Creating Tree Graveyards in San Francisco

At 13.7% of tree canopy coverage, San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of any major city in the country.  When San Francisco’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC) announced its goal of planting 30,000 new street trees in the next 20 years, it seemed a modest goal.  Yet, Jake Sigg, the leader of native plant advocates in San Francisco, immediately objected to even this modest goal in his Nature News.  He announced the meeting of the UFC to consider the proposal and pronounced it a bad idea:

“JS:  Let’s start taking climate change seriously.  There is a prejudice—it is nothing more than that—that trees sequester more carbon than other life forms.  That is a simplistic view that, when looked at more closely, is found wanting.  To counter climate change we need to remove carbon from the air and put it where it will be for a millennium or more.  Removing it for a few decades or a century is pointless. 

“There are many reasons to plant trees on San Francisco streets, and many of our streets need them.  Climate change is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it is intimately related to diversity of biological elements.  That argues for planting native plants to invite dispossessed wildlife back into the city and you do that by planting the plants they need.  There are trees, shrubs, and perennials that ought to line our street to function in this way.  Carbon removal should not be a factor in our street plantings—biodiversity should be Number 1.”

Jake Sigg, Nature News, July 2, 2022

Yes, Jake, biodiversity is important because a diverse ecosystem is more resilient in a changing climate, but destroying all non-native plants does not make an ecosystem more diverse.  Climate change is the greatest long term threat to biodiversity, which makes addressing climate change a prerequisite to preserving biodiversity. 

I attended the Urban Forestry Council meeting of July 5, 2022, when this proposal was considered.  I was expecting to hear objections from Jake Sigg’s followers. Instead, the handful of written public comments objected to the meager commitment to plant only 30,000 new trees in San Francisco in the next 40 years. I learned more about the plan to plant more street trees in San Francisco:

  • There are presently an estimated 125,000 street trees in San Francisco.
  • Because the mortality of street trees is high, the expectation is that 50,000 street trees would need to be planted in the next 20 years to replace dead street trees.
  • According to the Urban Forestry Council it costs $1,500 to plant a tree and an additional $2,500 to water it for three years until it is established.
  • 4,000 trees would need to be planted every year to keep pace with expected tree mortality and to add 30,000 more street trees. 

These goals exist only on paper.  Between 1,500 and 2,000 trees per year are being planted in the city and no funding has been identified to increase this number.  After delivering this bad news about the sorry state of San Francisco’s urban forest, one member of the UFC spoke some much needed common sense.  Nicholas Crawford said we should “hold onto shabby trees” that are established and storing carbon.  He suggested that San Francisco should not remove trees that are at least stable because there are no trees to replace them. 

Existing trees in our urban forest are more valuable than ever.  They are storing more carbon than a replacement tree will store for at least 20 years.  They don’t need to be irrigated because they have the root and fungal networks needed to supply the tree with the moisture it needs.  Existing trees have proven themselves.  The fact that they are alive and well after 10 years of extreme drought proves they are adapted to current climate conditions.  So why destroy them? 

Jake Sigg acknowledged the value of forests to address the challenges of climate change in a recent newsletter:  “In order to have an impact on climate we need to stop deforestation and preserve, strengthen, and restore what is already here.” (Nature News, July 6, 2022)  But that principle does not apply to San Francisco for Sigg and his followers because the trees of San Francisco are predominantly non-native and they place a higher value on restoring pre-settlement treeless grassland and coastal scrub.  Because of the power and influence of the native plant movement in San Francisco our urban forest is being destroyed and planting trees is resisted.

San Francisco has made a commitment to destroying more than 18,000 non-native trees in San Francisco’s public parks.  The stated goal of that program is a landscape of native grassland and scrub.  UC San Francisco has also made a commitment to destroy most of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro.  Thousands of trees have been destroyed on Mount Sutro and more will be destroyed in the future.  The Executive Director of Sutro Stewards, the non-profit organization that is implementing the plans for destruction of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro is represented on the Urban Forestry Council, an odd choice for a citizen’s advisory council theoretically committed to the urban forest.

Tree destruction on Mount Sutro, January 2021.  Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

McLaren Park:  A Case Study

Today Conservation Sense and Nonsense will visit a relatively new project in McLaren Park that has destroyed non-native trees in order to create a small native plant garden.  We drill down into the project to understand why San Francisco’s urban forest is being destroyed.  We visit this project because it is an example of many similar projects that are planned in San Francisco. 

This is one of many attempts to plant native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd in San Francisco. The functional windbreak of Monterey cypress is dying of old age. Rather than replace the windbreak, native shrubs are being planted on Sunset Blvd that will not function as a windbreak in the windiest district in San Francisco. The lack of maintenance that you see here is typical of these gardens, which makes them unpopular with neighbors.

At 312 acres, McLaren Park is one of the largest parks in San Francisco.  Fifty-three percent (165 acres) of McLaren Park is designated as a “natural area,” which means that a commitment was made nearly 25 years ago to transform it into a native plant garden.  The new native plant garden that we visit today is not actually inside one of the designated “natural areas.”  The reach of the native plant movement in San Francisco extends far beyond the 1,100 park acres of “natural areas” that were claimed in 1998. 

The new native plant garden is located in the southeast corner of McLaren, south of the community garden at the intersection of Visitation Ave and Hahn St.  This is a photo of some of the trees that were destroyed to create the native garden:

©Lance Mellon with permission.  July 2020

And this is a photo taken in December 2021, after the trees deemed “non-native” were destroyed:

© Lance Mellon with permission

The plans for the native plant garden say that 18 non-native trees would be destroyed and 6 native trees would be retained.  The plan claims that tree removals of all non-native trees were based on “professional assessments.”  Such “assessments” are routinely used by the Recreation and Park Department to justify the removal of non-native trees.  Photos of the trees indicate otherwise.  Retention of only native trees suggests that assessments aren’t even-handed.  The claim does not pass the smell test. 

Plans for the native plant garden indicate that more native trees will be planted:

The trees will need to be irrigated for at least 3 years to establish their root systems and ensure their survival.  The entire garden will need to be irrigated if it is to survive.  Let’s be clear:  an established grove of trees with an understory of annual grasses that did not require irrigation or maintenance was destroyed and replaced with new plants and trees that will require irrigation.  Is that a suitable use of scarce water resources during an extreme drought that is expected to get worse, if not be a permanent change in the climate?  That is the question we consider today.

About 9 months later, the “native plant garden” looks more like a tree graveyard:

McLaren Native Plant Garden, July 2022
Some of the newly planted trees are holly leaf cherry. Signs on the trees indicate that the project was paid for with a CAL FIRE grant. One wonders how a garden full of dead wood is less flammable than a garden full of living trees.

Granted, the native plant garden is likely to look better as plants grow.  However, it will only look better if it is irrigated and taken care of.  Why should we expect it to be taken better care of than the existing garden that required no maintenance?  Wishful thinking will not make it so.

The death grip of nativism

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  We are seemingly incapable of doing anything substantive to address climate change.  Political gridlock prevents us from controlling the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate polluting emissions from power plants. 

We focus on the preservation of our forests because it is the only tool we have left to absorb carbon emissions from the fossil fuels to which we are wedded.  Native plant advocates have taken that tool away from us.  Our urban forests are being destroyed and replaced with grassland and scrub.  Claims that grassland and scrub store more carbon than forests are ridiculous.  Those claims earn native plant advocates the label of climate change deniers.  As the drought continues to plague California, established landscapes that required no water are being destroyed and replaced with native plants that require irrigation. 

New funding creates new threats to eucalyptus trees

I recently received a message, asking for help to save a grove of eucalyptus trees on the Napa River from destruction:  “I live in Napa on the river where eucalyptus trees are going to be cut down that are home to owls, ravens, herons, egrets and more for over 50 years.  Could you please help save these beautiful trees and wildlife? Any suggestions or ideas would be greatly appreciated.”

Eucalyptus trees on Milton Road on the Napa River
Owls nest in the trees on Milton Road

I learned a few more details by speaking with the neighbor of the trees.  The trees are on State property and the project was going to be funded by California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW).  There are few trees in this neighborhood and therefore few alternatives for the birds that roost and nest in the eucalyptus trees

Eucalyptus grove on the Napa River in which many birds nest and roost

The neighbors asked if herbicides would be used to prevent the trees from resprouting.  That was a concern partly because the well that supplies their drinking water is within 60 feet of the trees.  Before they received an answer to that question, they were informed that “CDFW has decided to halt their project of cutting down the eucalyptus trees on Milton Road!”  We don’t know why CDFW changed its mind, but we would like to believe the questions raised by the neighbors may have helped.  Thanks and congratulations to the neighbors of the eucalyptus grove on the Napa River.

Eucalyptus trees threatened in El Granada

Shortly before I heard from folks in Napa, I learned about a project to destroy eucalyptus in a small community on the coast of San Mateo County.  It’s a foggy coastal location, much like Mount Sutro in San Francisco, where fog drip from the trees during summer months keeps the ground moist and reduces fire hazards. 

The community has made a video (available HERE) about the project and the issues it raises.  It is an even-handed presentation that acknowledges the fire hazards of dense forests in the hills surrounding their community and contrasts that risk with the lower risk of the widely spaced trees in the medians of their village on flat land.  The video explains the many important functions that trees perform to store carbon, improve air quality, provide wind protection and habitat for birds.  The people of El Granada would like the project to reduce fire hazards in the hills, but retain the trees in their street medians because of their ecological value.  It’s a reasoned and reasonable approach.

Source: El Granda Advocates. http://egadvocates.org

The people of El Granada ask for your help to save some of their trees.  Their website (available HERE) invites you to sign their petition.

