are relevant to the future of native plants, neither seemed to have any effect on the “restoration” goals of the native plant movement.  For example, there were several presentations about massive die offs of native oak trees, resulting from higher temperatures, drought, and disease.  These presentations ended with urgent pleas to plant more oaks.  That seemed a fundamental contradiction and a denial of the reality of climate change.  When the climate changes, the landscape changes, but native plant advocates are not willing to acknowledge that.  In fact, the greater the threats to native plants, the greater the commitment to their preservation and “restoration.”

Beautiful pictures support nativist ideology

The conference began on a low point for me, but a high point for most attendees of the conference.  The keynote speaker was Doug Tallamy.  He was introduced as a “rock star” of the native plant movement, and indeed he is.  His presentation was very effective in delivering his message, which is that most insects are “specialists” with mutually exclusive relationships with native plants that evolved over “tens of thousands of years.”  If you believe that claim, you also believe that the absence of native plants will result in the absence of insects and ultimately the collapse of the entire food web.

Doug Tallamy’s closing photo, CNPS Conference 2018

Most native plant advocates believe that gloomy scenario, but few scientists still do, which creates a tension within this community of native plant advocates composed predominantly of amateur “botanists” and a smattering of academic ecologists.  For example, one of the first presentations after Tallamy’s keynote was an academic ecologist from UC Berkeley who advocated for accommodating the movement of plants outside of historical native ranges to accommodate climate change. (1) He said that restoring only with local natives is “maladaptive” and that a bioregional perspective is needed to create sustainable landscapes.  Allowing Monterey pines to grow in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they have grown in the past and are presently deemed “native” just 150 miles away, seems a good example of such a broader definition of “native.”  An amateur nativist, parroting Tallamy, asked this hostile question: “But if we move the plants how will wildlife survive?”  The academic delivered this tart dose of reality: “There are few mutually exclusive relationships in nature.  Wildlife will also move and will adapt to changes in vegetation.”

Science debunks a myth about eucalyptus

The high point of the conference for me was a presentation by Jennifer Yost, Assistant Professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  She and her graduate student studied the claim that nothing grows under blue gum eucalyptus trees because of allelopathic chemicals emitted by eucalyptus that suppress the germination of other species of plants.  Two studies of this hypothesis were done in the 1960s, but the analytical methods used by those studies were misleading.

CNPS Conference 2018

Rigorous methods used by Yost’s team included planting seeds of 5 native plant species in the soil of eucalyptus forests and comparing germination rates of seeds planted in the soil of oak woodlands.  They also tested the effect of blue gum volatile leaf extracts, and water-soluble leaf extracts on germination and early seedling growth.

They concluded, “In these experiments, we found that germination and seedling growth of the species tested were not inhibited by chemical extracts of blue gum foliage, either at naturally-occurring or artificially concentrated levels.” (2)

CNPS Conference 2018

Yost observed that the lack of allelopathic effects of blue gum on the soil implies that blue gum forests theoretically can be successfully planted with native plants after removal of the trees.  However, she cautioned that those who destroy the blue gums should carefully consider what will replace them.  Will an aggressive non-native weed quickly colonize the bare ground?  If so, what is the benefit of destroying the blue gums? 

I had a conversation with one of the most influential nativists in the San Francisco Bay Area after Yost’s presentation.  This new scientific information does not alter his commitment to destroying blue gum eucalyptus in the Bay Area.  After all, there are many more negative claims that remain unchallenged by scientific studies.  For example, there are no studies that prove that blue gums use more water than native trees, as nativists claim.  Nor are there any studies that prove that eucalyptus leaves contain less moisture than the leaves of native oak or bay laurel trees, which theoretically makes eucalyptus more flammable, as nativists claim.  The lack of scientific evidence enables the persistence of speculation justifying irrational fear of blue gum eucalyptus.

Nativism dies hard because of lack of scientific studies

There appeared to be three distinct groups of people in the crowd of about 900 conferees.  There was a large contingent of grey-haired volunteers who are the backbone of every native plant “restoration.”  They are the dedicated weed pullers.  There is an equally large contingent of young people who are making their living writing the “restoration” plans and directing the activities of the volunteers.  The smallest contingent is a few academic scientists who study the underlying issues in their ivory tower.  The goals and conclusions of these three groups are increasingly divergent as scientific studies disprove the assumptions of the citizen “scientists.”

The tension between science and the citizenry is as evident within the native plant movement as it is in American politics at the present time. The general public rejects scientific evidence at its peril.  The rejection of science will not end well.  In the case of uninformed nativism in the natural world, the result will be a barren, poisoned landscape.


