“The Eucalyptus is Part of California”

Monarch butterflies over-winter in California's eucalyptus groves
Monarch butterflies over-winter in California’s eucalyptus groves

The East Bay Express has published an op-ed in defense of the much maligned eucalyptus.  “The Eucalyptus is Part of California” is by Gregory Davis, a Berkeley resident.  We summarize the main points for our readers:

  • University of California, Berkeley’s plan to destroy all non-native trees—primarily eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia—is characterized as a “meat-axe approach.” 
  • Applying herbicides repeatedly to prevent regrowth of non-natives is “tantamount to opening a can of worms.”  We don’t know the consequences of dousing our public land with toxic chemicals, just as we didn’t know that using Agent Orange during the War in Vietnam would permanently damage that country and its citizens.
  • The moderate approach advocated by the Hills Conservation Network is more reasonable.  Thinning and selective removal will do less damage.
  • Flammability of eucalyptus groves has been greatly exaggerated. 
  • Eucalyptus has lived in California longer than most of us have been alive.  They are more native than we are.
  • The loss of the “beauty and majesty” of eucalyptus in the hills will make hiking in the East Bay hills a less pleasant experience.  “Anyone who has hiked up the trail under the green canopy of these tall, stately, plumed-top, evergreen trees knows how precious they are.”

Thank you, Mr. Davis, for writing this article and to the East Bay Express for publishing it.  Critics of the native plant movement are learning that they must speak up if we are to save our trees.  The projects that destroy our trees finally became so big and so visible, that more people are aware of them and are more willing to defend our trees.

Eucalyptus Forest
Eucalyptus Forest

More evidence that eucalypus is not flammable

Last week there was a fire in Stern Grove, in San Francisco.  Stern Grove is heavily forested in eucalyptus which did not ignite, providing more evidence that eucalypts are not as flammable as native plant advocates want the public to believe.  The claim that eucalypts are highly flammable is one of many arguments native plant advocates use to justify the eradication of eucalypts.  And like most of their claims, it is quite simply not true that eucalypts are highly flammable.

Location of fire in Stern Grove

The fire in Stern Grove was reported by a local television station.  You can view photos and videos of the fire on their website.  They report that the fire was started by homeless campers.  Nearly 40 firefighters battled the blaze which they described as challenging because it was the middle of the night and visibility was low.  The fire moved up a steep hill which has a tendency to accelerate the spread of fire.

This fire in Stern Grove was a particularly rigorous test of the flammability of eucalypts because many of them are shrouded in ivy.  The ivy creates a fire ladder to the canopy of the tree, which increases the risk that the tree will ignite.  But they did not ignite.  The understory of the trees was completely engulfed in flames.  The trunks of the trees were badly scorched by the fire in the understory.  The fire did not travel up the trees and ignite the canopy.

Aftermath of fire in Stern Grove

Let’s talk about ivy

This is an opportunity to talk about the ivy that we find growing up the trunks of the trees in San Francisco.  The ivy was planted at some time in the past and in fact, the Recreation & Park Department is still planting ivy when it renovates the parks, believe it or not.  It’s a popular groundcover because it thrives with no care and it grows almost anywhere.

Another absurd argument that nativists use to advocate for the destruction of eucalypts in San Francisco is that they are covered in ivy.  This seems an extreme case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Why kill the tree when it’s the ivy that is the problem?  It’s not the tree’s fault that it’s covered in ivy.  It’s the fault of the Recreation and Park Department that it provides so little maintenance in the parks that the ivy grows out of the control.  How does destroying the tree solve the problem?  The ivy will overwhelm anything that grows there.  Trees aren’t the exclusive target of ivy.

Our personal experience with ivy

We know from personal experience that it’s not that difficult to control ivy.  We’ve never planted ivy but we have inherited it in our gardens from previous owners.  My spouse complained bitterly about the ivy. But as the primary gardener in the household, I knew we did not have the fortitude to eliminate it.  We don’t use pesticides in our garden so without the physical stamina or the resolve to eliminate it, our only option was to manage it.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  With an annual “haircut” our ivy was never out of control.

Ivy management in Dracena Park, Piedmont, CA

We have also had the experience of watching ivy being successfully managed in a public park.  In the City of Piedmont’s beautiful parks, ivy is the predominate ground cover.  It doesn’t crawl up trees or overwhelm shrubs because it is managed.

Another case of eucalyptus being scapegoated

The eucalypts in San Francisco’s parks are shrouded in ivy because the Recreation and Park Department does almost no maintenance in our parks.  Watering and mowing the lawns is about the limit of their maintenance.  Why would we expect maintenance to improve just because the trees are destroyed?  We certainly haven’t seen any evidence of improved maintenance in the 1,100 acres of “natural areas” in which non-native plants and trees are repeatedly destroyed, native plants are planted and are quickly overwhelmed by foxtails and other non-native weeds.