Predictable…and probably only the beginning

The State of California has committed billions of dollars in fire hazard mitigation, climate change, and biodiversity.  We watched the budgetary plans for these projects being developed in the past year and the plans were recently approved.  Now communities all over California are applying for State grants to implement projects like the two I have described today.  Now it’s up to communities to watch as plans are developed and participate in the process to ensure that the plans reflect their wishes.  It’s your money and your community.  Pay attention and engage in the process.

Postscript…different, but the same

Days before publishing this article, I received an email from Santa Barbara:  Well it is with great sadness we have to report that The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) is again trying to destroy hundreds of Eucalyptus trees here at the University.  They want to destroy what is known as “The Eucalyptus Curtain” the boundary between the University and Isla Vista the college town here.” 

“Eucalyptus Curtain,” UC Santa Barbara. Source: localwiki.org

Some people who are trying to save this grove of eucalyptus are appealing to the California Coastal Commission.  They suggest those who share their opinion contact the CCC HERE.

In this case, the motivation for destroying these trees is not the usual allegation that they are a fire hazard.  According to this article in localwiki, the trees will be destroyed to build more student and faculty housing.  There is no question in my mind that we need more housing and I am rarely opposed to any housing project, including this one.  However, the consequences of destroying these trees are the same regardless of the motivation:

Eucalyptus and Bee, painting by Brian Stewart

Words Matter: “Die-Off” vs. “Die-Back”

California has been in severe drought conditions for over 10 years.  Climate change is the underlying reason for the extremity of the drought.  Maintaining our carbon sinks that sequester greenhouse gases causing climate change is one of our most important defenses against climate change and forests are one of our primary carbon sinks.  Unfortunately, California’s forests are dying of drought and associated insect infestations. You might think that given these conditions, we would try to preserve our forests. 

In fact, the drought has accelerated the war on our non-native urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  All trees and plants have suffered during our prolonged drought.  Where trees are not irrigated in our parks and open spaces, signs of drought stress are visible.  Today, I am publishing my letter to the IPM Director and Fire Chief of East Bay Regional Park District about the need to make a distinction between dead trees and trees that are not dead, but showing symptoms of prolonged drought. My letter explains why we must distinguish between dead (described as “die-off”) and living trees (described as “die-back”) when making commitments to destroy trees that we desperately need during this climate crisis.

Links are provided to email addresses of recipients of my letter.  Please consider writing a letter of your own.


To:   Pam Beitz, Aileen Theile

CC:  Natural and Cultural Resources Committee, Matteo Garbelotto

As you know, the Park District hired the Garbelotto Lab at UC Berkeley to evaluate two species of trees in the parks, acacia and eucalyptus.  The reports of the Garbelotto Lab were recently published on the Lab’s website.  I am writing to ask that responsible staff read those reports and make adjustments in plans to remove trees as needed, based on those reports. 

Source: Report of Garbelotto Laboratory
Acacia die-off in Leona Canyon, East Bay Regional Park District. Source: US Forest Service

The diagnoses for acacia and eucalyptus are entirely different.  The pathogens are different in the two tree species.  The pathogens killing acacia are new and they are lethal.  The pathogens found in eucalyptus are not new.  They have been latent and asymptomatic in eucalyptus for decades and have only become symptomatic because of the stress of drought. The pathogens found in eucalyptus disfigure leaves and twigs, but are not fatal. 

Much like the microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites) in our bodies that outnumber human cells, every tree is inhabited by microbes that are usually asymptomatic.  If similar tests were done on other tree species in the Bay Area, similar results would be found where trees are not irrigated.  The pathogens are always there.  Drought has made them visible.  If we were obligated to destroy every tree in the parks showing signs of drought stress, we would be required to remove most trees in the parks. 

There are significant disadvantages to destroying living trees:

  • A dead tree is not capable of resprouting, but a living tree is capable of resprouting unless it is a species that is not capable of resprouting. Eucalyptus, acacia, redwoods (not candidates for removal, but dying of drought nonetheless) and bay laurels are all vigorous resprouters.  The stumps of these living tree species will require herbicide applications to prevent them from resprouting. 
  • The herbicides used to prevent resprouting travel through the roots of the tree to kill the roots. Herbicides used to prevent resprouting damage the roots of neighboring plants and trees connected by their mycelium networks. 
  • The trees that are destroyed release their stored carbon into the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse gasses causing climate change. In the absence of those trees, less carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere in the future.  Since the underlying cause of increased frequency and intensity of wildfires is the warmer/drier climate, removing living trees increases wildfire risks in the future.
  • As more trees die, wood debris has accumulated to the point that there isn’t sufficient disposal capacity. When roadsides in the Berkeley hills were clearcut over one year ago, it took 9 nine months to dispose of the wood debris.  Huge piles of wood debris were stacked on roadsides, creating a fire hazard.  The more trees that are destroyed, the more wood debris is created.
One of many piles of logs, Claremont Ave, November 2020. Photo by Doug Prose, courtesy Hills Conservation Network.

I am therefore concerned about the Park District’s plans to remove one million trees from parks in the East Bay, according to press coverage: “In consultation with academics and state experts, they’ve identified a mass die-off of trees in the parks as a result of stress from drought, climate change and a proliferation of non-native species. Now they estimate they need to remove more than 1 million trees on their land, at a cost of $20 million to $30 million in one park alone. One area of the die-off, located between Mt. Diablo and communities in Oakland and Berkeley, is particularly concerning to Fire Chief Aileen Theile.”  

In an earlier media interview Fire Chief Theile included eucalyptus in the list of dead trees: “The die-off, first noticed last October, has mostly hit eucalyptus, acacias, pines and bay laurels and has expanded this summer amid an exceptional drought.”  Oaks are strangely absent from that list of dead trees, although it is well known that there are thousands of dead oaks in the Park District that have not been removed.

In summary, I ask for your reconsideration of Park District plans and public communications regarding tree removals in the parks:

  • The Park District should confine plans for tree removals to dead trees. Dead trees are public safety risks that should be mitigated. Drought stressed trees that may be unsightly are not a priority for removal.  Given our heavy rains in December, it is still possible that many will recover.
  • Park District communications with the public should make a distinction between “die-off” and “die-back.” Acacias are accurately described as experiencing a die-off.  Eucalyptus are accurately described as experiencing a die-back.

Thank you for your consideration.

The Global War on Non-Native Trees

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself… the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.”

An international team of academic scientists studied the many conflicts around the world between those who find value in introduced trees and those who demand their destruction. (1) Team members were from Australia, France, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Professor Marcel Rejmanek at UC Davis was the only American on the team.

Professor Rejmanek is well known to us as the author of the chapter about eucalyptus in Daniel Simberloff’s encyclopedic tome about biological “invasions.”  Rejmanek said, “…eucalypts are markedly less invasive than many other widely cultivated trees and shrubs…they have been orders of magnitude less successful as invaders than pines and several other widely planted trees…Where eucalypts have invaded, they have very seldom spread considerable distances from planting sites, and their regeneration is frequently sporadic.  He noted that eucalyptus is useful to bees and hummingbirds and I add here that it blooms throughout winter months when little else is blooming in California.  He said,  “Conclusions about positive or negative environmental and economic impacts of eucalypts are often anecdotal, highly controversial and context dependent.”    Professor Rejmanek’s assessment was instrumental in my effort to convince the California Invasive Plant Council to remove blue gum eucalyptus from its list of invasive species.  Cal-IPC downgraded its assessment of invasiveness of blue gum eucalyptus from “medium” to “limited” in response to my request. 

Professor Rejmanek is also the author of the most recent report on plant extinctions in California, published in 2017.  At that time there were 13 plant species and 17 sub-species native to California known to be globally extinct and another 30 species and sub-species extirpated in California but still found in other states.  Over half the globally extinct taxa were reported as extinct over 100 years ago.  Although grassland in California had been converted to Mediterranean annual grasses by grazing domesticated animals nearly 100 years before then, most of the plants now designated as “invasive” in California were not widespread over 100 years ago.  Only one extinction mentions “invasive species” as one of the factors in its disappearance.  Rejmanek speculates that livestock grazing is the probable cause.  He said, “Indeed, one needs quite a bit of imagination to predict that any native plant species may be driven to extinction by invasive plants per se.”

This recap of Rejmanek’s expertise about so-called “invasive” trees and plants establishes his credentials as a reliable witness as the co-author of “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” which I will summarize for readers today.

Setting the stage for conflict

As Europeans colonized the new world in the 18th and 19th centuries, they often brought trees from home with them, motivated primarily by an aesthetic preference. When the colonial era came to an end, nationalism during the 19th century encouraged a new appreciation of indigenous flora.  When planting their own gardens and farms, America’s founding fathers had a strong preference for planting native trees.  While fighting the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote to the caretakers of his farm at Mount Vernon instructing them to plant NO English trees, but rather to transplant trees from the surrounding forests.

Sources of conflict

By mid-20th century, this preference for indigenous trees escalated to the current belief that non-native trees are threatening indigenous ecosystems.  Conflict arises when there is a “failure to account for, assess, and balance trade-offs between the eco-system services or, at times, a failure to agree on the relative value of particular services.” (1) The study identifies the tree species that are the focus of such conflicts around the world and the ecosystem services those species provide:

Conservation Sense and Nonsense has reported on many of these conflicts around the world:

  • The stated purpose of the destruction of forests in Chicago was the “restoration” of grassland that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense described the conflict regarding that destruction in one of my first articles in 2011 because the issues were similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area. The debate raged in Chicago for over 15 years, but the destruction of the forest was finally accomplished, despite opposition.  Likewise, in San Francisco after 20 years of conflict, the eradication of eucalyptus forests is being achieved.
  • In 2012, we republished an article by Christian Kull about the practical value of acacia trees to Vietnamese farmers and their opposition to the attempt to destroy them.
  •  We republished an article in 2014 about opposition to the destruction of willow trees in Australia that were planted to control erosion.  Willows are one of many examples of a tree that is considered valuable in North America where it is native and hated in Australia where it is not. The authors of the article described the arguments used to justify the project, ‘Sure, it makes a big mess and causes erosion, and nutrient release, and carbon emissions, and local temperature increases, and loss of habitat, but it’s necessary because we’re going to make Australia a place for natives-only again.’
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post by Matt Chew in 2017 about the eradication of tamarisk trees that were introduced for erosion control in southwestern US.  In that case, the survival of an endangered bird is threatened by this misguided attempt to eradicate tamarisk by introducing a non-native insect.
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post in 2015 by a South African who objected to the destruction of jacaranda trees.  In that case, the beauty of these iconic trees was the primary objection to their destruction.
Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, South Africa

Many similar conflicts around the world are described by the study, which categorizes the conflicts as focused in three areas:  urban and near-urban trees; trees that provide direct economic benefits; and invasive trees that are used by native species for habitat or food.  I will focus on conflicts in urban and suburban areas because they are close to home.

