Public Comment

Commentary: The Destruction of Lake Merritt By James Sayre

Friday January 27, 2006

Thank you for publishing your Jan. 24 front-page story, “Lake Merritt Tree Supporters Unmoved by Public Works Tour.” It revealed some new and troubling details about the Oakland city staff’s mentality behind its pig-headed plans to “rebuild” the Lake Merritt shorelines by killing more than 200 mature trees. This mentality seems to be “we had to destroy the shoreline to save it.” This would seem to parallel the Bush plan for Iraq: first destroy it and then rebuilt it at an obscene profit, as per the notorious no-bid contracts let to Halliburton.  

It seems that the Oakland city staff has decided to play God by cutting down many trees near the lower marshy end of Lake Merritt to protect the shorebirds from hawks that would be perching in said trees. It is asserted that you almost never see trees along the shorelines of tidal wetlands in California and thus city staffers wanted to replicate nature in this regard.  

But it is somehow fine to have high-rise apartment buildings and office buildings and roads and parking meters near the shorelines of Lake Merritt? This is looking at the Lake Merritt through the wrong end of bird-watching binoculars. There are currently hundreds of pedestrians walking on paved paths and thousands of cars driving on roads around Lake Merritt each day. This is natural? All this alleged naturalistic renovation is just pretend stuff. There are no longer any major predators such as grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes or foxes around the lake to keep the populations of Canada geese and other birds at natural levels.  

A recent article by one of the Oakland Tribune columnists explained how the lower marshy end of Lake Merritt used to be surrounded by dense thickets of shrubs and low trees. In the 1960s the Oakland police got city workers to remove almost all of this vegetation so that they could easily spot and roust out the hippies that were camping out there.  

The city staff is also participating in the demonizing of some species of mature trees that currently ring Lake Merritt as “non-native” and “undesirable.” This demonizing of trees that originally were from overseas locations is the modern sport of California nativist fanatics. The human standard of “nativity” is that if you are born in California you are a California native. However, we are unwilling to grant this same status to trees that are “born here,” i.e., ones that sprout from seed here. This is quite a double standard. California native plant fanatics are trying to turn the botanical clock back to an allegedly pristine pre-Columbian time unsullied by the presence of Europeans and their accompanying entourage of Old World plants and animals.  

Actually, any differentiation between species on the basis of where their distant ancestors grew hundreds of years ago is purely a human conceit: it has no basis in the science of biology. Natural environments are dynamic and are never static, with populations of different species coming and going and rising and falling in numbers.  

This human discrimination against certain species of plants by ancestry is a nativist non-science. “In the beginning God (Nature) created California natives,” and no one else need apply, thank you very much. This is a sort of creationism, if you will. Plants and animals live and interact in the here and now and do not bother with nativity checks.  

The City of Oakland should leave the mature trees now growing around Lake Merritt alone. If trees are felled by rainstorm or windstorm, then they should be replaced on an individual basis. We can’t recreate pristine “native habitat” in this area without removing all buildings, roads and all other signs of human activity. It is time for us to step back, take a deep breath and start from scratch (with full public disclosure) in trying to “improve” the Lake Merritt area.