Authenticity: A modern definition of wilderness

Conservation biology is being revised so rapidly that we are struggling to keep up with it.  In our previous post, we introduced our readers to Professor Scott Carroll’s proposal that a more realistic approach to conservation would accommodate non-native species because they are often better adapted to present conditions than their native predecessors.  He calls his approach Conciliation Biology.

Today, we are introducing our readers to another proposal to redefine wilderness to a new standard which acknowledges that the environment has been radically altered by man.  The author of this proposal is Nigel Dudley, a practicing British conservationist.  He calls his new standard “authenticity,” which he defines as follows:

“An authentic ecosystem is a resilient ecosystem with the level of biodiversity and range of ecological interactions that can be predicted as a result of the combination of historic, geographic and climatic conditions in a particular location.”*

Let’s focus for a moment on this portion of that definition:  “…historic, geographic and climatic conditions in a particular location.”  Mr. Dudley explains this particular parameter of his definition of authenticity:  “…some ecosystems have unusually high levels of diversity…through being isolated or undisturbed for exceptionally long periods.  Other ecosystems have already been hugely changed and in some cases impoverished…it will not always be possible either to recover lost elements or to remove additions.  What an ecosystem is likely to contain in the future needs to be based on current realities…”   

Clearly places like the Berkeley Meadow are not candidates for “authenticity.”  This particular native plant museum was the former garbage dump for the city of Berkeley, built on landfill.  This seems an extreme example of denial of current realities.

The Berkeley Meadow, a 72-acre fenced pen for native plants on the former city garbage dump

Choosing candidates for authenticity

Dudley’s point in proposing this new standard is to focus conservation efforts where they are most likely to be fruitful.  Our interest in this new standard is in the stark contrast it provides to the local projects which fail by every measure introduced by Mr. Dudley in his book about authenticity.

  • Natural species composition:  Virtually all predators and grazing animals are gone from the urbanized San Francisco Bay Area.  San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program claims to have designated only “remnants of native vegetation” as natural areas.  In fact, vegetation cover in the 1,105 acres of natural areas is on average only 46% native.  Some of the 31 natural areas are populated by as little as 11% native vegetation.
  • Migrant composition:  Some bird migrations are intact, but others have been changed by existing vegetation such as the tall, non-native trees of which there were few in the native landscape.  Migrations of ungulates are long gone.
  • Invasive species:  Non-native plants and trees outnumber native species throughout the Bay Area.
  • Chemical composition:  Air, water, and soil composition are vastly different than they were 200 years ago.
  • Functioning food web:  The food web has been radically altered by the loss of top predators and ungulates and cannot be recreated in a densely populated urban environment.  Bears may be welcome in the zoo, but are not wandering our streets looking for their next meal.
  • Functioning ecological processes:    Funneling most creeks into underground culverts is an example of a lost ecological process in the urban environment.
  • Regeneration process:  Fire is a regeneration process that is lost in the urban environment.  Prescribed burns are allowed by some managers of public land in the Bay Area, but San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program has reluctantly agreed not to conduct prescribed burns.
  • Resilience:  Although the original goal of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program was that once “restored” the natural areas would be self-sustaining, fifteen years later, NAP concedes that on-going maintenance will be required to sustain the natural areas.  Dudley says, “Ideally, authentic ecosystems should also be self-sustaining:  they should not need constant and often expensive manipulation to maintain their values.”  Clearly, the “natural areas” in San Francisco’s parks do not meet this criterion for authenticity.
  • Area:  Most of the restoration projects in the Bay Area are too small to be sustainable.  The average size of San Francisco’s 31 natural areas is only 35 acres.  The smallest is only one-third of an acre.  Size is a proxy for the ability to isolate a restored site from repeated re-invasion.  The natural areas are small and are surrounded by non-native vegetation which will quickly return.
  • Connectivity:  Virtually every restoration project in urbanized Bay Area is physically isolated.

It may be possible to compensate for these bad odds of a sustainable, authentic restoration project in the urbanized San Francisco Bay Area.  If so, it will be extremely costly, which is undoubtedly why most projects have not been successful.  The National Park Service has had some success with its projects because they seem to have greater resources than other managers of public land.  But is this the top priority of taxpayers?  As the presidential election season heats up and the debate rages about raising taxes and cutting federal spending, one wonders why these projects are not in the budget-cutting cross-hairs.

Looking on the bright side

Grey squirrel. Creative Commons

We make every effort to end each story with a positive outlook.  In this case, we turn to Mr. Dudley to remind our readers that the environment is not necessarily destroyed by the mere existence of non-native species.  Being British, he uses British examples to make his point.  The North American grey squirrel is considered an invasive species in Britain and the native red squirrel is now rare.  While the British are not happy about the loss of their native squirrel, Mr. Dudley reminds them that the non-native grey squirrel is performing the same ecological functions as its native predecessor.  There is apparently no evidence that the environment has been harmed by this substitution.

We don’t like change.  But is change actually doing any harm?  If not, let’s accept it, because fighting against it is costly and probably futile.  That is the definition of wisdom:  that we accept what we cannot change.


