Money and Fire: 2022 Conference of California Native Plant Society

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) held a conference in October for the first time since 2018.  There were two main themes of the conference:

Money:  The State of California is making a huge investment in the environment with many interrelated goals:

  • “30 X 30” is shorthand for the goal of protecting 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.
  • Developing “nature-based solutions” to address the threats of climate change.
  • Vegetation and forest management to reduce wildfire hazards.
  • Protecting and enhancing California’s biodiversity.

Fire:  The frequency and intensity of wildfire is of concern to all Californians, but the California Native Society has a particular interest in fire because it is viewed as a tool to enhance native plant abundance and control the spread of non-native plants that outcompete native plants.

Money

If attendance were the sole measure of success, the conference was a resounding success.  The conference was sold out with record-breaking attendance of 1,200 people.  That’s a 50% increase in attendance since 2018, when 800 people attended.  People came to learn about the many opportunities for public funding of their “restoration” projects and they were not disappointed.

Jennifer Norris, Deputy Secretary for Biodiversity and Habitat for the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) was one of the keynote speakers.  She and many other staff of CNRA made presentations at the conference to inform the community of native plant advocates about the many new opportunities to obtain grants for their projects.  This slide (below) shown at the conference, itemized by state agencies the $1.631 Billion budget for just the 30 X 30 portion of the CNRA’s environmental grant programs.  It does not include Cal-Fire funding for forestry projects to reduce wildfire hazards and address climate change.  Nor does it include $10 million of new funding for Weed Management Areas, which funds projects that attempt to eradicate non-native plants and $10 million of new funding for the state council for invasive species. State funding is also supplemented by new federal funding in support of a national goal of achieving 30 X 30. 

But money isn’t the only element of this state program that native plant advocates are excited about.  They have also been gifted a three-year moratorium on requirements for Environmental Impact Reports for their projects.  There will therefore be no requirements for a public process to review plans and comment on them. 

An anxious applicant for state grant funding asked a speaker representing the Wildlife Conservation Board about a rumor that projects using herbicides would not be funded.  The speaker’s reassuring answer was, “We are not rejecting projects using herbicides.” Applicants are being asked to complete a questionnaire about herbicides they plan to use, but the speaker was quick to add, “We have not rejected any [such applications] so far.”  She assured the audience that “You are all careful” in your use of herbicides.

Huge buckets of money are being distributed with no restrictions on the use of herbicides and no vetting process such as an environmental impact review with opportunities for the public to comment.  It seems inevitable that some of the projects will unintentionally do more harm than good, and the public will have nothing to say about which projects are funded. 

Fire

Alexii Sigona was the first keynote speaker for the conference.  He is a member of the Amah Mutsun-Ohlone Tribal Band (not a federally recognized tribe) and a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science.  He explained that there are 600 recognized members of the Amah Mutsun Band in a wide region around Pescadero, Hollister, and San Juan Bautista.  They collaborate with organizations such as CNPS because they don’t have the resources to manage their ancestral tribal lands.  He described some of the projects they engage in:

  • Landscape scale removal of “invasive” plants.
  • Plug planting of 120,000 native grass plants.
  • Creating “native hedgerows” for food sources.
  • Removal of native Douglas Firs “encroaching” on grassland.  They have removed 5,000 native Douglas fir trees.  He acknowledged that this project caused some concern about erosion and aesthetics.  Removal of native Douglas fir was mentioned by several other speakers during the conference.  It is an example of the preference of native plant advocates for grassland because it is the pre-settlement vegetation.  Native coyote brush is another target of eradication projects that attempt to prevent natural succession of grassland to other vegetation types. 

There is great interest among native plant advocates in the land management practices of Native Americans because controlled burns were Native Americans’ most important tool to maintain grassland species needed for food and for their prey.  Controlled burns are important to native plant advocates because they believe they are beneficial to native plants and help to control non-native plants.  Prescribed burns are also currently popular with many public land managers and they are the current fad among many fire scientists. 

Two presentations at the conference suggest that prescribed burns are not compatible with the preservation of native chaparral, nor are they capable of converting non-native grassland to native grassland.