Where is conflict greatest?

The study searched for examples of such conflicts around the world and found that most were in developed countries where ecological knowledge has suggested that eradication is necessary and democracy is strong enough to enable dissent.  Such conflicts are well documented in urban areas where many non-native trees have been introduced. Based on my experience with many of these urban conflicts, I can agree with the authors of the study that they are “frequently vitriolic, as seen in letters to editors, public protests, websites, and blogs.” (1)

How NOT to reduce conflict

The authors of this study dismiss suggestions that “educating” those who object to eradication projects can reduce conflict.  Their assessment of why that approach intensifies conflict is consistent with my own reaction to being lectured about the claimed benefits of eradication projects:

“However, the concept of ‘education’ implies that opponents of tree removal are inherently ignorant or unaware and discounts the importance of their views and values.  Sceptics of environmental issues are frequently highly educated and scientifically literate, with conflict driven by fundamental values, not lack of knowledge.  Further, what one party in a conflict views as education can be viewed as propaganda by those with opposing priorities.” (1)

The authors suggest that the planning process for such projects must be a two-way dialogue that recognizes shared values, such as a strong commitment to conservation of the environment.  The authors describe some of my own reservations about eradication projects:

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself…Objective evaluation of the ecological services affected may not result in the removal of non-native trees being justified.  Indeed, in some cases the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.” (1)

There is no doubt that the demand to destroy eucalyptus in California is a case in which removal has become an end in itself that is not justified.  These are some of the accusations used to justify the destruction of eucalyptus that have been disproven by academic scientists without getting eucalyptus off nativists’ hit list.

Source: Conference of California Native Plant Society, 2018

Pessimistic conclusion

The study concludes that we should expect plant invasions around the world to increase and that increased wealth and democracy will make conflicts about tree eradications more widespread.  The authors “suggest that conflict should be seen as a normal occurrence in invasive species removal…Avoiding conflict entirely may be impossible…”

I can’t disagree with the authors of this study about the poor prospects of resolving conflict regarding the destruction of non-native trees that are the heart of our urban forest in California.  However, I am grateful to the authors for their understanding of the issues and their respect for introduced trees as well as those who advocate for their preservation. They understand that lectures by those who demand that trees be destroyed despite the functions they perform are condescending and exacerbate conflict rather than resolving it. 

A Postscript

Jake Sigg has been the leader of the crusade to destroy eucalyptus forests in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years.  He and I have debated this issue many times, without resolution.  In his newsletter of January 20th, Jake seems to acknowledge the futility of our debate as well as his motivation to create a native landscape. It seems he has reached the same conclusion as the authors of the international study of the inevitability of conflict about the destruction of non-native trees, although he concedes that he won’t quit trying…and neither will I. 

“For years I’ve been fighting tree huggers, who understandably don’t want to cut healthy trees down.  The blue gums are handsome brutes.  In my eye I see the rich diverse native biological communities that they displaced; those I fight with don’t see that and don’t value that.  So you can see the communication problem at the beginning.  The same consideration plagues many contentious issues in the world.

How do you explain this to them?  Mostly, you can’t; you do what you are able to do.  This is not an age for listening to fellow beings.  I find it hard to do.  David Brooks, a favorite, wrote a fraught opinion piece in today’s 
NYT.  He has just about thrown up his hands, as have I—except that I can’t—and neither can Brooks.”

Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction escalated beyond riparian areas. Glen Cayon Park is one of 33 parks in San Francisco where most eucalyptus trees are being destroyed because they are not native. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

  1. Ian Dickie, et. al., “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” Biological Invasions, 2014.

The need for diverse urban forest and the obstacles to achieve that goal

Matt Ritter is a professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Director of Cal Poly Plant Conservatory.  He is the author of several books about California’s unique flora, including A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us.  He is considered an expert on the horticulture, ecology and taxonomy of the Eucalyptus genus.

Click on picture to view Professor Ritter’s presentation

In October 2021, Professor Ritter gave a presentation to the California Urban Forests Council, entitled “Underutilized Species for the Future of Urban Wood and Urban Forestry.”   He began by explaining why it is important to identify new tree species for our urban forest.

  • “Baja is moving to Oregon,” said Ritter to set the stage.  Within 50-80 years trees living in California now will no longer be adapted to the anticipated warmer, drier climate.  Trees killed by wildfire in California are not returning.  Forests are quickly converting to grassland and shrub.  As of 2018, California had lost 180 million trees to drought, disease, bark beetles, heat, and wildfire, which is nearly 5% of the total tree population in California.  Adding subsequent years to date, we have probably lost 7% of all of our trees.
  • Trees in urban areas will help Californians cope with warmer conditions because they cool our cities and reduce energy consumption.  Fewer trees will mean a lower quality of life, for us and for birds.  The loss of our trees reduces carbon storage, which contributes to more climate change. 

Ritter then explained why we must diversify tree species in our urban forests.

  • There are over 60,000 tree species in the world and only 7% of tree species are found in urban areas around the world.  In California our urban forests are even less diverse.  There are only 234 tree species on average in California’s urban forests.  The average number of approved tree species for planting in California’s municipalities is only 49 and few species on those approved lists are native to California.
  • Diversity of tree species ensures greater resiliency that enables our urban forests to survive changing conditions.
  • Only 9% of tree species in California’s urban forests are native. 
The native ranges of tree species in California’s urban forest.

An inventory of Oakland’s urban forest (street trees, medians, and landscaped parks only) was recently completed.  With 535 tree species, the diversity of Oakland’s urban forest is greater than average for California.  With 14% native trees, Oakland’s urban forest is more native than average. There are 59 species on Oakland’s list of approved trees, of which only 4 are native to Oakland.  The most significant finding of Oakland’s tree inventory is that our urban forest is only 64% “stocked,” meaning that of existing tree wells, only 64% are currently planted with trees.  When trees die in Oakland, they aren’t being replaced.  I don’t doubt there is a will to plant trees in Oakland.  I assume it is a question of means in a city with more pressing needs than resources.

Ritter and his colleagues at Cal Poly have created a website called SelecTree to help Californians choose the right tree for the right site and conditions.  There are 1,500 tree species described on SelecTree, using 60 characteristics, such as drought tolerance.  SelecTree rates blue gum eucalyptus “medium” for drought tolerance, the same rating as native coast live oak and bay laurel.  Ritter clarified that drought tolerance on SelecTree is a measure of how much water the tree species uses.  Claims that eucalyptus uses more water than native trees is bogus, like most bad raps about eucalyptus.  

Ritter recommended specific tree species, based on their drought and heat tolerance.  He said that when diversifying our urban forests “we have to think about Australia” because it is the hottest, driest, flattest, and oldest place on the planet, which is another way of saying that tree species in Australia have survived terrible conditions that are comparable to the challenging conditions in urban environments.

Ritter recommended oak species that are native to Texas; eucalyptus and closely related tree species; and several tree species in the legume family, especially acacia.  In each case he mentioned the suitability of tree species based partly on the quality of its wood.  Apparently, I’m not the only person in California who is disturbed by huge piles of wood chips wherever trees have been destroyed.  Ritter also thinks we should be thinking about how we can use wood when trees are destroyed, rather than building potential bonfires.  

Obstacles to diverse urban forests in California

When Professor Ritter took questions from the audience, we learned that the main obstacle to a diverse urban forest in California, adapted to our climate conditions, is the myopic focus of native plant advocates:

Question:  “Are we introducing new pathogens to our natives by importing new species?”

Answer:  There are many laws and rules that restrict the importation of plants to prevent that from happening.  We also import only the seeds of plants, not grown plants.  The seeds are sterilized and they don’t carry the pathogens that may exist on grown plants in their native ranges.

Question:  “Do we know how quickly birds and insects adapt to new species?”

Answer:  “No we don’t, but who cares?  We are facing a climate emergency.   We have 50 years before life in our cities becomes hell.  We have a responsibility to protect the quality of life in our cities.  We should stop developing the wild, but cities are different.” 

Ritter anticipated a question that is often a concern of native plant advocates by saying we should not be concerned about “weediness,” AKA “invasiveness.”  He said, “That should be far down on our list of priorities of what to worry about.  We need to be primarily concerned about what tree species will grow in our changed climate.”

Rhetorical Question:  “But insects need native plants!

Answer:  Ritter instantly recognized the mantra of Doug Tallamy.  He replied that it is not well established that there are more insects living on native plants than on introduced plants.  He mentioned a single study that inventoried plant and animal species in eucalyptus compared to oak forests, presumably Dov Sax’s study which concluded:  “Species richness was nearly identical for understory plants, leaf-litter invertebrates, amphibians and birds; only rodents had significantly fewer species in eucalypt sites.  Species diversity patterns…were qualitatively identical to those for species richness, except for leaf-litter invertebrates, which were significantly more diverse in eucalypt sites during the spring.” 

