The Sierra Club, like many American institutions, is trying to come to grips with systemic racism. The Club was founded in 1892 under the leadership of John Muir who “…made derogatory comments about Black and Indigenous peoples that drew deeply on harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” according to Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in his letter of July 2020 to Club members (available HERE).
Author and activist, Rebecca Solnit, follows up on the roots of racism in the American environmental movement in the most recent edition of Sierra Magazine, the national magazine for Club members. Her telling of events reveals the founding error of the native plant movement that was based on the mistaken assumption that European settlers were entering a pristine landscape that had been unaltered by humans. The goal of the native plant movement has therefore been to replicate the pre-settlement landscape, presumed to be the ideal landscape.
Early settlers were well aware that they were entering occupied land. After all, the settlers had to dispossess Native Americans to occupy the land. But that reality was quickly forgotten, enabling “the lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’” (1)
John Muir’s lack of respect for Indigenous culture prevented him from understanding that he was looking at the results of Indigenous land management when he admired Yosemite Valley: “The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir’s rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. ‘More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined,’ he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, ‘the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden.’ He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: ‘So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine.’” (1)
In fact, Yosemite Valley looked like a garden to John Muir, because it was a garden, the garden tended by Native Americans for thousands of years:
“Native Americans as hunters, gatherers, agriculturalists and horticulturalists, users of fire as a land-management technique, and makers of routes across the continent played a profound role in creating the magnificent North American landscape that Europeans invaded. Their use of fire helped maintain plants and spaces that benefited these first human inhabitants—including increasing animal populations, causing plants to put forth new growth in the form of straight shoots suitable for arrow making and basket making, and keeping forests open and underbrush down. In Yosemite Valley, burning encouraged oak trees and grasslands to flourish; conifers have since overtaken many meadows and deciduous groves. The recent fires across the West are most of all a result of climate change—but more than a century of fire suppression by a society that could only imagine fire as destructive contributed meaningfully.” (1)
Solnit correctly describes the consequences of this founding error on the development of environmentalism: “Had he been able to recognize and convey that the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens, the plants in them encouraged, the forests managed by the areas’ Native people, the history of the American environmental movement might have been different.” (1)
Solnit believes there are three significant losses to American society and the environmental movement because of the initial lack of respect for Native Americans and their cultural practices. The first was the greatest loss to Native Americans because disrespect for them as people and a functioning society made it easier to justify dispossessing and marginalizing them. The second was the loss to American society that would have benefitted from understanding and emulating their accomplishments. And the third loss was the founding error of American conservation policy that is based on the mistaken assumption that the pre-settlement landscape is the ideal landscape because it was unchanged by humans.
Several recent scientific studies have found that lands occupied by indigenous people in Australia, Brazil, and Canada have much more biodiversity than lands that have been designated as “protected areas” by governments. Typically, indigenous people have been forced out of the protected areas, based on the assumption of traditional conservation that humans harm the environment. As the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin explains in a recent article in New York Times, “If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction [because] we’re one ecosystem.”
A new conservation ethic
Our conservation goals require a major revision to right this wrong. New goals must acknowledge that humans have altered every place on the planet for thousands of years. New goals will acknowledge that nature is dynamic, that changes in nature are usually impossible to reverse, and that they have both positive and negative impacts. New goals will be adapted to the current environment, such as higher temperatures and drought. New land management strategies can be informed by those used by Native Americans, but replicating the landscapes of 500 years ago will remain out of reach because underlying conditions have been fundamentally altered by evolution and the activities of modern society.
A new conservation ethic can honor the traditions of Native Americans as well as the sovereignty of nature. We must stop damaging nature in the futile effort to replicate a landscape that was as much a human creation as the landscape of the Anthropocene era.
The feel-good ending of the local news broadcast on Channel 7 (ABC) on February 17, 2021, featured this video of a huge field of oxalis (Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae) blooming on the roadside of Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County. People were stopping along the road to admire the bright yellow blooms of spring and photograph them. No one said anything about where the plant “belongs,” and no bad words were spoken about this useful plant that native plant advocates love to hate.
Despite its beauty and utility, oxalis is sprayed with one of the most toxic herbicides on the market in public parks and open spaces in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department has been spraying oxalis in several public parks for over 15 years. San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) published a brilliant article about this pointless and destructive crusade that was republished by Conservation Sense and Nonsense in 2015. That article about the many benefits of oxalis is one of the most popular articles on this blog; it has been viewed by over 10,000 readers and many more on the SFFA website. We invite you to visit it and we summarize it briefly here:
Oxalis blooms briefly in early spring and dies back before summer begins, leaving the ground to other plants. It does not kill other plants, rather it co-exists briefly during its annual bloom.
Oxalis is very useful to pollinators and its tuberous roots (bulbils) are eaten by ground dwelling animals such as gophers.
Oxalis is called sour-grass because of its pleasant-tasting tang and it is often eaten by children.
Triclopyr is the active ingredient in the herbicide that is used on oxalis during its blooming season. It damages the soil by killing beneficial fungi and microbes, and it is toxic to many animals.
The annual poisoning of oxalis on Mount Davidson was recently videotaped by Ron Proctor and published by the San Francisco Forest Alliance. A crew of 5 men was hired to do the deed. Ironically, this spraying of oxalis on Mount Davidson in San Francisco was taking place at the same time that tourists were admiring oxalis in a neighboring county.
Oxalis is not an isolated example of a non-native plant that is admired by the public, but hated by native plant advocates and public land managers who do their bidding. As a member of the Sierra Club, I receive emails alerting me to opportunities to advocate for the protection of the environment. The most recent email featured a picture of a yellow wildflower in the foreground of a photograph of a Bay Area landscape:
The yellow wildflower in the foreground is Black Mustard (Brassica nigra). I responded to the Sierra Club’s email:
“The plant in the foreground of your photograph appears to be Brassica nigra: ‘Brassica nigra, or black mustard, is an annual plant cultivated for its black or dark brown seeds, which are commonly used as a spice. It is native to tropical regions of North Africa, temperate regions of Europe, and parts of Asia.’ Wikipedia
“I hope the use of this photo in this Sierra Club email to its members means that the Sierra Club is finally prepared to accept the reality of the presence of non-native plants in our public parks and open spaces. The Sierra Club’s support for unnecessary and destructive eradication projects has been regrettable, particularly because they require the use of harmful herbicides. I hope this email is an indication that the Sierra Club is finally ready to reconsider this futile crusade.”
I received this disappointing reply from the Sierra Club: “The staffer who puts together our newsletter isn’t a plant buff and wouldn’t have known the difference. But I am a plant buff and review the newsletter and know the difference between a mustard and a native plant. I somehow just overlooked that photo entirely. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll be more careful in my review of the newsletter in the future (look more carefully at the photos). And we’ll change the online version.”
The beauty and resilience of weeds
The Bottom Line
The general public doesn’t care where plants came from. The public recognizes and values beauty wherever it is found. Unfortunately, our public lands are in the death grip of the native plant movement and environmental organizations that should be objecting to the use of herbicides in our public parks and not promoting that destructive agenda. The crusade against non-native plants has been responsible for spraying our public lands with dangerous pesticides for over 20 years. They have little to show for their toxic crusade, perhaps because the herbicides damage the soil and make the survival of native plants even less likely.
The featured photo at the top of this article was taken in Glen Canyon, another public park in San Francisco where oxalis has been sprayed annually for many years. The copyright photo of a coyote in a field of oxalis was taken by Janet Kessler and is shown with her permission.
I published an article recently about a race for a seat on the Board of the East Bay Regional Park District between Norman La Force and Elizabeth Echols. Based on my personal experience with La Force and with the help of a considerable public record, I recommended that voters in that Park District vote for Elizabeth Echols because Norman La Force has a long track record as an aggressive—often litigious—opponent of traditional park uses. La Force prefers parks behind fences, with no public access and he frequently sues the Park District to impose his personal preference that public parks be reserved for wildlife in which people are not welcome.
My article was read by over 2,500 people and may have helped Elizabeth Echols win that race with about 60% of the vote. Recreational users of the parks probably deserve the most credit for Echols’ victory. La Force has spent decades trying to prevent kitesurfing, kayak launches, biking, and dog walking in the parks in the district he wanted to represent. These recreational users of the parks weren’t having it.
I learned a lot about La Force during that campaign and everything I learned confirmed my judgment that he is an enemy of our urban parks with a fundamentally misanthropic view about the role of humans in nature. I will share a few of the stories about La Force with readers because La Force’s leadership role in the Sierra Club still gives him some power to launch his crusades against land use decisions that do not conform to his purist view of urban nature.
