Response to Nature in the City

Nature in the City (NIC) is one of many organizations that support native plant “restorations” in San Francisco as well as the principle entity which engages in them, the Natural Areas Program (NAP) of the Recreation and Park Department.  NIC is consistently critical of anyone who questions the value of these restorations, but in their most recent newsletter they confront our objections directly.  Although we don’t presume to represent the many constituencies which are critical of the Natural Areas Program, we are responding in this post to NIC based on our knowledge of the issues. (The NIC newsletter is in quotes and is italicized.  Our response is not italicized.)

“Natural Areas in 2012

Last fall saw the the [sic] Planning Commission public meeting for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan.  Some time later this year, the City will issue a Final Environmental Impact Report, which may be appealed by opponents of the Natural Areas Program.

Unfortunately, a handful of people are still propagating misinformation about the rationale, values, and intention of ecological restoration, management and stewardship, and of the City’s celebrated Natural Areas Program.”

Webmaster:  Critics of the Natural Areas Program cannot be described accurately as a “handful of people.”  We now have four websites(1) representing our views and there have been tens of thousands of visits to our websites.  Comments on our websites are overwhelmingly supportive of our views. Our most recently created website, San Francisco Forest Alliance, lists 12 founding members.  That organization alone exceeds a “handful of people.”

Our objections to the Natural Areas Program have also been reported by three major newspapers in the past month or so (San Francisco Examiner, Wall Street Journal,  Sacramento Bee).

 Many critics of NAP have been engaged in the effort to reduce its destructive and restrictive impacts on our parks for over 10 years.  Scores of public meetings and hearings have been held to consider our complaints.  We consistently outnumbered public speakers in support of NAP until 2006, when the NAP management plan was finally approved by the Recreation and Park Commission.  Although we were outnumbered for the first time, there were over 80 speakers who asked the Recreation and Park Commission to revise NAP’s management plan to reduce its negative impact on our parks.

The public comments on the NAP DEIR are the most recent indicator of the relative size of the groups on opposite sides of this issue.  These comments were submitted in September and October 2011.  We obtained them with a public records request.  The Planning Department reported receiving about 400 comments.  In analyzing these comments, we chose to disregard about half of them because they were submitted as form letters, even though they were from dog owners who were protesting the loss of their off-leash privileges in the natural areas.  We also leave aside the comments from golfers whose only interest is in retaining the golf course at Sharp Park.  In other words, we set aside the majority of the comments critical of the NAP management plan in order to focus on those comments that demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the impact of NAP on the city’s parks.  Of the comments remaining, those critical of NAP and its deeply flawed DEIR outnumbered comments in support of the NAP DEIR about three to one.  We urge NAP supporters to read these public comments to learn about the wide range of criticisms of NAP, including pesticide use, destruction of trees, recreational access restrictions, loss of wildlife habitat and more. 

We will challenge NIC’s accusation that we are “propagating misinformation” within the context of their specific allegations:

“Contrary to the many myths that continue to percolate, the Natural Areas Plan and Program seek to do the following (among other worthwhile endeavors):

1.       Protect and conserve our City’s natural heritage for its native wildlife and indigenous plant habitats and for the overall health of our local ecosystem;”

Webmaster:  Since the majority of acreage claimed as natural areas by NAP 15 years ago had no native plants in them, there is little truth to the claim that NAP is protecting our “natural heritage.”  The so-called “natural area” at Balboa and the Great Highway is typical of the “natural areas.”  There is photographic evidence that it was built upon for about 150 years.  It was the site of Playland by the Beach before it was designated a “natural area.”  Sand had to be trucked onto the property and disked down 18” into the construction rubble, then shaped into dunes by bulldozers before native plants could be planted on it. 

Natural Area at Balboa & Great Highway under construction

We don’t make any distinction between “native wildlife” and any other wildlife currently living in our city.  We value them all.  Most are making use of existing vegetation, whether it is native or non-native.  They do not benefit from the loss of the blackberries that are their primary food source or the loss of the thickets or trees that are their homes.  We do not believe that wildlife in San Francisco benefits from the destructive projects of the Natural Areas Program.  See photos of insects, birds, and other wildlife using non-native plants in the natural areas here.

Damselflies mating on ivy, Glen Canyon Park

We do not think an ecosystem that has been sprayed with herbicides qualifies as a “healthy ecosystem.”  NAP sprayed herbicides at least 86 times in 2011.  Their use of herbicides has increased over 330% in the last 4 years.  NAP uses herbicides that are classified as more toxic than those most used by other city departments.  Last spring, 1,000 visitors to Glen Canyon Park signed a petition, asking the Natural Areas Program to stop using pesticides in their park.  This petition was given to Scott Wiener, the Supervisor representing the district in which Glen Canyon Park is located.

