The Sierra Club, like many American institutions, is trying to come to grips with systemic racism. The Club was founded in 1892 under the leadership of John Muir who “…made derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous peoples that drew deeply on harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” according to Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in his letter of July 2020 to Club members (available HERE).
Author and activist, Rebecca Solnit, follows up on the roots of racism in the American environmental movement in the most recent edition of Sierra Magazine, the national magazine for Club members. Her telling of events reveals the founding error of the native plant movement that was based on the mistaken assumption that European settlers were entering a pristine landscape that had been unaltered by humans. The goal of the native plant movement has therefore been to replicate the pre-settlement landscape, presumed to be the ideal landscape.
Early settlers were well aware that they were entering occupied land. After all, the settlers had to dispossess Native Americans to occupy the land. But that reality was quickly forgotten, enabling “the lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’” (1)
John Muir’s lack of respect for Indigenous culture prevented him from understanding that he was looking at the results of Indigenous land management when he admired Yosemite Valley: “The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir’s rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. ‘More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined,’ he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, ‘the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden.’ He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: ‘So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine.’” (1)
In fact, Yosemite Valley looked like a garden to John Muir, because it was a garden, the garden tended by Native Americans for thousands of years:
“Native Americans as hunters, gatherers, agriculturalists and horticulturalists, users of fire as a land-management technique, and makers of routes across the continent played a profound role in creating the magnificent North American landscape that Europeans invaded. Their use of fire helped maintain plants and spaces that benefited these first human inhabitants—including increasing animal populations, causing plants to put forth new growth in the form of straight shoots suitable for arrow making and basket making, and keeping forests open and underbrush down. In Yosemite Valley, burning encouraged oak trees and grasslands to flourish; conifers have since overtaken many meadows and deciduous groves. The recent fires across the West are most of all a result of climate change—but more than a century of fire suppression by a society that could only imagine fire as destructive contributed meaningfully.” (1)
Solnit correctly describes the consequences of this founding error on the development of environmentalism: “Had he been able to recognize and convey that the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens, the plants in them encouraged, the forests managed by the areas’ Native people, the history of the American environmental movement might have been different.” (1)
Solnit believes there are three significant losses to American society and the environmental movement because of the initial lack of respect for Native Americans and their cultural practices. The first was the greatest loss to Native Americans because disrespect for them as people and a functioning society made it easier to justify dispossessing and marginalizing them. The second was the loss to American society that would have benefitted from understanding and emulating their accomplishments. And the third loss was the founding error of American conservation policy that is based on the mistaken assumption that the pre-settlement landscape is the ideal landscape because it was unchanged by humans.
Several recent scientific studies have found that lands occupied by indigenous people in Australia, Brazil, and Canada have much more biodiversity than lands that have been designated as “protected areas” by governments. Typically, indigenous people have been forced out of the protected areas, based on the assumption of traditional conservation that humans harm the environment. As the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin explains in a recent article in New York Times, “If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction [because] we’re one ecosystem.”
A new conservation ethic
Our conservation goals require a major revision to right this wrong. New goals must acknowledge that humans have altered every place on the planet for thousands of years. New goals will acknowledge that nature is dynamic, that changes in nature are usually impossible to reverse, and that they have both positive and negative impacts. New goals will be adapted to the current environment, such as higher temperatures and drought. New land management strategies can be informed by those used by Native Americans, but replicating the landscapes of 500 years ago will remain out of reach because underlying conditions have been fundamentally altered by evolution and the activities of modern society.
A new conservation ethic can honor the traditions of Native Americans as well as the sovereignty of nature. We must stop damaging nature in the futile effort to replicate a landscape that was as much a human creation as the landscape of the Anthropocene era.
I published an article recently about a race for a seat on the Board of the East Bay Regional Park District between Norman La Force and Elizabeth Echols. Based on my personal experience with La Force and with the help of a considerable public record, I recommended that voters in that Park District vote for Elizabeth Echols because Norman La Force has a long track record as an aggressive—often litigious—opponent of traditional park uses. La Force prefers parks behind fences, with no public access and he frequently sues the Park District to impose his personal preference that public parks be reserved for wildlife in which people are not welcome.
My article was read by over 2,500 people and may have helped Elizabeth Echols win that race with about 60% of the vote. Recreational users of the parks probably deserve the most credit for Echols’ victory. La Force has spent decades trying to prevent kitesurfing, kayak launches, biking, and dog walking in the parks in the district he wanted to represent. These recreational users of the parks weren’t having it.
I learned a lot about La Force during that campaign and everything I learned confirmed my judgment that he is an enemy of our urban parks with a fundamentally misanthropic view about the role of humans in nature. I will share a few of the stories about La Force with readers because La Force’s leadership role in the Sierra Club still gives him some power to launch his crusades against land use decisions that do not conform to his purist view of urban nature.
La Force horror stories
Berkeleyside published four op-eds about the race for the Park District Board seat; three endorsed Echols and one endorsed La Force. (1) The comments on those op-eds were instructive. Many people who participate in land use issues stepped forward to tell their personal stories about their bad experiences with La Force.
This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying to prevent a high school girl’s crew team from rowing at Aquatic Park in Berkeley about 20 years ago: “I attended a meeting of Berkeley planning staff when the Berkeley High girls crew team was proposing to rent and renovate the club house in Aquatic Park. The team was already rowing on Aquatic Lagoon–indeed, the lagoon is public trust land and they couldn’t be stopped. I had no real interest in that project, but I watched Norman verbally attack the representative of the girl’s team and call him a liar. He later threatened the city with a lawsuit if they leased the clubhouse to the girls team. The City backed down, the clubhouse remained vacant, and the girls were left with a very bad taste in their mouth about the Sierra Club and Norman in particular.” Jim McGrath
This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent a dog park at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley: “I first “met” Norman LaForce over 25 years ago when, as a member of a Mayor’s Task Force on Dog Use in Parks, I phoned to invite him to attend our kickoff meeting. I knew that he, in his position in the Sierra Club, had opposed a plan for an off leash area in Cesar Chavez. So I thought it would be good to get both sides to the table. Sounds reasonable, yes? That was a very rude (in more than one way) awakening to learn about what kind of person he is. He was livid, yelling and swearing at me, he was so loud that my family got to hear his vitriolic outburst as well. Needless to say he didn’t accept my invitation and did everything in his power to stop this dog park from happening—and being who Norman was and is, that means using the backdoor into city hall to thwart it.” Claudia Kawczynska (with permission)
This kitesurfer tells the story of La Force trying to prevent boating access to the bay: “I am a kitesurfer who, along with hundreds of local kiters, make heavy use of the VERY limited number of local launch sites in the East Bay. Although we have an incredible opportunity to improve launches and build new launches to expand non-motorized access to the bay and expose more people safely to this vast natural resource, La Force has not only opposed launches, he’s tried to establish a legal basis to fundamentally prohibit non-motorized access to the bay by arguing, among other things, that we destroy eel grass. Most non-motorized sailors, kiters, windsurfers, kayakers and swimmers are keenly aware of and supportive of the environment we recreate in. These are exactly the kinds of coalitions we need to build in order to create the right balance between environmental preservation, ecological health, recreational use of and strong support for our local parks.” Andrew Sullivan
This comment disputes La Force’s claim of responsibility for the creation of the McLaughlin East Shoreline Park: “I ultimately supported the plan in public—I could not oppose Sylvia McLaughlin and Dwight Steele who I revered. That’s how the dynamic on the plan really worked–Dwight and Sylvia commanded respect, and talked to everyone, Robert Cheasty cut the deals, and Norman ranted… I first met Norman at the first Coastal Conservancy charrette for what became the McLaughlin State Park. It was clear from day one that he was an advocate for wildlife and committed to keeping people out of the new park. It is not unusual to see many people claim credit for an undertaking like the park, which required many people. What is astonishing to me is Norman’s willingness to misrepresent, or perhaps forget, the positions he took at the time and represent himself as a consensus builder. Sylvia was much more of a people person, and would not be pleased to see the park named for her with so many fences that keep people out.” Jim McGrath
Of course, supporters of La Force also commented, but their comments corroborated La Force’s extremism. Some don’t want dogs in parks. Some believe boating threatens eel grass. One commenter believes that public access to parks threatens biodiversity. Many of their comments used the same antagonistic approach for which La Force is famous.
Another can of worms
The debate about this race opened another can of worms. Point Molate in Richmond is one of the most hotly contested scraps of land in the park district that will be represented by the Board seat that La Force wanted.
