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
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!!”
Our readers will recall that California law enabled a member of the Sierra Club to send a letter to over 26,000 members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club about the chapter’s support for deforestation and pesticide use in the East Bay Hills. Today we’re reporting the result of that letter and the next step in the long, tortuous path to changing the chapter’s policy on these issues. The letter and enclosed postcard petition are available HERE and HERE: Letter to Sierra Club members and Letter to Sierra Club members – postcard petition
To date, this is the number of postcard petitions that have been received:
Since many couples have joint memberships, the actual number of Club members who signed the postcard petition is greater than the number of postcards. The postcard petitions represent the opposition of 1,823 members to Sierra Club policy. Many members also added written messages on the postcard petition, which are available HERE: Petition Comments
The Sierra Club is now obligated to give us a VOTE on this issue!
According to the Sierra Club bylaws, critics of the Club’s policy regarding the destruction of our urban forest and pesticide use are now entitled to a formal vote on the issues. The Sierra Club reports: “More than 45,000 members nationwide voted” in the 2016 election for the Club’s National Board of Directors. Let’s say 46,000 voted. Two percent (2%) of 46,000 is 920. Nearly twice as many (1,823) Sierra Club members have indicated their opposition to the Club’s policy regarding the destruction of our urban forest and pesticide use. Thus the results of the postcard petition now obligate the Sierra Club to conduct a formal vote on the issues:
“11.2. Except as provided in Bylaw 5.10, whenever a number of members of the Club equal at least to two percent (2%) of the number of ballots cast at the immediately preceding annual election for Directors shall request in writing that a resolution be adopted by the Club, the Board may adopt the resolution by majority vote, unless the petition specifically requests a vote of the membership or such a vote is required by law or these Bylaws; if the resolution is not so adopted, the Board shall certify it to the Secretary for a vote of the members.”
The author of the letter to Sierra Club members informed the leadership of the Sierra Club of the number of postcard petitions received and requested a formal vote on the issues, as provided by the Club’s by-laws.
How to get the attention of the Sierra Club?
We have planned a demonstration at the national headquarters of the Sierra Club on Monday, June 13, 2016, at noon. Unless the Sierra Club agrees to conduct a formal vote on the issues before that date, we plan to tell the Sierra Club to let its members decide whether the Club should continue to support deforestation and pesticide use on public lands.
Noon 12:00 pm
Monday June 13, 2016
2100 Franklin St. (at 21st Street), Oakland
Sierra Club National Office (13th Floor)
(Close to 19th Street BART Station)
We hope that those who care about deforestation and pesticide use in the East Bay will join us for this peaceful demonstration. A leaflet that you can print and post or distribute for this demonstration is available HERE: Flyer for demonstration Please help us make the case that the bylaws of the Sierra Club obligate the club to give the membership a formal vote on these issues.
Why focus on the Sierra Club?
Opponents of the deforestation projects in the East Bay Hills may wonder why so much time and energy is spent on trying to change the policy of the Sierra Club on this matter. Sometimes, Million Trees wonders too.
So, we will take a minute to explain that the Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit that demands immediate eradication of 100% of non-native trees on over 2,000 acres of public land. East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) is the biggest of the three land owners engaged in these projects. EBRPD prefers to thin its eucalyptus forests from an average of 650 trees per acre to about 60-80 of the biggest trees per acre. Although that seems to be the destruction of too many trees, it is clearly preferable to destroying EVERY non-native tree (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacia) on about 1,600 acres of park land in the East Bay, which is what the Sierra Club lawsuit demands. The other two land owners (UC Berkeley and City of Oakland) have always planned to destroy 100% of the non-native trees on about 500 acres of their land. The Club’s lawsuit demands that they do so immediately, rather than phase some of the tree removals over a period of 10 years.
Furthermore, the Sierra Club is influential with public policy makers, including elected officials. We believe that some decision-makers would be less likely to support these destructive projects if the Sierra Club would quit demanding the destruction of our urban forest. In a liberal, environmentally conscious community such as ours, the Club’s promise of endorsement (or threat of non-endorsement) of a particular candidate for elected office is a powerful tool to impose the Club’s will on our decision makers.
Finally, we believe that the policy of the local chapter of the Sierra Club that demands destruction of much of our urban forest and douses our public lands with pesticides compromises the important mission of the national Sierra Club. The national Sierra Club is appropriately focused on addressing the causes of climate change. Climate change is the environmental issue of our time and the Sierra Club is one of the most important tools we have to address that issue. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change. The policy of the local chapter is therefore a contradiction of the mission of the Sierra Club.
We believe that greater dialogue with native plant advocates would create more opportunities to find a compromise that would resolve the conflict about deforestation and pesticide use on our public lands. Unfortunately, in the many years in which we have been engaged in the effort to prevent the destruction of our urban forest, we have found few such opportunities.