These are statements of fact that can be easily verified by the public record.

2.       “Educate our culturally diverse city about the benefits of local nature and about helping with natural areas stewardship in your neighborhood;”

Webmaster:  Although we value education, we do not consider the staff of NAP and/or its supporters qualified to provide it.  We hear them make statements that are demonstrably not true, such as “grassland stores more carbon than trees.”  We see them spray herbicides in the dead of winter that are supposed to be sprayed in the spring when the plants are actively growing.  We watch them plant things where they won’t grow, such as sun-loving plants in deep shade and plants in watersheds where they will soon be drowned by seasonal rains.

And we also have had bad experiences with the volunteers who are called “stewards” by NAP, but sometimes act more like vandals.  We see them spraying herbicides that they aren’t authorized to use.  We see them hacking away at trees that haven’t been designated for removal.  NAP is not providing the necessary guidance and supervision to the volunteers many of whom seem to consider themselves the de facto owners of the parks. 

3.       “Manage the City’s wildlands for public access, safety and the health of the “urban forest.””

Webmaster:  We do not oppose the removal of hazardous trees.  However, we also know that most of the trees that have been designated for removal by the NAP management plan are NOT hazardous.  They have been selected for removal solely because they are not native and are perceived to be obstacles to the reintroduction of native plants.  Claims to the contrary are inconsistent with the management plan as well as our experience in the past 15 years.  (Watch video about the destruction of 1,600 trees over 15 feet tall planned for Mt. Davidson.)

“We hear occasional complaints about public access and tree removal. Three simple facts are thus:

1. Every single natural area in the City has at least one trail through it, where one can walk a dog on a leash;”

Webmaster:  The loss of recreational access in the natural areas is real, not imagined.  The following are verbatim quotes from the NAP management plan:

  • “Approximately 80 percent of the SFRPD off-leash acreage is located within Natural Areas.” (page 5-8).  The NAP DEIR proposes to close or reduce the size of several off-leash areas.  The DEIR provides no evidence that these areas have been negatively impacted by dogs.  It also states that all off-leash areas in the natural areas are subject to closure in the future if it is considered necessary to protect native plants.  Since NAP has offered no evidence that the proposed immediate closures are necessary, one reasonably assumes it will offer no evidence if it chooses to close the remainder of the 80% of all off-leash areas in San Francisco located in natural areas.  We know from the DEIR public comments that NAP supporters demand their closure.
  • Public use in all Natural Areas, unless otherwise specified, should encourage on-trail use… Additionally, interpretive and park signs should be installed or modified as appropriate to include “Please Stay on Trails” with information about why on-trail use is required.”  (page 5-14)   In other words, the only form of recreation allowed in the natural areas is walking on a trail.  Throwing a ball or frisbee, having a picnic on the grass, flying a kite, climbing the rocks are all prohibited activities in the natural areas.  And in some parks, bicycles have been prohibited on the trails by NAP. 
  • “Finally, this plan recommends re-routing or closing 10.3 miles of trail (approximately 26 percent of total existing trails).” (page 5-14)  So, the only thing visitors are allowed to do in a natural area is walk on the trails and 26% of all the trails in the natural areas will be closed to the public.

2. “The act of removing (a small subset of) non-native trees, e.g., eucalyptus, that are in natural areas has the following benefits:
   a. Restores native habitat for indigenous plants and wildlife;
   b. Restores health, light and space to the “urban forest,” since the trees are all crowded together and being choked by ivy;
   c. Contributes to the prevention of catastrophic fire in our communities.”

Webmaster:  Destroying non-native plants and trees does not restore indigenous plants and wildlife. Native plants do not magically emerge when non-native plants and trees are destroyed. Planting indigenous plants might restore them to a location if they are intensively gardened to sustain them.  However, in the past 15 years we have seen little evidence that NAP is able to create and sustain successful native plant gardens.  Native plants have been repeatedly planted and they have repeatedly failed. 

NAP has not “restored” the health of the urban forest.  They remove trees in big groups as they expand their native plant gardens.  They are not thinning trees.  They are creating large openings for the grassland and dune scrub that they plant in the place of the urban forest.  Every tree designated for removal by the NAP management plan is clearly selected for its proximity to native plants.  It is disingenuous to suggest that NAP’s tree removal plans are intended to benefit the urban forest.