The City of Richmond would like to build housing at Point Molate. (Full disclosure: I consider new housing a high priority in the Bay Area where the cost of housing is prohibitive.) La Force and the Sierra Club are opposed to building any new housing in the Bay Area, whether it is urban infill or suburban open space. La Force’s original strategy in preventing this project was to promote the building of a huge gambling casino and resort on the property. He and his allies made a deal with the developers of the gambling casino that they would fund the removal of “invasive species” and the installation of native landscape in exchange for Sierra Club support for the gambling casino. (2)
The City of Richmond held a voters’ referendum to prevent a gambling casino from being built and developed a new plan for housing that would have preserved 70% of the land for parks and open space. La Force and his allies were forced to develop a new strategy. Now they claim that the site is a fire hazard with insufficient exits to evacuate in the event of fire. There was no fire hazard when La Force advocated for a gambling casino with parking for 7,500, a hotel with 1,100 rooms, entertainment complex and retail stores, but now there is, according to La Force and the Sierra Club. This is the subject of yet another La Force/Sierra Club lawsuit, filed against the City of Richmond, less than a month before the November 3, 2020 election.
La Force’s use of fear of fire as a tool to get what he wants is not new. He has used the same argument to justify the destruction of all non-native trees in the Bay Area. Anyone who is paying attention knows that virtually all the wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. Flammability of tree species has nothing to do with nativity of the species and everything to do with the characteristics of the species. For example, native bay laurels are more flammable than eucalyptus.
The SF Chronicle recently reported the new strategy of “environmentalists” of using fear of fire to prevent new housing from being built in suburban open space. The article quite rightly points out that the same people are equally opposed to building dense housing in urban transit corridors.
There is a grain of truth to concern about building housing in fire/wind corridors. But given the Sierra Club’s track record of using fear of fire to get what they want, would you trust them to tell us accurately where housing can be safely built? The Sierra Club has cried wolf too often. They are no longer a credible source of information regarding safe placement of new housing because they don’t want any housing…or any non-native trees.
I learned from following this race that recreational users of our urban parks will fight like hell to retain their access to the parks. They are less concerned about the loss of our urban forest to nativism or the use of herbicides in the parks, perhaps because herbicides aren’t used in dog parks. They want another park at Point Molate, rather than housing. Aside from helping to document the confrontational approach of La Force to impose his will on our public lands, I give credit to recreational park users for defeating Norman La Force in this race.
I hope that Norman La Force has learned something too. I hope he understands that his aspirations for political power are over. Maybe he also understands the cost of his confrontational behavior and lawsuits that force public agencies to waste taxpayers’ money to defend their sovereignty.
Most importantly, I hope the Sierra Club understands that it has paid dearly for La Force’s behavior. La Force has tarnished the reputation of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club. The endorsements of the Sierra Club for candidates for public office are no longer something to be proud of. They are an indication that the candidate is an extremist who views people as intruders in nature. This damage to the reputation of the Sierra Club is a loss to everyone because a strong and influential environmental organization is needed, but only if its objectives are to protect the environment rather than furthering the interests of a specific person who has been given more power than he can be trusted with.
If you live in Ward 1 of the East Bay Regional Park District, you will have an opportunity to vote for your representative to the Park District’s Board of Directors on November 3rd. Many of the most heavily visited parks in the East Bay–such as Tilden Park, Point Isabel, Point Pinole, Eastshore Park–are in Ward 1. The future of those parks will be in the hands of the Board member who wins this election.
Elizabeth Echols is the incumbent who is running for election. Echols was appointed to the Board by the Board after the unfortunate death of Whitney Dotson.** Dotson had represented Ward 1 with distinction since 2008, after defeating Norman La Force in the race for that seat on the Board. Now Echols must be elected to keep her seat on the Board.*
There was intense competition for the temporary appointment to the Board when Echols was appointed by the Board. Norman La Force asked for the temporary appointment, but was not selected by the Board. La Force has a long track-record that probably explains why the Board did not appoint him:
Norman La Force advocates for the destruction of non-native trees in East Bay Regional Parks and the use of herbicides to eradicate non-native plants and prevent trees from resprouting after they have been destroyed.
As a lawyer and the co-founder and CEO of SPRAWLDEF, Norman La Force has sued East Bay Regional Park District many times to impose his personal vision on the parks. These lawsuits were costly to taxpayers and the Park District and they delayed the implementation of park improvements.
Norman La Force is consistently opposed to many types of recreation. He advocates for parks that prohibit public access.
Norman La Force has an antagonistic attitude toward park visitors who do not share his personal vision.
Norman La Force sued FEMA and the Park District to destroy all non-native trees
East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is thinning non-native trees to mitigate wildfire hazards by reducing fuel loads and FEMA is funding many of these projects. Norman La Force is not satisfied with merely thinning trees. He sued EBRPD and FEMA to force the removal of all non-native trees on 3,500 acres of park land. That lawsuit is available HERE. La Force appealed after losing the lawsuit, but lost again on appeal.
Norman La Force tried to make Sierra Club endorsement of the renewal of a parcel tax to fund the Park District contingent on a commitment to destroy all non-native trees rather than thin them:
“Hence, the Sierra Club believes it is critical that in any renewal of Measure CC funding for vegetation management should be increased for the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus and their replacement with restored native habitat. If the Park District wants to continue with a program that merely thins the non-native ecualyputs (sic) and other non-native trees, then it must find other funds for those purposes. Future tax money from a renewal of Measure CC funds should not be used to thin eucalyptus but must be allocated to the restoration of native habitat.” La Force’s full letter is available HERE.
Norman LaForce sued the Park District to prevent recreational improvements at Albany Beach
In an op-ed published by Berkeleyside, one of La Force’s many lawsuits against the Park District is described. The lawsuit attempted to prevent the construction of a path with recreational access: “SPRAWLDEF is an acronym for Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund. On Jan. 17,  the group, founded by Norman La Force and David Tam, filed a lawsuit against the East Bay Regional Park District, opposing a plan to acquire a small strip of property along the shoreline behind the track to complete a missing link in the Bay Trail between Berkeley and Richmond. The Park District’s Plan would also add some parking to the Albany Beach area, build some wheelchair access to the water’s edge, and expand and protect the dune area behind the beach. There’s something in this lawsuit to alienate just about everyone: Bicyclists and hikers who use the Bay Trail; environmentalists with an interest in dune habitat; kayakers and kiteboarders who launch from the Albany shoreline; the ADA constituency who find beach access generally impossible; and, most of all, dogs and their owners who rely on Albany beach for a place to play in the water. Read the filing. It has all the earmarks of a spoiled child throwing a tantrum because they did not get their way.” Emphasis added.
According to this article in the East Bay Times, the SPRAWLDEF lawsuit to prevent the Albany Beach project was eventually dismissed after two unsuccessful SPRAWLDEF appeals. The Park District’s defense of the project required the preparation of a second, Supplemental EIR. Park District resources were wasted to defend the project against Norman La Force’s frivolous lawsuits.
In response to a public records request, the Park District provided this estimate of the cost of defending the District against La Force’s lawsuits regarding Albany Beach: “In total, we estimate that the attorney’s fees incurred directly as a result of the litigation filed by SPRAWLDEF relating to Albany Beach were between $321,358 and $346,358. In addition, the court ordered the Park District to pay Petitioner SPRAWLDEF $60,587.50 in attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party in the 2013 litigation.” The Park District was forced to waste nearly $400,000 of taxpayers’ money to defend its improvement project at Albany Beach. The project was needlessly delayed by the lawsuits and money that could have been used to improve parks was wasted.
Norman La Force does not want people in the parks
Norman La Force was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Meadow at the foot of University Ave. in Berkeley. The Berkeley Meadow was at one time part of the San Francisco Bay, until it was created with landfill and used as a city dump until the 1960s. Over a period of 5 years at a cost of $6 million “non-native vegetation was scraped away, then the land capped with clean fill and contoured to form naturally filling seasonal ponds.” Then the meadow was planted with native grasses and shrubs to create an “approximation of the historic landscape that might have been present a half mile inland.” The Berkeley Meadow is surrounded by a fence. Public access is restricted to two narrow, fenced trails running diagonally through the 72-acre fenced enclosure. Bicycles and people walking dogs on or off-leash are prohibited on the fenced trails.