*Nigel Dudley, Authenticity in Nature. Earthscan, 2011

Conciliation Biology: Revising Conservation Biology

Our interest in invasion biology is primarily in its application, specifically to “restoration” projects.  Therefore, as science revises the assumptions of invasion biology we are equally interested in the implications for ecological restorations.

Professor Scott Carroll (UC Davis) is a particularly good candidate to lead the way in revising ecological restoration practices, as informed by current scientific theories of invasion biology.  His study of rapid evolution of the native soapberry bug to accommodate use of non-native vegetation puts him in the forefront of the effort to integrate evolutionary theory into invasion biology.

And so we introduce to our readers, Professor Carroll’s proposal that we turn from efforts to eradicate non-native species in favor of a new approach which manages the co-existence of native and non-native species.  He calls this approach Conciliation Biology.*

Conciliation Biology is based on these premises:

  • The environment has been radically altered by the activities of humans
  • The environment will continue to change in the future.
  • It is not feasible to eradicate non-native species.
  • The cost of attempting to do so is prohibitive.

These are familiar themes on Million Trees and we will not belabor them in this post.  Rather we will focus on those aspects of Professor Carroll’s proposal that are new to us.

Rapid evolution can resolve apparent ecological problems

Garlic mustard. GNU Free

Garlic mustard is an invasive non-native plant which tolerates shade and emits a powerful root toxin known to inhibit the germination of other plants, notably forest trees.  This chemical tool to reduce competition is known as allelopathy,  a weapon used by many plant species, both native and non-native.

Since garlic mustard arrived first in the eastern US and spread slowly west, scientists compared the allelopathic toxicity of a population of garlic mustard known to have arrived 50 or more years ago with a population which arrived only 10 years ago.  The toxicity of the recently arrived garlic mustard was significantly greater than that of the older population.  In fact, the understory and seedling germination were rebounding in the forest with the older population of garlic mustard.

In other words, science informs us that ecological problems caused by the arrival of new exotic species can resolve themselves over time.

New exotic species are sometimes better adapted to the changed environment

Professor Carroll cites a study of two aquatic species (Phragmite and Hydrilla) which provide superior ecological services than their native counterparts because of changes in the environment.  The extreme weather events associated with climate change are subjecting our coasts to unprecedented storm surges.  Native species of marsh grass are not as successful in protecting the coast against the ravages of these storm surges.

We have our own local example of the same phenomenon.  Non-native Spartina marsh grass is being eradicated along the entire west coast of the country.  It grows taller and thicker than native Spartina and it does not die back during the winter months as the native species does.  Since storm surges occur during the winter months, surely the non-native Spartina provides superior protection to our coast.  We have yet to see a scientific experiment which proves this point, but common sense tells us that it is a study that needs to be done, particularly since ornithologists have reported that the eradication of non-native Spartina has been harmful to our dwindling population of endangered California Clapper Rail.

The harmful effects of eradication efforts

Iberian lynx. Creative Commons

We have seen many such harmful consequences of eradication efforts, but Professor Carroll provides his own example.  Iberian rabbits are native to Spain.  They were intentionally imported to Australia where they quickly became a problem.  The Australians imported a virus from South America that killed the rabbits.  The virus was also introduced to Britain for the same purpose.  The virus has spread back to Spain where it is killing the rabbits in their native range.  The rabbits are prey of several rare species of animals in Spain, including the Iberian lynx.  The absence of their prey is now decimating those native predator populations as well.

Biological controls are one of many dangerous games being played by those who share in the fantasy that it is possible to eradicate non-native species without paying a price.  Sometimes that price is greater than whatever cost may be associated with the non-native species.

Simply eradicating non-native species will not necessarily result in the return of natives

Professor Carroll tells us the story of the failed attempt to save the Large Blue butterfly in Britain from extinction to illustrate this point.  This was apparently a spectacularly beautiful butterfly, and so the British spent 50 years trying to bring it back from extinction.  They failed because they figured out too late that the butterfly is dependent upon an ant which lives only in heavily grazed vegetation.  The ant population no longer existed within the range of the butterfly because grazing had long ago been abandoned.

How many other pointless efforts to reintroduce endangered species are there?  We recently told our readers about the effort to reintroduce the endangered Mission Blue butterfly to Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  This is a radically altered environment with high levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide associated with the urban environment.  The annual brush fires of pre-settlement San Francisco are no longer capable of sustaining the scrub required by the butterfly and the prescribed burns, which are the artificial equivalent, are not allowed in San Francisco.  The scrub is therefore maintained with repeated applications of pesticides which are unlikely to benefit the endangered butterfly.

What is Conciliation Biology

Conservation biology has been “constrained by often futile efforts to restore historical communities, and [does] not appreciate the unavoidable and dynamic contributions of ongoing adaptive evolution.” * Conciliation biology proposes to address these shortcomings by:

  • Taking a longer-term view of the chronic effects of changes in the environment.
  • Making greater use of evolutionary theory
  • Fostering ongoing adaptation by accepting the hybridization that increases genetic variability
  • Identifying and supporting community mechanisms that increase resiliency
  • Improving the effectiveness of the science of invasion biology by using a multidisciplinary approach

How long will It take for this new approach to filter into the minds of those who are busily destroying non-native vegetation and damaging the environment in the process?  How much damage will be done before these destructive methods are abandoned in favor of an approach that accommodates the reality, inevitability, and often the advantages of change?