Rhetorical Question:  “We are still dealing with a legacy of blue gum eucalyptus in the Bay Area.  Why should we repeat that mistake?”

Answer:  Ritter agreed that blue gum eucalyptus is “inappropriate” in many places where it was planted in the Bay Area, but we’re not planting blue gums.  There are 800 eucalyptus species and many are ideal for our conditions.  He said, “Why not plant eucalyptus?  It would be dumb not to plant suitable eucalyptus species just because it shares a name.”

Ritter added that, “Planting only natives just doesn’t work in San Francisco.  There would be no trees in Southern California because we don’t have very many native trees in California.”  The pre-settlement coast of California was virtually treeless in most places and that’s a fact. For example, a study of historic vegetation in Oakland, California reported that only 2% of pre-settlement Oakland was forested with trees. “Vegetation before urbanization in Oakland was dominated by grass, shrub, and marshlands that occupied approximately 98% of the area.” (1)

San Francisco in 1806 as depicted by artist with von Langsdoff expedition. Bancroft Library

Oakland as a case in point

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article about a guerilla tree-planter in Oakland who is planting native oak trees on public land, wherever he wants.  Oakland’s Director of Tree Services, David Moore, gently suggests that many of these tree plantings are ill-advised:  “‘There is a part of all of us that loves with our hearts the coast live oak tree because of its heritage, the symbolism of our city, and just the legacy that they have,’ Moore said. ‘But we have to diversify, and we are diversifying to other ones that are recommended to be more adaptable to climate change…The reality is that we have created a world that is not the native conditions of these plants,’ Moore said. ‘If we want trees to survive in these non-native conditions, we have to pick trees from around the world that can survive these conditions.’…Moore said oaks, while beautiful, are not the ideal tree for today’s hot, dry and cramped urban landscape. Without careful and costly maintenance, he said, oaks could destroy sidewalks, block light from street lamps and grow their branches into streets and walkways, creating hazards for motorists and pedestrians. The city still plants oaks, but mainly in parks rather than streets because that’s where they do better, Moore said…”

Stalemate

So, here we are.  We have a pressing need for a more diverse urban forest that is adapted to present and anticipated conditions, but we are paralyzed by the ideological commitment of native plant advocates who are demanding that we destroy our urban forest because it is predominantly non-native.  In a recent edition of Nature News, Jake Sigg said, “Hysterical tree planting is worse than a waste of time and resources…”

I am grateful to Professor Ritter for being bluntly frank with members of the arborist community who should know better.  Dare we hope they learned something from that presentation? 

I wish you Happy New Year.  Please join me in my hope for a more peaceful year.  Thank you for your readership.


(1) Nowak, David, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implications for urban forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture, 19(5): September 1993

TAKING ACTION: The Forest Action Brigade requests correction of the public record regarding lifespan of eucalyptus

The Forest Action Brigade (FAB) has given Million Trees permission to publish their letter to the Park Advisory Committee of the East Bay Regional Park District.  FAB asks that the public record be corrected regarding the lifespan of eucalyptus and related issues.  The Park Advisory Committee was given misinformation regarding the status of eucalyptus trees in the parks by the Acting Fire Chief.  

The Park District does not have a single certified arborist or forester on staff.  The Park District needs such expertise to inform the park staff and to avoid making mistakes, such as destroying healthy trees and planting trees where they will not survive because the horticultural conditions for the trees are not suitable.

When the public was given the opportunity to make suggestions for projects to be included in the renewal of Measure CC parcel tax, hiring a qualified arborist was one of the suggestions that park advocates made.  That suggestion was ignored, as were most of our suggestions.  The Park District is responsive to a narrow constituency, such as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and California Native Plant Society.  

Please join us in objecting to the unnecessary destruction of healthy trees in our parks:  Park Advisory Committee c/o sclay@ebparks.org; Board of Directors c/o ybarial@ebparks.org.


June 20, 2018

Park Advisory Committee
East Bay Regional Park District

Dear Members of PAC,

On May 21, 2018, Acting Fire Chief Aileen Theile explained the park district’s strategy regarding eucalyptus removal and its justification for that strategy to the Parks Advisory Committee:

“Tsutsui asked about the life cycle of the eucalyptus plantation. Theile replied they have a lifespan of 50-60 years, and most of the trees were planted about 50-60 years ago. Those planted 50 years ago are failing on a regular basis. Theile continued eucalyptus trees actually do not do well in plantations. They need to compete for sunlight and the trees within the grove are weak. If the outer trees begin to fail, the inner trees are unable to withstand the wind because they have historically been protected by the outer trees. The Park District is trying to remove the fuel ladder, by creating a break between surface fuels and fires that get up into the tree canopy. Tsutsui asked how long is mitigation needed. Theile explained there will probably not be many eucalyptus plantation trees left in the next 50 years.” (Minutes of PAC meeting, 5/21/18)

We are writing to correct several misstatements of fact in Chief Theile’s testimony to the Park Advisory Committee:

Theile:  “[eucalyptus] have a lifespan of 50-60 years…”

That statement is not accurate.  It is an extreme underestimate of the lifespan of eucalyptus.

Blue gum eucalyptus and all other species of eucalyptus are native to Australia.  They were brought to California shortly after the Gold Rush of 1849.  Since they haven’t been in California 200 years, we don’t know how long they will live here.  But how long they live in Australia is obviously relevant to answer that question because longevity is specific to tree species.  We can expect some variation by climate, but not much, and the climate of Australia is similar to the climate in California with wet, mild winters and hot, dry summers.

We know that blue gums live in Australia about 200-400 years because Australian scientists tell us that:

Growth Habits of the Eucalypts by M.R. Jacobs, (Institute of Foresters of Australia, 1955, 1986): Blue Gum eucalyptus lives in Australia from 200-400 years, depending upon the climate.” In milder climates, such as San Francisco, the Blue Gum lives toward the longer end of this range.

That reference was corroborated by John Helms, Professor Emeritus of Forestry at UC Berkeley and an Australian who said in response to our question about blue gums in California, “Blue gums would commonly live for 200 – 400 years, although I presume that some might live longer.”

We also asked the Australian National Botanic Gardens.  They said, “It’s possible that the average lifespan of a native species growing in the wild in Australia would differ to the average lifespan of the same species introduced in northern California, since introduced plants can often “escape” their natural predators when such introductions occur.”

In other words, since eucalyptus trees have more predators in Australia than they do in California, we should expect them to live longer here.  This is called the “predator release” hypothesis.  Ironically, that hypothesis is used by nativists to support their claim that eucalyptus is invasive in California. It’s only logical to apply that hypothesis to the question of how long blue gums will live in California.

However, using actual experience in Australia to predict the future of blue gums in California requires some speculation.  Therefore, we turn to the question of how long they have lived in California for guidance.  There are countless examples of eucalyptus in California over 150 years old that are still very much alive and well.  Here are a few local examples:

  • Eucalyptus, Mills College, Oakland 2015

    The Grinnell Eucalyptus Grove on the UC Berkeley campus was planted in 1877. Most of that grove is still alive and well.  https://www.berkeley.edu/news/multimedia/2004/01/trees.html

  • Eucalyptus was planted as a windbreak at Mills College shortly after it relocated to Oakland in 1871.  Those trees are very much alive.
  • Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s.  Like most of the East Bay, the site was treeless. Olmsted’s design was an eclectic collection of mostly non-native trees, including blue gums.  The cemetery is on steep, windward facing hills, where the windbreak provided by blue gums is particularly valued.
  • There are equally old blue gum eucalyptus on the Stanford Campus and many other places on the San Francisco peninsula. 2.2 miles of El Camino Real planted with blue gum eucalyptus in the 1870s were put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

Cal Poly maintains a website that evaluates trees in California, called SelecTree.  SelecTree states that the lifespan of blue gum eucalyptus is “greater than 150 years.”  That estimate is the longest category for longevity on the SelecTree website. (https://selectree.calpoly.edu/)  It is the same estimated lifespan for Coast Live Oak and many other trees, according to SelecTree.

Theile:  “…most of the [eucalyptus] trees were planted about 50-60 years ago.”

That is also an inaccurate statement.  The Park District’s “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” (2009) states, “In the early 1900s, plantations of eucalyptus and pine were planted for hardwood production and to forest the primarily grass-covered hills in preparation for coming real estate development.”  (page 5)

The first master plan for the Park District was published in 1930:  “Proposed Park Reservation for East Bay Cities.”  That publication contains photos of eucalyptus at Lake Chabot, Skyline Ridge and Wildcat Canyon.  https://www.ebparks.org/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=23514

Theile:  “Those planted 50 years ago are failing on a regular basis.”

Sibley Volcanic Reserve. Photo by Larry Danos, March 2018

If that statement is accurate, we have no evidence of its accuracy.  In the past 9 months, eucalyptus trees have been destroyed throughout the Park District.  When visitors inquire, they are told the trees were hazardous.  In some cases, the areas were supposed to be thinned in accordance with the Park District’s “Wildfire…Plan.”  At Sibley Volcanic Reserve, for example, large areas of over an acre were clear cut in March 2018 where the plan was to thin.  We know the trees weren’t dead because the stumps of the trees were sprayed with herbicide, as indicated by blue dye.  If the trees were in fact dead, it would not have been necessary to spray the stumps with herbicide to prevent their resprouting.  We asked for an arborist’s evaluation of the condition of the trees before they were destroyed.  We received no response to our request for this information.  In other words, claims that eucalyptus trees are dead or dying are unsubstantiated.  Available evidence suggests that healthy trees are being needlessly destroyed.