Berkeleyside described the Berkeley Meadow and contrasted it with a heavily visited adjacent park, owned by the City of Berkeley: “What you won’t see [in the Berkeley Meadow] is more than a handful of the 2 million annual state park visitors, though this prime spot is just a short bike ride from West Berkeley. The adjacent, city-owned César Chávez Park on the north waterfront gets most of the visitors along its paved trail. But here, only a few hundred yards away, the Meadow, our state park managed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, is an almost wild place, trisected by two wheel-chair accessible paths.” Indeed, the Berkeley Meadow does look wild, much like a vacant lot looks wild.
Norman La Force has a confrontational attitude toward park visitors
In his letter to FEMA objecting to the withdrawal of funding for a tree-removal project that was implemented before being authorized by FEMA, Norman La Force says that those with whom he disagrees are “like climate change deniers.” Ironically, he is defending the unauthorized clear cutting of approximately 150 trees in his letter, actions that contribute to climate change. La Force is actually the “climate change denier” in his accusatory letter. The letter is available HERE.
In an earlier letter to FEMA about the same projects, La Force begins by asking FEMA to ignore those with whom he disagrees: “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)…” The letter is available HERE: FEMA-DEIS for East Bay Hills predisaster mitigation – public comments
When La Force ran for the Ward 1 Board seat in 2008, Berkeley Daily Planet published an op-ed by someone who had observed Norman La Force in action. Here are a few relevant quotes from her op-ed (emphasis added):
“La Force is not only ‘a thorn in the side of park officials,’ he is fiercely aggressive and known for vengeful acts.”
“If La Force is elected, he will threaten the park access of every person who walks a dog, rides a horse, seeks accessible trails, and bikes on the lands of the East Bay Regional Parks. His scientific background is nothing, as he has demonstrated in public hearings many times. He has worked harder to keep humans out of parks than any other “park proponent” I know. He definitely will try to crush any “opponent,” including the disabled, the young and the elderly. Not because they are right or wrong, but because they oppose him. I urge everyone to watch their back if he’s elected.”
“One can have honest debates about how to create urban edge ecosystems that allow both human uses and wild life to thrive together (yes, it can be done beautifully), but Norman’s rigidity will never consider other perspectives or creative solutions.”
Vote for Elizabeth Echols for the Park District Board of Directors
On November 3rd, please vote for the parks in the East Bay, not against them. Please do not install an enemy of the parks who does not want people or trees in our parks and is willing to spray our parks with herbicide to get the landscape he prefers. When we vote for President of the United States on November 3rd, we must decide who to vote for at the same time we are voting against another candidate. Both decisions are equally important.
The meetings of the Board of Directors of the Park District are open to the public. They are collegial events in which the Board works cooperatively with the staff and the public is treated with respect. The Park District does not deserve to have a “spoiled child throwing a tantrum” imposed on them, especially not someone who has sued them many times to get what he wants. East Bay Regional parks are open to everyone with a wide range of recreational interests. Let’s keep them that way by voting for Elizabeth Echols on November 3rd.
*Full Disclosure: I have not met Elizabeth Echols. I do not know her. I have not consulted with her about the preparation of this article. I have no reason to believe she would agree with my assessment of her opponent in the race for the Board seat in Ward 1. My recommendation to vote for her is based primarily on the fact that she was selected by the Board for her temporary appointment to the Board, which suggests that she is supported by the Board and Park District staff. I have read her credentials on her candidacy website and I have watched her participation in Board meetings since she was appointed to the Board. This limited information about her gives me confidence that she will represent Ward 1 well.
**Update: I have been informed that Elizabeth Echols was appointed to the Board after Whitney Dotson retired and that Mr. Dotson died about 2 weeks after Ms. Echols was appointed. September 30, 2020
Update:East Bay Times endorsed Elizabeth Echols for the seat on the Board of East Bay Regional Park District to represent Ward 1. Their explanation for their endorsement is half praise for Echols and half condemnation of Norman La Force. The article is behind a paywall, so here are a few quotes: “In approach, she and her opponent, attorney and former El Cerrito Councilman Norman La Force, couldn’t be more different. At the park district, La Force is best known as the guy who files legal challenges. La Force claims in his campaign material that he led the Sierra Club campaign to have the district purchase more land to double the size of the Point Isabel Dog Park, perhaps the East Bay’s most popular escape for canine owners. Actually, when the park at Point Isabel was expanded in the early 2000s, La Force sought to block dog access to the new area.”
After explaining some of the many lawsuits La Force has filed against the Park District, East Bay Times concludes, “Now, La Force says, he wants to join the board so he can change the park district from the inside and lead it in a different direction. But we’re quite happy with the district’s current direction. Echols is the candidate who will keep it on track.” September 30, 2020
Update: Tom Butt, the Mayor of Richmond, has endorsed Elizabeth Echols for the seat on the Board of the Park District. In his newsletter, he explains why he has endorsed Echols:
“The editorial in the East Bay Times at the bottom of this email recommends Elizabeth Echols for the District that includes Richmond. I agree that Echols is the only reasonable choice for this position. Echols is opposed by a really bad candidate, Norman La Force, who is no friend of Richmond.”
Mayor Butt explains why La Force is persona non grata in Richmond in his newsletter to the people of Richmond:
“In 2010, Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) entered into a litigation settlement agreement with Upstream Point Molate, the prospective developer of the gigantic and sprawling Point Molate Casino, including parking garages for over 7,500 vehicles. The settlement agreement that LaForce negotiated traded unqualified early support of the casino for tens of millions of dollars targeted for acquisition of open space at other locations. At the time, LaForce was a founding member of the CESP board. He was able to get other environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club to support the settlement terms in exchange for sharing the settlement proceeds.See Contra Costa County Case No. MSN09-0080”
Mayor Butt explains why the Sierra Club backed the agreement with casino developers, according to Richmond Confidential: “The plan for the casino has made strange bedfellows over the years it’s been debated. Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have backed the plan to develop Point Molate as a massive gaming resort complex because the plan would fund extra protections for native habitats and the removal of invasive plant species.”
Mayor Butt describes the casino project in his newsletter. Does this project sound like it protects the environment? “The project includes a 4,000-slot machine casino, 1,100 hotel rooms, a convention center, a performing arts center, entertainment venues, retail space, a tribal government center and tribal housing. Under the agreement, three-fourths of the 412-acre site would be preserved as open space. The tribe has agreed to restore and protect natural habitat and to provide a continuous shoreline trail that would be a new addition to the Bay Trail.”
Mayor Butt concludes, “La Force has proven himself as someone who would sell out Richmond in a heartbeat.” September 30, 2020. Posted October 3, 2020.
Update: Berkeleyside has published 4 op-eds about the race for a seat on the Board of East Bay Regional Park District. Here, in the order in which they were published:
Although the op-eds are instructive, the comments on the op-eds are far more revealing. Many influential stakeholders in land use decisions in the East Bay have stepped forward to tell us about their personal experiences with Norman La Force during specific land use policy debates, going back decades. It isn’t a pretty picture. The few who defend La Force appreciate his confrontational style of civic engagement and they applaud lawsuits as a means to get what they want.
The debates on these op-eds are a window into the Bay Area community of “environmentalists.” It is an extreme version of environmentalism that believes the purpose of urban public parks is to provide protected reserves for native plants and animals. It’s a misanthropic approach that opposes all new housing and views humans as intruders in nature.
Today Million Trees strays off its well-worn path of informing readers of specific projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that destroy our urban forest and spray our public lands with herbicides. Under the guidance of Charles C. Mann’s latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet (1), we’ll take a detour into the philosophical tenets of conservation. There are competing visions of the future of humans on Earth and they are instrumental in producing different conservation strategies.
We begin by introducing Charles C. Mann because his previous books are essential to our understanding of ecology. His 1491 informed us that the New World “discovered” by Columbus was not the pristine landscape that modern-day native plant advocates are attempting to re-create. Rather it was a land that had been radically altered by indigenous people who had lived in the Western Hemisphere for over 10,000 years. The landscape had been extensively gardened for food production. The large animals had been hunted to extinction. The landscape in the West and Midwest was dominated by open grassland because it had been regularly burned, preventing natural succession to shrubs and trees.
Early explorers carried diseases to the New World to which they were immune, but the native people were not. By the time settlers arrived two hundred years after early explorers, most of the native people had died of the diseases introduced by the explorers. Populations of bison and other grazing animals exploded when those who hunted them were killed by disease. The grazing animals maintained the open grassland that had been created by the fires of the hunters. Archaeological research has only recently revealed the extent of native populations throughout the New World.
Charles Mann’s second book, 1493, reported the global exchange of plants and animals between the New and the Old Worlds that fundamentally altered both worlds. The extent and long history of that exchange makes it impossible for us to see those introduced plants, animals, objects as foreigners who “don’t belong here.”