*Carroll, Scott, “Conciliation biology:  the eco-evolutionary management of permanently invaded biotic systems,”  Evolutionary Applications, 2011, 184-199.

Biological Control: Another dangerous method of eradicating non-native species

We were recently reminded of the use of biological controls to eradicate non-native species when we learned that Australian insects may have been illegally imported to California to kill eucalyptus, which had been virtually pest free until 1983.  So, an article in the New York Times about the development of a fungus for the purpose of killing cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) caught our attention.  The fungus has been given the ominous name, Black Fingers of Death, for the black stubs of cheatgrass infected with the fungus.

Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum

Cheatgrass is one of the non-native grasses that have essentially replaced native grasses throughout the United States.  It was probably introduced with ship ballast and wheat seed stock in about 1850.  As we have reported, native grasses were quickly replaced by the non-native grasses which tolerate the heavy grazing of domesticated animals brought by settlers.    Native Americans had no domesticated animals.

Biological controls have frequently caused more serious damage than the problems they were intended to solve.  Therefore, we would hope that their intended target is doing more damage than the potential damage of its biological control.   We must ask if the cure is worse than the disease.  And in this case, we don’t think the damage done by cheatgrass justifies inflicting it with the Black Fingers of Death.

The track record of biological control

Biological control is the intentional introduction of animals, pests, microbes, fungi, pathogens, etc., for the purpose of killing a plant or animal which is perceived to be causing a problem.  The ways in which some of these biocontrols have gone badly wrong are as varied and as many as the methods used.

Introduced species of plants are said to have an initial advantage in their new home because their pests and competitors are not always introduced with them.  This is the “enemy release hypothesis” popular amongst native plant advocates to explain the tendency of non-native plants to be invasive.  However, this is usually a temporary advantage which is exaggerated by native plant advocates who do not seem to recognize the speed with which native species can adapt to new species, and vice versa.

Therefore, a popular method of biological control is to import the predator or competitor of the non-native species which is considered invasive.  This is only effective if the pest is selective in its host.  There are many examples of such introductions which did not prove to be selective:  “For the United States mainland, Hawaii, and the Caribbean region, Pemberton (2000) listed 15 species of herbivorous biocontrol insects that have extended their feeding habits to 41 species of native plants…” (1)  Although most of the unintended hosts were related to the intended hosts, some were not.

Similar shifts from target to nontarget species have occurred for biocontrol agents of animal pests:  “For parasitoids introduced to North America for control of insect pests Hawkins and Marino (1997) found that 51 (16.7%) of the 313 introduced species were recorded from nontarget hosts.  For Hawaii, 37 (32.3%) of 115 parasitoid species were noted to use nontarget hosts…biological control introductions are considered to be responsible for extinctions of at least 15 native moth species [in Hawaii].”  (1)

There are also several cases of biological controls escaping from the laboratory setting before they had been adequately tested and approved for release.   A virus escaped the laboratory in Australia and killed 90% of the rabbits in its initial spread through the wild population.  Very quickly, the virus evolved to a less fatal strain that killed less than 50% of the rabbits it infected.  A second virus was then tested and also escaped its laboratory trial and has spread through the rabbit population throughout Australia.

A fly being considered for introduction to control yellow starthistle apparently escaped and damaged a major cash crop of safflower in California according to a study published in 2001, illustrating the risks of biocontrols to agriculture.

This is but a brief description of the diverse ways in which nature has foiled the best efforts of the scientists designing biological controls for non-native species of plants and animals.  The source of this information (1) therefore concludes, “…many releases of species have inadequate justification…The first goal of research must be to show that the introduced biological control agent will not itself cause damage.”  Given this wise advice, we will return to the question, “What damage is being done by cheatgrass and does that damage justify the introduction of The Black Fingers of Death?”

Why is cheatgrass considered a problem?

Cheatgrass is one of the many non-native annual grasses which have replaced the native grasses which were not adapted to the grazing of domesticated animals.  Cheatgrass is a valuable nutritional source for grazing animals when it is green and loses much of its nutritional value when it dries.

Grazing is only one of the types of disturbance which create opportunities for non-native grasses to expand their range into unoccupied ground.  Fire is another disturbance which gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage over native grasses because it uses available moisture and germinates before native grasses can gain a foothold on the bare ground cleared by fire.

Cheatgrass is said to increase fire frequency by increasing fuel load and continuity.  Unfortunately, increasing levels of CO₂ (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere is increasing the fuel load of cheatgrass:  “…the indigestible portion of aboveground plant material [of cheatgrass] …increased with increasing CO₂.” (2)

Carbon dioxide is the predominant greenhouse gas which is contributing to climate change.  And increasing frequency of wildfires is one of the consequences of the higher temperatures associated with climate change.  Therefore, one of the causes of the expanding range of cheatgrass is increasing levels of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.  Rather than address the underlying cause, we are apparently planning to poison the cheatgrass with a deadly fungus.