Tree failures are most likely to occur where the Park District has thinned the trees.  The trees that remain are subjected to more wind.  The herbicide that is used to prevent the destroyed trees from resprouting is mobile in the soil and it damages the soil by killing beneficial microbes and the mycorrhizal fungi that are essential to tree health.  The roots of the trees are intertwined, enabling the herbicide to damage the roots of the trees that remain.  If, indeed, there are tree failures, they are undoubtedly being caused by the Park District’s tree removals and associated herbicide use.

Theile:  “…eucalyptus trees actually do not do well in plantations.”

This is an inaccurate statement.  In fact, densely planted trees protect one another from the wind and they share available resources.  Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees explains:

“…in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance…This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it…Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well.  When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit.  Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupts the moist, cool climate.”

“Theile explained there will probably not be many eucalyptus plantation trees left in the next 50 years.”

That is apparently an expression of the Park District’s willful intentions.  The eucalyptus trees will be gone in 50 years because the Park District apparently intends to destroy them all, not because they are dead or dying.  Rather because that’s what the Park District wants to do.

For the record, we state our purpose:

Monachs in eucalyptus, Pacific Grove Museum

We are opposed to the unnecessary destruction of healthy trees, because it serves no useful purpose.  Trees deep inside our parks pose no fire hazard to residential areas.  They are storing thousands of tons of carbon that will contribute to climate change when released into the atmosphere.  Wildfires are becoming more intense and frequent because of climate change.  Therefore destroying hundreds of thousands of trees causes wildfires rather than mitigating them.  The trees perform many other useful functions.  They provide food and habitat for birds, bees, and butterflies.  They reduce air pollution.  They provide shade and protection from wind, making visitors to the parks more comfortable.  The herbicide use associated with tree destruction damages the environment and is an unnecessary health hazard to wildlife and the public.

[redacted]

Please add this letter to the record of the Park Advisory Committee meeting of May 21, 2018.

Thank you.

Forest Action Brigade

CC: EBRPD Board of Directors; Aileen Theile

Action Opportunity: Draft of Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan

The City of Oakland applied for a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant in 2005 to clear-cut all non-native trees on 122 acres of city owned property in the East Bay hills, based on the claim that it would reduce fire hazards.  FEMA cancelled that grant in September 2016 in settlement of a lawsuit against the project. 

The City of Oakland began the process of writing a new plan to reduce fire hazards in the hills by hiring a consultant to develop a Vegetation Management Plan in November 2016.  The new plan will be much more comprehensive than the original plan, covering 1,925 acres of open space and 308 miles of roadside in Oakland.  Oakland also made a commitment to an open public process to develop the plan.  A survey of public opinion was conducted and two public meetings were held in 2017. 

A draft of Oakland’s Vegetation Management Plan is now available HERE.  There are detailed maps of the areas that will be covered by the plan.  We suggest you take a look at those maps to determine what effect the plan will have on your neighborhood and the parks and open spaces you visit.

 A public meeting about the draft was held on May 23, 2018 and written public comments will be accepted until June 11, 2018. Comments may be submitted in the following ways: Download comment card; Email VMPcomments@oaklandvegmanagement.org; Mail:  266 Grand Avenue, Suite 210, Attn: Ken Schwarz, Oakland, CA 94610.  We hope you will participate in this public process that will determine the future of much of the landscape in the Oakland hills.

We are publishing an excerpt of the written public comment of one of our readers, which we hope will help you understand the issues and to write a comment of your own.  Asterisks indicate where some detail has been omitted.  You can see the entire public comment HERE: Oakland Draft Vegetation Management Plan – public comment

 Million Trees


Ken Schwarz
Horizon Water & Environment
266 Grand Avenue, Suite 210
Oakland, CA 94610

I am broadly supportive of the Draft Vegetation Management Plan (DVMP) because:

  • It will create defensible space around structures in Very High Wildfire Hazard Severity Zones.
  • It will clear easily ignited vegetation on roadsides in places where fire hazards are greatest.
  • It sets priorities for implementation in places where fire hazards are greatest.

These three elements of the plan will reduce fire hazards while limiting destruction of trees and vegetation and being fiscally responsible.

My public comment will identify some weaknesses in the plan and make specific suggestions for improving the plan with the goal of minimizing fire hazards as well as collateral damage to the environment.

The 300-foot “buffer” zone is unnecessarily destructive.  California law requires 100-feet of defensible space around structures.  The DVMP proposes extending defensible space along roadsides and around structures to 300-feet, the length of a football field.  Such a wide clearance of vegetation greatly exceeds California fire code and is therefore unnecessarily destructive.  In a recently published op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, two academic scientists confirm our understanding of how to keep our communities safe:  “The science is clear that the most effective way to protect homes from wildfire is to make homes themselves more fire-safe, using fire-resistant roofing and siding, installing ember-proof vents and exterior sprinklers, and maintaining “defensible space” within 60 to 100 feet of individual homes by reducing grasses, shrubs and small trees immediately adjacent to houses. Vegetation management beyond 100 feet from homes provides no additional protection.”[1]

The buffer zone should be eliminated, reduced in size, or reduced to Priority 3 so that it is less destructive and costly. 

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

The description of herbicide use in the draft is unnecessarily vague, because it provides no information about what herbicides will be used and the health and environmental hazards of specific herbicides.  Nor does it explain how, where, or why herbicides will be used.

Instead of providing that information, the plan describes the public’s opposition to herbicides as “social stigma,” which implies that our opposition is a baseless prejudice against herbicides.  In fact, our opposition is based on scientific information about the dangers of herbicides and those dangers must be acknowledged by the final version of this plan.

The dangers of herbicides are well documented and well known. ****** Here is a brief list of some of the most recent studies that conclude that glyphosate products are very dangerous to the health of animals and humans:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015. The IARC is composed of an international team of scientists convened by the World Health Organization of the United Nations.
  • The State of California responded to that news by requiring all glyphosate products sold in the State to be labeled as carcinogens. The State was sued several times by the manufacturer of Round Up—Monsanto–to prevent the labeling requirement.  The State of California recently won in the state court of appeals[2].  Unless Monsanto appeals and wins in the State Supreme Court, all glyphosate products will be labeled as carcinogens in California.
  • US National Toxicology Program recently conducted tests on formulated glyphosate products for the first time. In the past, tests were conducted only on the active ingredient…that is glyphosate alone. The formulated products that are actually applied as weed killers contain many other chemicals, some of which are not even known. The head of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, told The Guardian newspaper the agency’s work is ongoing but its early findings are clear on one key point. “We see the formulations are much more toxic. The formulations were killing the cells. The glyphosate really didn’t do it,” DeVito said. A summary of the NTP analysis said that “glyphosate formulations decreased human cell ‘viability’, disrupting cell membranes. Cell viability was ‘significantly altered’ by the formulations, it stated.”[3]
  • The Global Glyphosate Study is being conducted by six scientific institutions all over the world. ******* This international consortium of scientific institutions recently published preliminary resultsof their study: “The results of the short-term pilot study showed that glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) were able to alter certain important biological parameters in rats, mainly relating to sexual development, genotoxicity and the alteration of the intestinal microbiome, at the ‘safe’ level of 1.75 mg/kg/day set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”[4]  In other words, at doses deemed safe by the US EPA, significant negative health effects were found in animals used in testing.
  • The German Agriculture Minister announced on April 17, 2018 that she was finalizing a draft regulation to end use of the weed-killer glyphosate in household gardens, parks and sports facilities, and to set “massive” limits for its use in agriculture.[5] Germany is one of 25 countries that have issued outright bans on glyphosate, imposed restrictions or have issued statements of intention to ban or restrict glyphosate-based herbicides, including Roundup  Countless US states and cities have also adopted such restrictions. [6]
  • Marin Municipal Water District quit using all pesticides in 2015. In a letter to East Bay Municipal Utilities District, a member of the Board of MMWD explains why that decision was made.  (Attachment 2)  MMWD hired scientists at UC Davis to conduct a study of the biological persistence of glyphosate.  They found that glyphosate persisted for at least 84 days when applied to foliage, and perhaps longer after the study ended.

Garlon with the active ingredient triclopyr is more toxic than glyphosate.  Garlon is the herbicide that is used to prevent eucalyptus and acacia from resprouting when the trees are destroyed.  Its use was also specifically allowed for that purpose by Oakland City Council Resolution 79133.   Although the DVMP does not mention its use, we assume—unless specifically told otherwise by the final version of the VMP—that Garlon will be used to control resprouts.

  • Triclopyr is an organochlorine product, in the same family of pesticides as DDT, which was banned in the US in 1972. Organochlorine products bioaccumulate and are very persistent in the environment.  Nearly 50 years after it was banned, DDT is often found in the ground, in the water, and in people’s bodies.[7]
  • Organochlorine products are endocrine disrupters. The Pesticide Research Institute did a risk assessment of triclopyr for the California Invasive Plant Council.  They reported that triclopyr “poses reproductive and developmental risks to female applicators.” [8]
  • The Pesticide Research Institute did a risk assessment of triclopyr for Marin Municipal Water District in which they informed MMWD that birds and bees are both harmed by triclopyr and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil are damaged by triclopyr.[9]

More research has been done on Round Up than on Garlon because it is more widely used.  It is more widely used, partly because it is actually less dangerous than Garlon (it is also a non-selective plant-killer).  Because of the toxicity of Garlon, several public land managers in the Bay Area have made a commitment to controlling resprouts without using herbicides: ******** Marin Municipal Water District,  Marin County Parks and Open Space, UC San Francisco, and East Bay Municipal Utilities District (the supplier of our drinking water).

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

There is no evidence that eucalyptus is inherently more flammable than native trees. ******** Eradicating non-native trees and shrubs will not reduce fire hazards because they are not inherently more flammable than the native vegetation that will remain.  Therefore, the reduction of fuel loads must be based on flammability, NOT the nativity of the flammable species.  The nativity of plant species is irrelevant to reducing fire hazards and must be abandoned as criterion for destroying plants and trees.

