Renewal of Measure CC is an opportunity to determine the future of parks in the East Bay

In 2004, voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved Measure CC, a parcel tax, to provide additional funding to East Bay Regional Park District for “Park Access, Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, Resource-Related Projects, and Reserve for Unknown Events.”  Measure CC also stipulated that “the overall commitment to natural resources shall be no less than 30% of the revenue raised by the entire measure.” (1) Measure CC is projected to provide about $47 million in the 15 years of its life. (2)

The park district is planning to put Measure CC on the ballot for renewal next year.  It’s time to look at how the park district spent our tax dollars and decide if we want to continue to give them our tax dollars for another 15 years.  If you want Measure CC funding to be used differently, now is the time to tell East Bay Regional Park District what you want…BEFORE the ballot measure is written.

Fuels Management vs. Resource Management?

The park district budgeted $10.2 million of Measure CC funding for “fuels management,” about 22% of the total available funding from Measure CC.  To date, the park district has appropriated $8.8 million of that budget allocation and spent $6.3 million.

The park district describes “fuels management:”  “All vegetation/fuels management projects for fuels reduction are in coordination with the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat in fuel break areas and are therefore considered to be resource related.” (2)  In other words, the park district considers destroying vegetation and cutting down trees a part of its “commitment to natural resources.”

These descriptions of Measure CC projects illustrate the close relationship between fuels management and resource management: 

  • “Assess and remove hazardous trees, promote native tree regeneration.” (2)
  • “Manage exotic plant species and promote fire resistant natives to reduce the risk of wildfires.” (2)
  • “Manage vegetation for fuels reduction in coordination with the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat in fuel break areas to provide defensible space and meet Hills Emergency Forum flame length standard.” (2)

The park district’s policies and practices are based on mistaken assumptions:

  • There is no evidence that native plants and trees are less flammable than non-native plants and trees. In fact, available evidence suggests that native landscapes in California are highly flammable.
  • Most monarchs in California spend the winter months roosting in eucalyptus trees. These trees are being destroyed in East Bay parks where monarchs have roosted in the past, such as Point Pinole.

    There is no evidence that destroying non-native trees will “enhance wildlife habitat.” In fact, wildlife habitat is being destroyed by “fuels management” projects.

The destruction of non-native trees is also controversial because the stumps of the trees and shrubs that are cut down must be sprayed with herbicide to prevent them from resprouting.  The park district used an average of 26 gallons of Garlon each year from 2000 to 2015 and 39 gallons in 2016, for that purpose.

There is a wide range of opinions about the tree removals that the park district has done since their program began in 2011, after approval of the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” and the associated Environmental Impact Report.  At one extreme, some people want the park district to destroy ALL non-native trees on its property.  They consider “thinning” inadequate. The Sierra Club is in that camp and has sued to enforce their wishes.  At the other extreme, some people don’t want any trees to be removed, although most would make an exception for dead and hazardous trees.

Tilden Park, Recommended Treatment Area TI001, June 5, 2016. This in one of the projects of East Bay Regional Park District, in process

After observing the park district’s tree removal projects, I have reached the conclusion that they represent a middle ground that I can accept because in many cases the canopy is intact and the forest floor is still shaded.  The shade retains the moisture that retards fire ignition as well as suppresses the growth of weeds that ignite more easily during the dry season.  In the 20+ years that I have defended our urban forest, I was always willing to accept a compromise and the park district’s methods look like a compromise to me.  I still have concerns about tree removals and they are explained HERE.  You must reach your own conclusions.

So, what’s the beef?

Unfortunately, coming to terms with the park district’s tree removals has not resolved my misgivings about how Measure CC money has been used.  In a nutshell, I believe that the park district’s “resource management” projects are based on outdated conservation practices.  I believe the park district is trying to re-create historic landscapes that are no longer adapted to environmental conditions.  Their projects are often not successful because they do not take the reality of climate change into consideration, nor do they look to the future of our environment.  They are stuck in the past.

One of the projects funded by Measure CC is typical: the effort to eradicate non-native spartina marsh grass from all park properties. The park district has been participating in the effort to eradicate all non-native spartina marsh grass from the entire West Coast for 14 years.  In the first few years, EBPRD aerial sprayed from helicopters several hundred gallons of herbicide per year.  Now the quantity of herbicide is about 25 gallons per year.

California Clapper Rail

We have known for several years that the eradication of non-native spartina has decimated the population of endangered California rails.  In 2016, a paper was published in a peer reviewed scientific journal about the huge declines in the rail population that were caused by the eradication of spartina.