If we are successful in killing the cheatgrass, what will occupy the bare ground?  Will native grasses and shrubs return?  Will whatever occupies the bare ground be an improvement over the cheatgrass which has some nutritional value to grazing animals?  The US Forest Service plant database gives us this warning, “Care must be taken with methods employed to control cheatgrass so that any void left by cheatgrass removal is not filled with another nonnative invasive species that may be even less desirable.” 

Recapitulating familiar themes

The project to develop a deadly fungus to kill cheatgrass is another example of the issues that we often discuss on Million Trees:

  • Are the risks of the methods used to eradicate non-native species being adequately assessed and evaluated before projects are undertaken?
  • Are the underlying conditions—such as climate change–that have contributed to an “invasion” being addressed by the methods used to eradicate them?  If not, will the effort be successful?
  • Is the damage done by the “invasion” greater than the damage done by the methods used to eradicate the invader?  Is the cure worse than the disease?

We do not believe that these questions are being addressed by the many “restoration” projects we see in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Consequently, we believe that these projects often do more harm than good.


(1)    Cox, George W., Alien Species and Evolution, Island Press, 2004

(2)    Ziska, L.H.; Reeves III, J.B.; Blank, R.R. (2005), “The impact of recent increases in atmospheric CO2 on biomass production and vegetative retention of cheatgrass (B. tectorum): Implications for fire disturbance.”, Global Change Biology. 11 (8): 1325–1332,

The futility of eradicating non-native species

We tend to focus on the native plant “restorations” in our neighborhood, but we should not lose track of the fact that similar efforts are taking place all over the world.  The native plant movement is international and if it loses momentum, we should expect to see loss of support for its destructive projects elsewhere.  So, today we will tell our readers about several recent developments that suggest that scientists all over the world are having second thoughts about invasion biology, which is the scientific underpinning of the native plant movement. 

Second Thoughts:  The Hawaiian Case

We have reported to our readers about the many “restoration” projects in Hawaii.  There is some logic to focusing such efforts on islands, because they are the places most vulnerable to the loss of native species attributed to introduced species and theoretically they are also the places where re-invasion should be easiest to control.

Scientists have recently published the results of a ten-year effort to return an “invaded” forest to its native origins.  They spent about 5 years clearing the forest of all non-natives.  They planted the scorched earth with natives and then they walked away from it to observe the long-term sustainability of their effort.  Five years later they report that the composition of the forest—with respect to its nativity—has essentially returned to its original state.

They tested several hypotheses while observing the changes in the forest during the second half of the project.  Conventional wisdom had been that the more densely natives occupied the ground, the less vulnerable it would be to re-invasion.  Much to their surprise, this was not the outcome of their experiment.  The more densely natives occupied the ground, the greater the population of non-natives in the final analysis.  They conclude that the same conditions which encouraged the growth of native plants were equally beneficial to the growth of non-native plants.

This study was conducted by the US Forest Service.  We hope they learned something from this experience.  Specifically, we hope that the US Forest Service now understands that native plant “restorations” are not a one-shot deal.  They are a permanent commitment to garden that restoration with the same amount of effort.  That’s why scientists—such as Professors Arthur Shapiro and Peter Del Tredici—tell us that large scale projects are not sustainable in the long term.  A small scale native plant garden as an historical illustration is a worthwhile effort.  Gardening our vast public lands is like “plowing the sea,” as Professor Shapiro told us recently.

Second Thoughts:  The New Zealand Case

New Zealand has made herculean efforts to save its native species from “invasions” by non-native species:  “New Zealand is a very weedy country.  Indigenous plant species are matched in number by naturalized exotic species and about 20 new invaders are discovered each year.  Thus, a weed eradication program has been under way for the past 10 years, but eradicating an unwanted plant species is much more difficult than it might seem.” (1)

Eradicating yellow tree lupin, New Zealand Dept of Conservation

How successful have these efforts been?  According to a recent study, they have had very little success:  “The current issue of the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management assesses the progress of 111 weed eradication programs carried out by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.  Only four of these programs have met with success, while 21 have been discontinued and the rest remain an ongoing challenge.”

The report concludes, “After a decade, New Zealand’s weed eradication strategy has yet to yield significant results.”  Anyone who has been watching similar efforts all over the San Francisco Bay Area will not be the least bit surprised by this conclusion.  With the exception of small gardens which are irrigated and intensively gardened, these projects are weedy messes, usually behind fences.

Second Thoughts:  The Australian Case

Scotia Sanctuary, Australia

Emma Marris interviewed the manager of one of many “restoration” projects in Australia for her book, Rambunctious Garden.  He told her about the 18 month process of killing all non-native animals in a 15-square mile sanctuary enclosed by a prison-like fence, “sturdy, tall, and electrified.”  (This was half of the Scotia Sanctuary)

“He was able to shoot out the goats in a matter of days.  Rabbits were harder…he put out carrot bait…the rabbits…would learn to trust the new food source…[then] the carrots would be poisoned…[He] repeated this routine three times, running through 12,500 pounds of carrots…For each fox, he learned its habits and was eventually able to find perfect places to trap or poison them.  He also trapped cats…The key to making it work, he says, was ‘perseverance, perseverance, perseverance.’” (2)

It was necessary to kill all the non-native animals before taking on the more difficult task of returning the land to native plants because of the interaction between the plants and animals.  The non-native animals are considered a continuing and permanent threat to the sanctuary.  The expectation is that this 250 acre restoration will require human intervention indefinitely into the future.

