December 19, 2014

Park District can’t afford to keep eucalyptus plantations–economics and ecology agree: convert to native species

Chabot Campground thinning.

Chabot Campground thinning.

The East Bay Regional Park District’s Vegetation Management Program, in many ways a great advance, contains one major flaw that it’s time to fix.

The Sierra Club supported the plan last year when the District adopted it, because of its strong emphasis on protecting and restoring native species (see August 2013, page 8). More than 20 years after the devastating 1991 Claremont fire, the District finally had a plan for managing the vegetation in its 17,000 acres along the wildland-urban interface.

The Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and California Native Plant Society generally supported the plan, but with grave reservations about one component: the preservation of large eucalyptus plantations. We called for these areas to be converted to allow native woodlands and other native vegetation to reclaim the hills from Richmond to San Leandro. Instead, the plan calls for thinning those groves–and removing the understory, including native plants such as oaks and bay laurels, where they have survived.At some point the eucalyptus will reach maturity and begin to die off, creating even a greater fire risk unless the trees are removed then. (Could we count on the District to have the funding at that time to do this?)

Recently an economic analysis has added to our concerns. Jerry Kent, a former assistant general manager for the Park District who worked on these issues before his retirement, finds that if the District persists in its current approach, it will ultimately cost $180,000 an acre over the next 20 – 40 years to maintain and then remove the eucalyptus plantations. There are 1,293 acres; the total cost will be $230 million.

Our worst fear is that at some time the Park District will lack funds for the needed maintenance and will do what governmental agencies do in such situations: just stop, calling it ‘deferred maintenance’. Once that happens, the chances of a catastrophic fire grow, while the habitat suffers.

The Park District’s main funding for this work is from Measure CC, a parcel tax levied on residents west of the hills from Pinole and Richmond in the north down to San Leandro. Measure CC must be renewed by 2020, and the District wants to start the process in 2016. If it increased the tax to cover the $230 million needed for eucalyptus (or anything close to it), voters would revolt and refuse to reauthorize the tax. (This tax pays also for a wide range of essential park operations such as stream and creek restoration and opening up new parks to users).

No one wants another 1991 conflagration. It would be a human nightmare as well as an environmental disaster. Moreover, just as we saw in the aftermath of 1991, the call would go out to simply clearcut all vegetation in huge swathes of Park District land. The Club had to spend years fighting this alternative after the 1991 fire, and it still appeals to some politicians.

It is time for the Park District to fix its plans with the goal of making vegetation management cost-effective, promoting real fire safety, and restoring native habitat in lands now covered with eucalyptus.

WhatYouCanDo

Write to general manager Robert Doyle and the Board at:

East Bay Regional Park District
P.O Box 5381
Oakland, CA 94605-0135.

Urge the District to adopt plans to remove all eucalyptus.

To read Jerry Kent’s full analysis of the costs of eucalyptus thinning, see http://claremontcanyon.org/pdf/the_risks_and_costs_of_eucalyptus_and_pine_dec_7_2013_jerry_kent.pdf.

Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee

Comments

  1. Dan Grassetti has written a cogent critique of the Sierra Club’s absurd demand that EBRPD destroy all eucalyptus trees on its properties, to which I can add little. Here are a few more reasons why the Sierra Club looks extremely foolish in making this demand.

    The Blue Gum eucalyptus, which is the predominant species of eucalyptus in California, lives in Australia from 100-500 years, towards the longer end of that range in milder climates such as the Bay Area. We don’t know how long it will live here because it has not been here more than 150 years. Arborists assure us that the trees are healthy and should live at least 300 more years. Jerry Kent’s anxiety about the imminent death of eucalyptus and the cost associated with removing dead trees is therefore ridiculous. On our current climate trajectory, we will have little reason to demand the return to native plants that will be long gone by then.

    Secondly, since when is it appropriate for an organization which claims to have an interest in preserving the environment to use an economic argument to justify its demand to destroy over one million healthy trees? Has the Sierra Club been taken over by cost accountants?

    Thirdly, since when does an organization which claims to be concerned about climate change, advocate for the destruction of one million trees storing many millions of tons of carbon? Has the Sierra Club abandoned its professed concern about climate change? If so it no longer has the right to call itself an environmental organization.

