GIVE US A VOTE!! Results of letter to Sierra Club members

Our readers will recall that California law enabled a member of the Sierra Club to send a letter to over 26,000 members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club about the chapter’s support for deforestation and pesticide use in the East Bay Hills. Today we’re reporting the result of that letter and the next step in the long, tortuous path to changing the chapter’s policy on these issues. The letter and enclosed postcard petition are available HERE and HERE: Letter to Sierra Club members and Letter to Sierra Club members – postcard petition

To date, this is the number of postcard petitions that have been received:

sierraclub petition table

Since many couples have joint memberships, the actual number of Club members who signed the postcard petition is greater than the number of postcards.  The postcard petitions represent the opposition of 1,823 members to Sierra Club policy.  Many members also added written messages on the postcard petition, which are available HERE: Petition Comments

Postcard petitions to Sierra Club
Postcard petitions to Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is now obligated to give us a VOTE on this issue!

According to the Sierra Club bylaws, critics of the Club’s policy regarding the destruction of our urban forest and pesticide use are now entitled to a formal vote on the issues.  The Sierra Club reports:  “More than 45,000 members nationwide voted” in the 2016 election for the Club’s National Board of Directors.  Let’s say 46,000 voted.  Two percent (2%) of 46,000 is 920. Nearly twice as many (1,823) Sierra Club members have indicated their opposition to the Club’s policy regarding the destruction of our urban forest and pesticide use.   Thus the results of the postcard petition now obligate the Sierra Club to conduct a formal vote on the issues:

“11.2. Except as provided in Bylaw 5.10, whenever a number of members of the Club equal at least to two percent (2%) of the number of ballots cast at the immediately preceding annual election for Directors shall request in writing that a resolution be adopted by the Club, the Board may adopt the resolution by majority vote, unless the petition specifically requests a vote of the membership or such a vote is required by law or these Bylaws; if the resolution is not so adopted, the Board shall certify it to the Secretary for a vote of the members.”

The author of the letter to Sierra Club members informed the leadership of the Sierra Club of the number of postcard petitions received and requested a formal vote on the issues, as provided by the Club’s by-laws.

How to get the attention of the Sierra Club?

We have planned a demonstration at the national headquarters of the Sierra Club on Monday, June 13, 2016, at noon.  Unless the Sierra Club agrees to conduct a formal vote on the issues before that date, we plan to tell the Sierra Club to let its members decide whether the Club should continue to support deforestation and pesticide use on public lands.

Noon 12:00 pm
Monday June 13, 2016
2100 Franklin St. (at 21st Street), Oakland
Sierra Club National Office (13th Floor)
(Close to 19th Street BART Station)

We hope that those who care about deforestation and pesticide use in the East Bay will join us for this peaceful demonstration.  A leaflet that you can print and post or distribute for this demonstration is available HERE: Flyer for demonstration  Please help us make the case that the bylaws of the Sierra Club obligate the club to give the membership a formal vote on these issues.

Sierra Club protest, August 25, 2015. About 80 people attended the peaceful protest.
Sierra Club protest, August 25, 2015. We delivered an on-line petition to Bay Chapter headquarters of the Sierra Club on these issues that now has over 2,800 signatures on it.

Why focus on the Sierra Club?

Opponents of the deforestation projects in the East Bay Hills may wonder why so much time and energy is spent on trying to change the policy of the Sierra Club on this matter.  Sometimes, Million Trees wonders too.

So, we will take a minute to explain that the Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit that demands immediate eradication of 100% of non-native trees on over 2,000 acres of public land.  East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) is the biggest of the three land owners engaged in these projects.  EBRPD prefers to thin its eucalyptus forests from an average of 650 trees per acre to about 60-80 of the biggest trees per acre.  Although that seems to be the destruction of too many trees, it is clearly preferable to destroying EVERY non-native tree (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia) on about 1,600 acres of park land in the East Bay, which is what the Sierra Club lawsuit demands.   The other two land owners (UC Berkeley and City of Oakland) have always planned to destroy 100% of the non-native trees on about 500 acres of their land.  The Club’s lawsuit demands that they do so immediately, rather than phase some of the tree removals over a period of 10 years.

Furthermore, the Sierra Club is influential with public policy makers, including elected officials.  We believe that some decision-makers would be less likely to support these destructive projects if the Sierra Club would quit demanding the destruction of our urban forest.  In a liberal, environmentally conscious community such as ours, the Club’s promise of endorsement (or threat of non-endorsement) of a particular candidate for elected office is a powerful tool to impose the Club’s will on our decision makers.