La Force horror stories
Berkeleyside published four op-eds about the race for the Park District Board seat; three endorsed Echols and one endorsed La Force. (1) The comments on those op-eds were instructive. Many people who participate in land use issues stepped forward to tell their personal stories about their bad experiences with La Force.
This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying to prevent a high school girl’s crew team from rowing at Aquatic Park in Berkeley about 20 years ago: “I attended a meeting of Berkeley planning staff when the Berkeley High girls crew team was proposing to rent and renovate the club house in Aquatic Park. The team was already rowing on Aquatic Lagoon–indeed, the lagoon is public trust land and they couldn’t be stopped. I had no real interest in that project, but I watched Norman verbally attack the representative of the girl’s team and call him a liar. He later threatened the city with a lawsuit if they leased the clubhouse to the girls team. The City backed down, the clubhouse remained vacant, and the girls were left with a very bad taste in their mouth about the Sierra Club and Norman in particular.” Jim McGrath
This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent a dog park at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley: “I first “met” Norman LaForce over 25 years ago when, as a member of a Mayor’s Task Force on Dog Use in Parks, I phoned to invite him to attend our kickoff meeting. I knew that he, in his position in the Sierra Club, had opposed a plan for an off leash area in Cesar Chavez. So I thought it would be good to get both sides to the table. Sounds reasonable, yes? That was a very rude (in more than one way) awakening to learn about what kind of person he is. He was livid, yelling and swearing at me, he was so loud that my family got to hear his vitriolic outburst as well. Needless to say he didn’t accept my invitation and did everything in his power to stop this dog park from happening—and being who Norman was and is, that means using the backdoor into city hall to thwart it.” Claudia Kawczynska (with permission)
This kitesurfer tells the story of La Force trying to prevent boating access to the bay: “I am a kitesurfer who, along with hundreds of local kiters, make heavy use of the VERY limited number of local launch sites in the East Bay. Although we have an incredible opportunity to improve launches and build new launches to expand non-motorized access to the bay and expose more people safely to this vast natural resource, La Force has not only opposed launches, he’s tried to establish a legal basis to fundamentally prohibit non-motorized access to the bay by arguing, among other things, that we destroy eel grass. Most non-motorized sailors, kiters, windsurfers, kayakers and swimmers are keenly aware of and supportive of the environment we recreate in. These are exactly the kinds of coalitions we need to build in order to create the right balance between environmental preservation, ecological health, recreational use of and strong support for our local parks.” Andrew Sullivan
This comment disputes La Force’s claim of responsibility for the creation of the McLaughlin East Shoreline Park: “I ultimately supported the plan in public—I could not oppose Sylvia McLaughlin and Dwight Steele who I revered. That’s how the dynamic on the plan really worked–Dwight and Sylvia commanded respect, and talked to everyone, Robert Cheasty cut the deals, and Norman ranted… I first met Norman at the first Coastal Conservancy charrette for what became the McLaughlin State Park. It was clear from day one that he was an advocate for wildlife and committed to keeping people out of the new park. It is not unusual to see many people claim credit for an undertaking like the park, which required many people. What is astonishing to me is Norman’s willingness to misrepresent, or perhaps forget, the positions he took at the time and represent himself as a consensus builder. Sylvia was much more of a people person, and would not be pleased to see the park named for her with so many fences that keep people out.” Jim McGrath
Of course, supporters of La Force also commented, but their comments corroborated La Force’s extremism. Some don’t want dogs in parks. Some believe boating threatens eel grass. One commenter believes that public access to parks threatens biodiversity. Many of their comments used the same antagonistic approach for which La Force is famous.
Another can of worms
The debate about this race opened another can of worms. Point Molate in Richmond is one of the most hotly contested scraps of land in the park district that will be represented by the Board seat that La Force wanted.
The City of Richmond would like to build housing at Point Molate. (Full disclosure: I consider new housing a high priority in the Bay Area where the cost of housing is prohibitive.) La Force and the Sierra Club are opposed to building any new housing in the Bay Area, whether it is urban infill or suburban open space. La Force’s original strategy in preventing this project was to promote the building of a huge gambling casino and resort on the property. He and his allies made a deal with the developers of the gambling casino that they would fund the removal of “invasive species” and the installation of native landscape in exchange for Sierra Club support for the gambling casino. (2)
The City of Richmond held a voters’ referendum to prevent a gambling casino from being built and developed a new plan for housing that would have preserved 70% of the land for parks and open space. La Force and his allies were forced to develop a new strategy. Now they claim that the site is a fire hazard with insufficient exits to evacuate in the event of fire. There was no fire hazard when La Force advocated for a gambling casino with parking for 7,500, a hotel with 1,100 rooms, entertainment complex and retail stores, but now there is, according to La Force and the Sierra Club. This is the subject of yet another La Force/Sierra Club lawsuit, filed against the City of Richmond, less than a month before the November 3, 2020 election.
La Force’s use of fear of fire as a tool to get what he wants is not new. He has used the same argument to justify the destruction of all non-native trees in the Bay Area. Anyone who is paying attention knows that virtually all the wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. Flammability of tree species has nothing to do with nativity of the species and everything to do with the characteristics of the species. For example, native bay laurels are more flammable than eucalyptus.
The SF Chronicle recently reported the new strategy of “environmentalists” of using fear of fire to prevent new housing from being built in suburban open space. The article quite rightly points out that the same people are equally opposed to building dense housing in urban transit corridors.
There is a grain of truth to concern about building housing in fire/wind corridors. But given the Sierra Club’s track record of using fear of fire to get what they want, would you trust them to tell us accurately where housing can be safely built? The Sierra Club has cried wolf too often. They are no longer a credible source of information regarding safe placement of new housing because they don’t want any housing…or any non-native trees.
I learned from following this race that recreational users of our urban parks will fight like hell to retain their access to the parks. They are less concerned about the loss of our urban forest to nativism or the use of herbicides in the parks, perhaps because herbicides aren’t used in dog parks. They want another park at Point Molate, rather than housing. Aside from helping to document the confrontational approach of La Force to impose his will on our public lands, I give credit to recreational park users for defeating Norman La Force in this race.
I hope that Norman La Force has learned something too. I hope he understands that his aspirations for political power are over. Maybe he also understands the cost of his confrontational behavior and lawsuits that force public agencies to waste taxpayers’ money to defend their sovereignty.
Most importantly, I hope the Sierra Club understands that it has paid dearly for La Force’s behavior. La Force has tarnished the reputation of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club. The endorsements of the Sierra Club for candidates for public office are no longer something to be proud of. They are an indication that the candidate is an extremist who views people as intruders in nature. This damage to the reputation of the Sierra Club is a loss to everyone because a strong and influential environmental organization is needed, but only if its objectives are to protect the environment rather than furthering the interests of a specific person who has been given more power than he can be trusted with.
The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, has published a mea culpa about the club’s racist roots. John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. He considered the Indigenous people of California despoilers of nature and was responsible for evicting them from Yosemite when it was established as a National Park. Indigenous people had lived in peace in Yosemite Valley for thousands of years and their eviction was a tragedy.
More recently, the club’s policies promoted population control in the 1960s. In the 1990s and again in the 2000s many club members tried to force the club to adopt an anti-immigration policy. The membership organized to prevent the club from adopting an anti-immigration policy and it’s time for the membership to express itself again, in support of Brune’s commitment to reverse course.
Mr. Brune apologizes for these racist policies and makes a commitment to reversing the club’s tradition of promoting the interests of wealthy, white people by investing in staff and leadership who are people of color. I have written to Michael Brune to express my support for his commitment and make suggestions for addressing several closely related issues. If you are a Sierra Club member, I urge you to write to Mr. Brune. Perhaps you can make other suggestions for improving the club’s democratic functioning, as well as increasing the diversity of its membership and leadership.
Here is my letter to Michael Brune. You can send your own letter to him at email@example.com
Michael Brune Executive Director Sierra Club
Dear Mr. Brune,
Thank you for making a commitment to confront the racist roots of the Sierra Club and take actions needed to broaden the club’s membership and leadership. As a member, I am writing to ask that the club take this opportunity to address closely related issues that have turned it into the exclusive club that it is today. The club’s policies are as much misanthropic as they are racist.