The reason why the rails have been harmed by the eradication of their habitat is that non-native spartina provides superior cover for the rail.  The non-native species of spartina grows taller, more densely, and it doesn’t die back in the winter as the native species of spartina does.  When the rail begins its nesting season, there is no cover for the birds.  They are therefore being killed by their many predators.

The fact that non-native spartina provides superior cover for the birds is related to a second issue.  Non-native spartina provides superior protection from winter storm surges compared to the native species which provides no protection, even when it grows and it is NOT growing.

The US Geological Survey recently reported that sea level on the Coast of California is predicted to rise as much as 10 feet in just 70 years.  USGS predicted that 67% of Southern California’s beaches are expected to be lost by the end of the century.  Marsh grass for coastal protection is more important than ever.

The third issue is that eradicating non-native spartina has not resulted in the return of native spartina.  Even when extensive planting has been done, native spartina does not provide habitat or storm surge protection in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We should be asking if pouring hundreds of gallons of herbicide on the ground might be a factor in the unsuccessful attempt to bring native spartina back to the Bay Area.

Finally, recently published studies that compared native with non-native marsh grasses and aquatic plants with respect to the ecological functions they perform.  These studies both say, “If you look at the role of exotic water plants in an ecosystem, you won’t find any significant differences compared to indigenous species.”

The spartina eradication project is an example of conservation that no longer makes sense.  It damages the environment with herbicides.  It destroys the habitat of rare birds.  It exposes our shoreline to strong storm surges and rising sea levels.  Native vegetation does not return when it is eradicated.

Looking forward, not back

The parks are very important to me.  I visit them often and I treasure those visits.  I would like to vote for Measure CC.  I hope that the measure on the ballot will give me a reason to vote for it.

I will be looking for a revised definition of “resource management” in the ballot measure, one that acknowledges that climate change is the environmental issue of our time and that conservation must be consistent with the changes that have already occurred, as well as look forward to the changes that are anticipated in the future.  Specifically, “resource management” must respect the landscape we have now, which means not trying to eradicate it, particularly by spraying it with herbicides.  Resource management projects must be based on reality, rather than on fantasies about the past.

Opportunities to tell EBRPD what you want from Measure CC

East Bay Regional Park District is holding public meetings about Measure CC to give the public the opportunity to provide input regarding future park needs and priorities:

November 4, 10-12, Harrison Recreation Center, 1450 High St, Alameda

November 8, 2:30-4:30 pm, David Wendel Conference Center, 1111 Broadway, 19th Floor, Oakland

EBRPD asks that the public RSVP by sending an email to Monique Salas at msalas@ebparks.org or call 510-544-2008.

If you can’t attend, please send written feedback here:  publicinformation@ebparks.org.  Please tell East Bay Regional Park District what you want Measure CC funding to pay for. 


  1. Full Text of Measure CC
  2. Agenda of Park Advisory Committee, June 26, 2017. Scroll down to Measure CC Renewal Spending Plan

Spartina eradication: Herbicides are their dirty little secret

This is a good news/bad news story about the eradication of non-native Spartina marsh grass and the impact it has had on the population of endangered California Clapper Rail:

  • Spartina alterniflora, Smooth Cordgrass.  USDA photo
    Spartina alterniflora, Smooth Cordgrass. USDA photo

    The good newsUS Fish & Wildlife has temporarily halted efforts to eradicate non-native Spartina (Spartina alterniflora) in the San Francisco Bay Area because the population of endangered California Clapper Rail has declined by 50% during the period of eradication efforts from 2005 to 2011. (1)  This problem was identified several years ago and was attributed to the lack of cover for the rail as a result of eradication of non-native Spartina, which grows more densely, taller, and doesn’t die back in winter as the native Spartina does. (2)

  • The bad news:  US Fish & Wildlife attributes this negative impact on the Clapper Rail population on the slow recovery of native Spartina (Spartina foliosa). 
    Spartina foliosa - USFWS
    Spartina foliosa – USFWS

    They do not acknowledge that non-native Spartina provides superior cover compared to the native species.  Nor do they acknowledge that non-native Spartina was killed with herbicides.  Therefore, they do not consider the possibility that the slow recovery of native Spartina may be attributable to the herbicides that were used to kill the non-native plant.  They also continue to claim that the recovery of the endangered California Clapper Rail depends upon the return of native Spartina, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The California Clapper Rail is a sub-species of Clapper Rail; the Clapper Rail is abundant on the East and Gulf Coasts and not endangered perhaps because of the superior cover provided by Spartina alterniflora on those coasts. (3)  Based on these fictions, US Fish & Wildlife proposes a new strategy that will simultaneously eradicate non-native Spartina while intensively planting native Spartina.  (1)

We have been following the Spartina eradication project since 2011.  For the benefit of new readers, we will review the issues with a few excerpts from previous posts on Million Trees.

