BREAKTHROUGH: Separating fuel management from resource management

Marin County hired an environmental consultant, Loran May, to evaluate its policies and practices regarding vegetation management in parks and open spaces for the purpose of reducing fire hazard.   The consultant describes the purpose of her report as follows:

“The primary purpose of this Vegetation and Biodiversity Management Plan for the Marin County preserves is to provide comprehensive, long-term guidance for a new science-based approach to vegetation management that will (1) maintain the natural biodiversity of the vegetation within the preserves, (2) maintain emergency and public access, and (3) manage fuel loads to reduce the threats of the spread of natural and human-caused fires.”

Marin County Civic Center
Marin County Civic Center

In other words, her report attempts to reconcile fire hazard reduction with resource management.  The report is therefore of interest to readers of Million Trees, because many of the ecological restoration projects in the San Francisco Bay Area with which we are familiar claim to achieve these goals simultaneously.  Loran May’s report acknowledges that there is a conflict between vegetation management for fuel reduction and the conservation of native habitat.  Separating these two goals is a big step forward, in our opinion, because reducing fire hazard has been the most influential argument with the public and decision-makers for destroying non-native vegetation.      

The consultant read the written policies regarding vegetation management of most of the owners of public lands all over the San Francisco Bay Area and interviewed the managers of those organizations regarding their experiences with the application of those policies.  The consultant’s report is based in part on what she learned from all the major owners of public land in the Bay Area:

  • Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR)
  • California State Parks (CSP)
  • East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD)
  • East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD)
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)
  • Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD)
  • Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD)
  • Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD)
  • Shelterbelt Builders, Inc. (SBI)
  • Santa Clara County Parks (SCCP)
  • Santa Clara Fire Safe Council (SCFSC)
  • Santa Clara County Open Space Authority (SCCOSA)

Here is what she learned about the current status of policies and practices regarding vegetation management for the purpose of reducing fire hazard and the impact it is having on natural resources in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • All agencies indicated that the eradication of non-native species is a high priority for their organizations and that a big portion of their resources is devoted to that task.  However,”They stressed that eradication of some well-established populations may not be feasible.”
  • Since total eradication is not considered a realistic goal, agencies prioritize removal of non-natives as follows:  new “infestations,” control at “leading edge” into wildlands, “noxious weeds” as defined by California law, and non-native plants considered threats to legally protected native plant species.
  • Mechanical removal such as mowing or brush cutting followed by herbicide application is considered the most effective and most cost effective method of destroying non-native vegetation.  However, organizations that are responsible for water supplies, have some constraints on the use of herbicides.
  • “… the interviewees overwhelmingly indicated that the most effective approach to reducing fire risk and protecting structures and adjacent communities is the establishment of defensible space zones along the wildland-urban interface.  Interviewees stressed that defensible space zones are an important and often underutilized tool in helping slow the spread of fires from or onto preserves.”
  • Land managers indicated that large fuel breaks distant from properties were difficult to maintain because they are quickly dominated by non-native plants:  “A recurring theme during interviews about fuel modification zones was the need to address and minimize invasive plant spread and establishment within these zones. Most agencies indicated that they have had to redirect a large portion of their fuel management funding away from construction of new fuel modification zones to controlling or containing infestations of invasive plants, such as French broom, within already constructed fuel modification zones.”
  • Public agencies agree that fuel reduction should occur only in the perimeter that separates developed from undeveloped land because ignition is more likely to occur in developed areas and buildings are more likely to ignite than wildland fuels.  Most agencies have adopted a 100-foot standard for creating defensible space around properties. 
  • In wildland fires, most structures are ignited by embers. Building an ignition-resistant structure is the most effective defense against structure ignition and loss, since there will almost always be numerous embers in a wildfire.”
  • The experience of managers of public land with wildfires indicates that fuel breaks are generally ineffective in stopping the spread of fireFires have been stopped by fuelbreaks only in instances where fire intensity was low.”
  • Agencies agreed that, “…ridgetop fuelbreaks typically have limited effectiveness for stopping the spread of fire during large fire events… Interviewees raised concerns that constructing and maintaining fuelbreaks is cost prohibitive and is a major cause of rising program costs for many land management agencies. All agencies noted that fuelbreaks are also strongly linked to the spread of invasive plants within their lands. For these reasons, interviewees strongly recommended that fuelbreaks be minimized, and resources reapplied to defensible space zones.”

This report sounds familiar!

None of these experiences of the managers of public lands in the Bay Area sound new to the readers of Million Trees.  We have been telling our readers about these issues for over three years.  We have written public comments on all of the written plans and environmental impact reports and statements for the plans many times.  Just for fun, let us itemize our agreement:

  • When vegetation is removed—whether it is native or non-native—the vegetation that will soon occupy the bare ground will be non-native vegetation because it is more competitive than native vegetation.  Unless the bare ground is intensively planted, irrigated, weeded, etc., native plants will not occupy land cleared of vegetation.  The projects on public lands that are clearing vegetation for the purpose of reducing fuel loads never plant or garden after the land is cleared.   When the goal of a project is to convert the land from non-natives to natives, some planting is sometimes done, but the gardening effort is rarely sufficient to achieve anything but a temporary result.
  • The huge projects in the East Bay for which FEMA funding has been requested, are based on the fantasy that eradication of all non-native plants and trees from hundreds of acres of public land with no subsequent replanting will magically result in a native landscape.  The Marin County report is evidence that this assumption is not realistic.
  • Reducing fuel loads far from property will not reduce the risk of property loss from wildfire.  Such vegetation removal must be close to the property to provide protection.  Most fuel reduction projects in the East Bay are far from any property and therefore will not reduce fire hazards to people or property.
  • It will not be physically possible to eradicate all non-native vegetation.  It is a fool’s errand to try because the most effective method of control requires herbicide use.  By the time the land has been sufficiently poisoned to eradicate all non-native plants, our watershed will be poisoned and our public lands will not be fit to visit safely.  In other words, it’s just not worth it to try to eradicate all non-native plants with herbicides.

We don’t wish to leave our readers with the mistaken idea that the Marin County report “Vegetation and Biodiversity Management Plan” is the silver bullet that will loosen the native plant movement’s tight grip on our public lands.  In fact, it is first and foremost, a plan that is devoted to the preservation of native plants.  All of its recommendations are aimed at that goal.  It advocates for the destruction of non-native plants and trees wherever they are considered a threat to rare native plants or occur in small enough populations that eradication is physically possible.

However, for the first time in our long experience with similar written plans around the Bay Area, this report acknowledges that destroying vegetation for the purpose of reducing fire hazard is not the same thing as conserving native plants.  This represents a significant reversal from previous plans which were based on the fictitious premise that fire hazards can be reduced by converting non-native to native landscapes.  Therefore, we consider it a BREAKTHROUGH!