Vegetation that burned in the North Bay fires of October 2017 was almost exclusively native. Source: Bay Area Open Space Council

I support the thinning of eucalyptus, acacia, Monterey pine and cypress to reduce fuel loads, as long as the canopy is intact.  ******** When the canopy is intact, the forest floor is shaded which retains moisture that retards ignition and suppresses the growth of easily ignited weeds. The DVMP proposes to thin the targeted non-native trees to distances of 35 feet, creating gaps in the canopy of 10 feet within the 300-foot “buffer zone.”  The distance between the trees must be reduced to 25 feet to maintain the canopy.  In addition to reducing fire hazards, maintaining the canopy will also be less destructive and will reduce the amount of stored carbon released into the atmosphere.

Tilden Park, October 2016. East Bay Regional Park District has thinned this area to distances of 25 feet between remaining trees. The forest floor is still shaded because the canopy is intact.

My greatest disappointment in the DVMP is its proposal to remove all individual non-native trees where they presently exist in native vegetation outside the “buffer zone.” ******** Removing non-native trees in riparian areas and in redwood groves as proposed by the DVMP is not fire hazard mitigation because fire hazards in those areas are minimal.

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

Furthermore, destroying healthy trees damages the trees that remain because the herbicide that is used to prevent eucalyptus and acacia from resprouting is mobile in the soil and it is known to damage mycorrhizal fungi in the soil that is essential to the health of the native trees.  ******* It is not possible to destroy isolated trees without damaging neighboring trees in close proximity. ****** Studies show that eucalyptus trees in native forests are not doing any damage to neighboring trees. ********

If individual non-native trees within native vegetation are not doing any environmental damage and do not increase risk of fire they should not be destroyed because destroying them WILL damage native vegetation.  Please leave them alone!

 Putting the DVMP into the long-term big picture

Finally, I suggest that we all take a step back from the details of the DVMP and consider the proposal in the context of the entire environment.  The final VMP must minimize damage to the environment while mitigating fire hazards because:

  • The climate has changed and it will continue to change. When the climate changes, the vegetation changes.  That is one of the axioms of ecology and it will continue to be.  If non-native plants and trees are better adapted to the current and anticipated climate, we should abandon futile attempts to force plants to live where we want them to live.
  • If we want trees in California, we must look to the future, not the past. 130 million native conifers have died in California since 2010. 5-10 million oaks in California have been killed by Sudden Oak Death. The future of redwoods in California is in jeopardy because they require a lot of water and they don’t tolerate wind.

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

A climate change specialist at the US Forest Service tells us in a recent study that native tree species are the most vulnerable to climate change. USFS found that native trees are more vulnerable to the changes in temperature, precipitation, growing season, and other effects of accumulating greenhouse gases. The assessment found that 88 percent of invasive tree species are expected to prove resilient in the changing climate, ranked with low vulnerability, compared to 20 percent of natives.[10]

  • We are contributing to climate change by destroying healthy trees that are storing tons of carbon that will be released into the atmosphere as the destroyed trees decay. The primary reason why wildfires are more frequent and more intense is because of the warmer, drier climate.  Therefore destroying more trees than necessary increases fire hazards because we are exacerbating climate change by destroying more trees than necessary.
  • It is a fiction that destroying trees will release less carbon than the wildfires imagined by those who demand their destruction. According to a recently completed study at Oregon State University, “wildfire is not the biggest source of climate-warming carbon dioxide in Oregon forests—logging and wood products are.”[11]

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

The trees that will be destroyed in Oakland will not be used as lumber, which means they will contribute even more carbon to the atmosphere.  Timber that is used for building retains its stored carbon until the building deteriorates or is destroyed.

  • The herbicides that are used to destroy vegetation and prevent trees from resprouting damage the soil and pose serious health risks to animals and humans. The more vegetation and trees the VMP destroys, the greater the damage caused by herbicides.  Therefore, we must minimize the amount of vegetation that is destroyed as much as possible if herbicides are used.

We achieve nothing if the damage we do to the environment and to ourselves is greater than real or imagined reduction in fire hazards.

Thank you for your consideration.

Resident of
Oakland, California
June 2018


[1] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hanson-miller-governor-fire-orders-20180525-story.html

[2] https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/State-can-label-widely-used-herbicide-as-possible-12849147.php

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/08/weedkiller-tests-monsanto-health-dangers-active-ingredient

[4]https://sustainablepulse.com/2018/05/22/monsanto-in-epic-fail-with-attempted-attack-on-global-glyphosate-study/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=gmos_and_pesticides_global_breaking_news&utm_term=2018-05-23#.WwhUfkgvyUl

[5] https://sustainablepulse.com/2018/04/17/germany-moving-ahead-with-plans-to-restrict-weed-killer-glyphosate/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=gmos_and_pesticides_global_breaking_news&utm_term=2018-04-18#.WwhWWUgvyUl

[6] https://www.baumhedlundlaw.com/toxic-tort-law/monsanto-roundup-lawsuit/where-is-glyphosate-banned/

[7] https://www.sciencealert.com/ddt-consistently-found-in-humans-study

[8] https://www.pesticideresearch.com/site/pri-resource-centers/weed-management-resource-center/herbicide-risk-comparisons/workers/

[9]http://www.marinwater.org/DocumentCenter/View/254/HRA_Chap4_Triclopyr_1_1_2010

[10] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2018/04/15/hug-your-native-trees-goodbye-thanks-to-climate-change/#4ad4a4176abd

[11] https://www.hcn.org/articles/climate-change-timber-is-oregons-biggest-carbon-polluter

Renewal of Measure CC is an opportunity to determine the future of parks in the East Bay

In 2004, voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved Measure CC, a parcel tax, to provide additional funding to East Bay Regional Park District for “Park Access, Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, Resource-Related Projects, and Reserve for Unknown Events.”  Measure CC also stipulated that “the overall commitment to natural resources shall be no less than 30% of the revenue raised by the entire measure.” (1) Measure CC is projected to provide about $47 million in the 15 years of its life. (2)

The park district is planning to put Measure CC on the ballot for renewal next year.  It’s time to look at how the park district spent our tax dollars and decide if we want to continue to give them our tax dollars for another 15 years.  If you want Measure CC funding to be used differently, now is the time to tell East Bay Regional Park District what you want…BEFORE the ballot measure is written.

Fuels Management vs. Resource Management?

The park district budgeted $10.2 million of Measure CC funding for “fuels management,” about 22% of the total available funding from Measure CC.  To date, the park district has appropriated $8.8 million of that budget allocation and spent $6.3 million.

The park district describes “fuels management:”  “All vegetation/fuels management projects for fuels reduction are in coordination with the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat in fuel break areas and are therefore considered to be resource related.” (2)  In other words, the park district considers destroying vegetation and cutting down trees a part of its “commitment to natural resources.”

These descriptions of Measure CC projects illustrate the close relationship between fuels management and resource management: 

  • “Assess and remove hazardous trees, promote native tree regeneration.” (2)
  • “Manage exotic plant species and promote fire resistant natives to reduce the risk of wildfires.” (2)
  • “Manage vegetation for fuels reduction in coordination with the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat in fuel break areas to provide defensible space and meet Hills Emergency Forum flame length standard.” (2)

The park district’s policies and practices are based on mistaken assumptions:

  • There is no evidence that native plants and trees are less flammable than non-native plants and trees. In fact, available evidence suggests that native landscapes in California are highly flammable.
  • Most monarchs in California spend the winter months roosting in eucalyptus trees. These trees are being destroyed in East Bay parks where monarchs have roosted in the past, such as Point Pinole.

    There is no evidence that destroying non-native trees will “enhance wildlife habitat.” In fact, wildlife habitat is being destroyed by “fuels management” projects.

The destruction of non-native trees is also controversial because the stumps of the trees and shrubs that are cut down must be sprayed with herbicide to prevent them from resprouting.  The park district used an average of 26 gallons of Garlon each year from 2000 to 2015 and 39 gallons in 2016, for that purpose.

There is a wide range of opinions about the tree removals that the park district has done since their program began in 2011, after approval of the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” and the associated Environmental Impact Report.  At one extreme, some people want the park district to destroy ALL non-native trees on its property.  They consider “thinning” inadequate. The Sierra Club is in that camp and has sued to enforce their wishes.  At the other extreme, some people don’t want any trees to be removed, although most would make an exception for dead and hazardous trees.

Tilden Park, Recommended Treatment Area TI001, June 5, 2016. This in one of the projects of East Bay Regional Park District, in process

After observing the park district’s tree removal projects, I have reached the conclusion that they represent a middle ground that I can accept because in many cases the canopy is intact and the forest floor is still shaded.  The shade retains the moisture that retards fire ignition as well as suppresses the growth of weeds that ignite more easily during the dry season.  In the 20+ years that I have defended our urban forest, I was always willing to accept a compromise and the park district’s methods look like a compromise to me.  I still have concerns about tree removals and they are explained HERE.  You must reach your own conclusions.

So, what’s the beef?

Unfortunately, coming to terms with the park district’s tree removals has not resolved my misgivings about how Measure CC money has been used.  In a nutshell, I believe that the park district’s “resource management” projects are based on outdated conservation practices.  I believe the park district is trying to re-create historic landscapes that are no longer adapted to environmental conditions.  Their projects are often not successful because they do not take the reality of climate change into consideration, nor do they look to the future of our environment.  They are stuck in the past.

One of the projects funded by Measure CC is typical: the effort to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass from all park properties. The park district has been participating in the effort to eradicate all non-native spartina marsh grass from the entire West Coast for 14 years.  In the first few years, EBPRD aerial sprayed from helicopters several hundred gallons of herbicide per year.  Now the quantity of herbicide is about 25 gallons per year.