Different visions of the future
Million Trees is indebted to Charles Mann for the books that are the foundation of our cosmopolitan viewpoint of the world. Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet is equally important because it helps us understand the interminable debate about conservation. There is a dark view of the future of the environment that predicts nothing but doom and gloom. Extinctions dominate their predictions of the future and humans are seen as the destroyers of nature. The more optimistic view of conservation predicts that the Earth will survive the changes made by humans because humans are capable of innovating to avoid the doom predicted by the pessimists.
Mann describes these contrasting views through the lives of two 20th Century men whom he calls the prophet and the wizard. The prophet is William Vogt, who believed that the growing population of humans threatened the future of the Earth. The wizard is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for developing more productive agricultural crops, collectively called the “Green Revolution.”
The prophet believed that the resources needed to sustain life on Earth are finite and the human population was quickly reaching the point at which sources of food, energy, and water would soon be exhausted, threatening all life with extinction. The wizard devoted his life to expanding food resources to feed the growing human population. These viewpoints are inherently contradictory because making more food available enables more people to survive and increase human populations. Vogt tried to cut off the sources of funding for the agricultural projects of Borlaug.
Different conservation methods: Food
Mann applies these different viewpoints to each major resource issue to explain why the pros and cons of different approaches to conservation are debated, beginning with food production. The Green Revolution occurred in the 1960s when subsistence crops such as wheat, corn, and rice were improved using breeding techniques. Borlaug developed a variety of wheat that was both resistant to stem rust, its most persistent enemy, and produced more wheat for harvest. Working in a desperately poor part of Mexico, with inadequate resources, Borlaug spent 15 years combining thousands of different varieties of wheat to find the winning combination. His work was done prior to our knowledge of DNA and molecular analysis, so it was a process of trial and error. It is a heart-wrenching story of brute labor in extreme conditions. The story is important to our understanding of genetic modification because it reminds us that genetic modification is as old as agriculture itself, although it was called “breeding” until we learned what we now know about DNA.
Mann visits some of the many modern methods of genetic engineering, such as the attempt to “revise” photosynthesis to enable plants to store more carbon, use less water, and tolerate higher temperatures. These projects are controversial with the public, who are deeply suspicious of all genetic engineering. In 1999, about one-quarter of Americans considered genetically modified organisms unsafe. Sixteen years later, 57% of Americans said GMOs are dangerous.
The debate about the value or risks of GMOs is an example of the competing visions of conservation. The prophets see risk and the wizards see opportunities. Surely, there ARE risks, but do they outweigh opportunities?That is the middle ground in the debate. Mann departs from his neutral stance to take a position on GMOs. He quotes many scientific sources in support of his opinion that there is far more opportunity than risk in genetic engineering. My personal opinion is that GMOs are being unfairly judged because of the development of seeds that enable the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The pesticides are damaging the environment, not the genetically modified seeds.
Update: I sent this article to Charles Mann to thank him for his work and invite him to correct any errors I may have made. He has offered this “tiny clarification:”
“I was actually trying to do something very slightly different. The argument about GMOs is frequently posed in terms of health risks–are they safe to eat? In my view, the evidence to date is overwhelming that there is no particular reason to think that GMO crops pose more dangers to human health than crops developed by conventional breeding. At the same time, there are a host of reasons to think that the now-conventional industrial-style agriculture brought to us by the Green Revolution has problems: fertilizer runoff, soil depletion, the destruction of rural communities, etc. GMOs are often said by advocates of industrial ag to be the only way to keep this system going so that we can feed everyone in the world of 10 billion. If you already think that industrial ag is a big problem, then of course you would oppose a technology that is supposed to keep it going. That seems to me a better, more fruitful ground to argue.” Charles C. Mann
I agree that “industrial ag is a big problem,” and I am grateful for this clarification.
Different conservation methods: Water
The availability of adequate water is a limitation for agriculture that provides another example of competing approaches to conservation. The wizards want dams to control available water and maximize its use for agriculture by storing water during rainy periods and using it during dry periods. They also want desalination plants to convert salt water to fresh water. 97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water. It is not useful for agriculture and it is not drinking water for humans.
Prophets want to tear down existing dams to make more water available for non-human inhabitants of the Earth. They also object to desalination plants because they kill marine life, discharge pollutants, and use a lot of energy. Water conservation is the preferred solution to water shortages according to prophets.
Different conservation methods: Energy
Energy is required for every human enterprise: heat, cooking, transportation, light, industrial production, etc. Wood was the primary source of energy for thousands of years until coal began to be used in China around 3,400 B.C. Although coal is still used, petroleum began to replace it as the primary source of fuel in the 19th century. The supply of coal and petroleum was considered finite until recently. Thanks to the wizards, extraction methods have been continuously developed such that the supply is now considered effectively infinite as long as increasingly more destructive methods are used, such as fracking and strip mining.
The prophets want to replace fossil fuels as the primary source of energy because of concerns about climate change and pollution. Although they are supportive of developing renewable sources of energy, they often object to specific projects with side-effects. They object to wind turbines because they sometimes kill birds. They object to large solar farms because they displace wildlife. Their preferred approach to energy is conservation. They want us to learn to live with less energy.
The wizards focus on improving existing sources of energy with fewer impacts on the environment. They envision a massive energy grid that can store and share the power generated by renewable sources so that energy is available to everyone at all times whether the wind blows or the sun shines. The prophets object to such big projects. They want energy to be produced locally and available locally. The Sierra Club is opposed to a California Assembly bill that would create a regional power grid.
Different conservation methods: Climate Change
All of these issues come together when climate change is debated. Wizards are working on geo-engineering approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as burying carbon in the ground. Their public policy approaches to the issue are also complex and on a large scale, such as cap-and-trade systems to create a profit-motive for reducing carbon emissions.
Prophets are unwilling to take the risks associated with geo-engineering strategies and they are skeptical that cap-and-trade will be more than a means of avoiding the sacrifices needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club was instrumental in preventing the State of Washington from passing a revenue-neutral cap-and-trade law. The Sierra Club also opposed the recent renewal of California’s cap-and-trade law. Market-based approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions may not be the strongest policy tools, but they are the only tools available in the US because there is not sufficient political support for stronger policies. Only 11 states have been able to enact market-based laws, such as cap-and-trade. Sierra Club policies are often far removed from political realities.
Charles Mann does his best to avoid choosing a side in these debates and on the whole he succeeds. He wants readers to understand that for every conservation method there is a cost and he dutifully tells us about the horrifying consequences of rigidly following one path rather the other.
Vogt, the prophet, firmly believed that the Earth and its human inhabitants would only survive if humans would voluntarily adopt public policies that would limit the growth of human population. This goal was not popularized until The Population Bomb was written by Paul Ehrlich and published by the Sierra Club in 1968. Mandatory population control became the official public policy in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, and especially India. In the 1970s and 80s millions of women were sterilized in India, often against their will. In China the one-child policy adopted in 1980 forced tens of millions of abortions, many of which killed mothers. Birth control was forced on women in Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and the Philippines.
There is constant pressure within the Sierra Club to adopt an anti-immigration policy. The Club had such a policy until 1996 and there have been several attempts since to reinstate that policy. I digress to express my personal opinion that immigration is not a legitimate environmental issue because the environment is global. The migration of people from Central America to North America does not fundamentally alter the impact on the environment. If migrants have better access to birth control and education for women in North America, the size of their families would likely decrease.
The Green Revolution and the way of the wizard carries its own baggage. The new crops and the resources needed to produce them were not equitably distributed in the places where they were needed the most. The richest farmers and biggest land owners in both India and Mexico were the primary beneficiaries of the improved agricultural methods. But it wasn’t just inequitable distribution that did the most damage. The poorest farmers owned the most marginal land. Improved crops made their land more valuable. It was suddenly worthwhile for land owners to dispossess their tenant farmers. The poorest farmers became the poorest homeless people in the huge cities of India and Mexico.
The Green Revolution also greatly increased the use of synthetic fertilizers that have caused nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff. And pesticides were another tool of the Green Revolution with their own suite of negative environmental consequences.
Both cases illustrate the important role that governments play in environmental policy. Neither the extreme application of population control methods nor the inequitable distribution of agricultural resources were inevitable. In the hands of competent, democratic government both methods had the potential to improve the well-being of humans without damaging the environment.