Spartina alterniflora:  Treasured on the East Coast, reviled on the West Coast

Spartina alterniflora (Smooth Cordgrass) is a species of marsh grass native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, where it is considered a valuable plant making important contributions to the coastal ecology:

  • Its dense growth provides protection against storm surge and “erosion control along shorelines, canal banks, levees, and other areas of soil-water interface.” (4)
  • It filters nutrients, sediments and toxins from the water that flows off the land before reaching the ocean, acting as a natural water treatment facility.
  • It provides cover and food for birds, mammals and marine animals that live in the coastal marsh.

Where Smooth Cordgrass has died back in its native range, the dieback has been considered a serious environmental threat:

  • In 2001 the Governor of Louisiana declared a “state of emergency” when Smooth Cordgrass declined and the state obtained $3 million of federal funding to study and hopefully reverse the decline.  This study resulted in the development of a method of aerial seeding of Smooth Cordgrass to restore declining areas of marshland. (5)
  • A similar, but smaller dieback of Smooth Cordgrass in Georgia led to a collaborative research and on-going monitoring effort by 6 research institutions in Georgia.
  • Similar dieback of Smooth Cordgrass has been reported as far north as the coast of Maine.  A researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is quoted in that report as saying, “In New Orleans, if their marshes were intact, the storm surge of Katrina would not have reached the levees.” (6)

 The war on Smooth Cordgrass on the West Coast

Smooth Cordgrass is not native on the Pacific Coast of the United States.  Therefore it is treated as an alien invader to be eradicated with herbicides:

  • $24 million was spent to eradicate Smooth Cordgrass in San Francisco Bay and Willapa Bay from 2000 to 2010 (7)
  • $16.3 million is projected to be spent on the entire West Coast from 2011 to 2020 (7)

Spartina is being eradicated with an herbicide, imazapyr.  This is a new herbicide about which little is known.  The analysis that was done to justify its use in the Spartina eradication project admits that no studies have been done on its effect on shorebirds, including the endangered Clapper Rail. 

The Material Safety Data Sheet mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that imazapyr is “not readily biodegradable.”  So, in the event that we eventually learn that this herbicide is harmful to shorebirds and/or to us, we probably should assume that it will still be in the environment in the nearly 200 sites in the San Francisco Estuary on which it has been sprayed.  Imazapyr is also being sprayed–sometimes from helicopters–in hundreds of places along the West Coast, including Oregon and Washington.

Imazapyr is often mixed with glyphosate by the Spartina eradication project.  Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide.  That is, it kills any plant it is sprayed on at the right stage of its growth.  But imazapyr is far more insidious as a killer of plants because it is known to travel from the roots of the plant that has been sprayed to the roots of other plants.  For that reason, the manufacturer cautions the user NOT to spray near the roots of any plant you don’t want to kill.  For example, the manufacturer says explicitly that imazapyr should not be sprayed under trees, because that tree is likely to be killed, whether or not that was the intention. 

Furthermore, no tests have been conducted on the toxicity of combining multiple pesticides in a single application.  Therefore, we know nothing about the possible synergistic effects of combining imazapyr and glyphosate. 

These facts about the herbicides used to eradicate non-native Spartina bear repeating.  The main herbicide being used is known to be mobile in the soil and persistent in the environment.  The herbicide with which it is often mixed is an indiscriminate killer of any plant on which it is sprayed.  Therefore, the likelihood that these herbicides will prevent the establishment of the new plantings of native Spartina should be taken into consideration.  The entire enterprise seems deeply flawed, both harmful and futile. 

Bringing it home to the Bay Area

So, what does this have to do with you?  If you are concerned about pesticide use, you might be interested in the fact the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) used 203 gallons of imazapyr in 2009 and 121 gallons in 2010 for the sole purpose of eradicating Spartina on their properties.  We don’t know how much imazapyr EBRPD used in 2011, 2012 and 2013, because they haven’t published a report of pesticide use since 2010.  Since their properties are only on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, we should assume that at least that much imazapyr was used by land managers on the west side of the Bay.

 Displacement of Clapper Rails in San Francisco

California Clapper Rail.  British Wikipedia
California Clapper Rail. British Wikipedia

In July 2011, a Clapper Rail was seen and photographed at Heron’s Head in southeastern San Francisco.  There was quite a bit of excitement about this sighting because a Clapper Rail had not been seen in San Francisco for decades.  That excitement dissipated when we learned more about where this bird came from, which provided a probable reason for its arrival.