Of all the fictions fabricated by native plant advocates to justify the destruction of our urban forest, the claim that its destruction will “prevent catastrophic fire” is the most ridiculous.  The native ecology of California is highly flammable.  Most fires in California are in native chaparral.  According to San Francisco’s hazard mitigation plan, there has never been a wildfire in San Francisco (2) and one is unlikely in the future because the climate is mild and moist.  When it is hot in the interior, it is foggy in San Francisco.  The hot winds that drive most fires in California never reach San Francisco because it is separated from the hot interior by the bay.  San Francisco is surrounded by water, which moderates its climate and virtually eliminates the chances of wildfire. The tall non-native trees precipitate moisture from the summer fog, which moistens the forest floor and reduces the chances of ignition.  In the unlikely event of a wind-driven fire, the trees provide the windbreak which would stop the advance of the fire. 

3. “The overall visual landscape of the natural areas will not change since only a small subset of trees are planned to be removed over a 20-year period.”

Webmaster:  In addition to the 18,500 trees over 15 feet tall which NAP proposes to destroy, the NAP management plan also states its intention to destroy non-native trees less than 15 feet tall.  In other words, the future of the forest will also be killed.  The intention is to eliminate the urban forest in San Francisco’s parks over the long term.  Yes, this will take some time, but the long-term intention to eliminate the forest is clear.

“Please feel free to email if you would like more clarification about the intention, values and rationale of natural resources management.”

Webmaster:  We urge our readers to take NIC up on this offer to provide  ”more clarification” of its spirited defense of the Natural Areas Program. 

  • Do you think NIC is deluded about there being only a “handful of people” that are critical of the Natural Areas Program?
  • Did you notice that NIC does not acknowledge the use of herbicides by NAP?  Do you think that a fair representation of criticism of NAP can omit this issue?
  • If you visit a park that is a natural area, do you think NAP has demonstrated in the past 15 years what NIC claims it is accomplishing?
  • Do you think NIC has accurately described recreational access restrictions in the natural areas?
  • Do you think that San Francisco’s urban forest will be improved by the destruction of 18,500 mature trees and countless young trees?

(1) Save Sutro Forest, Urban Wildness, San Francisco Forest Alliance, Death of a Million Trees

(2) “The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has no record of any wildfire in San Francisco.” San Francisco Hazard Mitigation Plan, 2008, page 5-18.

California: A State of Change

Laura Cunningham’s book, A State of Change*  is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a lifetime of observing nature, informed by formal training in paleontology and biology and finally depicting that knowledge in oil paintings of the historical ecology of California. 

Ms. Cunningham introduces her theme with the title of her book.  California is the state that changes and is always in a state of change.  She acknowledges the physical forces of geology and climate as well as the biological interactions of plants and animals as she describes the dynamic qualities of nature.  She treats the complexity of these interactions with respect, frequently declining to reach conclusions because of the speculation that would be required to do so. 

Although we will touch on just a few themes of her book which are relevant to the mission of the Million Trees blog, we encourage readers to give this book the complete read it deserves. 

Sustainability of native plant gardens

Site of the El Cerrito Plaza with the Albany Hill in the background, centuries ago. Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

Ms. Cunningham tells the charming story of her first experience with native plant restorations as a teenager in the hills of Berkeley/Richmond in the mid-1980s.  With her parents’ permission, she dug up the lawn in their backyard so that she could plant native grassland.  She started with the seeds of native grasses that she collected locally and later transplanted native bunch grasses from nearby properties slated for development.  After several years of regular weeding and new planting, her small plot resembled the grassland she had envisioned.

When she finished her education at UC Berkeley and began to work further away, her grassland slowly succeeded to shrubs and non-native plants, a process she describes as follows: 

“Visiting deer brought weed seeds in on their fur, scrub jays planted live oak seeds into the grass, and flying finches dropped the seeds of Himalayan blackberry in the yard.  The latter, a thick, tenacious vine, slowly formed great thickets over the grasses, shading them out in places.  The food web had won, although I had learned a lot in the process.  I dug up the yard again, back to bare dirt, and gave it back to my parents.” 