The Middle Ground: All of the Above
I see Mann’s book about competing conservation strategies as an endorsement of the middle ground. My own strong commitment to the middle ground probably influences my reaction to Mann’s book. The concept of “population control” is as unappealing to me as some of the geo-engineering projects being developed to address climate change.
“Population control” is antithetical to a free society. The middle ground is universal and free access to birth control, early sex education, and educating women in developing countries. Educating women is the most effective method of reducing birth rates.
The risks of geo-engineering solutions to climate change are too great to pursue without careful scientific analysis to fully understand the risks before they are implemented on a large scale. Likewise, I am opposed to building new nuclear power plants until and unless we have a safe method of disposing of the nuclear waste generated by those plants.
Ironically, the middle ground is in some sense, the most aggressive conservation strategy because it is ALL OF THE ABOVE. The consequences of climate change are too dire to choose one path and abandon the other. We must carefully go down every path available. We must do what we can to limit the increase in human population—within the constraints of a free society—and we must aggressively pursue the technological innovations that are needed to protect the environment from the activities of humans. We must develop new sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce our use of limited resources, such as water and energy.
I conclude with an important caveat. This article does not do justice to Mann’s brilliant book. I have only scratched the surface of Mann’s complex and deeply informed book. Charles Mann made a presentation to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco shortly after the publication of his book. A video of his presentation is available HERE. The video will help bridge the gap between this brief summary and reading Mann’s important book.
Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Alfred Knopf, 2018
Michael McCarthy is a British environmental journalistwhose love of nature originates with personal loss. When he was only 7 years old, his mother had a mental breakdown that forced her to abandon him and his brother. This traumatic experience caused irreparable psychological damage to his brother, but not to him because he withdrew from the family and found refuge in nature.
Fortunately, he lived close enough to wild land, where he could spend endless hours wandering on his own, watching birds, insects and animals. He found peace there and because it was 1954, he also found an abundance of creatures. The title of his book, The Moth Snowstorm, is a metaphor for the abundance of nature when he was a child:
“There were lots of many things, then. Suburban gardens were thronged with thrushes. Hares galumphed across every pasture. Mayflies hatched on springtime rivers in dazzling swarms. And larks filled the air and poppies filled the fields, and if the butterflies gilled the summer days, the moths filled the summer nights, and sometimes the moths were in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight with beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, and in the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you have to sponge away the astounding richness of life. It was to this world, the world of the moth snowstorm, that I pledged my youthful allegiance.” (1)
Mr. McCarthy laments the loss of the natural abundance of his childhood and he places most of the blame for that loss on the explosion of agriculture in post-WW II Britain. One of the lessons of the war was that there is greater national security in food independence. Government policies began to subsidize agriculture to such an extent that it became profitable to cultivate every square inch of the British countryside, producing an agricultural surplus of which much is wasted. The hedgerows of the past that had provided habitat for wildlife were plowed under.
In addition to the loss of habitat, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by the growing agricultural enterprise was a culprit: “Agricultural poisons [were also to blame]. Poisons for this, poisons for that. Kill off the insects. Kill off the snails. Kill off the wild flowers. Kill off anything that isn’t your money-making crop with herbicides, pesticides fungicides, molluscidides.” (1)
Initially this chemical warfare was waged with DDT. It took many years for the world to understand that DDT was killing birds and decades more for most countries to be willing to stop using DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. It was a short-lived victory because, “They were replaced with new generations of pesticides which generally did not kill birds directly…Certainly, however, they all killed insects, and they did not just kill ‘target’ insects, they killed almost all insects, just as herbicides usually killed almost all herbs…” (1)
The damage done to nature in the past 100 years is well known. The environmental advocacy of the past 50 years to stop—if not reverse—that damage is equally well known. Mr. McCarthy briefly summarizes recent strategies to defend the environment and dismisses them as ineffective:
The sustainability movement was based on the theory that human development will not damage nature if it is “sustainable.” The word “sustainable” quickly became a buzzword with little meaning beyond its value as a public relations cover to justify whatever development, timber, mining projects are desired by humans. Every project is now advertised as being “sustainable.”
More recently, environmentalists have tried to defend nature by quantifying its economic value to human society. This was a “fight-fire-with-fire” strategy and it has not proved to be more effective than affixing the word “sustainable” onto every intrusion into wild lands. As we calculate the economic value of pollination by insects we hope to save, scientists are probably “designing” agricultural crops that are pollinated by wind.
Mr. McCarthy believes those strategies failed because they “engage the intellect [without] engaging the imagination.” He believes that the only effective defense of nature is based on the “joy and wonder” that nature brings to humans. He shares his personal experiences in nature that have made him a devoted advocate for its preservation.
Nostalgia for the nature of our childhood
Mr. McCarthy describes his first encounters with specific landscapes and species of birds, butterflies, and plants and the joy and wonder they brought to him. Most of those encounters were in Britain, where he grew up, and so most are landscapes and species with which I am unfamiliar. It was therefore, difficult to empathize with Mr. McCarthy’s emotional attachment to them.
And so I reflected on my own early experiences in nature and how they shaped my own aesthetic and horticultural preferences. I was raised in a densely populated, suburban, working class community in Southern California by a single mother. We did not own a car until I was a teenager and so our trips into wild nature were rare and memorable. There were a few treasured trips to Catalina Island and one unforgettable trip to Yosemite in a Studebaker coupe packed with 4 children and 2 single moms.
As much as I enjoyed those trips, most of my childhood experience with nature was in my own small backyard, which was populated by a few fruit trees and flowering shrubs. One of my most rewarding experiences in the garden was successfully growing a Charlotte Armstrong rose from cuttings given to me by a teacher when I was about 11 years old. In retrospect, I now know that nothing in our garden was “native” although at the time I had no reason to know that they weren’t.
As different as my childhood experience in nature was from Mr. McCarthy’s, it was no less meaningful to me. My childhood was as chaotic as Mr. McCarthy’s after the unexplained disappearance of my father when I was 2. I built my ideal home in the dirt in my backyard and played out peaceful scenarios with my small plastic dolls under the canopy of the avocado tree. The neighbor’s lantana bushes attracted swarms of skippers. We puffed out our cheeks and put as many skippers in our mouths as we could, for the pure pleasure of watching them flutter out of our mouths, seemingly unharmed. (I wouldn’t do that today, but I don’t begrudge my childhood self that pleasure.) I bristle when I hear claims that lantana is “invasive” and must be eradicated as well as the claim that non-native plants are not useful to wildlife. I know otherwise.
There are as many personal experiences in nature as there are people and they obviously vary widely depending upon location, lifestyle and a multitude of other variables. Predictably, there are therefore a multitude of opinions about “ideal” nature.
Must nature be exclusively “native” or is a cosmopolitan mix of plants and animals equally valuable? This is just one of many debates that rage within the community of people who all consider themselves environmentalists. In our own gardens we can indulge our personal preferences, but the differences of opinion become a source of conflict when public open space is at stake.
Acknowledging the ways in which nostalgia influences our preferences should help us to resolve those conflicts. Chris Thomas is a British academic scientist who addresses this question in his new book, Inheritors of the Earth in which he calls out “conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet.” (2) He believes that conservation efforts inappropriately focus on trying to defend the losers in nature’s great competition for survival, rather than backing the winners that are probably the species that are the future of our biological communities.
If we can acknowledge that our preferences are based on the past, rather than the future of nature, it is more difficult to justify the use of pesticides to destroy the future. As Mr. McCarthy tells us, pesticides are one of the primary reasons why the abundance of nature is rapidly disappearing. Using pesticides to kill existing landscapes is contributing to the loss of nature, not enhancing it.
Please give some thought to how your personal experiences have helped to shape your preferences in nature. We hope that your reflections will help you to respect the preferences of others.
Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm, New York Review of Books, 2015
Our family contributed to several mainstream environmental organizations for decades. We were Sierra Club members because we wanted clean water and clean air. We were Audubon Society members because we care about birds and other wildlife.
About ten years ago, we learned that these organizations were actively participating in projects demanded by native plant advocates to destroy our non-native urban forest and fence the public out of its public parks in order to turn our parks into native plant museums. When we learned about the huge quantities of pesticides used by these projects that was the last straw.
We spent several years trying to convince these organizations that they were making a mistake by supporting projects that are doing far more damage to the environment than any theoretical benefit of native plants. Much of our effort was directed to the Sierra Club because they claim to be a democratically run organization. After several years of futile attempts to change the policies of these organizations, we quit because we did not want to contribute to the damage they are doing to the environment.