Finally, we believe that the policy of the local chapter of the Sierra Club that demands destruction of much of our urban forest and douses our public lands with pesticides compromises the important mission of the national Sierra Club.  The national Sierra Club is appropriately focused on addressing the causes of climate change.  Climate change is the environmental issue of our time and the Sierra Club is one of the most important tools we have to address that issue.  Deforestation is a major cause of climate change.  The policy of the local chapter is therefore a contradiction of the mission of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club instructs FEMA

Those who are still members of the Sierra Club, but are concerned about the Club’s endorsement of projects to destroy trees and  use toxic poisons to kill their roots, might be interested in the Club’s public comment (scroll down to Appendix F “Written Comments) to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in preparation for the Environmental Impact Study of four such projects in the East Bay hills. 

 The Chairman of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club begins by asking FEMA to ignore those who are critical of these projects:  “1. We urge FEMA to discount the views of any individual or group that uses sophomoric name calling tactics in the press or in their FEMA scoping comments to categorize people or advocacy groups as ‘nativists’ (or other similar pejorative labels)…”

Apparently the author does not consider calling someone “sophomoric” an example of “name-calling.”  Webster defines “sophomoric” as “intellectually pretentious and conceited but immature and ill-informed.”  Hmmm…that sounds pretty insulting to us.

We don’t use the word “nativist” here on Million Trees, not because we consider it an inaccurate description, but rather because we have been told that it offends native plant advocates.  Since our goal on Million Trees is to inform, rather than to offend, we stick with the clunky phrase, “native plant advocates.”

What about “other similar pejorative labels?”  Does the Club also object to the phrase “native plant advocates?”  We are at a loss to arrive at some phrase that would appease them.  For the moment, we’ll stick with “native plant advocates” to describe those who advocate for the restoration of native plants to our public lands.  After all, the Sierra Club freely admits its preference for native plants in their letter:  “We obviously prefer our local native species and plant communities when compared to…introduced species.” 

The Sierra Club also instructs FEMA to put the restoration of native plant communities on an equal footing with fire hazard mitigation:  “We also urge FEMA to ensure that natural resource protection is given equal status with fire hazard reduction work when final projects are developed.”  The letter provides a detailed description of the “natural resource protection” it has in mind.  In this context, that phrase translates to “native plant restoration.” 

Since the stated purpose of FEMA’s pre-disaster and hazard mitigation grants is to reduce fire hazard to the built environment and the humans who live in it, this doesn’t seem an appropriate request.  FEMA’s legal and fiduciary responsibility is to respond to disasters when they occur and to reduce the potential for disasters in the future.  FEMA seems to have its hands full doing just that.  FEMA’s assigned mission does not include native plant restoration.

As we observed in our post “Open Letter to the Sierra Club,” the Club tends to ignore the fact that the tree destruction for which they advocate requires the use of toxic herbicides.  However, in its public comment letter to FEMA, the Club acknowledges the use of such herbicides and endorses their use:  “We are not currently opposed to the careful use of Garlon…”  On our page about “Herbicides,” we report that the EPA classifies Garlon as “hazardous”  and we cite the laboratory research on Garlon, indicating that it is harmful to many species of animals and is mobile in soil and water.

We hope that FEMA will maintain its mandated focus on hazard mitigation, its sole responsibility to the taxpayers.   If the taxpayers wish to fund native plant restorations, they should do so by designating an appropriate fund source.  FEMA is not an appropriate fund source for native plant restorations.

FEMA sees through the smokescreen

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has seen through the smokescreen that native plant advocates have created as a pretext for destroying non-native trees in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Native plant advocates claim that destroying non-native trees will reduce fire hazard.  As taxpayers, and as fans of all trees, we commend FEMA for preserving their limited resources for legitimate disaster mitigation.
In February 2010, UC San Francisco (UCSF) announced that it had withdrawn its application for FEMA funding to destroy most of the eucalypts on 14 acres of the Sutro Forest.  When making that announcement UCSF explained that FEMA would require a comprehensive Environmental Impact Study before the grant would be awarded which would result in a two-year delay in the implementation of the project.  UCSF preferred to pay for the project with its own funds rather than delay it during the environmental review.  Therefore, UCSF withdrew its application for FEMA funding.  Since then, UCSF has proceeded with its plans, expanding them to 40 acres, and continues to claim that there is extreme fire hazard in the Sutro Forest which it claims will be mitigated by the project.