The Sierra Club is an extreme example of an organization that has isolated itself from all dissenting views on this issue. Therefore, we were very excited that a member of the Sierra Club was able to send a letter to members, which we hoped would create new opportunities for dialogue with the Club and its allies on this issue. (That letter is available HERE: Letter to Sierra Club members )
We are publishing today one of the responses that the author of the letter to Sierra Club received from a Sierra Club member. We will also publish the reply to that letter. We believe this dialogue is an example of the danger of isolating ourselves from those with whom we disagree. When we refuse to discuss the issues, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to learn and we exacerbate conflict.
This is the letter sent by a native plant advocate to the author of the letter sent by a fellow Sierra Club member (we have removed his name because we do not have permission to publish):
And this is the reply to that letter. We have removed the author’s name because the letter was sent on behalf of hundreds of people who share her views. Using her name more than necessary, inappropriately personalizes the issue. This should be a public policy debate, not a personal vendetta.
Thank you for your letter of March 15, 2016, regarding my letter to Sierra Club members in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I am writing to provide you with the documentation about which you have questions:
Attachment A: David Nowak’s “Historical Vegetation Change in Oakland…” states that, “Trees in riparian woodlands covered approximately 1.1% of Oakland’s preurbanized lands — redwood stand 0.7%, and coast live oak stand 0.5%. Original forest cover is estimated at 2.3%…” David Nowak has been employed by the US Forest Service since earning his Ph.D. degree from UC Berkeley.
I also recommend another visit to the Oakland Museum where you will find a touch screen map of historic vegetation of Oakland and surrounding communities in the East Bay. It will confirm that the East Bay hills were not forested prior to settlement.
Attachment B: The Environmental Assessment for the Strentzel-Muir Gravesite Plan at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California confirms that John Muir planted eucalyptus on his property. The document also confirms the intentions of the National Park Service to retain eucalyptus on the property. The entire document is available here:
Attachment C: This is a holiday greeting card sent by John Muir to a personal friend in 1911, in which he depicts eucalyptus and describes it in poetic verse.
There are many reasons why eucalyptus was planted in California. I recommend the history of the trees of California by Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise: A California History, for a more complete understanding of why eucalyptus was planted in California. Mr. Farmer also describes John Muir’s fondness for eucalyptus.
We all have a right to our opinions, Mr. [redacted]. However, it is not in anyone’s interests to be misinformed of the facts regarding our urban forest.
Please let me know if there are any other statements in my letter for which you require documentation.
Cc: Michael Brune and Aaron Mair
No, this is NOT an April Fool’s joke. These are actual letters sent by actual people. We will publish a more comprehensive report of feedback from Sierra Club members to the letter from a fellow member in late April.
On February 8, 2016, letters were sent to members of the Sierra Club in San Francisco from another Club member. That letter is available HERE: Letter to Sierra Club members. The letter contained a postcard petition on which members were invited to express their opinion of the Club’s support for deforestation and pesticide use in the San Francisco Bay Area. That petition is available HERE: Letter to Sierra Club members – postcard petition.
The author of the letter reports that she has received 380 postcard petitions from Club members in San Francisco, indicating their opposition to the Club’s policy on these issues. Only ONE postcard expressed support for the Club’s policy. The letter was sent to 6,252 members, but undeliverable letters resulted in a net of 6,216 letters received. This suggests that at least 6% of Club members in San Francisco are opposed to the Club’s policy. Here are some (not all) of the comments that members wrote on their postcard petitions to the Sierra Club:
“SF native is windy sandy hills with poison oak!”
“Should the Sierra Club continue with its current position, I will cancel my membership” [several similar comments]
“If this native plant bullshit continues I’ll donate my dues to save the eucalyptus grove”
“I am strongly opposed!! (and have been for months)”
“Sierra Club member since 1975. The idea to destroy our trees is absurd. What would Golden Gate Park be without trees? Sand Dunes!”
“These people would cut down every tree on SF streets & Golden Gate Park”
“Fanatical purists! Should we plant more poison oak?!”
“If you want to go back to the habitats before get rid of people, buildings & cars. Chop down & poison those instead of plants that were here before you were born.”
“I read your arguments for supporting this senseless destruction, and found them anachronistic and short-sighted…a 19th Century approach to conservation.”
“This same kind of “restoration” has been tried on a pilot basis in Glen Canyon, near my home, and has failed miserably.”
The author of the letter intended to send her letter to all members of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. The Bay Chapter includes Alameda, Contra Costa, and Marin Counties, in addition to San Francisco City/County. Unfortunately, the staff of Sierra Club did not understand the composition of the Bay Chapter and therefore her letter was initially only sent to members in San Francisco. It took one month to correct that error.
The letter was sent to over 20,000 Club members in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Marin Counties on March 8, 2016. We will report the response to the letter in April.