This (above) is the concluding slide of Jon E. Keeley’s presentation.  Dr. Keeley is a respected fire scientist with US Geological Service with expertise in chaparral species.  He explained that 60% of native chaparral species (notably manzanita and ceonothus) are obligate seeders that do not resprout after fire and therefore depend on the existence of their dormant seed bank for regeneration.  In recent decades the fire interval in chaparral has decreased due to climate change and associated drought.  In many places, the fire interval has become too short to establish the seed bank needed for regeneration.  In those places Dr. Keeley has observed vegetation type conversion to non-native annual grasses. 

Dr. Keeley Is concerned that vegetation type conversion from forests in some cases and shrublands in others to non-native annual grassland may be the result of shortening fire intervals further “because of the upsurge in state and federal programs to utilize prescription burning to reduce fire hazard.” (1) This concern extends to some conifer species that do not resprout.  Some are serotinous conifers whose cones are sealed shut and do not release their seeds in the absence of fire. 

This is a familiar theme for much of Dr. Keeley’s research.  He asks that land managers balance the conflicting goals of resource management and fire hazard reduction. 

This (above) is the concluding slide (sorry for the poor quality of my photo) of a presentation about a 20-year effort at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve to convert non-native annual grassland to native grassland, using annual (sometimes bi-annual) prescribed burns.  Many different methods were used, varying timing, intensity, etc.  The abstract for this presentation reports failure of the 20-year effort:  “Non-native grass cover significantly decreased after prescribed fire but recovered to pre-fire cover or higher one year after fire.  Native grass cover decreased after prescribed fire then recovered to pre-burn levels within five years, but never increased over time.  The response of native grass to fire (wild and prescribed) was different across time and within management units, but overall native grass declined.” (1)

The audience was audibly unhappy with this presentation.  One person asked if the speaker was aware of other places where non-native grass was successfully converted to native grass.  The speaker chuckled and emphatically said, “NO.  I am not aware of any place where native grasses were successfully reintroduced.” 

Another questioner prefaced her question with the admission that “I’m new here and all this is new to me.”  Then she suggested that Native Americans are having some success using prescribed fire and that they should be consulted.  The speaker graciously replied that she planned to do so. 

Keep in mind that Native Americans weren’t historically using prescribed fire to convert annual grasses to native grasses.  Their burns were intended to maintain native grassland in the absence of competing non-native annual grassland.  Their objectives were different and they were operating in a very different climate and environment. 

Estimates of the pre-settlement population of Native Americans in California range from 138,000 to 750,000.  The population of Native Americans is estimated to have been reduced to as few as 25,000 after the arrival of Europeans due to disease and violence.  There are now over 39 million Californians and only 630,000 of them were Native Americans in the 2020 census.  Land management practices that are suitable for a population of less than 1 million seasonally migrating Californians are not necessarily suitable for a population of over 39 million sedentary Californians.   

The futility of trying to eradicate non-native plants

The Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) is another 20-year eradication project that is doomed to failure.  The presentation about the ISP was bravely made by Dr. Debra Ayres, one of the creators of the ISP in 1998.  With intensive effort and hundreds of gallons of herbicide (imazapyr), non-native spartina marsh grass has been greatly reduced in the San Francisco Bay, but the hybrid of non-native S. alterniflora and native S. foliosa persists.  Dr. Ayres explained why:

The spartina hybrid is reproductively stronger in every way than either of its parent species.  Dr. Ayres predicts that the hybrid will eventually replace both of its parent species:

If the goal of this project was to eradicate non-native spartina, hybrid spartina will accomplish that goal. You might think that this prediction would end the futile attempt to eradicate the hybrid, but you would be wrong.  There is no intention of abandoning this 20-year project.  More funding is assured by the California Coastal Conservancy and the project continues to provide well-paid jobs. 

Dr. Ayres ended her presentation with this enigmatic statement:  Evolution doesn’t stop just because we think it has to.”  She seems to acknowledge that humans cannot stop evolution, yet she seems to recommend that we continue to try doing so.  If those positions seem contradictory, that’s because they are.  The bottom line is that as long as public funding continues to be available, this project will continue.

A central theme of the nativist agenda is the futile desire to prevent hybridization because it has the potential to replace a species considered “native.”  They fail to understand that hybridization is an important evolutionary tool that helps plant and animal species adapt to changes in environmental conditions by favoring traits that are better adapted to new conditions.  Humans cannot stop evolution, nor should we try.