  1. “Climate change and open space conservation: Lessons from TBC3’s researcher-land manager partnerships in the San Francisco Bay Area,” David Ackerly1, Naia Morueta-Holme5, Sam Veloz3, Lisa Micheli2, Nicole Heller4 1University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2Pepperwood, Santa Rosa, CA, USA, 3Point Blue Conservation Science, Petaluma, CA, USA, 4Peninsula Open Space Trust, Palo Alto, CA, USA, 5University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. Abstracts of CNPS conference presentations are available here:  CNPS Conference abstracts

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.

 

Conference of the California Native Plant Society

In January 2015, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) celebrated its 50th anniversary by holding a gigantic conference.  About 700-1,000 people attended.  There were several hundred short presentations and many posters describing research and “restoration” projects.  The abstracts of these presentations are available on the CNPS website.  We are publishing a brief description of a few of the presentations sent to us by one of our readers who attended the conference.  We publish with permission but without attribution, on request.  We have added a few edits in brackets and italics as well as a few links to relevant articles on Million Trees.


I was very impressed with the quality of the presentations at the CNPS conference.  Some were given by academic scientists or their graduate students. Many were given by land managers and managers of “restoration” projects.  There were about 225 presentations in 5 simultaneous sessions, so it was possible to hear only about 45 of them. There were also many short “lightning” presentations and nearly 50 posters.  Please consider this an impression of the conference, rather than a comprehensive report.

Michael Soulé was the opening speaker.  You might recognize his name as one of the proponents of invasion biology who is angry about growing acceptance of “novel ecosystems” and the ecological functions they perform.  [Million Trees has posted articles about this debate among academic scientists.  Soulé is one of the invasion biologists who demanded that the Nature Conservancy abandon their support for novel ecosystems.]   His objection to any acceptance of non-native plants was the main focus of his presentation.  He closed by saying that he “cannot live” without wild nature.  Since his definition of “nature” seems to exclude non-native plants, one wonders how he will manage to survive.   Perhaps he lives in an alternate universe populated solely by native plants.

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

Jared Farmer was the speaker at the conference dinner.  His subject was the history of eucalyptus in California.  His presentation was similar to his treatment of the subject in his book, Trees in Paradise.  [Million Trees has posted articles about Farmer’s book.]  Like his book, his presentation was even-handed in its treatment of eucalyptus.  That enraged the audience, which booed every time he said something positive about eucalyptus.  One wonders why he was invited to speak to this audience.  Were the organizers of the conference interested in promoting a more balanced view of eucalyptus?  Or did they just want a provocative speaker to wake up a sleepy audience after hours of a fund-raising auction?

Many of the presentations were surprisingly frank about the difficulties experienced by “restoration” projects.  CNPS deserves credit for inviting speakers who described some stunning failures of their effort to “restore” native landscapes.  I’ll describe just a few of the themes of speakers I heard.

San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission

I was surprised to learn that San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is heavily engaged in native plant “restorations.”  The PUC is responsible for managing thousands of acres of open space in the watershed that supplies San Francisco’s drinking water.  Common sense suggests that the PUC’s top priority would be the purity and safety of the water supply.  The PUC presentations at the conference suggest otherwise.  The PUC’s commitment to native plant “restorations” seems to trump the goal of clean water.

The PUC attempted to “restore” 100 acres of wetland and riparian habitat in San Mateo, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties by planting over 500,000 native plants, obtained from several different nurseries.  They claim to have followed a strict protocol which theoretically should have prevented the introduction of diseased plants.  Their protocol obviously failed.  The fact that many of the plants were infected with Phytophthora was not discovered until they were planted in the ground.  Phytophthora is the pathogen that is causing Sudden Oak Death.  The PUC is now faced with the difficult—if not impossible—task of trying to contain the spread of a fatal pathogen for which there is no known cure.

This project was funded by a “mitigation” grant for capital projects elsewhere in San Francisco.  Environmental laws require the builders of new development to “mitigate” for the impact they have on the environment by funding projects elsewhere, which are considered beneficial to the environment.  This often looks like legalized extortion to me.  It also increases the cost of infrastructure improvements, which limits the number of improvements we can make.  In this case, there clearly was no benefit to the environment.  It was both money down the drain and a poke in the environment’s eye.

As pointless as that project seemed, the other project presented by the PUC seemed even more pointless.  They presented a poster describing an experiment intended to determine the most effective application method and type of herbicide to eradicate coyote brush.  They used several different methods and types of herbicide, including Garlon (triclopyr) [which is known to be very toxic to aquatic life] and Milestone (aminopyralid) [which is banned in the State of New York because it is persistent and very mobile in the soil].