Sutro Forest on a typically foggy day in late summer. Courtesy

We now know there is more to the story than is revealed by UCSF’s announcement.  The neighbors of the Sutro Forest who have been trying to save their forest for over a year, have since obtained correspondence from FEMA regarding UCSF’s grant applications through a public records request.    The correspondence with FEMA indicates that:

  • UCSF misrepresented and exaggerated the fire hazard on Mount Sutro by rating it as “extreme.”  FEMA confirmed with the state’s fire authority that fire hazard on Mount Sutro is moderate, CAL Fire’s lowest rating of fire hazard.  (1) 
  • FEMA asked UCSF to explain how fire hazard would be reduced by eliminating most of the existing forest, given that: (2)
    • Reducing moisture on the forest floor by eliminating the tall trees that condense the fog from the air could increase the potential for ignition, and
    • Eliminating the windbreak that the tall trees provide has the potential to enable a wind-driven fire to sweep through the forest unobstructed.
  • FEMA asked UCSF to consider alternatives to its project, which would have the potential to mitigate fire hazard to the built environment by creating defensible space around buildings, structural retrofits, and vegetation management projects. (3)

UCSF has elected to ignore this advice from FEMA, choosing instead to proceed with its project as originally designed using  its own funds at a time of extreme budgetary limitations.  Clearly this is an indication that fire hazard mitigation is not the purpose of their project.  UCSF chooses to increase fire hazard rather than reduce it, putting themselves and their neighbors at risk.

FEMA is now engaged in a comprehensive Environment Impact Study of four similar projects in the East Bay hills that propose to destroy hundreds of thousands of trees.  The applicants are UC Berkeley, the City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District.  Fire hazard in the East Bay is greater than in San Francisco because the summer is hotter, the frequency of Diablo winds is greater, and there are rare deep freezes that cause some non-natives to die back, creating dead leaf litter on the forest floor.  However, the remaining issues are the same as those on Mount Sutro: 

  • The loss of tall trees will reduce moisture on the forest floor and eliminate the shade that maintains that moisture.  The remaining native landscape will be predominantly grassland studded with scrub, chaparral, and short native trees in sheltered ravines.  This will be a flammable landscape, not less flammable than the existing landscape.
  • The loss of the windbreak provided by the tall trees will enable a wind-driven fire to travel unhindered through the community.
  • The projects in the East Bay hills do not provide defensible space around homes, which would reduce fire hazard to homes and those who live in them, the stated purpose of FEMA grants.

We hope that FEMA will see the similarity between the East Bay projects and those in San Francisco and advise the applicants in the East Bay to revise their projects so that they are appropriately aimed at creating defensible space around homes.  Destroying hundreds of thousands of trees will not make us safer.  In fact, it is likely to increase the risk of wildfire.



(1) Excerpt from FEMA’s letter of October 1, 2009, regarding UCSF’s grant applications:

“In its response to provide a clarification of the wildfire hazard, UCSF inaccurately interprets a map, provides inadequate details regarding the history of wildfires in the Sutro Forest, and provides a simplistic and ineffective comparison of the wildfire hazard in the Sutro Forest to the hazard in other areas that have burned in the San Francisco Bay Area…The 2007 FHSZ [Fire Hazard Severity Zones] map shows the Sutro Forest to have a “Moderate” wildfire hazard in the 2007 FHSZ maps.  “Moderate” is the lowest of the three fire hazard severity zones…”

(2) Excerpt from FEMA’s letter of October 1, 2009, regarding UCSF’s grant applications:

“Commenters argue that the proposed projects would increase wildfire hazard by removing some of the material that collects fog drip and keeps the forest moist and resistant to ignition and fire, thus allowing the forest to dry out more easily and increase the relative hazard for ignition.  Can UCSF specifically address this comment and describe how overall forest moisture content will change after implementation of the proposed projects?  Please provide scientific evidence to support any claims.”

“Additionally, several of these unsolicited public comments have stated that the proposed projects could result in changed wind patterns on Mount Sutro which could also increase the wildfire hazard in the forest.  New wind patterns could reduce biomass moisture as well as reduce the effective windbreak created by the current forest.  These comments argue that the effective windbreak created by the existing forest limits the potential for wildfire spread in the forest and the immediately surrounding area.  As UCSF has stated, winds are a contributing factor in wildfires.  Provide a citable and logical defense regarding how the proposed projects, and the resulting changes in wind patterns, would not result in an increase in the wildfire hazard in the Sutro Forest.”

(3) “Assuming that UCSF has been able to establish a clear need for wildfire mitigation activities, UCSF must conduct a more thorough analysis to identify alternatives to the proposed projects that could mitigate wildfire hazard in the Sutro Forest to the vulnerable built environment.  These alternatives must be technically, economically, and legally practical and feasible and can include activities not eligible for FEMA grant funding.  As described in FEMA’s Wildfire Mitigation Policy…wildfire mitigation grants are available for defensible space, structural retrofit, and vegetation reduction projects.  It would seem reasonable that alternatives to the proposed projects could include defensible space or retrofit projects.”    (emphasis added)