The Nature Conservancy was the only environmental organization to which we were still contributing. Below is our “resignation” letter to The Nature Conservancy, which explains why we finally gave up on them as well. This was not an easy letter to write because we care deeply about the environment and the animals who live in it. We believe that environmentalism has an extremely important role to play in society and we would like to participate in an organization that is focusing on the environmental issues of our time, particularly climate change.
Mark Tercek, Executive Director
The Nature Conservancy
Dear Mr. Tercek,
We have been contributors to The Nature Conservancy for decades. In the past few years we increased our donations because of the publications of TNC’s former Chief Scientist, Peter Kareiva.
While other mainstream environmental organizations were actively supporting destructive and restrictive ecological “restorations,” Mr. Kareiva was questioning that conservation strategy. In his publication, “What is Conservation Science?” Mr. Kareiva said, “Our vision of conservation science differs from earlier framings of conservation biology in large part because we believe that nature can prosper so long as people see conservation as something that sustains and enriches their own lives. In summary, we are advocating conservation for people rather than from people.” Mr. Kareiva was also articulating that revised mission for conservation in presentations around the country (which we attended), in TNC’s publications, and in mainstream media.
As you know, Kareiva’s viewpoint was in conflict with the old guard of conservation biologists who subscribe to the tenets of invasion biology. This conflict resulted in a confrontation of the old guard against TNC that was reported by the New Yorker in 2014. TNC resolved that conflict by making a commitment to quit publishing Mr. Kareiva’s viewpoint in mainstream media and by restoring eradication of “invasive” plants to its budget. That agreement foretold Kareiva’s departure from TNC. Not publishing is tantamount to career suicide for scientists. Mr. Kareiva has left TNC, as any self-respecting scientist would who has been deprived of his freedom to publish.
While this battle between competing visions of conservation played out, the country’s foremost invasion biologist, Daniel Simberloff, conducted a survey of TNC project managers to determine what, if any, impact Kareiva’s leadership was having on TNC’s conservation strategies. Most survey respondents (95%) reported that they “manage” non-native species and nearly all reported that they would devote more effort to that task if more resources were made available. Project managers devote a “substantial proportion” of their resources to “managing” non-native species and they expressed skepticism about “academic research and the invasion management controversy in particular.” Simberloff did not ask project managers what methods they are using and so we have no insight into the use of pesticides by TNC. This is probably information that Simberloff would rather we not have. Invasion biologists prefer to ignore the destructive methods that are used in the fruitless attempt to eradicate non-native plants.
Ecological “restorations” are damaging the environment by destroying useful habitat, poisoning open spaces with pesticides, and killing animals perceived to be competitors of native animals. These projects are usually futile because the plants and animals that are being eradicated are adapted to current environmental conditions that are not reversed by their elimination. The “native” ranges of plants and animals must change in response to changes in the environment, most notably climate change. So-called “invasive” species are symptoms of change, not causes of change.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our urban forest is being destroyed because it is predominantly non-native. Native plant advocates have fabricated an elaborate cover story to mask nativism because widespread destruction of plants and animals does not appeal to the public. Our public lands and open spaces are being poisoned with pesticides to kill vegetation and prevent trees from resprouting after they are destroyed. We are unwilling to support that agenda by contributing to organizations that engage in these projects.
Therefore, we will not renew our TNC membership and we will not contribute further to TNC. If and when TNC abandons its attempts to eradicate plants and animals that are performing valuable ecological functions, we would gladly renew our contributions.
[Former Members of The Nature Conservancy]
D.T. Max, “Green is Good,” New Yorker, May 12, 2014
Sara Kuebbing and Daniel Simberloff, “Missing the bandwagon: Nonnative species impacts still concern managers,” NeoBiota , April 14, 2015
We are grateful to Marg Hall, member of the Forest Action Brigade for this guest post about the role the Sierra Club is playing in the destruction of our urban forest and the poisoning of our public lands.
For the past year, members of the Forest Action Brigade have been spotlighting the Sierra Club as part of a larger campaign to stop the destruction of the trees in the East Bay Hills. This article answers the question: “Why focus on the Sierra Club?”
Long associated with environmental stewardship, the Sierra Club is a major player in local politics. Because so many Bay Area residents prioritize environmental protection, the Sierra Club enjoys lots of political capital, a ton of money, a deep bench of litigators, and the respect and fear of local politicians. They also have an entrenched leadership that pretends to be democratic, but in fact pushes around grass roots environmentalists, suppresses internal debate and dictates to local land managers.
As readers of Million Trees well know, the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports deforestation and the use of pesticides in the East Bay Hills. Some of us have concluded that they not only support this project, but are a major behind-the-scenes driver.
I first heard about the Club’s support for local deforestation about 6 years ago at a FEMA scoping hearing for the project Environmental Impact Statement. Naïve me, I thought, “Oh good! the Sierra Club is here, and certainly they will weigh in on the right side of this issue.” This is where my education began. The speaker representing the Sierra Club explained that they support this project and of course they will use pesticides, because that’s the only way to rid our parks of unwanted vegetation. Wow! Pesticides? “Unwanted plants”?
Until then, I had been a Club member for a number of years, thinking that the Sierra Club did good things. Before voting in our very complicated local elections, I’d check to see who and what they endorsed. I supported bond measure CC (which the EBRPD uses in part to fund their eucalyptus tree removal) back in 2004 because, well, what could be wrong with increasing funding for the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD)? Nowhere in the ballot measure did they mention pesticides. And as a former building inspector, the “fire hazard” reduction part sounded good. I thought the discussion in favor of native plants meant not planting English style lawns or plants in your garden that need lots of water. That sounded reasonable for a water scarce region.
Like so many of my neighbors, I’m neither a botanist nor a wildlife biologist, but I love the local parks and visit them almost daily. I trusted the Sierra Club to “protect” the environment. I suspect a lot of folks do the same. Now, after delving deeply into this local issue, I know better. The local Sierra Club has a fanatical obsession with eradication, with waging a war on non-native plants in our local parks. This agenda drives much of their work. Many voters follow their lead, basing decisions in the voting booth on blind faith. Politicians go along with the Sierra Club agenda in order to gain Club endorsement. Land managers must follow the lead of their elected bosses. All one needs to do is invoke the label “non-native,” and weapons of war are deployed: ground troops of weed pullers, tree cutters, pesticide sprayers, imported “biologics” (bugs and germs), and even, on occasion, aerial bombardment of pesticides. Other mainstream environmental organizations (The World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Society) also participate in this war, but it’s the local Sierra Club that provides the propaganda and the political clout behind this horrible deforestation plan. It’s the Sierra Club that sits down on a regular basis with the managers of the East Bay Regional Park District to dictate the terms under which they must operate. And when the EBRPD fails to fall in line, the Sierra club pulled out the big guns and sued in an attempt to force them to cut down all of the eucalyptus trees in the project areas, rather than a “thinning” plan that EBRPD preferred.
Here’s an example of the kind of hold that the Sierra Club has over the EBRPD. Through a public records request, we obtained a letter (dated April 28, 2015) to the parks district governing board from Norman LaForce, long time Chairperson of the Sierra Club’s Public Lands Committee. The letter laid out in great detail the kind of compliance he expects in order for the EBRPD to obtain Sierra Club endorsement of Measure CC renewal (which expires in 2020). Mr LaForce is perhaps the single most influential person promoting the local club’s nativist agenda. (emphasis added)
“The Sierra Club played a major and key role in the creation of Measure CC and the projects for which money would be spent….
“…Vegetation management that restores native habitat is less costly than programs that merely thin non-natives. Native habitat that is restored in the fire prone areas that are currently eucalyptus plantations is less costly to maintain on an annual basis than a program of thinning non-native eucalyptus and other non-native trees.
“Hence, the Sierra Club believes it is critical that in any renewal of Measure CC funding for vegetation management should be increased for the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus and their replacement with restored native habitat. If the Park District wants to continue with a program that merely thins the non-native ecualyputs (sic) and other non-ntaive (sic) trees, then it must find other funds for those purposes. Future tax money from a renewal of Measure CC funds should not be used to thin eucalyptus but must be allocated to the restoration of native habitat.”
The letter goes on to detail the Sierra Club’s position on a variety of other issues and projects, most of which involve “restoration”, which sounds good, but is a code word for removal of non-native plants by any means necessary, including the use of herbicides. Here’s a link to the complete letter: Sierra Club dictates terms of Measure CC endorsement
I want to it make clear that we are environmentalists. We support some of the same goals as the Sierra Club: opposition to XL pipeline, fracking, refinery expansion, use of coal, environmental racism. We are not right wing climate deniers—one of the arguments Sierra Club uses to marginalize us. The Sierra Club is on the wrong side of this issue and we want them to stop bullying local officials into this war against trees. John Muir, who loved eucalyptus trees, would weep at this travesty.