The money being wasted on these unsuccessful “restorations” would be much better spent maintaining the landscape that exists.  It would certainly be less destructive.

FEMA sees through the smokescreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Characteristics

Native plant advocates attempt to support their claim about the flammability of eucalypts by citing specific characteristics such as shreddy bark and volatile oils. Shreddy bark and volatile oils are characteristics of many plants, both native and non-native.  They are not characteristics exclusive to eucalypts: 

“The [chaparral] community has evolved over millions of years in association with fires, and in fact requires fire for proper health and vigor…Not only do chaparral plants feature adaptations that help them recover after a fire, but some characteristics of these plants, such as fibrous or ribbonlike shreds on the bark, seem to encourage fire.  Other species contain volatile oils.”  (page 341, A Natural History of California, Schoenherr, UC Press, 1992)

Madrone and Manzanita are examples of native plants with “ribbonlike shreds on the bark” that are highly flammable.  Coyote brush and bay laurels are examples of native species which contain highly flammable oils.

Shreddy bark of Madrone


Shreddy bark of manzanita

Anyone with knowledge of the natural history of California could provide any number of such invidious comparisons between native and non-native plants with respect to their flammability.  We hope the examples we have provided illustrate that flammability characteristics of plants are unrelated to whether the plants are native or non-native.  The claim that non-native plants are more prone to fire than native plants is fallacious.

Fire on Angel Island 2008

The fire on Angel Island in October 2008, is an example of the bogus claims of the flammability of eucalypts.  According to an “environmental scientist” from the California state park system, 80 acres of eucalypts were removed from Angel Island over 12 years ago.  Only 6 acres of eucalyptus remain.  (“Rains expected to help heal Angel Island,” SF Chronicle, October 14, 2008 ).  The fire that burned 400 acres of the 740 acres of Angel Island stopped at the forest edge: “At the edge of the burn belt lie strips of intact tree groves…a torched swath intercut with untouched forest.” (“After the fire, Angel Island is a park of contrasts,” SF Chronicle, October 15, 2008).

Wikimedia Commons/Mila Zinkova
 The fire on Angel Island is not an isolated event.  Rather it is typical of recent wildfires throughout California: 
“It is estimated that no more than 3 percent of the recent 2007 fires…occurred in forests…the remaining 97 percent occurred in lower elevation shrublands and urban areas, burning native shrublands such as chaparral and sage scrub, non-native grasslands and urban fuels…”  (Statement by Jon E. Keeley, USGS, before agencies of the US Senate, 2007)

Nativist myths die hard

A book about the 1991 wildfire in the Oakland/Berkeley hills illustrates the power of the legend that non-natives are more flammable than natives.  In Firestorm:  the study of the 1991 East Bay fire in Berkeley (Margaret Sullivan, 1993) the author states repeatedly that native plants and trees were involved in that fire.  Every tree mentioned in the following quotes from that book is native to the Bay Area:

  • “…flames surging through the dry underbrush and live oaks that line the street…”
  • “…neighborhoods…are built into the contours of the grassy hills and live-oak-and-laurel studded canyons…”
  • “…hillsides covered in seasonal grasses or had overlooked ravines of oak and madrone…were devastated by the fire.”
  • On Vicente Road, “Two redwoods up the street caught fire like matchsticks.”
  • “Roble Road and… Roble Court, derive their name from the…Spanish word for the live oak tree that grows densely there…the devastation on lower Roble…was fairly complete…”

In the single mention of the role of eucalypts in the fire, the fire skips over the tree canopy:  “The fire swept right over [the houses] scorching the crowns of surrounding eucalyptus trees.”  And the Monterey pine—also targeted for eradication by native plant advocates—plays a similar role in a nearby location:  “Across the street a grove of Monterey pines shields the white clapboard buildings of the private Bentley School…”

After presenting all this evidence about the role of native plants in the fire, the book concludes with the legend that non-natives are more flammable than natives:   “Gardens of drought tolerant and fire-resistant California native plants have become symbols of the rebirth of the fire communities.”  This statement is illustrated with a photo of a native plant garden.

Chamise is an example of a native plant in the chaparral community that is extremely flammable.

“The relationship between fire and Chamise is illustrated by the plant’s tendency to ‘encourage’ burning.  A thermometer was placed within a Chamise shrub as a fire approached, and the following changes were documented.  At about 200⁰F the plant began to wilt as its temperature approached the boiling point of water.  At about 400⁰F the plant began to emit combustible gases such as hydrogen, alcohol, and methane.  At about 600⁰F the shrub smoldered and began to turn black.  At about 800⁰F the plant burst into flames!  This species must have evolved in association with frequent fires to have reached the point where it seems to encourage burning.” (A Natural History of California, Schoenherr, page 344)

Chamise, Tilden Park Botanical Garden

As Mark Twain said, “A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.”