Australia is a huge place, so the prospect of this labor-intensive process being replicated on a nationwide basis is absurd.  Therefore, it seems inevitable that Australian scientists would begin to question the efficacy of such efforts. 

Just two months ago, an Australian scientist, Angela Moles, gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) presentation suggesting that it is time to grant Australian citizenship to introduced species.  Click here to see the video.

Her reasoning is based on the relatively new understanding of the speed with which evolution occurs.  Her laboratory used the collection of a university herbarium to measure the changes in the plants that were introduced to Australia.  The herbarium had samples of the same species of plants collected over a 60 year period from the same location.  They found that the plants had changed in significant ways.  In a sense, they were becoming Australian plants in response to the biotic (other plants and animals) and abiotic (climate, soil, etc) conditions of their new home.  She predicted that if they weren’t yet genetically distinct from their ancestors, they soon would be.   In other words, they are becoming distinct, new species…..Australian species.

She showed a slide of her son who is a 2nd generation Australian.  He is considered an Australian by law and custom.  Then she showed a slide of clover which has changed significantly since its introduction.  After 130 generations, it is still not considered Australian.  After showing a few of the massive eradication projects and describing the scale and futility of those efforts, she suggested that it is long past time to accept the clover and other introduced species as Australian.

And, of course, we agree.  Let us abandon the destructive and futile war on non-native species.  The sooner we do, the less damage will be done to the environment and to the animals that live in it, including us.  


(1)    “Eradicating Weed Species in New Zealand Poses a Larger Challenge Than Expected,” Science Daily, July 21, 2012

(2)    Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011

The Natural Areas Program harms wildlife by violating its Streambed Alteration Permit

It’s spring.  Have you noticed that the birds are singing?  This is the time of year when they are most vocal.  They are staking out their nesting sites and attracting their mates with their songs.  They are quieter when they have laid their eggs as they try to avoid detection.  Migratory birds are also passing through, on their way to their breeding homes.  The food they find along the way is important to their survival on their long and physically challenging journeys from their winter to their summer homes.

Subscribers to Wildcare recently received an email newsletter reminding them that pruning trees and shrubs at this time of year is dangerous for the birds that are hiding their nests in them.  Wildcare is a local organization which treats sick or injured animals and educates the public about “how to live peacefully with wildlife.” 

Hummingbird nest in Pittosporum, March 2012

We were recently reminded of the vulnerability of birds at this time of year in our own yard when a hummingbird selected our flowering, non-native Victorian Box tree (Pittosporum undulatum) to build her nest.  Her nest was completely invisible to us, but we spotted her darting in and out of it as she built her nest.  We were able to take this picture of her sitting on her nest by crawling into the understory of the tree.

Hummingbird nest is not much bigger than a quarter!

Then disaster struck.  An early spring storm tore a huge branch from the tree and sent her nest tumbling to the ground.  We watched with heavy hearts while the hummingbird made anxious, noisy flights into the fallen branch.  When she gave up, we carefully lifted the fallen branch to find her tiny, empty nest.  As sad as this event was in our lives and hers, at least we knew that the failure of her nest was no fault of ours.   San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program cannot say the same of their destructive project in Glen Canyon Park.

The Natural Areas Program violates their Streambed Alteration Permit

Destroying vegetation with chainsaws in Glen Canyon Park, November 2011

The Natural Areas Program began to destroy the non-native vegetation in Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco in November 2011.  In addition to destroying valuable habitat with chainsaws, they also sprayed herbicides.  The San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) protested this destructive project many times but it has continued unabated to as recently as April 27, 2012, when they pruned trees and sprayed herbicides.

Earlier in April, SFFA learned from a public records request that this project violated a legal commitment to the California Department of Fish & Game.  The Natural Areas Program made the following commitment to mitigate harm to wildlife in Glen Canyon Park in its Streambed Alteration Permit:

It is the policy of RPD’s Natural Areas Program that no new projects will begin during the breeding season (December to May).  Follow up work in previously cleared areas may be done during the breeding season, however, because areas will have been cleared previously. Wildlife will not likely be using these areas for breeding.  This protocol has been effective in reducing impacts to breeding wildlife.”

SFFA brought this violation of its commitment to the attention of the General Manager of the Recreation and Park Department immediately.  The head of the Natural Areas Program said that the violation was necessary because the grant funding for the project was about to expire.  To avoid losing the funding for the project, the birds and animals of Glen Canyon Park were subjected to this destructive project during their breeding and nesting season. 

SFFA has brought this violation to the attention of the California Department of Fish & Game.  Their regulations require them to enforce the terms of the Streambed Alteration Permit, including the mitigation of potential harm to wildlife.  Violations of the terms of the permit are subject to “civil penalties” according to the regulations:  “A person who violates this chapter is subject to a civil penalty of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each violation.” 