The club’s support for eradicating non-native plants and trees by using herbicides is a short-step away from its history of opposition to legal immigration. The connection between hatred of non-native plants and human immigrants is not lost on people of color.High Country News recently published this thoughtful article by a young woman of Chinese descent who has suddenly realized that the demonization of non-native plants and animals is indistinguishable from similar attitudes toward human immigrants: “Until this spring, I would have supported a concerted public effort to eradicate a threatening invasive species. But I’m no longer able to separate this environmental management strategy from the harm that the Trump administration’s insistent characterization of COVID-19 as an Asian disease has caused to Asian Americans, targeted anew for their race. I have yet to reconcile my training as an ecologist with my growing sense that what I learned reifies violent white norms far beyond the realm of natural resources.”
The club’s opposition to virtually every new housing project in the Bay Area serves the interests of wealthy home owners who object to greater housing density. At a time when thousands of people are living on the streets and thousands more are about to be evicted, the elected leadership of the Bay Area Chapter has become the “I’ve Got Mine Club.” The club is as guilty of classism as it is of racism.
The club’s opposition to recreational use of public parks and open space is also a reflection of its elitism. The Bay Area Chapter was opposed to the proposed revision of the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan because “The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.” In the same Yodeler article, the club redefines recreation: “…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing…” The club consistently demands that people be fenced out of parks because people “damage” nature and the club frequently sues to enforce its demands. Wealthy people don’t need parks. They can go to the gym. The public is welcome to walk around their fenced enclosures to observe nature, to look but not touch nature. Please visit the Berkeley Meadow to see an example of one of the many fenced pens that the club advocated for in the East Bay.
I close with specific suggestions for how the club can welcome everyone into its tent. Complaints are most effective when accompanied by suggestions for addressing those complaints.
The club needs term limits for its elected leadership positions. I have closely followed the club’s policies for 30 years. Many of the elected leaders have been in their positions for decades. The longer they are in those positions, the more entrenched their attitudes have become. They arrived with an agenda to which they continue to adhere. Younger people with different perspectives are needed to inject life into the club, people who engage in active recreation and don’t own their homes, for example.
The club needs to improve its democratic functioning. The Chapter leadership refuses to put issues on its meeting agenda with which it does not agree. There must be some mechanism for members to influence club policies. When the club takes a position on a specific local policy issue, it has an obligation is hear from both sides first. The club does not do its due diligence before making such policy decisions.
I wish you the best of luck in addressing the weaknesses of the club that have taken decades to develop and will undoubtedly take decades to turn around. The club has an important role to play. It is in everyone’s interests that the club survive and be as strong as possible. At the moment, the club wields more political power than it deserves because it is not using that power responsibly.
Sierra Club Member
cc: Ramón Cruz Sierra Club President c/o firstname.lastname@example.org
Native plant advocates originally thought they would be able to destroy all non-native trees in California based entirely on their preference for native plants. People who value our urban forest quickly challenged that assumption. Native plant advocates devised a new strategy based on fear. Fear is the most powerful justification for many public policies that deliver a wide range of agendas, including the current prejudices against immigrants that is shared by many native plant advocates.After the destructive wildfire in Oakland in 1991, native plant advocates seized on fear of fire to convince the public that all non-native trees must be destroyed. They made the ridiculous claim that native plants and trees are less flammable than non-native plants and trees.
Like most lies, the wildfire cover story has come back to bite the nativists. As wildfires rage all over the west, becoming more frequent and more intense, the public can see with their own eyes that every fire occurs in native vegetation, predominantly in grass and brush and sometimes spreading to native forests of conifers and oak woodlands. It has become difficult for nativists to convince the public that native vegetation isn’t flammable because the reality of wildfires clearly proves otherwise.
Recently, nativists have become the victims of their own wildfire cover story as they try to reconcile the contradictions in their hypocritical agendas. These contradictions are now visible both nationally and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area. We will tell you about the lie that binds nativism today.
Sierra Club caught in the wringer of its own making
The New York Times published an op-ed by Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Chad Hansen, ecologist and member of the Sierra Club Board of Directors. They informed us of a proposed federal farm bill to destroy trees on thousands of acres of national forests without any environmental review. The stated purpose of this federal plan is to reduce wildfire hazards.
The national leaders of the Sierra Club emphatically disagree that destroying trees will reduce fire hazards. In fact, they say “increased logging can make fires burn more intensely” because “Logging, including many projects deceptively promoted as forest ‘thinning,’ removes fire-resistant trees, reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy and leaves behind highly combustible twigs and branches.”
They point out that climate change and associated drought have increased the intensity of wildfires. Therefore, they say we must “significantly increase forest protection, since forests are a significant natural mechanism for absorbing and storing carbon dioxide.” Destroying forests contributes to climate change and climate change is causing more wildfires.
The leaders of the Sierra Club tell us that the most effective way to reduce damage caused by wildfires is to “focus on fire-safety measures for at-risk houses. These include installing fire-resistant roofing, ember-proof exterior vents and guards to prevent wind-borne embers from igniting dry leaves and pine needles in rain gutters and creating ‘defensible space’ by reducing combustible grasses, shrubs and small trees within 100 feet of homes. Research shows these steps can have a major impact on whether houses survive wildfires.”
Unfortunately, the Sierra Club continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth. While the national leadership speaks rationally on the subject of wildfires, the local leadership of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club continues to demand that all non-native trees in the Bay Area be destroyed.
The City of Oakland recently published a draft of its Vegetation Management Plan(VMP) with the stated purpose of reducing fire hazards. The draft plan recommends removal of most non-native trees on 2,000 acres of open space and along 300 hundred miles of roads. The plan seemed unnecessarily destructive to those who value our urban forest and have a sincere interest in reducing fire hazards, but it was unacceptable to the local chapter of the Sierra Club because it does not go far enough to destroy all non-native trees. Here are some of the revisions they demand in their public comment (1) on the draft VMP:
“…removal of all second-growth eucalyptus trees, coppice suckers and seedlings in city parks…”
“…removal of 20-year old Monterey Pine seedlings that were allowed to become established after the original pines burned and were killed in the 1991 fire…”
“…identify areas of overly mature and near hazardous Monterey Pine and Cypress trees that could be removed…”
“…recommend adoption of specific updated IPM policies for the city to implement that will allow appropriate and safe use of herbicides…”
“The Sierra Club has developed the right approach to vegetation management for fire safety…The Sierra Club’s program for vegetation management can be summarized by the Three R’s:”
“Remove fire dangerous eucalyptus, pine, and other non-native trees and other fire dangerous vegetation like French and Scotch broom…”
“Restore those areas with more fire safe native trees like bays, oaks, laurels and native grasslands…”
“Re-establish the greater biodiversity of flora and fauna that results from the return of more diverse habitat than exists in the monoculture eucalyptus plantations…”
The local chapter of the Sierra Club is making the same demands for complete eradication of non-native trees in the East Bay Regional Park District. The pending renewal of the parcel tax that has paid for tree removals in the Park District for the past 12 years was an opportunity for the Sierra Club to make its endorsement of the renewal contingent upon the Park District making a commitment to remove all non-native trees (and many other commitments).
“…the Sierra Club believes it is critical that in any renewal of Measure CC [now Measure FF on the November 2018 ballot] funding for vegetation management should be increased for the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus and their replacement with restored native habitat…Measure CC [now FF] funds should not be used to thin eucalyptus but must be allocated to the restoration of native habitat.” (1)
The national Sierra Club and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club are at odds on fire hazard mitigation. The national leadership understands that destroying trees will not reduce fire hazards. They also understand that destroying trees will contribute to climate change that is causing more destructive wildfires. The local leadership clings to the cover story that native trees are less flammable than non-native trees.
Local nativists change their tune
There is no history of wildfires in San Francisco and there is unlikely to be in the future because it is foggy and soggy during the dry summer months when wildfires occur. But the reality of the climate conditions and the absence of fire in the historical record never prevented nativists in San Francisco from trying to use the fire cover story to support their demand that thousands of non-native trees be destroyed.
Jake Sigg made those dire predictions before the native plant agenda was finally approved in 2017 after 20 years of heated debate and before many wildfires in California have established the truth that wildfires start in grass and brush and seldom in forests and in every case in exclusively native vegetation.
So, to accommodate this new reality, Jake Sigg has changed his tune. He got his wish that thousands of non-native trees be destroyed in San Francisco as well as a commitment to restore the native grassland that he prefers. Consequently it is no longer consistent with that agenda to claim that there are acute fire hazards in San Francisco, requiring the destruction of flammable vegetation.
“What protects much of San Francisco’s forested area is the city’s famed fog, said Jake Sigg, a conservation chairman of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. While walking on Mount Davidson on a recent afternoon, he said, one area was so muddy from fog that he has to be careful not to slip…’In the past, (fires) haven’t been too much of a concern for the simple reason that we have had adequate rainfall,’ Sigg said.”