San Francisco

I have a special interest in San Francisco because I lived there for nearly 30 years.  The native plant movement is very strong in San Francisco and there were several presentations about the success of the movement at the conference.

Sunset Blvd being built on barren sand in 1931

One of the projects is trying to turn Sunset Blvd on the western side of San Francisco into a native plant garden.  I lived in that district and am therefore familiar with Sunset Blvd as the major north-south traffic artery through the district.  It is important as the only wind break in the windiest district of the city, which is only 13 short blocks from the ocean.  The district is virtually treeless because of wind conditions and the pre-settlement landscape of barren sand.  Sunset Blvd is therefore the oasis of the Sunset District.  In the past, it was the only place to take a long walk in the shelter of the tall Monterey pines and cypress and tall-shrub understory.  The lawn beneath the trees was the only place for children to play close to their homes.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) is responsible for maintaining the medians in San Francisco.  It was therefore DPW’s responsibility to replace the wind break on Sunset Blvd that is dying of old age.  That’s not what they chose to do.  They are replacing the lawn with native shrubs and the tall trees with small native trees that won’t provide shelter from the wind. 

The spokesperson for DPW acknowledged that the project is controversial.  Neighbors of Sunset Blvd valued the sheltered recreational space provided by the 2.5 mile-long and wide median.  Native plant advocates and their allies want to create a wildlife corridor through the western edge of the city.  The spokesperson for DPW said that their plans are a compromise between these different viewpoints.  I don’t know if the neighbors agree, but I can say that native plant advocates are thrilled with the new native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd based on their presentation at the CNPS conference.

Planting Sunset Blvd. with native plants, December 2020

Native plant advocates prevailed on Sunset Blvd because CNPS bought or raised all the native plants and provided volunteers to plant them and maintain them for 3 years.  DPW couldn’t look their gift horse in the mouth. DPW hired 6 new gardeners to support maintenance of Sunset Blvd. This is an example of how the money that is flowing into such projects will transform many places into native plant gardens. 

Sunset Blvd and Taraval, spring 2022

So, let’s look at the result of these projects.  Presenters of these projects showed many beautiful pictures of newly planted native gardens on Sunset Blvd (above).  The pictures were taken in spring, when native plants briefly flower.  But that’s not what these places look like most of the year.  They will look better if they are irrigated year-round, but that would defeat the purpose of replacing the lawn to reduce water usage.  Unlike native plants, lawn turns brown during the dry season if it isn’t watered, but it is still functional as walkable ground. 

Here’s what that garden at Sunset Blvd and Taraval looks like most of the year:

Sunset Blvd & Taraval, October 23, 2022

There was also a presentation by a spokesperson from San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the creation of rain gardens in San Francisco.  San Francisco’s sewer system was built long ago when regulations did not require the separation of street run off from residential sewage.  When it rains, the sewage treatment plant is overwhelmed by street run off.  The sewage treatment plant releases untreated sewage and run off into the ocean, in violation of federal standards for water treatment. 

Rain garden on Sunset Blvd as shown at the CNPS Conference
Rain Garden on Sunset Blvd in August 2022. They aren’t pretty year around.

The PUC is developing rain gardens to redirect street run off away from sewage treatment plants into the ground so that treatment plants are not overwhelmed during heavy rain.  The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that 151 rain gardens have been installed so far. It seems a very good idea, but native plant advocates are not happy with the rain gardens because the PUC has not made a commitment to plant exclusively native plants in the rain gardens.  The audience pressured the speaker about this issue.  He advised them to lobby the PUC to make a commitment to plant only native plants in the rain gardens.  I have no doubt that they will take his advice.  Given their influence and their access to public funding, I would be surprised if the PUC continues to resist their demands.

Conclusion

I have undoubtedly exhausted your patience, although there is much more I could tell you about, including several projects that look promising because they are exploring the importance of soil health to achieve successful results.

The conference themes in 2022 were consistent with the previous two conferences I have attended since 2015.  This is my summary of the fundamental errors of the nativist agenda in the natural world.  They are as apparent in 2022 as they were in 2015: 

  • The futility of trying to eradicate non-native plants that are better adapted to current environmental conditions.
  • The futile and harmful attempts to prevent natural succession and hybridization.
  • The contradictory goals of fuels management and resource management.
  • The lack of understanding that vegetation changes when the climate changes.  The ranges of native plants have changed and will continue to change.  The pre-settlement landscape of the 18th century cannot be recreated.
  • The lack of understanding of the importance of soil health to ecological restoration and associated ignorance (or denial) of the damage that pesticides do to the soil. 