If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, you will soon receive a letter from a fellow Club member exposing the Club’s advocacy for deforestation and pesticide use on public lands in the Bay Area. It will also contain a postcard which you can return to express your opinion of the Club’s policy.
The Sierra Club is worried. They’ve already issued a “pre-buttal” in the form of a note tucked into their newspaper, the Yodeler (available here: SierraClub – Yodeler Insert) that directed members to read their on-line “pre-buttal.” Their “pre-buttal” is factually inaccurate, for which the national Sierra Club takes no responsibility.
Why would they allow an opposing letter through to their membership?
The Sierra Club didn’t allow the member’s letter to go to their mailing list out of any interest in members hearing both sides of the story. It’s the law.
California State law requires that non-profit organizations with elected boards, such as the Sierra Club, enable their members to communicate with fellow members. This doesn’t mean they release their members’ contact information. The letter must be given to the non-profit organization, which uses a third-party direct mailing company. In this case, the mailing was arranged with the national headquarters of the Sierra Club, which manages the mailing list of the entire membership.
The Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club has 6,300 members, so it is expensive to take advantage of this privilege. All the more reason to be outraged by the fact that the Chapter pre-emptively sabotaged this effort to communicate with its membership.
Here’s the story
We will let the author of the letter to the Chapter members tell you what happened by publishing her report to the many people who are collaborating in the effort to prevent the destruction of our urban forest (emphasis added):
January 27, 2016
Friends, I am writing to tell you the fate of my letter to the members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. My letter has not been sent yet, but it probably will be soon. The local chapter inserted a printed letter into the published version of the Yodeler informing members that they would be receiving my letter. That letter told them to go to the Chapter website to see a point-by-point “pre-buttal” to my letter. That is available on-line HERE.
I sent the staff in the national headquarters the email below and copied the Chapter staff who signed the letter in the Yodeler. You can read that email to see what I asked for. Now I have had a conversation with Bruce Hamilton who is in the legal office of national headquarters and I am writing to tell you the final outcome:
Mr. Hamilton freely admits that he gave my letter to the Chapter before my letter was sent. He did not see anything wrong with having done that. He says that the national headquarters assumes no responsibility for what the Chapter has done nor anything they say in their “pre-buttal.” I pointed out that I have provided evidence that the Club has refused to meet with us. He says the national headquarters takes no responsibility for ascertaining the facts. He has refused to request that the Chapter remove their “pre-buttal” from the website or revise it in any way. I told him that I would consult a lawyer about what “remedies are available to me.” [Redacted personal information]
So that is the fate of my letter to the members of the local Chapter of the Sierra Club. One hopes that members will now be so curious about my letter that they may actually read it! [Redacted personal comments]
From: Mary McAllister
Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 6:50 AM
To: firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com
Cc: Michelle Myers
Subject: Letter to members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
Dear Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Epstein,
As you know, I have been trying to arrange a mailing to the members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter for some months. My letter has not yet been sent, yet the Bay Chapter has preemptively sabotaged my letter with an insert in the printed Yodeler alerting people to read the Chapter’s on-line prospective rebuttal to a letter that has not yet been sent.
The on-line “pre-buttal” starts by claiming that the Sierra Club has never refused to meet with me. I have attached [available here: sierra-club-petition-to-national-leadership] my letters to the Sierra Club requesting a meeting that were sent in November. Those letters were sent certified and I have the return receipts, proving that the Club received my request for a meeting. The Club did not reply to those letters.
Also, below is my email correspondence with a member of the Chapter Conservation Committee attempting to get this issue on the agenda of the Conservation Committee in September 2015. This request was also ignored or denied. Since no one responded to me, I do not know which. [These emails are available here: Sierra Club – Conservation Committee]
These are just two of the most recent attempts to discuss this issue with the Chapter. I have a much longer paper trail of attempts that go back several years, including an email from someone representing Mr. Brune.
If the Chapter and/or the national Club are now willing to meet with us, I am still ready and willing to do so.
Meanwhile, I ask that the on-line “pre-buttal” be removed until my letter is actually sent and received by Chapter members. The well has already been poisoned, but this is the only remedy available to me at this time.
When my letter has been sent and received by members, I hope that the Chapter rebuttal will be more accurate than what is presently on-line. The Chapter leadership has been sent a multitude of studies, reports from environmental consultants and government professionals such as the US Forest Service. They therefore know—or should know—that nothing they are saying in their “pre-buttal” is accurate. I would be happy to present all these materials to you and others in a meeting.
I am one of hundreds of people who have been fighting for the preservation of our urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 15 years. Please understand that although I am required by law to make this request as an individual member, I do so on behalf of thousands of people who share my commitment.
The bottom line
We are still trying to get the facts out to all Sierra Club members, and to all those who recognize that its views are out of step with the environmental realities of the 21st century.
We hope that those who are still members of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club will read the letter from a fellow member and send the postcard expressing their opinion of Chapter policy regarding deforestation and pesticide use. Thank you for reading this post.
As a reminder: The map below shows all the areas that are affected by this massive deforestation scheme that will fell nearly half a million trees. It’s a travesty that the Sierra Club is not only supporting these projects, but has also filed a lawsuit demanding that they be even more destructive than planned.
With a little help from our friends, we have discovered a new resource to help us understand why Blue Gum eucalyptus was brought to California from Australia.True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform 1860-1920 was written by an Australian historian, Ian Tyrrell. Although we have read other accounts of the introduction of eucalyptus to California (most recently Jared Farmer’s Trees in Paradise), the perspective of an Australian on this history was new to us.
Those who despise eucalyptus often portray its introduction to California as a horrible mistake to be regretted and reversed. Ian Tyrrell helps us to understand that there are actually good reasons for the introduction of eucalyptus that make sense in the context of the geographic and cultural realities of the historical period in which it was introduced.
Historical geography of eucalyptus introduction
The gold rush in California and Australia occurred nearly simultaneously in 1849. As these gold rushes played out, there was considerable travel of hopeful miners and their support structures between the two continents. Naturally, they brought things with them that they considered useful to their enterprises and seeds of the Blue Gum were amongst their baggage from Australia to California. Although there is speculation about the precise time and means of initial introduction, they remain theories.
Presently we think of Australia as being far away because our primary means of transportation is air travel and that trip is much longer than the trip to the East Coast of the US. However, at the time of the gold rush, travel by ship was the primary means of transportation and the trip to Australia by ship was much shorter than the trip to our East Coast. The trip around the horn of South America was both long and extremely dangerous. In Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, we share his terror during that voyage in the 1830s.
This shared experience of a gold rush meant that California and Australia also shared the environmental damage caused by the methods used to extract gold from the land. Hydraulic mining was the primary method of extraction. This method uses high-powered water pumps to erode riparian corridors to expose the gold in the soil. Erosion is the result of this method of mining.
Ian Tyrrell tells us that the initial motivation for planting eucalyptus in California was to heal environmental damage caused by the gold rush. Eucalyptus was an attractive choice for this task because it grows quickly and is well adapted to California which shares the same Mediterranean climate as much of Australia. It seems ironic that the initial motivation for planting eucalyptus in California was to repair environmental damage, given that today the same trees are blamed for environmental damage by native plant advocates and mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club.
Our East Coast remained inaccessible to California until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The Panama Canal (completed in 1914) accommodated movement of large shipments of goods between the West and East coasts.
The cultural context
Tyrrell also introduces us to the intellectuals on both continents who were the environmentalists of the era of the gold rush. George Perkins Marsh in America and Baron Ferdinand von Mueller in Australia were the environmental leaders of that period. They were both committed to introducing species to their respective countries to improve the environment by creating “gardens of the gods”: “These were pragmatic thinkers who leaned toward afforestation rather than preservation when the opportunity presented itself. Early conservationists were, at bottom, advocates of a constructed landscape that would improve nature, not preserve. In short, they were advocates for the garden concept.” (1)
In California, the desire to import tree species from outside California was supported by the fact that much of California is naturally treeless. Many species of trees that are native to California are not well adapted to many microclimates. For example, if you want trees on a windward facing hill along the coast of California, you must plant a non-native. So, cultural preference for introduced trees was supported by horticultural requirements of native tree species.