What you can do to influence the Sierra Club
Meanwhile, there is something Sierra Club members can do to influence the Club’s policies. The national Sierra Club is conducting its annual election of Board Members now. Ballots have been sent to all Club members with the roster of candidates. The roster of candidates and an electronic ballot are also available HERE. You must vote by April 27, 2016. If you are a Sierra Club member, we suggest that you look carefully at the qualifications and opinions of the candidates before making your choice.
To help you make the best choice, a member of our team has asked all candidates the following questions:
What is your opinion of destroying non-native trees?
What is your opinion of pesticide use in public parks and open spaces?
Here are the replies that were received from the candidates:
What is your opinion of destroying non-native trees? “Just the mere thought of cutting a tree upsets me greatly. I can’t offer a position about destroying non-native trees without considering the different factors that may come into play – like climate conditions, types of landscape, threats to biodiversity, invasive or not, fire threats – just to name a few. It also depends on the land management practices in the areas where non-native trees exist. There ought to be other options to destroying non-native trees. I would think very carefully about destroying non-native trees especially if only a fraction display traits that harm or displace native species and disrupts the ecological landscape”
What is your opinion of pesticide use in public parks and open spaces? “I strongly oppose pesticide use in our parks and open spaces. I am all too familiar with herbicide “Roundup” for example and its use to stop unwanted plants. Another one is rodenticide which is used to kill rats in parks/open spaces. In Los Angeles, our beloved mountain lion, P22, who calls Griffith Park home, was sickened last year with mange as this poison worked its way up the food chain. Many of the chem Research has shown links to certain types of cancer, developmental disorders, and physical disabilities. Pesticides end up in our drinking water, watersheds, and rivers/lakes. The use of toxic pesticides to manage pest problems has become a common practice around the world. Pesticides are used almost everywhere and therefore, can be found in our food, air, and water.”
“Let me just note that I am running for reelection to the Board because I believe I can contribute to the Club’s progress towards its major goals for the environment and for ensuring a strong and effective organization into the future.
Being a strong and effective organization, in the case of the Sierra Club, requires among other things ensuring a broad and engaged grassroots presence everywhere. And we know that strong grassroots engagement necessarily means people coming together to resolve local issues that often have competing considerations. Our policies and our approach generally allow some latitude to ensure the local context is being taken into account. I wouldn’t want to try to dictate the solution for all situations.
My understanding from my work with the Club’s efforts to strengthen resiliency in the face of mounting climate change impacts is that restoring native vegetation is desirable, and can contribute to restoring greater ecological balance. And my understanding from my work on the ground with organizations doing habitat restoration is that sometimes HERBICIDES are needed as a last resort to enable newly planted natives to become established.
If you are speaking of herbicides being used in public parks and open spaces, my view is they generally should not be used for maintenance purposes as non-toxic alternatives are available. For habitat and vegetation reestablishment I would defer to those designing the project with the expectation that herbicides would be minimized, used responsibly, and any exposure to park users avoided.
If you are speaking of pesticide use for insects or other “nuisance” species, I expect that in most instances a non-toxic management alternative is available, and so the burden should be on the public entity to justify use of a pesticide for maintenance purposes.”
“I have to say I do not know the context of these issues nor knowledge sufficient to give you a good answer. There are so many environmental issues and I accept that I can’t be knowledgable about them all. I do know a lot about some issues and know how to listen and learn about issues new to me. Thanks for your passion about these and other environmental problems and for your work to care for the earth.”
What is your opinion of destroying non-native trees? “I have strong concerns about invasive species crowding out and changing native ecosystems in detrimental ways. That said, we have already made significant and irreversible impacts to many ecosystems. I don’t believe a policy of eliminating all non-native trees simply because they are non-native makes sense at this point. Rather, it should be taken on a case by case basis where we consider what the impacts are of the non-native species and any work should typically be done in conjunction with a plan to restore native trees and habitat.”
What is your opinion of pesticide use in public parks and open spaces? “Strong preference to zero use of pesticides. There have been occasions where serious threats from invasive species have proved practically impossible to overcome without targeted use of pesticides, but this should be a rare exception as opposed normal operating” procedure.
“As you probably noticed from my candidate profile, I’m the ED of Pesticide Action Network, so I’m not in favor of pesticides–especially highly hazardous ones–in public spaces or anywhere else. I think the issue of non-native trees is specific to particular contexts and environments. But it’s unfortunate that the damage non-native plants and animals cause lead communities to demand increased use of pesticides and herbicides, which have negative consequences for human health as well as for the natural environment.
PAN focuses on industrial agriculture, so we don’t do a lot around non-native plants except for how they impact farming (hello, RoundUp!).”
If there are other environmental issues of concern to you, you can also ask the candidates questions:
As the presidential primary election rages on around us, we are reminded of how important it is to participate in our democracy. When we don’t participate, we are handing our power to those who do. Our country and our environment are in peril. Please step up and exercise your rights by voting in the election of the national Board of the Sierra Club if you are a member.