This personal story is consistent with other local experiences reported on the Million Trees blog:

 Fire Ecology of California

Those who continue to believe that non-native plants are more flammable than native plants should read Ms. Cunningham’s book, which describes at length the important role that fire plays in California’s ecology.  She introduces this topic with the heading, “Chaparral:  Burning Like a Torch of Fat.”  Charcoal deposits in ancient sediments prove that wildfires in California’s brushlands have occurred frequently for hundreds of thousands of years.  Some shrubs, such as chamise, contain resinous leaves that encourage burning.  Others, such as ceanothus and manzanita require the intense heat of a fire to germinate.  Others will germinate only in the ashes of a fire.  As we have said repeatedly on the Million Trees blog, eradicating non-native plants and trees will not eliminate fire from California.

Ms. Cunningham also reports on the modern debate about reducing wildfires in California.  Although we are very familiar with this debate, we have not read so clear a presentation of it as Ms. Cunningham provides. 

One “camp” in this debate believes that the suppression of wildfires in California has resulted in fuel loads that are much greater than in the past and therefore result in bigger, more damaging fires.  This camp believes that fire danger can be reduced by allowing smaller fires to burn and conducting periodic prescribed burns. 

The opposing view is that fire suppression has been largely unsuccessful and therefore fuel loads are not substantially greater than they were historically.  Wildfires are attributed to hot, wind-driven fire in which fuel load is irrelevant; that is, everything will burn in a wind-driven fire.  Although this is the historical fire regime, fires are causing more loss of lives and property in modern times only because of the development of residential communities in the wildland-urban interface.  This camp therefore sees no point in prescribed burns and proposes to reduce risk to lives and property by limiting residential developments in wildlands and creating defensible space around residences by eliminating most vegetation. 

With humility, Ms. Cunningham declines to choose a side in this debate, acknowledging there is much compelling evidence to support both views. 

The Million Trees blog prefers the theory that wildfires are caused by hot winds rather than accumulated fuel loads because our perspective is limited to the San Francisco Bay Area.  We don’t think prescribed burns are appropriate in a densely populated urban setting where both pollution and risk of wildfire are major concerns.  And, based on our local experience, the only fires that have become raging wildfires are those that were wind-driven.   We advocate for reducing fire hazards by creating defensible space and routine maintenance of flammable vegetation litter.   

Historical Ecology

San Francisco 500 years ago, looking eastward from the top of Nob Hill. Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

We are grateful to Ms. Cunningham for giving us permission to publish two of her historical paintings of California.  These paintings enable us to confirm that trees were not a conspicuous part of the landscape of the Bay Area.  The dominant landscape was grassland and shrubs.  Although there may have been more trees if the landscape had not been frequently burned by Native Americans, based on our knowledge of horticultural requirements of native trees, we believe that even in the absence of fire there would have been few trees.  The native trees will not tolerate the wind on the hills of San Francisco.  Even in places where trees are sheltered from the wind, they must have access to sufficient water to become established. 

When native plant advocates demand that non-native trees be destroyed, they frequently claim that non-native trees will be replaced by native trees (even without being planted in some cases).  We assume their claims are based either on strategy (i.e., promising “replacement” trees in order to diffuse the opposition of those who like trees) or on ignorance of California’s natural history. 

With deep respect, we acknowledge Ms. Cunningham’s impressive knowledge of California’s ecological history and the accomplishment which her book represents.  Our thanks to Ms. Cunningham for sharing her lifetime of study and observation of nature with us and rendering that knowledge so beautifully in her paintings. 

* Cunningham, Laura, A State of Change:  Forgotten Landscapes of California, Heydey Books, Berkeley, California, 2010

House burns without igniting eucalypts

There was a fire in the Berkeley hills yesterday.  A home in the 1400 block of Queens Drive was gutted by the fire.  The home was completely surrounded by eucalyptus trees, some branches overhanging the home.  The trees did not ignite.  The leaves do not appear to be scorched by the fire.

Fire on Queens Road
Despite the fact that the trees didn’t burn, the news coverage of the fire focuses on the flammability of the trees:  “Eucalyptus trees are especially flammable and often used for kindling because of their oils.”  The accusation of flammability is not new.  We see it in any news story in which eucalypts are mentioned in any context, even those unrelated to fires. 

The claim that eucalyptus is used as kindling is something we have not heard before.  In fact, it makes no sense since the oil in eucalyptus is contained in the leaves, not in the wood, which is the usual definition of kindling.  However, we are accustomed to new anti-eucalyptus stories being fabricated at every opportunity.

We won’t repeat all the evidence that eucalyptus is not more flammable than other trees in this post because our readers have heard it all before.  We will just remind you that all reputable sources of information about preventing wildfires inform homeowners that the species of plants and trees are irrelevant to fire safety. 