California Clapper Rail

We have known for several years that the eradication of non-native spartina has decimated the population of endangered California rails.  In 2016, a paper was published in a peer reviewed scientific journal about the huge declines in the rail population that were caused by the eradication of spartina.

The reason why the rails have been harmed by the eradication of their habitat is that non-native spartina provides superior cover for the rail.  The non-native species of spartina grows taller, more densely, and it doesn’t die back in the winter as the native species of spartina does.  When the rail begins its nesting season, there is no cover for the birds.  They are therefore being killed by their many predators.

The fact that non-native spartina provides superior cover for the birds is related to a second issue.  Non-native spartina provides superior protection from winter storm surges compared to the native species which provides no protection, even when it grows and it is NOT growing.

The US Geological Survey recently reported that sea level on the Coast of California is predicted to rise as much as 10 feet in just 70 years.  USGS predicted that 67% of Southern California’s beaches are expected to be lost by the end of the century.  Marsh grass for coastal protection is more important than ever.

The third issue is that eradicating non-native spartina has not resulted in the return of native spartina.  Even when extensive planting has been done, native spartina does not provide habitat or storm surge protection in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We should be asking if pouring hundreds of gallons of herbicide on the ground might be a factor in the unsuccessful attempt to bring native spartina back to the Bay Area.

Finally, recently published studies that compared native with non-native marsh grasses and aquatic plants with respect to the ecological functions they perform.  These studies both say, “If you look at the role of exotic water plants in an ecosystem, you won’t find any significant differences compared to indigenous species.”

The spartina eradication project is an example of conservation that no longer makes sense.  It damages the environment with herbicides.  It destroys the habitat of rare birds.  It exposes our shoreline to strong storm surges and rising sea levels.  Native vegetation does not return when it is eradicated.

Looking forward, not back

The parks are very important to me.  I visit them often and I treasure those visits.  I would like to vote for Measure CC.  I hope that the measure on the ballot will give me a reason to vote for it.

I will be looking for a revised definition of “resource management” in the ballot measure, one that acknowledges that climate change is the environmental issue of our time and that conservation must be consistent with the changes that have already occurred, as well as look forward to the changes that are anticipated in the future.  Specifically, “resource management” must respect the landscape we have now, which means not trying to eradicate it, particularly by spraying it with herbicides.  Resource management projects must be based on reality, rather than on fantasies about the past.

Opportunities to tell EBRPD what you want from Measure CC

East Bay Regional Park District is holding public meetings about Measure CC to give the public the opportunity to provide input regarding future park needs and priorities:

November 4, 10-12, Harrison Recreation Center, 1450 High St, Alameda

November 8, 2:30-4:30 pm, David Wendel Conference Center, 1111 Broadway, 19th Floor, Oakland

EBRPD asks that the public RSVP by sending an email to Monique Salas at msalas@ebparks.org or call 510-544-2008.

If you can’t attend, please send written feedback here:  publicinformation@ebparks.org.  Please tell East Bay Regional Park District what you want Measure CC funding to pay for. 


  1. Full Text of Measure CC
  2. Agenda of Park Advisory Committee, June 26, 2017. Scroll down to Measure CC Renewal Spending Plan

InfoWar: UC Berkeley bombards us with propaganda against trees

First we must recapitulate the long history of UC Berkeley’s destruction of non-native trees on its property.

UC Berkeley (UCB) started destroying non-native trees on its property in the East Bay hills in 2000 and continued destroying trees until 2005, when it applied for FEMA grant funding to complete the destruction of all non-native trees.  UCB published detailed reports of its first phase of tree destruction, which reported the destruction of about 18,000 trees on 150 acres on Panoramic Hill, Claremont Canyon, Frowning Ridge, Chaparral Hill, and Lower Strawberry Canyon.

UCB completed the first phase without completing an Environmental Impact Report, which is what enabled it to avoid informing the public in advance of the destruction.  When UCB applied for FEMA funding it expected to be able to continue those projects without completing an environmental impact report. UCB’s FEMA grant application proposed to destroy 54,000 trees on 284 acres in Strawberry and Claremont canyons and Frowning Ridge. But the public was now alerted to UCB’s intentions and objected to the project being done without environmental review.  After completing the Environmental Impact Statement required by federal law, the FEMA grant to UCB was cancelled after a successful legal challenge of the project. 

UCB tried to implement its plans with its own funding without completing an Environmental Impact Report, as required by California State law.  Again, they lost a legal challenge that prohibits it from implementing its plans without an EIR. 

UCB’s most recent demonstration of its continued commitment to destroying all non-native trees on its property was a legal complaint filed in June 2017, which demands that FEMA reinstate the grants that were cancelled about one year ago.  At the same time, UCB has launched a new public relations effort to convince the public to support its projects.  In this post we will take a closer look at UCB’s recent round of propaganda.

New “informational” signs in Strawberry Canyon

We learned of new “informational” signs along the fire trail in Strawberry Canyon in July 2017, but we don’t know precisely when they were installed.  Those who often visit Strawberry Canyon tell us the signs are recent. This sign about “biodiversity” is an example of the message UCB is sending to the public.

Many of the statements on this sign are inaccurate:

  • Monarch butterflies roosting in eucalyptus tree.

    The sign claims that native plants “provide food and habitat for native wildlife” but that non-native plants “provide food and habitat for other non-native species.” Neither of these statements is accurate.  If a native plant provides food and habitat for native wildlife, it also provides both to non-native wildlife.  Conversely, if a non-native plant provides food and habitat for non-native wildlife, it also provides both to native wildlife. The notion that wildlife makes such distinctions is ridiculous.  Wildlife does not know or care what humans consider native or non-native.  If the plant is edible, it is food.  If the plant provides cover, it is useful habitat.

  • The sign also claims that the roots of native plants are deep, but the roots of non-native plants are shallow. These are equally ridiculous statements.  The depth of roots may vary, but that variation is completely unrelated to whether or not the plant is native.

Tree roots

Nativists often claim that the roots of eucalyptus trees are shallow (except when they claim they are very deep in order to make the opposite case that they use more water than other tree species).  So, we will digress briefly to provide some information about tree roots from a reputable, scientific source.

According to a study of tree roots by Harvard’s forestry research institution, Arnold Arboretum, (1) tree roots vary little by species.  The configuration of tree roots varies somewhat over the life of trees.  Early in their life, trees often have a deep tap root, but the tap root is slowly replaced by a wide, lateral network of fine roots around the perimeter of the tree, usually far wider than the tree canopy.  To the extent that the root system varies, it is more a reflection of soil conditions.  If the soil is very compact or the tree is planted in a rock or concrete basin, the width of the root system will be physically constrained.  If the tree is unstable in the ground, it is usually because of where it has been planted.

UC Alumni Magazine gins up fire hysteria

 In June 2017, the UC alumni magazine published an article in defense of its plans to destroy all non-native trees in the East Bay hills.  (Available here: UC Alumni Mag – Glen Martin interviews Scott Stephens)  Curiously, this article appeared in an edition devoted to climate change and adaptation to the changing climate.  You might think that concern about climate change would predict a greater respect for our urban forest, which stores the carbon that will contribute to greenhouse gases when the trees are destroyed.  Again, don’t look for consistency in the nativist viewpoint.  You won’t find it.

Here are a few of the absurd statements made in the article in the alumni magazine:

  • The article claims that the 150 acres where UCB destroyed trees over 15 years ago are now covered in native trees and shrubs that “came in” on their own when the trees were destroyed. All of these areas are easily visited and observed.  They are occupied by non-native weeds and piles of wood chips.  Here is a picture of one of those areas taken on August 6, 2017.

Site 29. The tall, dry weeds are the remains of poison hemlock that dominates this site where eucalyptus was destroyed by UCB. Shade is lost when trees are destroyed and weeds thrive in the full sun. The weeds dry out during dry summer months and become fuel for summer fires.

  • The article repeats the ridiculous claim that eucalypts are called “gasoline trees” in Australia. The word “gasoline” is not used in Australia.  As in all British Commonwealth nations, what we call gasoline is called petrol.  Calling eucalyptus trees “gasoline trees” is an American rhetorical device.  A native plant advocate probably made it up, then it was shared in their closed community until it became a “fact” in their minds.  It is a means of generating fear.  It is a tool used by native plant advocates to support their demand to destroy all non-native trees in California.
  • The article describes the huge die off of native conifers in California, caused by climate change and related infestation of native bark beetles and it predicts that they will be replaced by different species of trees that are adapted to present climate conditions. These observations are made with no apparent understanding of how it contradicts UCB’s strategy here in the Bay Area.  If the climate is changing in California and its landscape must change along with it, why is UCB trying to install the landscape that existed here 250 years ago?

UCB’s latest propaganda installment

The recent fire in the East Bay Hills was another opportunity for UCB to gin up the fear machine against non-native trees.  The fire started on Grizzly Peak Blvd where UC Berkeley destroyed 1,900 eucalyptus trees on 11 acres in 2004.  When the trees were destroyed, the ground was quickly colonized by non-native annual grasses and the road was lined with the trunks of the trees they had destroyed.  The dried grass and the dead logs were the fuel of the fire that started on August 2, 2017.  The fire was stopped when it crossed the road into the eucalyptus forest in Tilden Park.

This area on the west side of Grizzly Peak is known as Frowning Ridge. It is one of the first areas that was clear-cut by UC Berkeley over 10 years ago. Destroying the trees did not prevent the grass and shrubs from igniting in the August 2017 fire. Pictures of that area before and after the trees were destroyed are available here: https://milliontrees.me/2013/06/08/guest-article-about-fema-projects-by-a-student-of-the-forest/

UCB now writes in its alumni magazine that there was no major damage to property and no loss of life because of UC’s “fuels management program” that destroyed the trees.  The fire risk to life and property was increased by the “fuels management program,” as facts on the ground tell us.  Scott Stephens, speaking for UCB, speculates that the fire “would have thrown embers miles ahead, starting hundreds of spot fires that would also burn explosively and merge.  That’s what happened in 1991.”

