Finding the middle ground between competing conservation strategies

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.

Native Americans setting grass fire, painting by Frederic Remington, 1908

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.

File:Wheat yields in Least Developed Countries.svg

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.

Hetch Hetchy canyon was dammed nearly 100 years ago. The dam is the primary source of water for the City of San Francisco and many surrounding communities. The dam generates the electricity that runs San Francisco’s transportation system without using fossil fuels. Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have sued several times to tear down the dam.   Inklein English Wikipedia photo

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.

Unintended consequences

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 Sierra Club, like most mainstream environmental organizations, is firmly in the camp of the prophets.  They cast humans as the enemy of nature and their policies reflect their misanthropy.  They oppose every housing development project and all recreational access to public lands in California.

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.

2014 UN Human Development Index. Human Development Index map. Darker is higher. Countries with a higher HDI usually have a lower birth rate, known as the fertility-income paradox.

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.


  1. Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Alfred Knopf, 2018

The role of nostalgia in our landscape preferences

Michael McCarthy is a British environmental journalist whose 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)

Defending nature

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.

Charlotte Armstrong rose. 1001 Landscaping Ideas. com

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.

Unless they are limbed up, the canopy of avacado trees grow nearly to the ground, creating a private “green room” under the canopy.
Skipper on lantana

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.  


  1. Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm, New York Review of Books, 2015
  2. https://blog.nhbs.com/author-interviews/interview/inheritors-earth-interview-chris-d-thomas/

 

“Environmentalism” has been hijacked by nativism

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.

The Berkeley Meadow is a 72-acre native plant garden on a former garbage dump on landfill.
The Berkeley Meadow is a 72-acre native plant garden on a former garbage dump on landfill.

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.

Logo of The Nature Conservancy.
Logo of The Nature Conservancy.

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.


September 2016

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.

Sincerely,

[Former Members of The Nature Conservancy]


Referenced sources:

  • 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

 

Sierra Club: Puppetmaster of Destruction

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

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.

Marg Hall, Forest Action Brigade

Despicable behavior: The Sierra Club sinks to a new low

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.

Herbicide spraying in one of the project areas
Herbicide spraying in one of the project areas

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]

In solidarity,

Mary McAllister


From: Mary McAllister
Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 6:50 AM
To: michelle.epstein@sierraclub.org ; bruce.hamilton@sierraclub.org
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.

Mary McAllister

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.

FEMA Project Areas
FEMA Project Areas

Californian-Australian Exchange

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.

Hydraulic gold mining in California.
Hydraulic gold mining in California.

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)

Mount Davidson, San Francisco, 1885.
Mount Davidson, San Francisco, 1885.

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.

Timber famine

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

Australian eucalyptus forest (Eucalyptus regnans). Victoria, Australia
Australian eucalyptus forest (Eucalyptus regnans). Victoria, Australia

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”

Fanaticism of the ApocalypseThe 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.

Darwin2

********************

(1) Pascal Bruckner, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse:  Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 2013

Bowling Alone with the Sierra Club

In 2000 Robert Putnam’s (Harvard University) masterpiece of American social science, Bowling Alone* was published.  He reported the significant decline of all forms of civic participation in American society and politics from the P.T.A. to voting.  Religious participation is the notable exception to this trend. 

We are deeply concerned about the increasing isolation of Americans from one another and we believe that the polarization of viewpoints, particularly in politics, is one of the consequences of this trend.  Only the highly motivated extremes of opinion are still engaged in the civic dialogue.  The middle ground is no longer represented in the debate.  However, we will focus on the topic that is relevant to Million Trees, that is, the implications for the environmental movement. 

Bowling Alone. Attribution: Xiaphias

Membership in environmental organizations reached its peak in 1995, according to Bowling Alone after decades of enormous growth since the 1960s.  This peak was consistent with public opinion regarding environmentalism.  In 1990 three-quarters of Americans considered themselves “environmentalists.”  By the end of the decade, that percentage had dropped to only 50%. 

The growth in membership was achieved by the use of a new marketing tool known as direct mail.  Think about it.  How many invitations do you receive in the mail from non-profit organizations, asking you to contribute to a wide-range of worthy causes?   Typically these organizations spend between 20-30% of their budgets on such fund raising and the rate of return on these solicitations is only 1-3% of the cost depending upon the quality of the mailing list.  Using this technique, Greenpeace tripled its membership between 1985 and 1990 to 2.35 million.

What does “membership” mean?

After tripling its membership, Greenpeace lost 85% of its members in the next 8 years.  The drop-out rate after the first year is typically 30% in these organizations.  

In fact, most contributors to these organizations don’t even consider themselves “members” in the usual sense of that word.  The commitment to the organization doesn’t extend far beyond writing a check.  Only 8% of contributors to the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, described themselves as “active” in the organization. 

These organizations are therefore distinctly different from their historical antecedents.  Participants in the civil rights movement frequently put their lives on the line.  The social lives of Rotary Club members revolved around the Rotary lodge. 

Since few people are active participants in environmental organizations, they have become “bureaucratized,” meaning they are run by and for paid professionals.  Most members have little idea what policies the professional staff has adopted on their behalf. 

The Sierra Club

In 1989, a survey of Sierra Club members determined that only 13% of its members had attended even one meeting of the Sierra ClubThe Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club claims to have 10,000 members, but chapter leadership of a group (the chapter is broken into many geographical groups, such as the San Francisco Group)was elected by as few as 59 votes.  The top vote-getter in the Club’s most recent election received 327 votes in a Chapter-wide race, but only one chapter group (Northern Alameda County) had more candidates than there were available seats.  In other words, there was no competition for most of the leadership seats. 