    It’s very sad that the Sierra Club has been hijacked by thugs. We desperately need an organization with a sincere interest in protecting the environment, including the animals that live in it. We need an organization that will be more interested in the public’s safety than in native plants, one that will object to the use of herbicides rather than promote their use.

  2. The very first check I wrote when I was 16 was for my Sierra Club membership, but after almost 40 years of being a proud member of the Club I resigned as the direct result of what is now being proposed by the Club. It’s unfortunate that the Sierra Club is jeopardizing the considerable goodwill for this venerable institution to advance an agenda that seems at odds with the most basic principles of environmental stewardship. .

    The determination to eradicate 3 species of trees from the Bay Area, eucalyptus, monterey pines, and acacias is a huge mistake. The Club apparently believes that these 3 species just don’t belong here but turns a blind eye to loads of other species that arguably don’t belong here either. A reasonable person would see this as being a purely subjective assessment, not based on any science, but rather a belief system.

    There have been all manner of justifications used to obtain public support and funding to implement this belief system, including the risk of fire and now economic factors. But these are just justifications for doing something that someone has already decided needed to be done….for other reasons.

    Here are some facts. The 1991 Oakland hills fire disaster had almost nothing to do with trees of any kind. Whether they be redwoods, pines, bays, eucs, or oaks, none of them had a significant impact in causing or propagating this fire. This is documented in both the Grand Jury report of this terrible event and the enormously detailed FEMA analysis. Even some of the key proponents of the “eradicate these three species” movement have publicly acknowledged that trees weren’t the problem.

    Second, independent expert wildlands wildfire managers, educated, trained, and experienced professionals, have gone on record repeatedly saying that indeed, tall trees of any species aren’t a big fire risk. It’s the ground fuels that are the real problem, whether they are native or not. One must remember that these species were intended in nature to burn frequently, and that’s just what they do.

    Third, the attempts to scare or just deceive the public into making tens of millions of dollars available for fire risk mitigation projects that actually increase the risk of fire are shameful. If the “eradicate the 3 species” proponents were honest about this they would be forthright in making it clear that the public should support projects such as these because the public shares the view that these species “just don’t belong here.” But they know that the public will not support projects that are designed primarily to eradicate certain species and don’t serve any other public good.

    Fourth, there are significant negative environmental consequences associated with removing these trees. If the Club had its way, well in excess of a million mature trees in the East Bay hills would be killed. This would have a very significant effect on the local environment. It would result in the release of enormous amounts of sequestered CO2 and would forever diminish the ability that these large trees had to continue to sequester CO2. Additionally, tens of thousands of gallons of toxic herbicides would be applied to both the stumps of the dying trees and the infestation of broom, thistle, hemlock, and poison oak that take hold once the shade is gone.

    There would also be substantial reduction in slope stability, adding to the risk of mudslides and landslides. The tall trees that soften the impact of rain on the soil would be gone. Water that would have been absorbed and stored by these trees would simply run off. Most importantly, what was a moist and cool microclimate will be transformed into a dry and hot microclimate. Trees that formerly collected the fog and provided shade to hikers, runners, bicyclists, and all manner of creatures will be gone.

    Significant amounts of habitat would be lost, most notably for raptors. Hawks and owls are among the most avid users of these tall trees, building nests particularly in eucs. There are constant sightings of red tails and hawks in these hills because this is their home. Make no mistake, if these trees are gone, the raptors will be history. If the raptors go, then what happens? As we witnessed in the aftermath of the ’91 fire, in the absence of raptors the rodent population exploded. It took many years for the raptors to re-establish themselves and the ecological balance to be restored.

    Finally, real experts in the field, scientists and professional wild land fire managers have made it clear that removing 3 species of tall trees will not only cause all manner of environmental problems, including herbicides being carried down the hills in the rain into pristine creeks, but equally importantly, that this is the most expensive way to manage wild land fire risk. It is far cheaper to remove understory rules on a periodic basis than it is to embark on a large scale logging project.

