Cutting down the East Bay eucalyptus forests:who speaks for the trees?

Becky O'Malley
Friday September 09, 2016 - 02:14:00 PM

There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

— H.L. Mencken

The NextDoor network has hosted a long and very valuable discussion of a proposal to cut down a substantial percentage of the eucalyptus trees in the East Bay hills, unfortunately not accessible unless you’re a member. Close to a hundred posts on the site have highlighted criticisms of the rationale behind the plan, as well as attracting those who'd like to get rid of the trees. 

My last editorial, written because the NextDoor discussion had reminded me once again of the inadequacy of the California Environmental Quality Act in settling this kind of question, elicited this polite disagreement from John Hitchen, a good statement of what seems to be the official position on the plan for de-foresting the East Bay Regional Parks: 

“In your August 29 article "Full speed ahead, and damn the facts”, you revisit the ongoing discussion of the FEMA funded fuels management program in the Berkeley/Oakland Hills. As a retired Parks professional with 22 years of experience managing a eucalyptus forest, I have broad knowledge of the issues involved and the challenge of stabilizing these Australian giants. There are good reasons why the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, The East Bay Regional Park District, and many other environmental organizations support a reduction in the number of eucalyptus globulus trees.

“For over 15 years, the herbicide recommended by licensed pest control applicators for eucalyptus has been Garlon 4 Ultra, Not Roundup. Garlon 4 Ultra is Dow Agrosciences trade name for Triclopyr, which is not glyphosate based , nor a Monsanto product. Whether one is for herbicide use or not, it is important to provide accurate information about the material used for eucalyptus work.

“The Berkeley/Oakland Hills were primarily grasslands at the time of European settlement, with native oaks and bays growing mainly on the lower slopes of the north and east faces; along with redwoods along Redwood Creek. Photographs taken prior to the planting of the eucalyptus and other species show our hills looking very similar to the grassy hills from San Leandro south to Mount Hamilton in the South Bay. Restoring the hills to grassland will take time, but once fuel loads have been reduced, regular prescribed burning similar to what Native Americans did every 11-15 years is a beneficial method to favor native species.The idea that large trees are desirable in every landscape is at the heart of this issue-eucalyptus were planted for all of the wrong reasons-and we need not allow this mistake to damage our ecological balance here forever.

“There will always be magnificent examples of mature blue gums in our planted landscapes in places such as the UC Campus, Mills College, Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, and dozens of other locations where they do best along creek beds or close to the Bay. But blue gums are Invasive in the foggy parts of the East Bay Hills, as explained by Jared Farmer in Part 2, "Eucalyptic California” in his book Trees in Paradise. Jared devotes over 100 pages to the history, biology,economy, and sociology of the trees.

“To summarize-blue gums are the largest and fastest growing of all 700+ eucalyptus species, and were chosen to be planted in California just for that reason. But in hindsight it is clear that their planting was done for potential profit, not for the good of the earth, and we now know that it was entirely a mistake. Eucalyptus fit the definition of a weed to perfection, they are truly a plant in the wrong place.”
I ran his letter past some of my scientist friends, who offered some counter-observations. One of them, an academic ecologist familiar with our regional parks, asked not to be quoted by name because of the fiery politics which currently inflame this topic, but said this: 

“This letter contains respectful and measured language, but the assessment masks an uncertain scientific and political process that is more subjective than it is implied.
​“I will give you a slew of questions that I believe cannot be answered firmly enough to support the assertions it contains. ​
“What is the stepwise guarantee that the very expensive process of replacing the eucs with native grasses rather than much more pernicious invasive grasses, herbs, thistles and shrubs will be successful?
​“Are they proposing to start burning this ecosystem every 11-15 years, as the Native Americans in this area are believed to have done? If so, will it be in the fire season or the wet season? If native plants are adapted to fire season burns, would they be helped or hurt by rainy season burns? Evidence? Examples of success elsewhere? “If not burning, how likely are the other mechanisms proposed to successfully transform this ecosystem to a native oak woodland/grassland? Logging, herbicides, grazing with cows or goats, what else? How successful have these mechanisms been elsewhere? Evidence? 

“What are potential unintended effects of these mechanisms: erosion, herbicides, loss of adventitious use of the euc habitats, etc? 

“Are we hoping that scattered oaks will be restored? What is the future in the context of sudden oak death? What is the ecological purpose of the project, if not? 