(1) Abstracts for all presentations are available on the CNPS website.

“Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change”

Green Oaks, Knox College
Green Oaks, Knox College

Restoration and Environmental Change:  Renewing Damaged Ecosystems was written by Stuart Allison.  He is Professor of Biology and Director of Green Oaks Field Study Center at Knox College in Illinois.  His perspective on ecological restorations is unique because he is both a scientist and actively engaged in ecological restoration. 

There is a predictable tension between applied and theoretical science.  Ecology is particularly susceptible to this tension because its application is usually considered the immediate goal of the theoretical science that is intended to inform and guide it.  Therefore, we were very interested in Professor Allison’s viewpoint and we were intrigued by the suggestion of his title that his book would take into consideration the rapidly changing environment.

Although the restoration goal at Green Oaks is the re-creation of the tall grass prairie that is the historical landscape, Allison’s Ph.D. degree from UC Berkeley in Integrative Biology suggested that he is also familiar with our local ecology in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In fact, he mentions our controversy regarding the desire of native plant advocates to eradicate eucalyptus in California and he uses it to illustrate his opinion of novel ecosystems.

“When I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley there was (and still is) a magnificent grove of blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) outside of the Life Sciences Building.  It was rumored that they were some of the tallest blue gums in the world, growing so tall because they lacked any herbivores and diseases.  Eucalyptus trees grow beside roads all along California’s coastal highways and in the inland valleys of the coast ranges.  In fact, I cannot imagine California without eucalyptus trees.  But, of course, eucalyptus are not native to California–the first eucalyptus was introduced to California by Australian miners coming to the Gold Rush in the 1850s.  Today eucalyptus are so well established that many people think they are native to California, and even if they know they are not native, they don’t want to see them removed because to them, like me, eucalyptus are a central part of their experience of California.  Some people also fear that removal of eucalyptus will lead to erosion on steep hillsides and a decline in biodiversity.  In contrast, native plant enthusiasts in California would love to see eucalyptus permanently removed.  The dominance of eucalyptus in California is hardly unusual for a novel ecosystem, but it stands out because the trees came from Australia and because they are so striking in appearance and aroma that they can’t be missed.” (1)

Professor Allison then acknowledges that some scientists are now interested in and respectful of novel ecosystems such as the eucalyptus forest.  However, he is worried “that novel ecosystems will lead to a homogenized world in which the same species…are found everywhere.”   That debate is not the central theme in his book.  His primary objective is to take the pulse of his colleagues in ecological restoration and report the changes in their objectives in the past 20 years, given the rapid changes that have occurred in the environment.

What is the goal of ecological restoration?

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) is the professional organization recognized by most restorationists.  Its Policy Working Group claims that “an ecosystem is fully restored and the project has been completed when the restoration ‘contains sufficient biotic and abiotic resources to continue its development without further assistance or subsidy.’”

Annual Prairie Burn, Green Oaks, Knox College
Annual Prairie Burn, Green Oaks, Knox College

Professor Allison tells us that the restoration in which he has been engaged for over 20 years will never achieve that standard:  “The tall grass prairie and savanna restorations I work with are all based on a return to historical pre-Euro-American disturbance, but all require perpetual management and human intervention to maintain them on the desired ecological trajectory.  Without regularly applied fire, those ecosystems would soon become dominated by many woody species and grow into a woodland lacking prairie or savannah characteristics.”  Professor Allison describes the annual “Prairie Burn” at Green Oaks which is considered an important social event by students at Knox College.

This is one of many ironies about ecological restorations.  Many projects are attempting to re-create an historical landscape at a specific period of time, which was not the result of natural succession.  In the case of grassland prairie, it was largely the result of periodic fires set by Native Americans.  Left to its natural devices, grassland would soon be “invaded” by shrubs and over time it would become a forest if soil and climate conditions were suitable.  In that sense, it is an artificial landscape, as unnatural as any manmade garden.  That the humans who created that historical landscape were indigenous, as opposed to European settlers, seems to us a meaningless, legalistic quibble.