One month after SFFA informed California Department of Fish & Game of the violation, nothing seems to be done about it.  In fact, weeks after SFFA sent this information to Fish & Game, another episode of destruction occurred in Glen Canyon Park on April 27, 2012.

The consequences of native plant “restorations” to wildlife

We will never know how many birds and animals were harmed by the destruction in Glen Canyon Park.  The management plan for the Natural Areas Program tells us (Appendix D) there are 18 species of birds that are found in and/or breed in Glen Canyon Park that are considered “Species of Local Concern.”  That is, the Audubon Society considers them rare in San Francisco. 

We also know that migratory birds will find less food in Glen Canyon Park this year than they have found in the past as they pass through San Francisco on their way to their breeding homes.  Many of the flowering and berry producing non-native plants that have thrived in Glen Canyon Park in the past have been destroyed by this destructive project, which is described by the Natural Areas Program in its Streambed Alteration Permit application as “…the ‘Scorched Earth’ method, in which all above-ground vegetation including natives, are removed.”  

Ironically, this project was partially funded by a grant program of the State of California entitled “Habitat Conservation Fund.”  We believe this project was a grotesque misuse of this fund.  The wildlife of Glen Canyon Park did not benefit from this project.  In fact, we believe they have been harmed by it.

Low doses of pesticides are also hazardous to our health

We are reprinting, with permission, an article on the Save Sutro website about recent research reporting that even low doses of chemicals can be harmful to our health.  This research has serious implications for the pesticides being used by the many “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This article is focused on pesticide use by San Francisco’s misnamed Natural Areas Program.  In fact, every manager of public land in the Bay Area that engages in native plant “restorations” uses pesticides to eradicate non-native species. 


When we speak up against the Natural Area Program’s frequent pesticide use, its supporters frequently tell us that – compared with say commercial agriculture – the Natural Areas Program (NAP) uses small amounts of toxic chemicals. “The dose makes the poison,” they argue.

But it’s not true.

For now, we’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s reasonable to compare NAP to  commercial agriculture (where fears of chemicals are driving a growing Organic movement). What we’d like to talk about today is recent research about pesticides, specifically, endocrine disruptors. Here’s a quote from the abstract of a study by a group of scientists:

“For decades, studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have challenged traditional concepts in toxicology, in particular the dogma of “the dose makes the poison,” because EDCs can have effects at low doses that are not predicted by effects at higher doses….

“…Whether low doses of EDCs influence certain human disorders is no longer conjecture, because epidemiological studies show that environmental exposures to EDCs are associated with human diseases and disabilities. We conclude that when nonmonotonic dose-response curves occur, the effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses.”

[Ref: Hormones and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses, Vandeberg et al, in Endocrine Reviews, March 2012]


The NAP uses several pesticides rated as “Hazardous” or “Most Hazardous” by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. But the one they’ve favored is glyphosate — better known as Roundup or Aquamaster.

It’s strongly suspected of being an endocrine disruptor.

Here’s a 2009 study: Glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic and endocrine disruptors in human cell lines.

Another study, also published in 2009, looked at puberty and testosterone: Prepubertal exposure to commercial formulation of the herbicide glyphosate alters testosterone levels and testicular morphology. The abstract of the study ends with this sentence, “These results suggest that commercial formulation of glyphosate is a potent endocrine disruptor in vivo, causing disturbances in the reproductive development of rats when the exposure was performed during the puberty period.”

And here’s a study published in 2007, reflecting the research of a group of scientists from Texas A&M: Alteration of estrogen-regulated gene expression in human cells induced by the agricultural and horticultural herbicide glyphosate


Most people weren’t aware that pesticides were being used in so-called “Natural Areas.” The notices were small and well below eye-level. You had to be looking for them, which isn’t likely for most people out hiking or jogging by, or keeping an eye on small kids. In recent months, the labeling has improved, with taller posts and clearer information.

Now that people are beginning to notice, they’re also objecting. The response we hear most often is “Why would they use herbicides in a natural area?”

So the NAP has started posting explanations, justifying its use of toxic herbicides justifiable against “invasive plants.”

These plants, they say, are “a handful of non-native species” that are “displacing the rich biodiversity of native flora and degrading our natural heritage.”


We have several problems with this statement.

  • If it’s a “handful,” the NAP must have very big hands. From the pesticide application records, we’ve counted nearly twenty-five different plant species under attack by chemicals — including a couple that aren’t actually non-native.
  • There’s no evidence that all these plants are invasive and that they’re “displacing the rich biodiversity.” Native plants and non-native plants thrive together in natural mixed ecosystems. NAP can never eliminate all the non-native plants; the best it can achieve is a different mix, precariously maintained through intensive gardening.
  • There’s also no evidence it’s working. Using chemicals to kills things is cheap and easy, but it leaves a gap where something else will grow. Given that San Francisco’s environment has changed greatly since the 1776 cut-off used to define “native” plants, it’s not going to be those plants. Rather, what will naturally grow back will be the most invasive plant at the site. An excuse for more herbicides.
  • The NAP is destroying habitat in its quest to kill native plants. Many of the plants destroyed are bushes that provide cover and nesting places, or flowering plants that offer nectar to butterflies, bees and other pollinators and the birds and animals that feed on them. The “native flora” don’t necessarily provide much of either, even if they can be successfully gardened.