According to nativists, the wet eucalyptus forest must be destroyed, but the dead/dried flammable brush and grassland must be preserved because it is native.
The elusive truth
Despite the constantly shifting story, we are not fooled. The truth is that native vegetation is just as flammable as non-native vegetation and that destroying trees—regardless of their nativity—will not reduce fire hazards.
(1) These letters on Sierra Club letterhead were obtained by public records requests and are available on request.
Today Million Trees strays off its well-worn path of informing readers of specific projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that destroy our urban forest and spray our public lands with herbicides. Under the guidance of Charles C. Mann’s latest book, The Wizard and the Prophet (1), we’ll take a detour into the philosophical tenets of conservation. There are competing visions of the future of humans on Earth and they are instrumental in producing different conservation strategies.
We begin by introducing Charles C. Mann because his previous books are essential to our understanding of ecology. His 1491 informed us that the New World “discovered” by Columbus was not the pristine landscape that modern-day native plant advocates are attempting to re-create. Rather it was a land that had been radically altered by indigenous people who had lived in the Western Hemisphere for over 10,000 years. The landscape had been extensively gardened for food production. The large animals had been hunted to extinction. The landscape in the West and Midwest was dominated by open grassland because it had been regularly burned, preventing natural succession to shrubs and trees.
Early explorers carried diseases to the New World to which they were immune, but the native people were not. By the time settlers arrived two hundred years after early explorers, most of the native people had died of the diseases introduced by the explorers. Populations of bison and other grazing animals exploded when those who hunted them were killed by disease. The grazing animals maintained the open grassland that had been created by the fires of the hunters. Archaeological research has only recently revealed the extent of native populations throughout the New World.
Charles Mann’s second book, 1493, reported the global exchange of plants and animals between the New and the Old Worlds that fundamentally altered both worlds. The extent and long history of that exchange makes it impossible for us to see those introduced plants, animals, objects as foreigners who “don’t belong here.”
Different visions of the future
Million Trees is indebted to Charles Mann for the books that are the foundation of our cosmopolitan viewpoint of the world. Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet is equally important because it helps us understand the interminable debate about conservation. There is a dark view of the future of the environment that predicts nothing but doom and gloom. Extinctions dominate their predictions of the future and humans are seen as the destroyers of nature. The more optimistic view of conservation predicts that the Earth will survive the changes made by humans because humans are capable of innovating to avoid the doom predicted by the pessimists.
Mann describes these contrasting views through the lives of two 20th Century men whom he calls the prophet and the wizard. The prophet is William Vogt, who believed that the growing population of humans threatened the future of the Earth. The wizard is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for developing more productive agricultural crops, collectively called the “Green Revolution.”
The prophet believed that the resources needed to sustain life on Earth are finite and the human population was quickly reaching the point at which sources of food, energy, and water would soon be exhausted, threatening all life with extinction. The wizard devoted his life to expanding food resources to feed the growing human population. These viewpoints are inherently contradictory because making more food available enables more people to survive and increase human populations. Vogt tried to cut off the sources of funding for the agricultural projects of Borlaug.
Different conservation methods: Food
Mann applies these different viewpoints to each major resource issue to explain why the pros and cons of different approaches to conservation are debated, beginning with food production. The Green Revolution occurred in the 1960s when subsistence crops such as wheat, corn, and rice were improved using breeding techniques. Borlaug developed a variety of wheat that was both resistant to stem rust, its most persistent enemy, and produced more wheat for harvest. Working in a desperately poor part of Mexico, with inadequate resources, Borlaug spent 15 years combining thousands of different varieties of wheat to find the winning combination. His work was done prior to our knowledge of DNA and molecular analysis, so it was a process of trial and error. It is a heart-wrenching story of brute labor in extreme conditions. The story is important to our understanding of genetic modification because it reminds us that genetic modification is as old as agriculture itself, although it was called “breeding” until we learned what we now know about DNA.
Mann visits some of the many modern methods of genetic engineering, such as the attempt to “revise” photosynthesis to enable plants to store more carbon, use less water, and tolerate higher temperatures. These projects are controversial with the public, who are deeply suspicious of all genetic engineering. In 1999, about one-quarter of Americans considered genetically modified organisms unsafe. Sixteen years later, 57% of Americans said GMOs are dangerous.
The debate about the value or risks of GMOs is an example of the competing visions of conservation. The prophets see risk and the wizards see opportunities. Surely, there ARE risks, but do they outweigh opportunities?That is the middle ground in the debate. Mann departs from his neutral stance to take a position on GMOs. He quotes many scientific sources in support of his opinion that there is far more opportunity than risk in genetic engineering. My personal opinion is that GMOs are being unfairly judged because of the development of seeds that enable the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The pesticides are damaging the environment, not the genetically modified seeds.
Update: I sent this article to Charles Mann to thank him for his work and invite him to correct any errors I may have made. He has offered this “tiny clarification:”
“I was actually trying to do something very slightly different. The argument about GMOs is frequently posed in terms of health risks–are they safe to eat? In my view, the evidence to date is overwhelming that there is no particular reason to think that GMO crops pose more dangers to human health than crops developed by conventional breeding. At the same time, there are a host of reasons to think that the now-conventional industrial-style agriculture brought to us by the Green Revolution has problems: fertilizer runoff, soil depletion, the destruction of rural communities, etc. GMOs are often said by advocates of industrial ag to be the only way to keep this system going so that we can feed everyone in the world of 10 billion. If you already think that industrial ag is a big problem, then of course you would oppose a technology that is supposed to keep it going. That seems to me a better, more fruitful ground to argue.” Charles C. Mann
I agree that “industrial ag is a big problem,” and I am grateful for this clarification.
Different conservation methods: Water
The availability of adequate water is a limitation for agriculture that provides another example of competing approaches to conservation. The wizards want dams to control available water and maximize its use for agriculture by storing water during rainy periods and using it during dry periods. They also want desalination plants to convert salt water to fresh water. 97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water. It is not useful for agriculture and it is not drinking water for humans.
Prophets want to tear down existing dams to make more water available for non-human inhabitants of the Earth. They also object to desalination plants because they kill marine life, discharge pollutants, and use a lot of energy. Water conservation is the preferred solution to water shortages according to prophets.
Different conservation methods: Energy
Energy is required for every human enterprise: heat, cooking, transportation, light, industrial production, etc. Wood was the primary source of energy for thousands of years until coal began to be used in China around 3,400 B.C. Although coal is still used, petroleum began to replace it as the primary source of fuel in the 19th century. The supply of coal and petroleum was considered finite until recently. Thanks to the wizards, extraction methods have been continuously developed such that the supply is now considered effectively infinite as long as increasingly more destructive methods are used, such as fracking and strip mining.
The prophets want to replace fossil fuels as the primary source of energy because of concerns about climate change and pollution. Although they are supportive of developing renewable sources of energy, they often object to specific projects with side-effects. They object to wind turbines because they sometimes kill birds. They object to large solar farms because they displace wildlife. Their preferred approach to energy is conservation. They want us to learn to live with less energy.
The wizards focus on improving existing sources of energy with fewer impacts on the environment. They envision a massive energy grid that can store and share the power generated by renewable sources so that energy is available to everyone at all times whether the wind blows or the sun shines. The prophets object to such big projects. They want energy to be produced locally and available locally. The Sierra Club is opposed to a California Assembly bill that would create a regional power grid.
Different conservation methods: Climate Change
All of these issues come together when climate change is debated. Wizards are working on geo-engineering approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as burying carbon in the ground. Their public policy approaches to the issue are also complex and on a large scale, such as cap-and-trade systems to create a profit-motive for reducing carbon emissions.
Prophets are unwilling to take the risks associated with geo-engineering strategies and they are skeptical that cap-and-trade will be more than a means of avoiding the sacrifices needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club was instrumental in preventing the State of Washington from passing a revenue-neutral cap-and-trade law. The Sierra Club also opposed the recent renewal of California’s cap-and-trade law. Market-based approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions may not be the strongest policy tools, but they are the only tools available in the US because there is not sufficient political support for stronger policies. Only 11 states have been able to enact market-based laws, such as cap-and-trade. Sierra Club policies are often far removed from political realities.
Charles Mann does his best to avoid choosing a side in these debates and on the whole he succeeds. He wants readers to understand that for every conservation method there is a cost and he dutifully tells us about the horrifying consequences of rigidly following one path rather the other.