The Clapper Rail was wearing a radio collar that had been put on him and 109 other rails by the USGS to track their movements.  He had moved from Colma Creek, 11 km south of Heron’s Head, which is one of nearly 200 Spartina “control sites” in the San Francisco Estuary.  The bird sighted at Heron’s Head is one of three Clapper Rails that have left Colma Creek since 2007, when the radio collars were placed.  The Spartina control project has been going on for over 10 years, so we have no way of knowing how many Clapper Rails were displaced prior to 2007.  In 2012, non-native Spartina at Heron’s Head was sprayed with herbicides.  Where did the Clapper Rails go from there?  Was there anywhere left for them to hide?

Pesticide Application Notice, Heron's Head, 2012
Pesticide Application Notice, Heron’s Head, 2012

As our readers know, native plant advocates claim their “restoration” projects benefit wildlife.  They can offer no evidence for this claim.  But there is considerable evidence that proves them wrong.  The endangered California Clapper Rail is one such case.


(1)     Adam Lambert et.al., “Optimal approaches for balancing invasive species eradication and endangered species management,” Science, May 30, 2014, vol. 344 Issue 6187

(2)     “West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health, Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team Work Plan,” Released May 2010, page 12

(3)     Cornell Ornithology Lab:  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/clapper_rail/id

(4)     “Smooth Cordgrass,” USDA/NRCS Plant Fact Sheet.

(5)  Dorset Hurley, “Geogia’s Marsh Die Back and Louisiana’s Marsh Browning,” Altamaha Riverkeeper

(6)  “What’s killing off our salt marshes,” Going Coastal Magazine, September 15, 2008

(7) “West Coast Governor’s Agreement on Ocean Health,” May 2010, page 5-6

Center for Biological Diversity is about power and control

We try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  We assume that native plant advocates believe what they say even when we know what they’re saying isn’t true.  We assume they share our commitment to protecting the environment even though we don’t agree about how to achieve that goal.

When the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) was required by the Arizona Supreme Court to pay $600,000 in punitive damages for fabricating fraudulent evidence to support their unsuccessful effort to take federal grazing rights from a rancher in Arizona, we assumed it was just an example of over-zealous environmentalism.  People who believe they are on an important mission sometimes think the means they use to achieve their goals are justified by the righteous ends of their cause.

However, recent events have forced us to reconsider our generous interpretation of CBD’s motives.  In particular, we find the Center for Biological Diversity’s action and inaction on these two local issues contradictory:

  • On one hand, CBD filed for endangered status for the Franciscan manzanita.  CBD’s clone, Wild Equity (founded by a former employee of CBD), sued when endangered status was delayed.  They demanded the designation of critical habitat—including 196 acres of San Francisco’s public parks– for a plant which is likely a hybrid of one of the most common species of manzanita and will require dangerous and polluting wildfires to reproduce.  This seems consistent with CBD’s long track-record of aggressively protecting rare plants and animals despite negative impact on humans.
  • On the other hand, CBD has thus far done nothing on behalf of the endangered Clapper Rail.  It has been over a year since studies have shown that the eradication of non-native Spartina marsh grass in San Francisco Bay has decimated the small population of this rare bird.  The assumption is that the Rail is exposed to its predators–particularly during nesting season–by eradication of dense, year-round cover provided by Spartina.  It’s also possible that the pesticide (imazapyr) used to eradicate Spartina is a factor, because the effect of imazapyr on shore birds has not been tested.  The absence of action on behalf of the Rail seems inconsistent with CBD’s extreme actions on behalf of other endangered plants and animals.
California Clapper Rail

Is Center for Biological Diversity motivated by money?

So how do we reconcile these seemingly inconsistent actions vs. inactions of CBD?  What motivates their selection of particular species of plants and animals for protection? 

Ted Williams calls himself an “environmental extremist.”  He is the author of a regular column in Audubon Magazine which is appropriately entitled, “Incite.”  One of Williams’ articles demonizing eucalyptus is typical of the provocative approach of his column.  In that article, he fabricated “data” about bird deaths to justify the crusade to eradicate eucalypts. 

Williams is proud of his credentials as an environmental provocateur and he uses those credentials to defend his criticism of Center for Biological Diversity in an article in High Country News (1).  He expresses his opinion that CBD is motivated by money.  He points out that CBD has filed hundreds of suits against the federal government, using environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, and that every time it wins it collects attorney fees from the federal government.   The cost and number of these suits has become a major obstacle to US Fish & Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency in fulfilling their mandate to protect rare species.