Conservation Refugees: The misanthropy of ecological “restorations”

Hawaiians protest confiscation of public lands

We recently told our readers about the controversial “restoration” projects in Hawaii.  Now our colleagues in Hawaii have sent us photographs of a public protest in Hawaii and The Hawaii Reporter tells us why they are protesting.  Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is fencing the public out of another 17 square miles of prime forest on the Big Island.  All the non-native animals—sheep, goats, pigs—will be exterminated and all their non-native food—strawberry guava, passion fruit, etc—will be eradicated in that fenced enclosure.   The people who hunted the animals and gathered fruit in the forest are protesting the loss of this source of food. 

In addition to the loss of food, the protestors also object to the loss of an activity that is central to the Hawaiian culture of foraging and hunting for food.   DLNR’s response to that particular complaint is that the historical record indicates that Hawaiians didn’t hunt prior to the arrival of Europeans because they raised animals as their own. 

In other words, not only does DLNR wish to stop the biological clock, they also wish to freeze-frame the Hawaiian culture to a pre-European standard.  They don’t seem to have considered that the Europeans essentially confiscated the land of the Hawaiians when they arrived, which deprived the Hawaiians of the land needed to raise animals.  That’s too bad.  The Hawaiians are not allowed to hunt now because they didn’t hunt 250 years ago.   As absurd as creating botanical museums seems to us, the suggestion that culture must also be prevented from evolving strikes us as utterly ridiculous.

Hawaiians protest loss of access to public lands

Conservation Refugees

Hawaii’s cost of living has always been one of the highest in the country because virtually all of its food must be imported.   And now Hawaiians are being deprived of an important source of food by the confiscation of public lands.  Will these Hawaiians join the ranks of the millions of conservation refugees all over the world who have been displaced in the name of conservation?

We were introduced to conservation refugees by Mark Dowie in 2004.  He told us that the belief that wilderness is not compatible with human community originated with John Muir, who demanded that Native Americans living in Yosemite be removed from the valley.  Native Americans were also removed from Yellowstone when the National Park was created.  These Native Americans were the first conservation refugees, but not the last.

Dowie told us that the worldwide official protected areas—parks, reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, biodiversity corridors—had expanded from 1,000 in 1962 to 108,000 in 2004.  The total number of indigenous people displaced by the creation of these protected areas is not known because most countries make no attempt to quantify the impact.  In Chad an estimated 600,000 indigenous people became conservation refugees when the amount of protected areas increased from 0.1 to 9.1 percent of total national land in the 1990s.  India admits to creating 1.6 million conservation refugees as a result of creating new protected areas and the Indian government estimates that 2 or 3 million more will be displaced in this decade.

Dowie visited some of the communities that have been displaced by the confiscation of their ancestral land.  The loss of their land is also the loss of their way of life.  Hunters/gatherers are deprived of their source of food.  Likewise, farmers lose their croplands.  They wander into shanty towns where they lack the skills to survive in the modern world.  They create shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of their homeland where they live without sanitation or water.  The fabric of their communities is shattered.

Emma Marris* observes the irony of these evictions of traditional cultures which have tended these remnants of the wilderness for generations.  These places were targets for conservation because they had been preserved by traditional cultures that had learned to co-exist with nature.  This is how they are rewarded for their stewardship of the land.

What is accomplished?

What is gained when Hawaiians are thrown out of their public lands, depriving them of a source of food?  Are these projects successful?  Are the plants and animals that existed in Hawaii several hundred years ago returning to the fenced reserves that have been created for them?

Emma Marris visited one of these projects in Hawaii.  A small test plot was cleared of all non-native plants, requiring the removal of about half of all the vegetation.  That process took about a week per thousand square feet and then “epic bouts of weeding thereafter.”

 The theory was that the removal of all the non-natives would enable the natives to thrive without the competition for sunlight and water.  Five years later, there is little evidence that native plants have benefited from the eradication of all non-native plants:

“Disappointingly, the mature native trees had grown very little.  As [the project directors] put it, ‘The native trees may either be responding to the treatments very slowly and still undetectably, or they may be unable to respond at all.’”

The directors of this project also told Marris, “I think that people that are interested in protecting Hawaii’s flora and fauna have resigned themselves to it being in postage-stamp sized reserves.”   Apparently Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources hasn’t gotten this message.  They are now creating another 17 square mile reserve with the intention of eradicating everything non-native in it.  Nothing is likely to be accomplished by all that death and destruction and some Hawaiians will also go hungry.

The slippery slope of nativism

Perhaps we should be grateful that the “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area aren’t depriving us of our homes and our livelihoods.  We are just being fenced out of our public parks.  We are just losing our trees.  Our public parks are just being poisoned with pesticides.

But we watch these projects all over the world and we listen to the demands of local native plant advocates and we wonder where this is headed.  In San Francisco, for example, native plant advocates are demanding that all of the public lands in the city be managed as “natural areas.”  In addition to destroying the trees in our parks, would we lose the trees on all our public properties?  We also know that native plant advocates want plant nurseries to quit selling to the public the approximately 200 plants that they have categorized as “invasive.”  Will we lose the right to plant what we want in our own backyards?  Given what we see happening around the world, it doesn’t seem farfetched. 

* Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011

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.

Nativism: The Hawaiian case

The case for native plant and animal restorations is strongest on islands.  They contain the most endemic species, unique to those places.  More extinction has occurred on islands than on the mainland of the United States because species that evolved in isolation are more vulnerable to new competition than species that have evolved with more competition.  Theoretically, if man were able to eradicate non-native species of plants and animals, it would be easier to prevent re-invasions on an island.  Consequently the Hawaiian Islands are a hot-bed of nativism.

The efforts to eradicate many species of plants and animals in the Hawaiian Islands are just as controversial there as they are here in the Bay Area.   Here is a sampling of the legal, environmental, and ethical questions raised by these eradication projects:

  • Coqui frog

    The coqui is a tiny frog that was inadvertently introduced to Hawaii from Puerto Rico in the 1980s.  There are no native frogs in Hawaii, so efforts to eradicate the coqui aren’t predicated on the usual claim that it will out-compete its native counterpart.  In this case, those who launched this campaign claimed that the frog will eat all the insects on the islands, depriving other animals of this food source.  The proposal was to spray highly concentrated caffeine in the forests occupied by the frog.  No tests were conducted to determine what effect this would have on any of the plants or other animals that would be sprayed in the process.

    Strawberry guava, USDS
  • The strawberry guava was introduced to Hawaii as a fruit tree, just as virtually every fruit tree in America was.  The proposal was to eradicate the strawberry guava with biocontrol, which means an insect was introduced that would theoretically feed solely on the strawberry guava.  The theory of biocontrol is more appealing than the reality, which in practice has often introduced new predators that are more difficult to control than the original target.  This eradication effort was also controversial because the strawberry guava is a valuable source of food for all animals in Hawaii, including humans.
  •  Mangroves are coastal forests that are considered valuable nurseries for marine life.  In Hawaii some have been eradicated with herbicides.  The skeletal remains of the mangrove are left to rot in the water, creating an eyesore and a graveyard for the animals that lived there.

                                                Animals are caught in the middle

The endangered monk seal has been caught in the middle of the nativist debate in HawaiiBecause it is endangered, government biologists are obligated by law to try to prevent its extinction.  The monk seal has therefore been introduced to places in the Hawaiian Islands in which it hasn’t previously lived, based on the belief that it will have less competition in these areas.  This introduction of the monk seal into new territory has made it vulnerable to two diametrically opposite sides of this debate.  The monk seals are being bludgeoned to death by someone who doesn’t want them there.  Is it a fisherman who believes the legal protections provided for the endangered seal will threaten his fishing rights?  Or is it one of the nativists who are saying that the seals “don’t belong here?”

Monk Seal, Hawaii Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Sydney Singer is a medical anthropologist who lives in Hawaii.  He is in the forefront of the opposition to the eradication of non-native plants and animals, particularly the toxic methods used by the projects.  He has written a tongue-in-cheek quiz for Hawaiians to get at the bottom of that vexing question about what “belongs” in Hawaii.  With Dr. Singer’s permission, we share this quiz with our readers:

What belongs in Hawaii?

“A NOAA[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]report released last year showed 35 percent of those surveyed at beaches and popular fishing areas on Kauai and Molokai believed the [monk] seals aren’t native to the islands.

This raises a critical question for our legislators to consider as invasive species eradicators come to the public trough for more money to kill plants and animals that “don’t belong in Hawaii”.

How can we tell what does and doesn’t “belong” in Hawaii? Here is a quiz.

 From the following list, pick the item that best matches your personal prejudice:

  • Any plants or animals that were brought to Hawaii by human beings, including by the Hawaiians, don’t belong here.
  • Any plant or animal brought by the Hawaiians is okay, but those brought by any other culture are bad and don’t belong here. However, alien biocontrol agents, such as insects and fungi which attack plants and animals that don’t belong here, do belong here.
  • Any plants or animals that are useful, beautiful, or in some other way make our lives better belong here, but those that are noxious or poisonous don’t belong here.
  • How do I know?  I’m from New Jersey. I’m just glad to be alive and be living here.

This question is especially important for the invasive species committees and their army of eradicators poisoning, trapping, shooting and infesting our islands to kill species that they have decided “don’t belong.” And now, following their lead, members of the public are killing endangered Monk seals.”

                                                                  The elusive “baseline”

What is Dr. Singer trying to tell us with these rhetorical questions?  He is reminding us that every living creature in the Hawaiian Islands came from somewhere.  When the islands emerged from the sea as volcanoes they were completely barren.  They were slowly populated over millennia by plants and animals brought by the wind, by the sea, by birds and animals.  Humans arrived on the islands over 1,000 years ago when Polynesians came by boat from neighboring islands.  And Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to arrive in the islands in 1778.  Each of these “invasions” brought new creatures.  Many of those creatures are now extinct. The historical food web cannot be recreated because some pieces are missing and some pieces are unknown. So, how can we arrive at a “baseline” which we now attempt to replicate?  It’s a conundrum that illustrates the fundamental absurdity of the entire concept of restoring historical ecology.