Detail of poster about PUC project, CNPS Conference
Detail of poster about PUC project, CNPS Conference

As you know, coyote brush is a native plant, so one wonders why it was necessary to eradicate it.  According to PUC’s poster, it’s another example of trying to prevent natural succession from grassland to scrub.  You might ask why the PUC is obligated to maintain grassland?  You might also ask how the PUC can justify using toxic herbicides in our watershed?  I can’t answer those questions.  It doesn’t make sense to me.

San Bruno Mountain

Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons
Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons

There was also a discouraging presentation by the folks who have been engaged in the effort to “restore” San Bruno Mountain in order to preserve and maintain a population of several species of rare butterflies, including the endangered Mission Blue butterfly.  This project officially began 32 years ago when the Habitat Conservation Plan was created by federal environmental protection laws.  The goal was to restore native grassland required by the rare butterflies.  The speaker said this goal remains largely unfulfilled.  As for the butterflies, their current status is largely unknown because monitoring efforts are not sufficient to determine the size of the population.

While non-native plants considered “invasive” are a part of the problem in achieving the goal of this project, the biggest problem is, in fact, a native plant.  Once again, natural succession from grassland to native scrub, dominated by coyote brush, is the main reason why grassland continues to shrink on San Bruno Mountain:

“Although the last mapping effort in 2004 reported 1296 acres of grassland, we believe that many of these areas are in imminent threat of scrub encroachment and could be converted to scrub after a good coyote brush recruitment year. Large patches of contiguous grassland with less than 2% scrub cover are quickly vanishing…Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush) accounts for the majority of the scrub encroachment observed on San Bruno. It seems to follow the well documented pattern of episodic establishment in wet seasons when roots can more quickly tap into needed soil water. Once seedlings have survived the first critical year, mortality drops quickly and full establishment plays out over the next 5-7 years (Williams et al. 1987). During this process of establishment, grassland resources decline and eventually disappear. Soil changes such as increased nitrogen and allelopathic compounds often follow scrub encroachment (Zavaleta and Kettley 2006, Weidenhamer and Callaway 2010) reducing the ability of grasslands to successfully re-establish without an intermediate disturbance such as a fire or intensive browsing (Hobbs and Mooney 1986).” (1)

San Bruno Mountain from Daly City. Wikimedia Commons
San Bruno Mountain from Daly City. Wikimedia Commons

It’s seems almost comic that when all is said and done, the main threat to native grassland “restoration” is apparently a native plant that is just doing what comes naturally…”invading” grassland in the absence of fire or grazing.

Hybridization:  Friend or foe?

Dieteria canescens variety canescens, native to Wyoming and other western states. Photo by Stephen Perry.
Dieteria canescens variety canescens, native to Wyoming. Photo by Stephen Perry.

I also attended the presentation of a native plant advocate from Mammoth Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierras.  She is engaged in a futile crusade to prevent the hybridization of a new plant, which she considers non-native, with a closely related native plant.  When this new plant arrived in her neighborhood, she recognized that it was different, but she was unable to identify it.  It wasn’t easy to find someone who could identify it.  Eventually, she found a botanist in Wyoming (where it is native) who was able to tell her that the new plant is a variety of a plant that is native at Mammoth Lake.  These plants are in the aster family.  The native is Dieteria canescens.  The new plant considered a non-native invader is Dieteria canescens var. canescens.  In other words, they are the same species!

From a horticultural standpoint, the new plant is superior to the native in every way: it is a bigger plant with more flowers; the flowers are bigger with more rays; the flowers are a deeper color.  So, why must it be eradicated?  Because native plant advocates fear that it will hybridize with the native aster and “swamp” it genetically, i.e., wipe it out.  Would that be such a terrible thing?  That is a matter of opinion.

Dieteria canescens, native to Mammoth Lake. Photo by Steve Mason
Dieteria canescens, native to Mammoth Lake. Photo by Steve Mason

One person in the audience asked why the new plant was not being accepted as an adaptation to climate change that would probably increase the likelihood of the survival of the species.  The speaker’s answer was that she could not accept the loss of the variety she considers native.  Another person in the audience asked this rhetorical question:  “What is our narrative here?  How can we expect the public to understand that it is necessary to eradicate a plant that is the same species?” The speaker agreed that it is not an easy sell.  I was encouraged by these questions.  They seem to be a glimmer of common sense.  I hope they are prophetic of the future of the native plant movement.

On that happy note, I close with an invitation to visit the CNPS website to read the abstracts of the hundreds of posters and presentations at this excellent conference.


  1. “Assessment of the past 30 years of habitat management and covered species monitoring efforts associated with the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan (Draft),” Creekside Science, October 21, 2014.