Although these accusations are accurate, we don’t think this is an adequate explanation for CBD’s choice of issues to pursue.  We turn to the New York Times to put this accusation into perspective.  The Times reports (2) that CBD had filed 700 lawsuits when the article was published in March 2010, and they were successful in those suits 93% of the time.  Those suits forced the government to list 350 endangered species and designate 120 million acres of critical habitat for their recovery. 

However, revenue generated by the success of these suits was only $1.4 million in 2008, compared with $7.6 million from contributions and grants.  In other words, only 16% of CBD’s revenue in 2008 came from their suits against the federal government. 

Furthermore, the founder and Executive Director of CBD earned $116,000 in 2008, which doesn’t seem out of line for an organization with over 60 employees and offices all over the country (including the San Francisco Bay Area). 

We don’t think the leadership of CBD is motivated by money. 

It’s about power and control

We turn to the New Yorker magazine (3) to understand and explain the motivation of Center for Biological Diversity and its local ally, Wild Equity.  In 1999, the New Yorker published an in-depth study of the leadership of CBD entitled, “No People Allowed.” 

The article reports the creation of CBD and its early history in the southwest where it was founded and is still headquartered.  Their initial efforts were direct-action, typical of traditional environmental organizations; then they discovered the power of the law:  “’We’re crazy to sit in trees when there’s this incredible law where we can make people do whatever we want,;” said Robin Silver, one of the founders of CBD.    

Using federal environmental laws, they apparently brought the timber industry in the southwest to a virtual halt and they were making similar progress in eliminating all grazing in the southwest when the article was published.  Perhaps there was some benefit to the environment, but there was also significant economic loss to the human community in the southwest, according to the New Yorker.

So, what does CBD want?  The New Yorker tells us that the founder’s deconstructionist philosophy is “a decentering and disempowering of the human.”  Their goal is described:  “…the center is endeavoring to undo the dominion of man over animals and plantsthe only way to get to the desired state is to deconstruct stuff that exists in the world:  legal arrangements, social and economic forms, and even physical structures.”  CBD’s Executive Director tells us his motivation in the New Yorker article as well as the long term goal of CBD:  “[Kieran] Suckling cheerfully admitted that he’s ‘using one side of industrial society against itself,’ but only temporarily; in the long run, he says, there will be a new order in which plants and animals are part of the polity.  For example, legal proceedings could be conducted outdoors—in which case ‘the trees will make themselves felt.’”

“Good” tree may stay

We find the reference to the desires of trees particularly interesting.  Apparently Mr. Suckling believes he speaks for the trees.  What about the non-native trees which CBD demands we destroy on behalf of other plants and animals which it prefers?  Mr. Suckling apparently considers himself the spokesperson for just particular trees of his choosing.  Apparently the rights of trees will be limited to native trees when CBD has successfully established this new order.

“Bad” tree must go.

Mr. Suckling also implies that CBD’s control of the environment is only temporary until the new order is established in which plants and animals are in control.  This reminds us of a similar fantasy about a new social and economic model which was originally proposed by Karl Marx.  In creating the concept of communism, he envisioned a temporary dictatorship of elites which would eventually be ceded to a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  The world has now witnessed many attempts to install communism as the governing economic model, but we have not seen the dictatorship of elites willingly cede their power to the people. 

This quote of CBD’s Executive Director from Ted Williams’ article, also helps us to understand why CBD sues the federal government to achieve their goals:  “’They [employees of federal agencies] feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are,’ he told the High Country News.  ‘So they become much more willing to play by our rules.’”   In other words, suing—and the threat of suit—is CBD’s means of controlling the federal agencies that are responsible for protecting the environment, i.e., forcing them to do what CBD wants.

Humans will always be in control of land-use decisions.  It’s only a question of which humans are in control and CBD intends to be the humans in control.  If we hand them that power, we will find it difficult to wrest it from them if we decide they are not using that power wisely or fairly. 

We can’t defend all of the activities of humans when we damage the environment to suit our purposes.  However, we don’t think the Center for Biological Diversity would be a better steward of our land.  Even if they were capable of wise land-use decisions, we are unwilling to suspend democratic methods of making those decisions.  As human society repeatedly demonstrates, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We are no more willing to hand our fate to Center for Biological Diversity than to any other despot, benevolent or not.