Vogt, the prophet, firmly believed that the Earth and its human inhabitants would only survive if humans would voluntarily adopt public policies that would limit the growth of human population. This goal was not popularized until The Population Bomb was written by Paul Ehrlich and published by the Sierra Club in 1968. Mandatory population control became the official public policy in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, and especially India. In the 1970s and 80s millions of women were sterilized in India, often against their will. In China the one-child policy adopted in 1980 forced tens of millions of abortions, many of which killed mothers. Birth control was forced on women in Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and the Philippines.
There is constant pressure within the Sierra Club to adopt an anti-immigration policy. The Club had such a policy until 1996 and there have been several attempts since to reinstate that policy. I digress to express my personal opinion that immigration is not a legitimate environmental issue because the environment is global. The migration of people from Central America to North America does not fundamentally alter the impact on the environment. If migrants have better access to birth control and education for women in North America, the size of their families would likely decrease.
The Green Revolution and the way of the wizard carries its own baggage. The new crops and the resources needed to produce them were not equitably distributed in the places where they were needed the most. The richest farmers and biggest land owners in both India and Mexico were the primary beneficiaries of the improved agricultural methods. But it wasn’t just inequitable distribution that did the most damage. The poorest farmers owned the most marginal land. Improved crops made their land more valuable. It was suddenly worthwhile for land owners to dispossess their tenant farmers. The poorest farmers became the poorest homeless people in the huge cities of India and Mexico.
The Green Revolution also greatly increased the use of synthetic fertilizers that have caused nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff. And pesticides were another tool of the Green Revolution with their own suite of negative environmental consequences.
Both cases illustrate the important role that governments play in environmental policy. Neither the extreme application of population control methods nor the inequitable distribution of agricultural resources were inevitable. In the hands of competent, democratic government both methods had the potential to improve the well-being of humans without damaging the environment.
The Middle Ground: All of the Above
I see Mann’s book about competing conservation strategies as an endorsement of the middle ground. My own strong commitment to the middle ground probably influences my reaction to Mann’s book. The concept of “population control” is as unappealing to me as some of the geo-engineering projects being developed to address climate change.
“Population control” is antithetical to a free society. The middle ground is universal and free access to birth control, early sex education, and educating women in developing countries. Educating women is the most effective method of reducing birth rates.
The risks of geo-engineering solutions to climate change are too great to pursue without careful scientific analysis to fully understand the risks before they are implemented on a large scale. Likewise, I am opposed to building new nuclear power plants until and unless we have a safe method of disposing of the nuclear waste generated by those plants.
Ironically, the middle ground is in some sense, the most aggressive conservation strategy because it is ALL OF THE ABOVE. The consequences of climate change are too dire to choose one path and abandon the other. We must carefully go down every path available. We must do what we can to limit the increase in human population—within the constraints of a free society—and we must aggressively pursue the technological innovations that are needed to protect the environment from the activities of humans. We must develop new sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce our use of limited resources, such as water and energy.
I conclude with an important caveat. This article does not do justice to Mann’s brilliant book. I have only scratched the surface of Mann’s complex and deeply informed book. Charles Mann made a presentation to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco shortly after the publication of his book. A video of his presentation is available HERE. The video will help bridge the gap between this brief summary and reading Mann’s important book.
Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Alfred Knopf, 2018
If the owners of our public lands in the East Bay hills are finally successful in implementing their plans to destroy our urban forest, what will the hills look like? The land owners tell us in their written plans that the forests will be replaced by grassland with islands of shrubs. They also say they will preserve existing oak-bay woodlands. However, their plans make no commitments to plant anything. They predict that this conversion will take place naturally, without further intervention.
The Sierra Club, which advocates for the destruction of our urban forest, is more specific about their desire for a native landscape. The Sierra Club says, “Existing native plants in the understory will be preserved and replaced naturally. Grass and shrub land will be restored…with more naturally fire-resistant native trees and plants.”
Are these realistic predictions for the future of the East Bay hills if most of the non-native forests are destroyed? That’s the question we will ponder today.
Grassland in California
We predict that grassland is the likely immediate outcome of tree removals. The grassland will quickly succeed to shrubs in the absence of grazing and periodic fires. However, that grassland won’t be native because grassland in California has not been native for over 150 years. Here are a few of the sources of that information:
“…only about 1% of [California] grassland today could be considered pristine [AKA native]” (1)
“Non-native species are widespread and often the dominant plants in California’s grasslands…it is clear that annual grasses…are dominant over enormous portions of the state.” (2)
David Amme is one of the co-founders of The California Native Grass Association and one of the authors of East Bay Regional Park District’s “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” at a time when he was employed by EBRPD. In an article he wrote for Bay Nature he lists a few small remnants of native grasses in the East Bay and advises those who attempt to find them, “As you go searching for these native grasses, you’ll see firsthand that the introduction of the Mediterranean annual grasses is the juggernaut that has forever changed the balance and composition of our grasslands.” (3)
In a video recording of a lecture given to ecology students at UC Berkeley, Professor Joe McBride tells the students that an inventory of grassland in Strawberry Canyon found that it is 97% non-native annual grasses. (4)
Why were native perennial bunchgrasses quickly replaced by non-native annual grasses?
David Amme explains why non-native annual grasses quickly replaced native bunch grasses in his article in Bay Nature:
“The Mediterranean annual grasses grow faster and bigger than the native bunchgrasses. Established annual grass stands produce ten times the amount of seed as do native grass stands of equal area, and most important, their seeds are five to ten times larger, giving them a big jump on establishment and fast growth. Another advantage they have is their shallow, weblike root system, which quickly exploits the moisture near the surface of the soil, rendering tiny, slow-growing native perennial seedlings helpless.” (3)
Stromberg says land use changes were also instrumental in the replacement of native grasses by non-native annual grasses:
“…drought, combined with intensification of crop agriculture and intensive year-round livestock grazing resulted in a dramatic decline in native perennial grasses over a relatively short period. Diaries of early explorers such as John Muir also suggest that dramatic change occurred relatively rapidly in the mid 1800s. Native species were presumably replaced with non-native annuals whose seeds had become widespread as a result of transport by livestock, contaminations of seed crops, or active planting as forage crops.” (2)
European annual grasses evolved with a 40,000 year history of association with human disturbance in Eurasia and are therefore pre-adapted to take advantage of a highly disturbed environment such as agricultural and urban environments. They are also much more drought tolerant than California native grassland. (2)
Another factor in the dominance of non-native annual grassland is that many are known to be capable of transferring atmospheric nitrogen into the soil (called “nitrogen-fixers”). Modern burning of fossil fuels has increased atmospheric nitrogen levels. These two factors combine to increase levels of nitrogen in the soil. High levels of nitrogen in the soil “promotes fast-growing exotic annual grasses to the exclusion of native species.” (2)
What are the prospects of restoring native bunch grasses in the Bay Area?
Given the competitive advantages of non-native annual grasses, is it realistic to expect native bunch grasses to “naturally” colonize the landscape when the forests are destroyed without being planted? Probably not.
Stromberg reports on 18 grassland restoration projects on 943 acres in California in California Grasslands. All eighteen of those projects planted native plants after using various methods to eradicate non-native annual grasses. 78% of the projects used herbicides. 61% of the projects also used grazing. 56% of the projects also used some combination of mowing, disking, or burning. 11% of the projects also irrigated. None of these projects resulted in exclusively native grassland and none predicted permanent return of native grassland. (2)
We reported on a project in which nearly $500,000 was spent to convert 2 acres of non-native annual grasses to native grasses over a period of 8 years. Every possible combination of planting and eradication was used. When they ran out of money, they described their success as 50% native grasses that were predicted to last for 10 years.
We turn to David Amme again to describe the prospects of converting non-native to native grassland:
“…the Mediterranean annual grasses are a permanent part of the Californian grasslands, and they now are as much a part of California’s grasslands as the native perennial grasses once were. The time is long overdue for an official naturalization ceremony. Despite the losses suffered by native plants in the face of exotic grasses, the East Bay annual grasslands remain a tremendously productive ecosystem, in terms of producing great volumes of both forage and seed.” (3)
And apparently East Bay Regional Park District agrees with that assessment, judging by this sign posted at Inspiration Point in Tilden Park:
And the future of grassland is bleak
Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study of the future of grasslands in California by mimicking carbon dioxide and temperature levels that are predicted in the future: “In the course of a 17-year experiment on more than 1 million plants, scientists put future global warming to a real-world test.”