The “field of dreams” theory

Most restoration projects focus almost entirely on plants.  Little explicit attention is paid to the animals that are the desirable inhabitants of the restoration.  Restorationists believe that if the habitat is made available, the animals will quickly follow.  This is the “field of dreams” theory, i.e., if we build it, the animals will come.   This is magical thinking.

Restoration projects rarely monitor the results of their projects sufficiently to test this theory.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, native plant advocates claim there are more birds and animals occupying restoration sites, but these are anecdotal observations that cannot be verified.  Nor do they seem credible to skeptics of the projects, who often think the habitat that has been eradicated actually supported more wildlife. 

Evolving goals of restoration projects

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we have observed the changing objectives of ecological restorations.  Over fifteen years ago, local projects were touted as “sustainable.”  The public was told that once restored to historical equilibrium conditions, the projects would be capable of sustaining themselves without further resources. 

Comparson of pesticides used by San Francisco's "Natural Areas Program" compared to landscaped areas of San Francisco's parks
Comparson of pesticides used by San Francisco’s “Natural Areas Program” compared to landscaped areas of San Francisco’s parks. Photo courtesy of SF Forest Alliance.

We no longer hear that claim.  Now we are told that our “natural areas” must be managed in perpetuity.  More herbicides are used in San Francisco’s “natural areas” than landscaped portions of the parks, with the exception of a professional tournament golf course.  And if we want the animals that historically occupied those areas, they must be reintroduced, using labor-intensive methods.

Professor Allison observes the same “mission creep” amongst his colleagues.  The goal of replicating an historical landscape is no longer the dominant theme of ecological restorations.  Now the goal is more commonly defined in terms of increasing “biodiversity” and improving “ecological functions.”

New buzz words

If the new goal of ecological restorations is greater biodiversity and improved ecological functions, it seems reasonable to ask what these terms mean.  Unfortunately, we were unable to find the answer to that question in Professor Allison’s book.  Those terms are used as though their meanings are intuitively obvious.  They are not.  These terms are jargon that has little intrinsic meaning and they probably mean different things to different people.

When scientific studies quantify biodiversity, they count species of both native and non-native plants and animals.  Since there are now far more species of non-native plants and animals and far fewer extinctions of native plants and animals, biodiversity has increased virtually everywhere in the world.  So, as far as science is concerned, how could a restoration project that eradicates all non-native species result in greater biodiversity?

Obviously native plant advocates are defining the word “biodiversity” differently than traditional science.  Native plant advocates seem to define biodiversity as exclusively native.  Furthermore, the nativist ideology believes that the mere existence of non-native plants and animals will inevitably result in the extinction of native plants and animals.  There is little scientific evidence to support this assumption.  Few extinctions have been attributed to the existence of non-native plants and no extinctions blamed on non-native plants have occurred in the continental United States.

The term “ecological functions” is even more mysterious as it relates to ecological restorations.  It could mean almost anything:  production of biomass, soil composition, photosynthesis, carbon sequestration and storage, nutrient cycling, fire regime, hydrologic cycle, etc. 

Professor Allison does not provide us with his definition of this term, so we will make an assumption based on our knowledge of ecological scientific literature.  We told our readers about a study in Hawaii which compared native and non-native forests with respect to the ecological functions they are performing.  In that study, three such functions were measured and reported:  carbon sequestration, production of biomass, and nutrient cycling.  The study concluded that non-native forests were performing these ecological functions as well as native forests. 

We can also compare treeless grassland prairie with a native or non-native forest with respect to those ecological functions.  Forests—whether native or non-native– will fulfill these and other functions at least as well as the grassland prairie.  If we add the factor that the grassland prairie must be burned annually to maintain it, clearly the grassland prairie is an ecological deficit because it releases pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when it is burned.

The moving target

The goals of ecological restoration are a moving target.  The original goals of re-creating an historical landscape that would be sustainable without continual maintenance are now widely acknowledged to be unrealistic. 

The new goals are equally elusive.  The new goals are described in obscure ways that will be impossible to measure or evaluate.  That suits the purposes of native plant advocates perfectly.  They can continue to do whatever they want and the public can’t hold them accountable because the public is not provided with a practical method of measuring success or failure.  

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(1)    Stuart K. Allison, Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change:  Renewing Damaged Ecosystems, Routledge, UK, USA, Canada, 2012