We invite Center for Biological Diversity to prove us wrong

We would like Center for Biological Diversity to prove us wrong.  CBD can demonstrate that their motivation is not simply the confiscation of public land from human use as a means of destroying human society and civilization.  They can start by filing suit on behalf of the endangered Clapper Rail to stop the pointless and destructive eradication of non-native Spartina in San Francisco Bay, using a toxic pesticide about which little is known.  CBD can demonstrate their commitment to protecting animals even if humans are not punished by that effort.

***********************

(1)    Ted Williams, “Extreme Green,” High Country News, May 21, 2011

(2)    Anne Mulkern, et. al., “Brazen Environmental Upstart Brings Legal Muscle, Nerve in Climate Debate,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

(3)    Nicholas Lemann, “No People Allowed,” New Yorker, November 22, 1999.

Nativism is shooting us in the foot

A few months ago, we told you about one of the many projects to eradicate a plant species that is considered non-native.  In this case, smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) is native to the East and Gulf coasts of the US, but is considered non-native on the West Coast, despite the fact that it has been here for over one hundred years.  About $12 million was spent in the past 10 years on this effort, and the projection is that another $16 million will be spent in the next 10 years.

California Clapper Rail. British Wikipedia

When we told you about this project, we speculated that it was having a negative effect on an endangered species, the Clapper Rail.  The non-native Spartina provides cover that is superior to the native variety of Spartina.  It grows more densely and it doesn’t die back during the winter months, as the native variety does.  We also pointed out that the Clapper Rail is abundant on the East and Gulf coasts and is only considered endangered on the West Coast. 

Since we told you about this eradication project, we’ve learned a few things about the Clapper Rail that we hope will interest you, as it does us. 

  • This seems to be another case in which native plant advocates are looking for a scapegoat, when they should be looking at themselves.  Native plant advocates would like you to believe that the Clapper Rail is endangered on the West Coast because of the introduction of non-native red fox.  The red fox is yet another creature that nativists wish to eradicate in the Bay Area.  Apparently it has not occurred to them that the red fox is native to the East Coast, where the Clapper Rail is thriving.  Hmmm, that seems like a bit of contradiction, No?
  • We have learned of the displacement of Clapper Rails from marshes in which the non-native Spartina in being eradicated.
  • The Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a nationally recognized institution that conducts research on birds, has concluded that the Spartina eradication project is having a negative effect on the Clapper Rail.

Evidence that eradication of Spartina alterniflora is harmful to Clapper Rails

In July, a Clapper Rail was seen and photographed at Heron’s Head in southeastern San Francisco.  There was quite a bit of excitement about this sighting because a Clapper Rail had not been seen in San Francisco for decades.  That excitement dissipated when we learned more about where this bird came from, which provided a probable reason for the move. 

The Clapper Rail was wearing a radio collar that had been put on him and 109 other rails by the USGS to track their movements.  He had moved from Colma Creek, 11 km south of Heron’s Head, which is one of nearly 200 Spartina “control sites” in the San Francisco Estuary.  The bird sighted at Heron’s Head is one of three Clapper Rails that have left Colma Creek since 2007, when the radio collars were placed.  The Spartina control project has been going on for nearly 10 years, so we have no way of knowing how many Clapper Rails were displaced prior to 2007.

In October 2011, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory issued the first-ever “State of the Birds Report for San Francisco Bay:”  “Based on decades of monitoring, 29 partners detail the actions needed to keep birds and their habitats thriving as sea levels rise and extreme storm events increase due to global climate change.”  This report acknowledges the role that the Spartina eradication project plays in the continuing decline of the population of Clapper Rails in the Bay Area:

The Clapper Rail’s rebound during the 1990’s was possibly due to fox control but also coincided with the rapid invasion of a tall non-native plant (invasive Spartina).  This invader benefited rails because it provided nesting habitat and protection from predators and high tides.  Beginning in the mid-2000s, the rail population declined sharply, due in part to the removal of invasive Spartina, which threatens tidal flat and marsh ecosystems as a whole.  This recent decline may be leveling off, but the future of Clapper Rails in San Francisco Bay remains tenuous.”

This is another example of the harmful obsession with non-native plants, which seems to trump other considerations, such as the welfare of the animals that benefit from the plants.  As is often the case with such eradication projects, Spartina is being eradicated with an herbicide, imazapyr.  This is a new herbicide about which little is known.  The analysis which was done to justify its use in the Spartina eradication project admits that no studies have been done on its effect on shorebirds, including the endangered Clapper Rail.  The Material Safety Data Sheet mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that imazapyr is “not readily biodegradable.”  So, in the event that we eventually learn that this herbicide is harmful to shorebirds and/or to us, we can be assured that it will still be in the environment, in the nearly 200 sites in the San Francisco Estuary on which it is currently being sprayed.  Imazapyr is also being sprayed–sometimes from helicopters–in hundreds of places along the West Coast, including in other states.  (A new post on Save Sutro reports more alarming information about imazapyr.)