A second phase of afforestation with eucalyptus occurred towards the end of the 19th century when there was widespread fear in America that we had severely depleted our timber resources and would soon experience a shortage of timber needed to build our new communities. Eucalyptus was considered an attractive substitute for native timber sources because it grew quickly. Plantations of eucalyptus were planted throughout California based on the belief that a valuable market for the timber was just around the corner.
This period of speculative investment in eucalyptus came to an abrupt end around 1914 for several reasons:
Young eucalyptus does not make suitable lumber for building purposes. We have since learned that eucalyptus makes valuable lumber at about 80 years of age. We have also perfected kiln-drying techniques that produce high-quality eucalyptus lumber.
The economic value of eucalyptus forest for timber was also reduced because of the limited ability of eucalyptus to regenerate naturally: “The eucalyptus bore ‘seeds abundantly, but apparently the latter does not find, as a rule, the proper conditions for germination…Except with the aid of the hand of man, therefore, the eucalyptus will not sensibly encroach upon the treeless area’” (1) (This is yet more evidence that eucalyptus is NOT invasive, as native plant advocates claim.)
The demand for timber declined precipitously when alternative building materials were developed such as iron and cement.
Australia on the receiving end
As eucalyptus was introduced to California, Australians were importing the Monterey pine for timber. Monterey pine is planted all over the world for timber. It is the predominant timber species in New Zealand, but it never became as popular in Australia because it is softwood. Eucalyptus is a hardwood and Australian’s developed a preference for hardwood that could not be satisfied with Monterey pine. Unfortunately, that preference for hardwood has decimated the old-growth eucalyptus forests of Australia.
There is a lesson in this for us. One of the advantages of introducing non-native trees is to protect native forests. If we use our non-native trees to fulfill practical needs such as lumber and firewood, we are taking the pressure off the need to destroy our native forests. Eucalyptus is still planted in many developing countries where firewood is still needed for fuel. Wouldn’t we rather that these countries burn fast-growing eucalyptus than their native forests?
What can we learn from the Californian-Australian exchange?
Environmentalism is a cultural construct. Its meaning has changed and will undoubtedly continue to change because culture is dynamic, just as nature is dynamic. Mid-Nineteenth Century environmentalism was not wedded to native species, as is contemporary environmentalism. Fifty years ago, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, pesticide use was considered harmful to the environment. Now we find that mainstream environmental organizations are actively promoting the use of pesticides to support their demands for eradication of non-native plants and trees.
We tend to look back at historical ways of doing things—such as planting eucalyptus—with a condescending attitude: “How could they be so stupid?” Another way to look at the past is to look at the historical context in which those choices were made. If we had sufficient knowledge of the historical context, perhaps those choices would make good sense.
Finally, if we look around the world at what is being planted today, we must acknowledge that planting non-native tree species often has practical advantages. Non-native tree species might grow where native species won’t grow and where we need trees for windbreaks, visual and sound screens, erosion and pollution control, carbon sequestration, etc. Or non-native tree species might protect native species by fulfilling specific needs that would otherwise require the use of native species.
As we often do on Million Trees, we reach the conclusion that more knowledge often results in more tolerance. Thanks to Ian Tyrrell for these insights and to our friends for alerting us to this valuable resource.
(1) Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, University of California Press, 1999
The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings is a critique of modern environmentalism by a French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner. (1) I read it slowly and thoughtfully, savoring its eloquence that is a testament to the elegance of the French language. However, because it is so close to the center of my advocacy, I don’t have confidence that I can do it justice in a description for our readers. Therefore, I quote this brief review from the Amazon website:
“The planet is sick. Human beings are guilty of damaging it. We have to pay. Today, that is the orthodoxy throughout the Western world. Concern about the environment is legitimate, but catastrophism transforms us into cowering children. Distrust of progress and science, calls for individual and collective self-sacrifice to “save the planet” and cultivation of fear: behind the carbon commissars, a dangerous and counterproductive ecological catastrophism is gaining ground.
Bruckner locates the predecessors of today’s ecological catastrophism in Catholicism’s admonishment to give up joy in the present for the sake of eternal life and in Marxism’s demand that individuals forsake personal needs for the sake of a brighter future. Modern society’s susceptibility to this kind of catastrophism derives from what Bruckner calls the “seductions of disaster”, as exemplified by the popular appeal of disaster movies. But ecological catastrophism is harmful in that it draws attention away from other, more solvable problems and injustices in the world in order to focus on something that is portrayed as an Apocalypse. Rather than preaching catastrophe and pessimism, we need to develop a democratic and generous ecology that addresses specific problems in a practical way.
This sharp and contrarian essay on one of the great issues of our time will be widely read and discussed.”
Here are a few of the themes in this thought-provoking book that struck a chord with us:
Pervasive pessimism of extreme environmentalism
It was some comfort to know that we are not unique in our reaction to the extreme negativity of the branch of environmentalism that is driving the native plant movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. When we walk in the urban forest, which we often do, we enjoy the bird song, the rustle of the wind in the trees that surround us, the flicker of sunlight through the leaves, and the lush green of the understory in places like Mount Sutro. When native plant advocates describe the same places, we often wonder if they inhabit a dark, parallel universe. They see a degenerate, dying forest, being strangled by vegetation, inhabited solely by rats. Destruction is the only cure for the catastrophic disease they see.
We laboriously try to change their perception by providing them with what seem to us irrefutable facts: the opinions of scientists about the health of the forest, including a local professor of urban forestry, detailed censuses of the birds and animals that live in the forest conducted by reputable scientists, the scientific studies about changes in our urban ecosystem that are an inevitable consequence of the rapidly changing environment, the photographic evidence that non-native forests have not “invaded” our open spaces.
Pascal Bruckner explains why these facts fall on the deaf ears and blind eyes of native plant advocates. In an increasingly secular world, extreme environmentalism satisfies many of the same human needs that were satisfied by religious belief in the past. The appeal of religion starts with the deep guilt we often feel for the failings that are an inevitable part of life. Religion offers redemption from guilt, but first it asks us to pay a price in the form of penance for our sins.
Extreme environmentalism derives from our guilt for the damage humans have done to the Earth. Redemption requires that we heal that damage. In the case of native plant advocates, the damage to the Earth is symbolized by the demise of native plants. The restoration of native plants is the penance they believe we must pay to expiate our guilt.
We are unable to convince these true believers that these projects inflict more damage on the Earth in the fruitless attempts to restore native plants where they are no longer adapted, by destroying healthy trees and spraying our public lands with herbicides because their belief is based on faith and faith cannot be swayed by facts. No price is too great to pay for the restoration of native plants. Any damage inflicted in the process is incidental to their quest for redemption.
The seductive appeal of having an enemy
Bruckner also reminds us of the appeal of having a clearly defined enemy. For most of the 20th century, the ideological enemy of the West was Communism. The Cold War satisfied the need for an enemy. The West was defined by anti-communism. We were united in our opposition to a common enemy. The ideological waters have been muddied by the demise of Communism.
Bruckner believes that extreme environmentalism has satisfied the need for an enemy for some people. Consumption and materialism are the enemies of extreme environmentalism. If you have engaged in the debate with native plant advocates in the past 15 years, you will know what we mean. We have been called “selfish nature haters” and “creepy imbeciles” in those debates. Comments on this blog have accused us of being funded by the Koch brothers, of sounding like Fox News, and of being as uncompromising as the NRA. We are mystified by the association with right-wing politics.
However, we take Bruckner’s observation to heart. We are a part of a large community of people who are opposed to the destruction associated with native plant “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. We know that people come to that conclusion from a variety of perspectives. Some are primarily concerned about the destruction of healthy trees. For others, the use of herbicides is the primary issue. The impact on wildlife living in our open spaces is sometimes the chief concern.
Just as we are a diverse coalition of people, who come to this issue from a variety of perspectives, we must make every effort to treat native plant advocates as the individuals they surely are. We must listen to their opinions with an open mind, look for ways to compromise with them, and treat their concerns with respect. We will not be seduced into treating native plant advocates as enemies.
Looking for the light in Bruckner’s thesis
We share many of the concerns of extreme environmentalists about the future of the Earth. Although we agreed with Bruckner’s cautionary tale about the hopeless negativity of extreme environmentalism, we found little to reassure us about an alternate course. Bruckner merely reminds us that dark predictions about the fate of humans are not new. The end has been prophesied many times in human history. And the way forward was not predictable before it materialized in the form of the technological innovations that resolved each existential crisis. Our adaptability has been repeatedly demonstrated and we trust that it will be again, though we are unable to foresee it at the present time.
(1) Pascal Bruckner, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 2013