Yet, the incumbents in these leadership positions are free to determine the local policies of the Sierra Club.  Here are a few recent examples of positions taken by the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club:

The opinion of the membership is not asked when these policy positions are taken by the leadership.  However, if members read the chapter’s quarterly newsletter (The Yodeler) they have the opportunity to learn about them after the fact.

The influence of the Sierra Club

We believe that the influence of the Sierra Club exceeds the size of its membership.  The Sierra Club endorses candidates for political office.  These endorsements are highly sought after because politicians believe that the endorsement confers the votes of its membership.  This belief was recently tested in the race for mayor of San Francisco. 

State Senator Leland Yee sought and received the endorsement of the Sierra Club in his bid for mayor of San Francisco.  In the past, he had been critical of the Natural Areas Program.  His stated reason for that criticism was that the veneration of native plants was offensive to his roots as an immigrant.  In particular, the Chinese community suffered horrendous discrimination in California in the 19th Century.  The rhetoric of the native plant movement is reminiscent of the xenophobia from which the Chinese community has suffered historically. 

It seems unlikely that Senator Yee’s emotional reaction to nativism changed when he sought the endorsement of the Sierra Club, but he had to disavow that opinion in order to receive the Club’s endorsement.  He did so because he believed that the votes of Sierra Club members would help him to be elected mayor of San Francisco.  His bet did not pay off.  He did not win.  In fact, he came in fourth. 

We hope that political candidates in the future will heed this warning.  The Sierra Club may have many “members” but that membership does not necessarily confer votes.  The vast majority of “members” have no commitment to the policy positions taken by the Club.

An appeal to Sierra Club members

There were over 4,000 public comments on the Environmental Impact Study for the Dog Management Plan of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).  The Dog Management Plan proposes to eliminate about 80% of existing off-leash areas, which are now only 1% of the 74,000 acres of GGNRA property.  The Sierra Club supports that plan.  There were thousands of comments from people with dogs who are presently enjoying the small areas now available to them for off-leash recreation.  Sixty-four of those people said they are Sierra Club members.  That’s enough members to elect someone to a leadership position in the Club.

If you are a member of the Sierra Club, here’s what you can do to influence the Club’s policies:

  • Inform yourself of the policies of the Sierra Club. 
  • If you don’t agree with those policies, we urge you to vote in the election of officers to the leadership positions in the Sierra Club.
  •  If you don’t know the policies of the candidates, ask them. 
  •  If there are no candidates that represent your viewpoint, find candidates who do.
  • If you can’t find a candidate you can support, it’s time to vote with your feet.
  • If you leave the Club tell them why. 

Quit Bowling Alone!

Attribution: GNU Free Documentation

*Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.  All quotes in this post are from Bowling Alone unless otherwise noted.

Our cosmopolitan viewpoint embraces ALL nature

Song Sparrow in non-native wild radish

Many passionate, well-informed comments were sent to San Francisco’s Planning Department about the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Natural Resources Areas Management Plan (SNRAMP).  Today we’re celebrating the end of the comment period by telling you about one of our favorite comments.

This comment was written by a talented photographer of wildlife in San Francisco’s parks who prefers to remain nameless.  She has exhibited her photos in several venues around town, including San Francisco’s Main Library.  She wrote her comment primarily on behalf of the wildlife that lives in our parks and she illustrated it with beautiful photographs of the birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals that she has photographed nesting, hiding, hunting, roosting, slithering in non-native plants and trees.

Garter snake in eucalyptus leaf litter

We will share the heart of her comment with you.  The soul of her comment is her photographs which were all taken in the parks of San Francisco.

“NAP is actually harming the environment by destroying trees, established habitat, and established ecosystems which include our existing wildlife. NAP wants to recreate our environment as one of native grasses which might have existed in the area in 1776 — in very delimited spaces this seems fine, but they should not be taking over our parks which have evolved on all levels since that time. The grasses were native to a sand-dune ecology, but that is no longer the case within the city, and the grasses provide no protective habitat to the animals which now occupy these spaces — animals which are not on NAP’s “specified” or “endangered” lists. There has been an alarmingly high rate of failure when “endangered” species have been introduced — this is because they are no longer suited to this environment which has evolved and changed since 1776. NAP is a political program, not a program based on science, and one which is hampering people’s enjoyment and use of their parks.”

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel

Although we have been engaged in this debate about destructive native plant “restorations” in the Bay Area for many years, we are still shocked by some of the arguments used to defend them.  Nature in the City is one of many organizations in San Francisco which considers itself an “environmental” organization.  In its latest newsletter, recruiting comments in support of the Environmental Impact Report, Nature in the City characterized critics of the Natural Areas Program and the DEIR as the “anti-nature forces.”  As we have said before, “environmentalism” has been stolen from us by the native plant movement, which we firmly believe is doing more harm than good to our environment. 

Frog hiding in pond plants

When was “nature” redefined exclusively as “native?”  We didn’t get that memo.  We are committed to preserving the habitat of all animals that live in San Francisco, whether the animals are native or non-native or the habitat that shelters and feeds them is native or non-native.  How does that make us “anti-nature?”

Honeybee in non-native wild mustard