In fact, that’s NOT what happened in 1991.  The only source of embers identified by the FEMA Technical Report on the 1991 fire was “brush.”  That report also says the maximum distance of the fire spread was less than 3 miles, so if embers started spot fires, they did not travel many miles.

A study by US Forest Service of embers starting spot fires during wildfires all over the world included the 1991 fire.  The only known ember reported in the ‘91 fire was a wooden shingle from one of the homes that burned.  That study said of urban fires in California, “In the wildland-urban interface fires in California—Berkeley in 1923, Bel-Air in 1961, Oakland 1991—wooden shingles which were popular in California as roof material, assisted fire spread. Wooden shingles increase fire hazard owing to both ease of ignition and subsequent firebrand production.” (2)

But here is the kicker to this rewriting of fire history by Scott Stephens.  Less than a month ago, Stephens was interviewed about the many wildfires in California this year.  He blamed the wildfires on the heavy rains that produced a lot of grass and he said forests are less likely to burn: “UC Berkeley Fire Science Professor Scott Stephens says most of the fires so far have been in grassland areas that were revived from the rain, then dried out early during triple-digit heat waves… He says forests are better at retaining moisture and the Sierra will be more resilient this year because of the rains.” 

Stephens knows what is causing wildfires in California, but he chooses to misrepresent the fire in the East Bay Hills last week, presumably in the service of UCB’s desire to destroy our urban forest.  Perhaps it is naïve of me to expect more from a faculty member at California’s most prestigious research and educational institution.  But I find it disappointing.

Please join Million Trees in rejecting fear as the maker of public policy.  Be suspicious when you are asked to be afraid of something.  Are you being manipulated?  Do the fear mongers have ulterior motives? 


  1. Thomas O. Perry, “Tree Roots:  Facts and Fallacies,” Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University
  2. Eunmo Koo, et. al., “Firebrands and spotting ignition in large-scale fires,” International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2010, 19, 818-843

Integrated Pest Management is a sham!!

Many thanks to Marg Hall for this guest post about the pesticides being used by the supplier of our drinking water in the East Bay and for the research she did to inform the public that there is a BIG gap between written policies and the reality of pesticide use on our public lands.


One day last winter, I came upon a crew cutting down about 50 eucalyptus trees on what appeared to be EBMUD lands in the East Bay hills. (East Bay Municipal Utility District, EBMUD, manages the local drinking water lands and infrastructure.) Knowing that rain was predicted, and that the standard procedure is to apply the nasty herbicide Garlon to the cut tree stumps to prevent re-sprouting, I stopped to ask the workers about the job.  The contractor (Expert Tree Service) refused to answer my questions, even the most basic one: who hired them?

Tree removals done by EBMUD on Grizzly Peak Blvd
Tree removals done by EBMUD on Grizzly Peak Blvd (prior to the incident reported by Marg Hall)

I thought it an especially bad idea to apply Garlon in the drinking water watershed during the rainy season, so I stopped them by simply refusing to leave the work area until I got some answers. It was easy. I was polite but firm. The police were called. After being threatened by the contractor with per-minute fines for delaying the work, and a trip to jail from the police, I left them to their destruction. This is how I became interested in the management of EBMUD lands.

On a personal note, I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Ironically, I’d been looking for hiking trails where I didn’t have to confront the risk of cancer-causing pesticide applications. The whole situation made me very grumpy.

Following up, I was assured by EBMUD staff that they do NOT allow contractors to apply herbicides to cut eucalyptus stumps, and that very few, in fact almost no, herbicides are used in the drinking watershed lands. OK, that sounded pretty good. Wanting to verify this claim, I filed a public records request to EBMUD.

Aerial spraying pesticides on public parks

Meanwhile, we (FAB, The Forest Action Brigade, a grass roots group with which I am affiliated) heard of a plan by East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) to aerial spray from a helicopter (yes, you read that correctly!) an herbicide named Milestone (which is prohibited for use in New York State because it is very persistent and mobile in the soil). This was to be done in Briones Park, an area that directly supplies two creeks that feed into the Briones water reservoir.

Mobilizing public support, we were able to stop that spraying, but among our growing concerns we now added the safety of our drinking water. Even though this spray was planned by the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD), the staff from the Water District (EBMUD) knew about it, and didn’t try to stop it…until we raised the issue.

Management of wastershed land by supplier of our drinking water

Last summer, EBMUD invited public comment on a draft update of their Watershed Management Master Plan. In this document, an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program was referenced (available here: ebmud-ipm-program). Curious, we obtained copies of this document.

On paper it looks pretty solid. Like most IPM programs, this one contained written assurances that only minimal pesticides will be used, and then only as a last resort. Quarterly meetings of the IPM committee would provide oversight, meet and compile reports of pesticide usage. Among committee goals are: approve pesticide use requests, ensure consistency among work groups regarding pest management, and advise on pest management strategies. The guidelines require that pesticides be used only after certain damage thresholds are reached, with follow-up evaluations of effectiveness, and documentation of adverse side effects on non-targeted organisms.

Reading this leads one to the conclusion that the land management practices are just a step below organic gardening practices. With such controls and alternatives, what could possibly go wrong?

Control of pesticide use is more theoretical than real

As I soon learned when I started asking for public records, the IPM program as outlined in the EBMUD Watershed Management draft plan is a “paper only” plan. The oversight committee has not met in 15 years, and in fact only actually met for several years (the program started in 1996). There has been no oversight, no annual report, and wildly inconsistent use has developed over the various work units at EBMUD. They do follow minimal state reporting and training requirements, but that’s it.

I found no comprehensive evaluation of pesticide use, no analysis of levels of use, or experiments with alternatives, as one would expect in an “integrated” approach. Instead I received pages and pages of daily logs by individual workers documenting pesticide use. There appear to be no restrictions on use as long as the applicators documented applications, and the pesticides used were on the approved list of pesticides. The list of approved pesticides is long and includes known carcinogens.

Since nobody at EBMUD was keeping track, several of us embarked on a labor-intensive project to sort through records ourselves and tally an annual pesticide total. We focused on EBMUD properties in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties and usage for the year 2015. We were disheartened by our findings. In these areas, EBMUD made 647 applications by truck, backpack or by hand of herbicides totaling over 700 gallons and 205 pounds.

We compared the use of pesticides by EBMUD with those used by EBRPD.  EBRPD used significantly less herbicide than EBMUD in 2015. EBRPD used 193 gallons of herbicide (glyphosate, Garlon, Oryzalin) in 2015 (and smaller quantities of specialty herbicide for specific projects).  EBRPD has 120,536 acres of property compared to only 28,000 acres of EBMUD property.

Many environmentalists concerned about pesticide use had thought EBMUD carried out a more environmentally respectful philosophy of land management. This is not true. While the Watershed and Recreation work unit reported using only 8 gallons of pesticides that year, they constitute only one of several work units. EBMUD staff in the Watershed and Recreational work unit believe that is the sum total of pesticides used in “the watershed” and that pesticide usage is low. While some of the maintenance operations are outside of the drinking water watershed lands, some are not. Nevertheless this distinction is meaningless since all land is a “watershed” whether it drains to Briones reservoir or the San Francisco Bay. Furthermore, applications of pesticide are routinely done in areas open to the public.

One such application was documented last fall by someone walking on a public road in her neighborhood who took this video (If the video won’t play for you, try clicking on this link to the video HERE:

In it you see vast quantities of Roundup (glyphosate), applied from a truck-mounted tank using a garden hose. That method of application explains why the volume of EBMUD’s pesticide use is so high.  Competent and responsible pesticide applicators use a spray nozzle to reduce the flow and spread the herbicide more evenly.

Inexplicably, the worker was soaking bare ground along the side of a road. It is pointless to apply Roundup to bare ground.  It is a foliar spray that must be applied to actively growing plants.  It has no effect on seeds, roots, or tubers in the ground.  This is explained clearly on the manufacturer’s label for the product.

This spraying was done in a residential neighborhood (Carisbrook Road, Montclair area of Oakland). No pesticide application notices were posted before, during or after the application in violation of EBMUD’s IPM guidelines, which say, “If there is likely to be public contact with the area to be sprayed with pesticide, adequate notification or posting should be conducted.”

Carisbrook Reservois on Carisbrook Road in Montclair, Oakland, where pesticides were sprayed by East Bay Municipal Utilities District
Carisbrook Reservoir on Carisbrook Road in Montclair, Oakland, where pesticides were sprayed by East Bay Municipal Utilities District

The video was sent to EBMUD board members. EBMUD’s response was a defense of this application as consistent with existing policy and regulation. They also claimed that the herbicide was not sprayed on a pedestrian path.  In fact, the spraying occurred on a public road in a residential neighborhood that was used as a path by those who live in the neighborhood, such as the woman who recorded the video.

How to achieve REAL control over pesticide use on public land

That raises the obvious question: if this pesticide application is acceptable, what good is an IPM program except as a means to mislead the public into thinking we are being protected?

There’s an easier, simpler way to obtain the kind of protection we need: Forget IPM. Institute a total ban. No pesticides.  PERIOD.  It can be done.

Marin Municipal Water District has banned all pesticide use on their properties.  Organic farmers do it. Why not demand this from our local land managers?

Public Policy is in OUR hands

In recent decades, public land managers have been using public tax money to apply more and more pesticides in public spaces. In the years ahead, as the Republicans dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, destroying what little (pathetic) regulation that we now have, we local activists will need to do our own protecting.

It starts here, in our own backyards. We know there is tremendous popular support for this. People really don’t like to be exposed to pesticides when they visit public parks. Robust local activism is our only hope. Yes, we can!!

Marg Hall