Here is what they learned: “The results aren’t pretty…the plants…didn’t grow more or get greener. They also didn’t remove the pollution and store more of it in the soil…Plant growth tended to decline with rising temperature….grassland ecosystems will likely not be able to tolerate the higher temperatures and increased drought stress.” (5)
Bay Nature published an interview with Elizabeth Hadly, Stanford University Paleoecologist and recently appointed faculty director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Ecological Reserve, where that research study was conducted. Professor Hadly told Bay Nature, “Global change is in motion and there is no going back, no ‘restoration’ to some historic state. I want to anticipate the future. How do we anticipate the future of the nature reserve in this place?” (6)
We agree with Professor Hadly. In a rapidly changing climate, conservation efforts should look to the future, not to the past. The past is increasingly irrelevant to conservation.
Ignorance or Strategy?
Why does the Sierra Club believe that our urban forests will be replaced by native grassland? Are they ignorant of the fact that our grassland is almost entirely non-native annual grassland? Are they unaware of the fact that none of the owners of our public land in the East Bay has any intention to plant native plants? Are they unaware of the competitive advantages of non-native grasses and the notorious failures of attempts to convert grassland from non-native to native?
Or is their ignorance actually a strategy? Do they want to seduce their followers into believing that destroying non-native trees will result in the return of a native landscape?
We don’t claim to know the motivation of those who demand the destruction of our urban forest. But we know this: destroying our urban forest will not magically produce a native landscape. Claims that it will are either dishonest or delusional.
In our next post we will address the claim that oak woodlands will also expand as a result of destroying our non-native forests. Preview: the claim that oak woodlands will expand is also delusional.
Alan Schoenherr, A Natural History of California, UC Press, 1992, page 520
Mark Stromberg, et. al., California Grasslands, UC Press, 2007, page 67
East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) is the public utility that supplies our water in the East Bay. To accomplish that task, EBMUD manages thousands of acres of watershed land. Like most open space in the Bay Area, the vegetation on EBMUD’s land is a mix of native and non-native species.
EBMUD is revising its Master Plan. The draft Master Plan renews its commitment to destroying all eucalyptus and Monterey pines in favor of native vegetation. The draft Master Plan is available HERE. EBMUD is accepting written public comments on the draft Master Plan until September 2 extended to Friday, September 16, 2106. Comments should be sent to email@example.com or by mail to Doug Wallace, EBMUD, 375 11th St, Oakland, CA 94607.
EBMUD held a public meeting about its draft Master Plan on Monday, August 15, 2016. That meeting was attended by over 200 people. Most of the crowd seemed to be there to defend their access to EBMUD trails by bicycles.
There were 10 speakers who defended our trees against pointless destruction and the consequent pesticide use to prevent their resprouting. As usual, the Sierra Club came to object to increased access for bicycles and to demand the eradication of our trees. As usual, claims of extreme flammability of non-native trees was their stated reason for demanding the destruction of the trees. Update: HERE is a video of speakers at the EBMUD meeting for and against tree destruction and pesticide use.
Furthermore, our native trees are dying of drought and disease. This article in the East Bay Times informs us that 70 million native trees have died in the past four drought years and that the millions of dead trees have substantially increased fire hazards. In other words, it is profoundly stupid to destroy healthy, living trees at a time when our native trees are dying and pose a greater fire hazard.
We are grateful to Save the East Bay Hills for permitting us to publish their excellent letter to EBMUD about their misguided plans to destroy our urban forest. We hope that their letter will inspire others to write their own letters to EBMUD by September 2, 2016. Save the East Bay Hills is a reliable source of information about our issue. Thank you, Save the East Bay Hills for all you do to defend our urban forest against pointless destruction.
Update: Save the East Bay Hills has also created a petition to EBMUD that we hope you will sign and share with others. The petition is available HERE.
August 15, 2016
Douglas I. Wallace
Environmental Affairs Officer
Master Plan Update Project Manager
East Bay Municipal Utility District
375 11th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Dear Mr. Wallace,
This letter serves as our response to the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s invitation for the public to review and comment on the draft of the East Bay Watershed Master Plan (“Draft Master Plan”) update. There is much in the plan to recommend itself and much that leaves a lot to be desired.
We are grateful that the Draft Master Plan recognizes the value of trees regardless of their historical antecedents, specifically noting that,
“Eucalyptus trees provide a source of nectar and pollen that attracts insects, which in turn serve as a prey base for birds and other animals. Hummingbirds and many migratory bird species feed extensively on the nectar. In addition, eucalyptus trees produce an abundant seed crop. These tall trees are used as roosting sites for birds. Bald eagles have roosted in eucalyptus groves in the San Pablo Reservoir watershed, and a great blue heron rookery exists in the eucalyptus trees at Watershed
Headquarters in Orinda. A great blue heron and great egret rookery was active near the northern arm of Chabot Reservoir in the recent past.”
The Draft Master Plan recognizes, “the ecological value and likely permanence of certain nonnative species and habitats,” including Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine. It recognizes that these two species of trees, especially Monterey Pine “provide stability to watershed soils” and “provide erosion control with a widespreading root system.”
It recognizes that they provide “protection from solar exposure, wind, and noise.”
It recognizes that they “provide biodiversity value (bald eagle and other raptor species) on District watershed lands.” For example, “Monterey Pine seeds provide food for small rodents, mammals and birds…”
It cites to the EBMUD Fire Management Plan which recognizes the value of trees in mitigating fire: “They do not represent a significant fire hazard when the understory is maintained for low fire intensities… Stands that are well spaced with light understory, proper horticultural practices, and maintenance of trees, e.g. spacing and above-ground clearance, can serve to minimize fire hazard.”
It admits that removing the trees would lead to inevitable grasses and shrubs which increase the risk of fire: “The most susceptible fuels are the light fuels (grasses, small weeds, or shrubs)…”
Finally, it recognizes that these tall trees occupy a very small portion of District lands: 1% for Eucalyptus and 2% for Monterey Pines.
Given their immense beauty, the habitat they provide, their mitigation against fire, the erosion control, all the other recognized benefits, and the fact that they occupy such a small percentage of overall District lands, why does the Draft Master Plan propose that they be eradicated over time?
The answer appears to be nothing more than perceived public will:
“As this species is considered a nonnative pyrophyte, regional pressure is present to reduce the number of Monterey Pine stands.”
“As a nonnative pyrophyte, eucalyptus plantations are a target of regional public pressure for removal.”
This is a misreading of the public will. The Draft Master Plan is elevating the nativist agenda of a loud, vocal minority over good sense, good science, ecological benefit, protection against fire, and the desires of the vast majority of residents and users of District lands. How do we know?
The City of Oakland, the University of California, and the East Bay Regional Park District have also proposed eradicating Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus trees and of the 13,000 comments received by FEMA during the public comment period following its draft plan, roughly 90% were in opposition by FEMA’s own admission. Moreover, over 65,000 people have petitioned the City of Oakland to abandon its effort to remove the trees.
That EBMUD does not hear from people who find beauty, shade, and benefit in the trees is not because they do not care; rather, it is because most members of the public do not understand the extent to which these trees are under siege by nativists, nor the level of cooperation these individuals are receiving from public lands managers to see their vision prevail.
For most members of the public, it simply strains credulity that those tasked with overseeing our public lands would cooperate with efforts to destroy not only large numbers of perfectly healthy trees, but given their height and beauty, trees that are the most responsible for the iconic character of East Bay public lands and the appeal of our most beloved hiking trails. And for what end? To treat our public lands as the personal, native plant gardens of those who subscribe to such narrow views. In short, there is no widespread desire to get rid of these trees and they should not be removed.
Indeed, the Draft Master Plan recognizes several “emerging challenges” as a result of climate change including, but not limited to, “increasing average temperatures, prolonged droughts, erosion, decreased soil moisture, and augmented risk of fires.” Tall trees like Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine help mitigate these challenges. For example, fog drip falling from Monterey Pines in the East Bay has been measured at over 10 inches per year. In San Francisco, fog drip in the Eucalyptus forest was measured at over 16 inches per year.
Moreover, Eucalyptus trees are an important nesting site for hawks, owls and other birds and are one of the few sources of nectar for Northern California bees in the winter. Over 100 species of birds use Eucalyptus trees as habitat, Monarch butterflies depend on Eucalyptus during the winter, and Eucalyptus trees increase biodiversity. A 1990 survey in Tilden Park found 38 different species beneath the main canopy of Eucalyptus forests, compared to only 18 in Oak woodlands. They also prevent soil erosion in the hills, trap particulate pollution all year around, and sequester carbon.
Many of these benefits are especially important in light of Sudden Oak Death which the Draft Master Plan admits is an ongoing challenge and is likely to increase because of climate change. If Sudden Oak Death impacts oak woodlands and EBMUD intentionally cuts down Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine which are proving themselves more suitable for the environment, it risks a treeless landscape, which would not only be a loss of beauty and loss of wildlife habitat, but exacerbate the challenges already faced by EBMUD as a result of climate change.