    Most importably, if the objective is to reduce fire risk, experts agree, removing tall trees is the wrong thing to do. The most fire resistant environment we could have in these hills (short of paving the whole area) is one with well-spaced tall shade trees, with well managed understory fuels, and with no fire ladder. In fact there is a growing consensus among the local agencies who manage wild lands that this is in fact the best way to manage fire risk.

    So, what’s being proposed here is very expensive, very environmentally unfriendly, will significantly add to the greenhouse gas problem, and if anything, increases wildfire risk. Imagine, at a time when all the world is working to plant trees the Sierra Club is advocating removing trees. How can this be?

    The idea of removing 3 species of tall trees because you don’t think they should be here flies in the face of core environmental values, and it’s shocking to see an organization with an environmental pedigree as old and impressive as the Sierra Club promoting something like this.

  3. Marg Hall says:

    I used to be a Sierra Club member until a few years ago when I discovered that you support the use of herbicides in parklands. I, along with a growing percentage of the population, am chemically sensitive. I must live with the vast uncertainty about the location and timing of pesticide applications, faithful adherence to safety regulations, the persistence and migration of both inert and active ingredients, to say nothing of the inadequate independent scientific evaluation of safety. All of this means that parks are less and less safe and accessible to me and to many others.

    Here’s an irony: on Fourth St., in Berkeley, folks working for the Sierra Club are often on the street to recruit new members. They carry clipboards with pictures from the Sierra Mountains of over-logged former forests now barren and soaked with pesticides. This is supposed to convince me to rejoin the Sierra Club when you are essentially advocating for the same thing right here in our own neighborhood? I don’t think so.

  4. Madeline Hovland says:

    Native plants and trees, including but not limited to manzanitas, bays, coyote bush, oaks, and redwoods, burn just as well or even more readily than eucalyptus trees. Unlike the author of the highly exaggerated cost analysis who used to work for the Park District, I live in the area of the Oakland Hills that burned in the 1991 fire. Our house did not burn, but I witnessed hundreds of houses within two or three houses of ours go up in flames. In this part of the hills, one house set another one on fire; the vegetation around the houses had very little to do with how the fire spread. Many eucalyptus trees survived the fire. Some did not, but neither did native oaks and redwoods which I saw burn right down to the ground.

    Our family moved to the Oakland hills 40 years ago because we love the trees, the birds, the shaded hiking trails, and the glimpses of wild animals that we see in Claremont Canyon and in the the East Bay Regional Parklands. We still live in the same old house that was built in 1938.

    Please don’t believe the people (who don’t even live here) who are attempting to use flammability and cost as reasons to remove all of the non-native trees and plants in East Bay Regional Parks. They are making up “facts” and figures to scare you into favoring their management agenda–which is really all about restoring a bygone savannah and chaparral landscape that the settlers in the hills wisely improved (and made more fire-safe) by introducing tall trees and plants from other parts of the world.

  5. Dan Grassetti has written a cogent critique of the Sierra Club’s absurd demand that EBRPD destroy all eucalyptus trees on its properties, to which I can add little. Here are a few more reasons why the Sierra Club looks extremely foolish in making this demand.

    The Blue Gum eucalyptus, which is the predominant species of eucalyptus in California, lives in Australia from 100-500 years, towards the longer end of that range in milder climates such as the Bay Area. We don’t know how long it will live here because it has not been here more than 150 years. Arborists assure us that the trees are healthy and should live at least 300 more years. Jerry Kent’s anxiety about the imminent death of eucalyptus and the cost associated with removing dead trees is therefore unnecessary. On our current climate trajectory, we will have little reason to demand the return to native plants that will be long gone by then.

    Secondly, since when is it appropriate for an organization which claims to have an interest in preserving the environment to use an economic argument to justify its demand to destroy over one million healthy trees? Has the Sierra Club been taken over by cost accountants?

    Thirdly, since when does an organization which claims to be concerned about climate change, advocate for the destruction of one million trees storing many millions of tons of carbon? Has the Sierra Club abandoned its professed concern about climate change? If so it forfeits the right to call itself an environmental organization.