All species of plants and trees will burn under certain circumstances, such as a wind-driven fire on a hot, dry day.  Property owners can reduce their risks of wildfire with appropriate maintenance, such as removing lower limbs on all trees, pruning trees and shrubs away from structures, and removing accumulated leaf litter.

In the case of the fire on Queens Road, the neighbors put themselves in harm’s way by parking cars on both sides of a narrow street, narrowing the road to one-lane which severely restricted access to the home by fire trucks. 

Parked cars restrict access on Queens Road

As usual, humans are always looking for a non-human scapegoat for the risks they choose to take.  Rather than taking care of the vegetation around their home and reducing the number of cars parked on a narrow road, they prefer to blame the trees.  In this case the trees had nothing to do with this fire.

Creating Defensible Space for Fire Safety

Those who have a sincere desire to reduce fire hazards in the Bay Area would be wise to turn their attention away from the distracting and irrelevant debate about the flammability of native compared to non-native plants and trees.   California native ecology is dependent upon and adapted to fire.  The native landscape is not less flammable than non-native plants and trees.  Most firestorms in California are wind-driven fires in which everything burns, including native and non-native trees and plants as well as any buildings in the path of the fire.   

Rather, the creation of “defensible space” immediately around your home is your best defense against the loss of your home in a wildfire.  Creating defensible space means reducing fire fuels around your home by appropriate pruning and maintenance, such as limbing up trees to remove the fire ladder to the tree canopy and removing leaf litter.  Defensible space is intended to slow the progress of fire to your home.

In this post we will visit several reputable sources of information about fire safety that advise homeowners about how to protect themselves, particularly those who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface where fire hazards are greatest.   We will see that all these sources of information have in common that they do not single-out specific species of plants or trees.  Rather they emphasize that how vegetation is pruned and maintained is more important to reducing fire hazard and that materials we use in building our homes are equally important to our safety.  These sources of information are not native plant advocates.  Their advice is not based on a desire to destroy non-native plants and trees in the belief that their destruction will benefit native plants and trees.  

Firewise Communities is an internet resource provided by the National Fire Protection Association and co-sponsored by the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior.  This resource offers on-line courses in fire safety.  In the course on “Firewise Landscaping” these criteria are listed as the characteristics of fire-resistant plants:  low leaf litter, high water retention ability, high salt retention ability, lack of aromatic oils, low fuel volume, height and spread that fits well into the intended space.  Some native and some non-native plants fit these criteria and some do not.  For example, although the leaves of eucalyptus contain aromatic oils, so do the leaves of the native California bay laurel.   

Homeowners in the Wildland-Urban Interface should focus on creating defensible space around their homes rather than on choosing particular plant or tree species. CALFire guidelines for creating defensible space do not advise for or against any particular species of plant or tree. Rather CALFire focuses on how to prune and maintain vegetation around your home and create a “defensible space” around your home with low fuel volume, as illustrated in this brochure on their website.

Creating defensible space around your home. CALFire

Likewise the UC Berkeley Fire Center in their brochure “Home Landscaping for Fire” says, “It is important to remember that given certain conditions, all plants can burn…how your plants are maintained and where they are placed is as important as the species of plants that you chooselandscape management (e.g., pruning, irrigation, and cleanup) have a greater impact on whether or not a plant ignites than does the species.” It is ironic that UC Berkeley is engaged in the destruction of every non-native tree and plant on its property, despite the advice on its own website about fire safety, which is obviously being ignored. 

The August 2010 issue of Sunset Magazine includes a comprehensive “Wildfire Survival Guide,” including advice about planting a fire-safe garden. 

The City of Oakland passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring homeowners to maintain defensible space around their homes and voters in Oakland agreed to tax themselves to pay for the enforcement of this requirement.  Unfortunately, a drive in the Oakland hills informs us that these requirements are not being enforced. 

Oakland hills

This home is particularly vulnerable because fire tends to travel up hill.  Firewise says that a 30% slope will accelerate the rate of spread of fire to twice the speed of fire on flat ground. 

Wouldn’t the people of Oakland be better served by enforcement of requirements for defensible space around homes rather than paying shared costs of $662,280 for a FEMA grant to eradicate all non-native vegetation from 325 acres of wildland? (see “Our Mission, Projects in the East Bay”)  Oakland is  flat broke and one of the most violent cities in the country.  Eighty policemen were recently laid off and 120 more are likely to be laid off if voters don’t vote to tax themselves further.  Shouldn’t homeowners be required to create defensible space around their homes where their lives and property are most at risk before “vegetation management” is extended far beyond the perimeter of homes?