We also object to the Draft Master Plan accepting the labels “native” and “non-native” and making decisions based on that fact alone. “Non-native” and “invasive species” are terms that have entered the lexicon of popular culture and become pejorative, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are language of intolerance, based on an idea we have thoroughly rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings — that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of ancestral origin.
Each species on Earth, writes Biology Professor Ken Thompson, “has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface… But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible, since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.”
This never-ending transformation — of landscape, of climate, of plants and animals — has occurred, and continues to occur, all over the world, resulting from a variety of factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, evolution, natural selection, migration, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids. The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant to life on Earth, and that is change.
Even if one were to accept that the terms “native” and “non-native” have value, however, not only do they not make sense as it relates to Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus, but the outcome would not change for three reasons. First, Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus provide numerous tangible benefits as previously discussed, while the claimed “problem” of their foreign antecedents is entirely intangible. That a plant or animal, including the millions of humans now residing in North America, may be “non-native” is a distinction without any practical relevance beyond the consternation such labels may inspire in those most prone to intolerance; individuals, it often seems, who demand that our collectively owned lands be forced to comply to their rigid and exiguous view of the natural world. What does it matter where these trees once originated if they provide such tremendous beauty and benefit here and now?
Second, the fossil record demonstrates that Monterey Pine are, in fact, “native” to the East Bay. (See, e.g., http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/montereypines_01.) Monterey Pine fossils from the middle Miocene through the Pleistocene have been found in several East Bay locations. Similarly, since Eucalyptus readily hybridizes with other species, many experts now claim that California Eucalyptus hybrids could rightly be considered native, too.
Of more immediate concern, however, is that the five narrowly defined “native” stands of Monterey Pine — the Año Nuevo-Swanton area in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties, the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel in Monterey County, Cambria in San Luis Obispo County, and Guadalupe and Cedros Islands off Baja California in Mexico — are in danger. In light of escalating temperatures due to climate change, to save Monterey Pine requires “a new foundation for conservation strategies of the species and its associated ecosystems. If Monterey pine has long existed in small, disjunct populations and if these have regularly shifted in location and size over the California coast in response to fluctuating climates… then it would be consistent to extend our conservation scope…” “Areas not currently within its [narrowly defined so-called] native range could be considered suitable habitats for Monterey pine conservation.” (Millar, C., Reconsidering the Conservation of Monterey Pine, Fremontia, July 1998.)
As tree lovers and environmentalists in Cambria are banding together to determine how, if at all, they can save their precious remaining Monterey Pines now dying from drought in record numbers, here in the East Bay – less than 224 miles away – land managers at EBMUD are considering plans to willfully destroy them in record numbers. It is ecologically irresponsible and for those of us who dearly love the stunning, even arresting, beauty of these trees, it is also truly heartbreaking.
Third, and perhaps more importantly, removing Eucalyptus and restoring “native” plants and trees is not only predicated on the ongoing use of large amounts of toxic pesticides, it does not work, a fact acknowledged by cities across the country. In the last ten years, the City of
Philadelphia has planted roughly 500,000 trees, many of which are deemed “non-native” precisely because “native” trees do not survive. “[R]ather than trying to restore the parks to 100 years ago,” noted the City’s Parks & Recreation Department, “the city will plant non-native trees suited to warmer climates.”
For all these reasons, we oppose the elimination of Monterey Pine and Eucalyptus, even if phased over time as proposed, and likewise oppose EBMUD’s participation in the destruction of similar Pine and Eucalyptus forests in the Caldecott Tunnel area, in partnership with outside agencies. We ask that these be stricken from the Master Plan.
Finally, we oppose the ongoing and, if the trees are cut down, potentially increasing use of pesticides and ask that a ban on their use be put in effect in the final Master Plan, for the following reasons:
● Extremely low levels of pesticide exposure can cause significant health harms, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood.
● Children are more susceptible to hazardous impacts from pesticides than are adults and compelling evidence links pesticide exposures with harms to the structure and functioning of the brain and nervous system and are clearly implicated as contributors to the rising rates of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, widespread declines in IQ, and other measures of cognitive function.
● Cancer rates among children are increasing at an alarming rate and pesticide exposure contributes to childhood cancer, as well as other increasingly common negative health outcomes such as birth defects and early puberty.
● Approximately 4,800,000 children in the United States under the age of 18 have asthma, the most common chronic illness in children, and the incidence of asthma is on the rise. Emergence science suggests that pesticides may be important contributors to the current epidemic of childhood asthma.
● Animals, including wildlife and pets, are at great risk from exposure to pesticides, including lethargy, excessive salivation, liver damage, blindness, seizures, cancer, and premature death.
● Pesticides contain toxic substances, many of which have a detrimental effect on animal health, including pets, raptors, deer, and other wildlife, which is compounded when the bodies of poisoned animals are ingested by subsequent animals.
● The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended non-chemical approaches, such as sanitation and maintenance.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that pesticides are to be administered near reservoirs, threatening the safety and integrity of our water supply and the water supply of the plants and animals who also depend on it. These reasons are why the Marin Municipal Water District removed the use of herbicides from further consideration in its Draft Plan and maintained the pesticide ban it has had in place for several years.
Pesticides are not only dangerous, they are also incredibly cruel. Rodenticides, for example, are opposed by every animal protection group in the nation because not only do they kill animals, but they do so in one of the cruelest and most prolonged ways possible, causing anywhere from four to seven days of suffering before an animal finally comes to the massive internal bleeding these poisons facilitate. This long sickness period often includes abnormal breathing, diarrhea, shivering and trembling, external bleeding and spasms, suffering and death that is perpetuated when their dead bodies are ingested by subsequent animals, such as owls and raptors. Put simply, EBMUD should not be in the business of targeting any healthy animals, trees, and plants for elimination; and doing so by pesticides harms animals well beyond the target species, including humans.
In summary, public agencies overseeing public lands have a responsibility to minimize harm and reject radical transformations of those lands and the ecosystems they contain, especially in absence of any clear public mandate. Not only have these lands been handed down in trust from prior generations for us to enjoy, preserve, and bequeath to future generations, but there is a reasonable expectation on the part of most citizens that those overseeing our collectively owned lands not undertake agendas to destroy large numbers of healthy trees, kill healthy animals, and poison our environment. Regardless of how Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees may be maligned by the extreme few, they are beloved by the many, being in large part responsible for the East Bay’s beauty, iconic character and treasured, shady walking trails and picnic areas.
In the case of EBMUD, this orientation is even more alarming and a violation of the public trust because it elevates the ideological driven, nativist agenda of the few above the agency’s primary mandate and interests of the many: ensuring the integrity and safety of our water supply and the plants and animals who reside there. Adopting plans to alter pre-existing landscapes through the use of toxic pesticides in order to placate unreasonable and xenophobic demands on lands that contain the public’s precious reserves of drinking water is a deep inversion of priorities.
We respectfully request that these proposed ends and means be stricken from the Master Plan.
We are grateful to Marg Hall, member of the Forest Action Brigade for this guest post about the role the Sierra Club is playing in the destruction of our urban forest and the poisoning of our public lands.
For the past year, members of the Forest Action Brigade have been spotlighting the Sierra Club as part of a larger campaign to stop the destruction of the trees in the East Bay Hills. This article answers the question: “Why focus on the Sierra Club?”
Long associated with environmental stewardship, the Sierra Club is a major player in local politics. Because so many Bay Area residents prioritize environmental protection, the Sierra Club enjoys lots of political capital, a ton of money, a deep bench of litigators, and the respect and fear of local politicians. They also have an entrenched leadership that pretends to be democratic, but in fact pushes around grass roots environmentalists, suppresses internal debate and dictates to local land managers.
As readers of Million Trees well know, the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports deforestation and the use of pesticides in the East Bay Hills. Some of us have concluded that they not only support this project, but are a major behind-the-scenes driver.
I first heard about the Club’s support for local deforestation about 6 years ago at a FEMA scoping hearing for the project Environmental Impact Statement. Naïve me, I thought, “Oh good! the Sierra Club is here, and certainly they will weigh in on the right side of this issue.” This is where my education began. The speaker representing the Sierra Club explained that they support this project and of course they will use pesticides, because that’s the only way to rid our parks of unwanted vegetation. Wow! Pesticides? “Unwanted plants”?