    It’s very sad that the Sierra Club has been hijacked by people who value plants more than people and other animals. We desperately need an organization with a sincere interest in protecting the environment, including the animals that live in it. We need an organization that will be more interested in the public’s safety than in native plants, one that will object to the use of herbicides rather than promote their use

  6. Keith McAllister says:

    This article uses Jerry Kent’s economic “analysis” to support destroying the eucalytpus in the East Bay Regional Parks. Perhaps your readers would be interested in where Kent gets his information. The following is quoted from the April-June 2014 issue of Bay Nature:

    “I started working here in 1962,” Jerry Kent told me. “I made up history my whole career at the district. Some of it’s accurate and some of it’s not. So Richard and Brenda are here to make sure it’s accurate.”
    “You made it up off the top of your head?” I asked.
    “Sure. When you’re the assistant general manager, you can say something, and people believe it.”

  7. I address Dan Grassetti’s comment on my blog. CCFirestorm.blogspot.com, but I wanted to point out to Keith McAllister that a sense of humor and the ability to recognize sarcasm are two signs of intelligence.

  8. Nancy Lane says:

    I too was living in the hills during the 1991 firestorm. While the area north of Highway 24 was indeed devastated from house-to-house fire spread, the eventual jump of the fire and spread up the hill to my side of the freeway was absolutely due to the thick eucalyptus groves in between. As Dan points out in his initial response, “It’s the ground fuels that are the real problem.” Nothing creates beautiful, burn-ready fuel like this species of eucalyptus – the bark shed, the leaves that light and then fly away, carrying fire to the next grove, the tangled down branches – even one unmanaged grove is a happy woodpile waiting for an event to set it off. When I drove down my hill, the flames from trees whose tops were far below the street bloomed until they were level with our cars as we fled.

    Managed euc forests are better than unmanaged, but my favorite euc forest would be a formerly-euc space waiting for other species to come in. I know it will be ugly in my lifetime; I accept that. I think, however, that it would be a safer and wiser approach for the next 20-30 years. Bird and animal species will shift territories, just as they do after a wildfire. They will come back when the terrain can support them.

    (And I am not in the “natives-only” camp, by the way. I’m just in the “tired-of-raking-and-disposing-of-euc-detritus” camp, and the “I never want to witness another firestorm” camp.)

    My two cents.

  9. madge nielsen says:

    Well I am a natives-only nut and I make no apologies. California is a state that foreign plants have a cushy place to live, particularly the central coast where it is never too hot and never too cold. Our grasslands have been near annihilated and I’m tired of seeing our unique ecosystems buried under escaped lawns and aggressive agriculture or threatened at a property owner’s whim because they just really happen to like a particular tree. I like eucalyptus trees too, if they’re in Australia. And wisely, Australia doesn’t want our plants either. If you want to save local wildlife, don’t rage against habitat restoration—our local fauna have been eating native plants for a very long time.

    And I agree while oaks and bays will burn, I have never seen a tree turn into a flame thrower quite like a eucalyptus. I have no data. That’s just personal observation. Chamise is extremely flammable as well, native or no, but no one builds houses on slopes covered with chamise.

  10. Ms. Nielson is mistaken that local fauna require native plants. There are empirical studies which report that every taxon of the animal kingdom is found in equal numbers and diversity in native and non-native forests in the San Francisco Bay Area: benthic microorganisms, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. (There are 5 specific studies done by academic scientists that report these findings in the Bay Area and close-by ecosystems such as Davis, California. If the Sierra Club would accept our many requests to meet with them, we could provide you with these studies. Since you refuse to meet with use, you remain in the dark.) No scientific study exists that says otherwise.

    There are also national and international studies that report the same findings. Even Doug Tallamy was unable to find evidence that supported his assumption that insects prefer native plants and he has published a chapter in a book that admits this finding after the completion of a study by a graduate student under his direction.

    More recently, the British Royal Horticultural Academy has reported the preliminary results of a 4-year study of insect use of plants. They find no evidence of insect preference for native plants over non-native plants.

    By all means, plant whatever you prefer on your own land. Just quit destroying everything else on public land based on your mistaken belief in its inferiority as habitat.

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