The cost of nativism

This is an example of the harmful effects of attempting to eradicate non-native species.  It reminds us of a recent editorial in the New York Times about the new law in Alabama which is considered the most extreme anti-immigration law in the country.  The opponents of immigration are delighted with the new law.  The farmers of Alabama are warning us that they cannot replace the immigrants who are fleeing the state. Most of the work in the country’s agriculatural fields and orchards is being done by immigrants.  These are jobs that Americans are no longer willing to do.  This is just one of many unintended consequences of such xenophobic extremism.   We consider the Spartina eradication project another example of nativism run amok.

Spartina alterniflora: Treasured on the East Coast, reviled on the West Coast

Spartina alterniflora (Smooth Cordgrass) is a species of marsh grass native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, where it is considered a valuable plant making important contributions to the coastal ecology:

  •  Its dense growth provides protection against storm surge and “erosion control along shorelines, canal banks, levees, and other areas of soil-water interface.”(1)
  • It filters nutrients, sediments and toxins from the water that flows off the land before reaching the ocean, acting as a natural water treatment facility.
  • It provides cover and food for birds, mammals and marine animals that live in the coastal marsh.  Many other marsh plants occupy the same marshlands.

    Spartina alterniflora, Smooth Cordgrass. USDA photo

Where Smooth Cordgrass has died back in its native range, the dieback has been considered a serious environmental threat:

  • In 2001 the Governor of Louisiana declared a “state of emergency” when Smooth Cordgrass declined and the state obtained $3 million of federal funding to study and hopefully reverse the decline.  This study resulted in the development of a method of aerial seeding of Smooth Cordgrass to restore declining areas of marshland.(2)
  • A similar, but smaller dieback of Smooth Cordgrass in Georgia led to a collaborative research and on-going monitoring effort by 6 research institutions in Georgia.(3)
  • Similar dieback of Smooth Cordgrass has been reported as far north as the coast of Maine.  A researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is quoted in that report as saying, “In New Orleans, if their marshes were intact, the storm surge of Katrina would not have reached the levees.”(4)

The war on Smooth Cordgrass in the West Coast 

Smooth Cordgrass is not native on the Pacific Coast of the United States.  Therefore it is treated as an alien invader to be eradicated with herbicides:

  • $24 million was spent to eradicate Smooth Cordgrass in San Francisco and Willapa Bay from 2000 to 2010 (5)
  • $16.3 million is projected to be spent on eradication efforts on the entire West Coast from 2011 to 2020 (6)

In 2006, 2,000 acres were treated with herbicides to eradicate Smooth Cordgrass in the San Francisco Estuary.    Most were retreated 3 to 5 times after initial treatment.  In 2010, twenty five sites were slated for retreatment, usually with herbicides.  The San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) “defines a need for a zero tolerance threshold on invasive Spartina in the San Francisco Bay.”(7)

The ISP reports that imazapyr (Habitat) will be used in most sites, although it will sometimes be mixed with glyphosate (Roundup). (See SaveSutro for more information about imazapyr and its use in San Francisco.)  The ISP acknowledges that:

  •  “little is known about the interactive effects” of combining these herbicides or any of the surfactants used with these herbicides.
  • These herbicides will be applied using a variety of methods, including aerial spraying by helicopter.
  • Although the ISP considers imazapyr a relatively non-toxic herbicide, it also acknowledges that imazapyr has only been used since 2005.  Therefore, “Only few toxicity studies exist for birds…no data exist for the potential toxicity of imazapyr to shorebirds.”(8) Given that one of the stated purposes of eradicating Smooth Cordgrass is to benefit the endangered Clapper Rail, it seems surprising that nothing is known about the effects of imazapyr on any shorebird, including the Clapper Rail.

Why is Smooth Cordgrass treasured on the East Coast and reviled on the West Coast?  That question was asked and answered by Professor James Morris at an Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon on March 5, 2011.  Professor Morris studies Smooth Cordgrass at the Baruch Institute for Marine & Coastal Sciences at the University of South Carolina.  We urge our readers to watch a video of his presentation to the conference in Oregon.  We will draw upon that video in addressing the claims (9) made by those who are attempting to eradicate Smooth Cordgrass on the West Coast:

Indictment:  Smooth Cordgrass will invade mud flats, eliminating valuable habitat for plants and animals that inhabit that segment of marshland.