Until then, I had been a Club member for a number of years, thinking that the Sierra Club did good things. Before voting in our very complicated local elections, I’d check to see who and what they endorsed. I supported bond measure CC (which the EBRPD uses in part to fund their eucalyptus tree removal) back in 2004 because, well, what could be wrong with increasing funding for the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD)? Nowhere in the ballot measure did they mention pesticides. And as a former building inspector, the “fire hazard” reduction part sounded good. I thought the discussion in favor of native plants meant not planting English style lawns or plants in your garden that need lots of water. That sounded reasonable for a water scarce region.
Like so many of my neighbors, I’m neither a botanist nor a wildlife biologist, but I love the local parks and visit them almost daily. I trusted the Sierra Club to “protect” the environment. I suspect a lot of folks do the same. Now, after delving deeply into this local issue, I know better. The local Sierra Club has a fanatical obsession with eradication, with waging a war on non-native plants in our local parks. This agenda drives much of their work. Many voters follow their lead, basing decisions in the voting booth on blind faith. Politicians go along with the Sierra Club agenda in order to gain Club endorsement. Land managers must follow the lead of their elected bosses. All one needs to do is invoke the label “non-native,” and weapons of war are deployed: ground troops of weed pullers, tree cutters, pesticide sprayers, imported “biologics” (bugs and germs), and even, on occasion, aerial bombardment of pesticides. Other mainstream environmental organizations (The World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Society) also participate in this war, but it’s the local Sierra Club that provides the propaganda and the political clout behind this horrible deforestation plan. It’s the Sierra Club that sits down on a regular basis with the managers of the East Bay Regional Park District to dictate the terms under which they must operate. And when the EBRPD fails to fall in line, the Sierra club pulled out the big guns and sued in an attempt to force them to cut down all of the eucalyptus trees in the project areas, rather than a “thinning” plan that EBRPD preferred.
Here’s an example of the kind of hold that the Sierra Club has over the EBRPD. Through a public records request, we obtained a letter (dated April 28, 2015) to the parks district governing board from Norman LaForce, long time Chairperson of the Sierra Club’s Public Lands Committee. The letter laid out in great detail the kind of compliance he expects in order for the EBRPD to obtain Sierra Club endorsement of Measure CC renewal (which expires in 2020). Mr LaForce is perhaps the single most influential person promoting the local club’s nativist agenda. (emphasis added)
“The Sierra Club played a major and key role in the creation of Measure CC and the projects for which money would be spent….
“…Vegetation management that restores native habitat is less costly than programs that merely thin non-natives. Native habitat that is restored in the fire prone areas that are currently eucalyptus plantations is less costly to maintain on an annual basis than a program of thinning non-native eucalyptus and other non-native trees.
“Hence, the Sierra Club believes it is critical that in any renewal of Measure CC funding for vegetation management should be increased for the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus and their replacement with restored native habitat. If the Park District wants to continue with a program that merely thins the non-native ecualyputs (sic) and other non-ntaive (sic) trees, then it must find other funds for those purposes. Future tax money from a renewal of Measure CC funds should not be used to thin eucalyptus but must be allocated to the restoration of native habitat.”
The letter goes on to detail the Sierra Club’s position on a variety of other issues and projects, most of which involve “restoration”, which sounds good, but is a code word for removal of non-native plants by any means necessary, including the use of herbicides. Here’s a link to the complete letter: Sierra Club dictates terms of Measure CC endorsement
I want to it make clear that we are environmentalists. We support some of the same goals as the Sierra Club: opposition to XL pipeline, fracking, refinery expansion, use of coal, environmental racism. We are not right wing climate deniers—one of the arguments Sierra Club uses to marginalize us. The Sierra Club is on the wrong side of this issue and we want them to stop bullying local officials into this war against trees. John Muir, who loved eucalyptus trees, would weep at this travesty.
Site 29 is identified by the mile marker on Claremont Ave, just west of the intersection with Grizzly Peak Blvd. All the eucalyptus trees were destroyed there about 10 years ago. The trees that were destroyed were chipped and piled on site as mulch intended to prevent the growth of weeds. The trunks of the trees line the road, log reminders of the forest that was destroyed.
The site was adopted by the Claremont Canyon Conservancy (CCC). CCC has planted many redwood trees there and they consider it their showcase for their advocacy to destroy all eucalyptus trees in Claremont Canyon and elsewhere in the East Bay Hills. The Sierra Club and CCC have collaborated in the effort to convince the public that if the eucalyptus trees are destroyed, a lovely garden of native plants and trees will replace the eucalyptus forest. They also want you to believe that their garden will be less flammable than the eucalyptus forest.
There are several flaws in this rosy prediction. The first problem is that Site 29 is ecologically unique. It is a riparian corridor with a creek running through it. Therefore, more water is available there than on the sunny hills where eucalyptus forests grow. It is a canyon with steeply sloping sides that provide protection from sun and wind, which helps retain moisture. In other words, conditions at Site 29 are ideal for the landscape that CCC and its friends are trying to achieve.
Site 29 is also unique because CCC has planted many trees there and they have sponsored many work parties to maintain the site. CCC has not made a commitment to plant all 2,000 acres of the East Bay Hills on which all non-native trees will be destroyed by the FEMA grant projects. Nor have any of the land owners made a commitment to plant those acres after the trees are destroyed.
So, given the ideal landscape conditions, the planting, and maintenance invested by CCC, how successful is Site 29? Is it a lovely native plant garden? Is it less flammable than the eucalyptus forest it replaced? This is our photo essay of Site 29 that answers those questions. But photos can be deceiving, so we invite you to visit yourself. Just drive east on Claremont Ave until you reach mile marker 29, park your car beside the road and take a walk.
The reality of Site 29
When we visited Site 29 in late April the milk thistle was thriving, but not yet in bloom. The striking zebra pattern of the leaves makes it an attractive plant, in our opinion, and this lazuli bunting seems to agree that it is a plant worthy of admiration. It is, however, not a native plant.
When we visited Site 29 a month later, in late May, it was a very different scene. The milk thistle had been sprayed with herbicide along the road, to a width of about six feet, providing a stark contrast between the dead vegetation and the still green weeds. Poison hemlock now grows along the trail into the canyon to a height of about 8 feet, joining the thistles as the landscape of Site 29. The piles of wood chips are still visible, but are mostly covered with non-native annual grasses and other weedy shrubs.
More fantasies face harsh realities
The contractors who apply herbicides on UC Berkeley properties have been photographed many times spraying herbicides at Site 29 and elsewhere. When they are observed spraying herbicides there are not any pesticide application notices to inform the public of what is being applied and when the application is taking place. So, unless you see them doing it, you don’t know that you are entering a place that has been sprayed with herbicide. Several days later, you know that herbicides have been applied only because the vegetation is dying and soon looks dead.
When the Environmental Impact Statement for the FEMA projects was published, the land managers claimed they would use “best management practices” in their pesticide applications, including posting notices in advance of spraying that would remain in place during the spraying and for some time after the spraying. That assurance turns out to be meaningless. Herbicides are being applied without any public notification before, during, or after application.
We were under the mistaken impression that posting application notices was required by California law. We therefore asked those who observed herbicide applications without posted signs to report the incidents as violations of California law.
The Alameda County Agricultural Department is responsible for enforcement of California’s laws regarding pesticide use in Alameda County. They have informed us that no notices of pesticide application are required for non-agricultural applications of glyphosate (RoundUp) or Garlon (triclopyr; the herbicide sprayed on the stumps of trees that are destroyed to prevent them from resprouting). The manufacturers of these products say they dry within 24 hours, which is the definition of when re-entry is permitted. Notification is not required for pesticides for which re-entry is permitted within 24 hours, even while the pesticide is being sprayed.
Would you like more Site 29s?
The eucalyptus forest at Site 29 was destroyed over 10 years ago. Therefore, it is a preview of what we can expect when eucalyptus is destroyed on 2,000 more acres of public land in the East Bay Hills. So, what can we learn from Site 29?
Site 29 had every advantage: plenty of water, protection from wind and sun, planting of native trees, and maintenance by a volunteer neighborhood association. Even with all those advantages, unshaded areas in which trees were destroyed at Site 29 are dominated by non-native weeds that are more flammable than a shady eucalyptus forest. And because the weeds are flammable, they must be repeatedly sprayed with herbicides along the roads where ignition is most likely to occur. Dead vegetation is more flammable than living vegetation, so the logic of the spraying seems muddled.
Most of the 2,000 acres of public land on which eucalyptus forests will be destroyed do not have a water source, or protection from wind and sun. Nor will trees be planted or maintenance provided. They are going to look much worse than Site 29 and they will be more flammable.
Site 29 is an opportunity for us to say,”NO, this is NOT the landscape we want. PLEASE do not destroy our eucalyptus forests!!”