Defense:  According to Professor Morris, Smooth Cordgrass was introduced to the West Coast in shipments of Eastern oysters over 100 years ago without eliminating mudflats.  Europe has had similar experience with Smooth Cordgrass which was introduced there to reduce sediment in harbors.  Professor Morris showed pictures of Danish and Dutch estuaries in which Smooth Cordgrass has existed since the 1930s without radically altering the composition of the marshland.

Indictment:  Smooth Cordgrass will invade waterways, making them impassable.

Defense:  Again, since this has not happened in 100 years, there is no reason to assume it will happen in the future.  Furthermore, the USDA describes the narrow range of Smooth Cordgrass:  “the width and thickness of vegetative colonies are controlled by a number of site specific conditions such as elevation, shoreline slope, and frequency, depth and duration of flooding” as well as salinity and acidity.  In other words, the range of Smooth Cordgrass is limited.

Indictment:  Smooth Cordgrass does not provide habitat value equal to the native species of cordgrass with which Smooth Cordgrass competes, particularly for the endangered Clapper Rail.

Defense:  Mike Casazza at the Dixon Field Station of the USGS is presently studying the effect of eradicating Smooth Cordgrass on the reproductive success of the Clapper Rail:  “Removal of invasive Spartina accomplishes the goal of Spartina eradication, but if rails fail to survive and reproduce, then the goal of species protection is unfulfilled…the potential for impact from invasive Spartina removal and the potential for mitigation by rail ecology and behavior remain poorly understood.”(10)  Clapper Rails live in Smooth Cordgrass on the East Coast:  “numerous” Clapper Rail families were observed nesting in Smooth Cordgrass on Dewees Island, South Carolina.(11)

Indictment:  Smooth Cordgrass is outcompeting the native Pacific Cordgrass (Spartina foliosa) by displacement and hybridization.

Defense:  This is probably true because of the characteristics of the Pacific Cordgrass:  “S. foliosa occupies a very limited range in the intertidal zone, and the leaves and stems wither in fall and shed in the winter, leaving sparse standing matter that is ineffective at trapping sediment.  Seedlings of S. foliosa are seldom found in established marshes and appear only intermittently in sheltered upper mudflats.”(12)  In other words, the range of the native cordgrass is narrower, it does not grow as densely, and it is not foliated year around, thereby creating opportunities for the non-native cordgrass to occupy bare ground.  Since marsh grasses are beneficial to the environment and its inhabitants, the ability of Smooth Cordgrass to occupy this vacuum seems a benefit, particularly since native cordgrass is less capable of removing sediments from water, reducing its effectiveness as a filter of pollutants from water flowing into the bay.(13)

Smooth Cordgrass is treasured on the East and Gulf Coasts because it performs valuable ecology services.  Although it performs the same ecological functions on the West Coast, it is being eradicated.  The evidence available to us suggests that we are spending a lot of money and effort, as well as using a lot of herbicides, to eradicate Smooth Cordgrass only because it is not native to the West Coast.   

  • Smooth Cordgrass provides superior storm surge protection particularly during winter months when native cordgrass is dormant.
  • Smooth Cordgrass is more capable of filtering pollutants from water flowing into the bay.
  • Smooth Cordgrass provides at least equal habitat quality to the endangered Clapper Rail and probably other marsh plants and animals as well.
  • Smooth Cordgrass has not blocked waterways or eliminated mud flats in comparable situations over long periods of time

We invite our readers to supply us with evidence that there are legitimate reasons for the campaign against Smooth Cordgrass.


(2) Dorset Hurley, “Geogia’s Marsh Die Back and Louisiana’s Marsh Browning,” Altamaha Riverkeeper

(3) Ibid.

(4) “What’s killing off our salt marshes,” Going Coastal Magazine, September 15, 2008

(5) “West Coast Governor’s Agreement on Ocean Health,” May 2010, page 5

(6) Ibid., page 6

(7) “San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project, 2010 Pesticide Application Plan,” page 15.

(8) Ibid. page 31

(9) “West Coast Governor’s Agreement on Ocean Health,” May 2010

(10) “Ecology of California Clapper Rail in the San Francisco Bay/Delta Region,” USGS Western Ecological Research Center

(11) Judy Drew Fairchild, “Watch for Clapper Rails and chicks,” Dewees Island, SC

(12)“West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health,” May 2010, page 12

(13) “San Francisco Estuary Invasive  Spartina Project, 2010 Pesticide Application Plan,” page 10