“What monitoring will they be doing, and how much money is set aside to make sure the project meets its goals, and to try to fix it, if it is not? What is the political and ecological time frame of these actions? IE, just because current politicians are committed to starting the process, what guarantee is there that 50-100 years from now the public will want to keep taxing itself to pay to get from yellow star thistle or foxtails—not a fire risk—to bunchgrasses? How much uncertainty is built into their proposals? 

“Like them or not, the Eucs are currently here. They are a species that some humans love and some raptors and other vulnerable birds​/insects​ have come to use, although others do not. 

​ “There is a lot that scientists do not know about eucalyptus in California and about politics. "Broad knowledge" is a good start, but the devil is in the details, and humans tend not to be humble enough about the unknown. ​ 

“Decisionmakers need to ​​be aware of the uncertainty associated with removing ​eucs. The word "restoration" should not be used without specific actions and ​ costs​ associated, including the full cost of what is known as an "adaptive management " plan to respond to unforeseen consequences.​  

“Ultimately, the decision is political, not scientific. Are we ready to divert the full resources required to succeed in the goal of converting the existing ecosystem to a bunchgrass ecosystem, and what is the tradeoff? Is this the right ecological priority for the costs? 

“I will say that responding to this debate is not a quick or easy request, and it is fraught with political liability. Humans dominate the hills. What is the goal? How much would it cost to achieve? I predict that those who want a grassland will ultimately have to settle for a European grass and herb -dominated ecosystem, because the soils are too rich to exclude them. Is that what the resident humans want, or not?” 

One recent NextDoor post by longtime Elmwood resident Greg San Martin, quoted here with his permission, raises important points about FEMA’s role in the plan and about the proposed restoration potential: 

“The ugliest hills I have ever seen are the hills due east of Milpitas and Highway 880. They are brown grass most of the year and barren. Those hills look like giant piles of light brown dog waste cooking in the summer sun. If that is the plan for our hills, then it’s time to reboot the public process. "Public" seems like a dubious thing to call a process that has only become visible to most of us because of this NextDoor discussion. When communication fails, it is easy to distrust the plan even if it is well done.

“Based on my understanding of climate science, it is very difficult to accurately predict what will happen in the future and when and where it will happen. Predictions of which landscapes are going to work best on our hills as the climate does its thing may be little more than guesses if the wrong assumptions were used in the models. Removing so many trees is a major risk (to future habitability in a changing climate) that may not have been adequately considered in FEMA's analysis. Given that climate science changes so quickly, it seems likely that the climate modeling performed by FEMA for this project does NOT rely on the latest and best climate science and models to arrive at these conclusions.

“FEMA's past reluctance to accept climate science makes their climate analysis suspect in this proceeding. E.g., it took until 2015 for FEMA to require states to factor climate science into their hazard mitigation plans. See:https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fema-gets-real-about-climate-change

“That is astounding! If we go back to the Bush Administration era, there is even more evidence of an institutionalized tendency throughout FEMA to deny the existence of climate change.  

"FEMA was very slow to accept 'that future hazards may not follow the same pattern as the disasters the state has experienced in the past.' This is not evidence that FEMA used unsound climate science as a basis for their approval in the current proceeding. However, the agency's historical tendency to deny climate science nevertheless casts considerable doubt on the adequacy of their climate analysis in this proceeding. Their climate analysis may be worth revisiting.”

Since I’m not a scientist myself, the only thing I can add to these comments is my understanding of the civic implications of what is essentially a political decision to take down the eucalyptus trees. 

Like many Californians, I’ve spent my life enjoying our green and golden landscape, grassy golden hills punctuated with green oaks. Not only that, I appreciate the native plants that have been part of my landscape for the last half-century or more. 

But the climate is changing, and we don’t know exactly how. Our native woodlands are threatened by sudden oak death, now slowed by drought but predicted to return in force if the rains come back. Native bays are hosts for this plague. And if the drought persists, pine bark beetles are killing many of our other native trees. The effect of warming on fog-dependent redwoods is not well understood, but suspect. 

What does that mean for most of us? Parks are for people, segments of natural terrain which have been set aside specifically for human use, as distinct from, for example, wilderness areas which are primarily for conservation of existing resources still in their natural state. 

The East Bay Regional Parks function these days more like urban parks than like wilderness areas. In an urban park in a warming climate, trees of whatever kind are uniquely valuable for the shade they provide for picnics and other recreational activities. All Bay Area parkland is getting more and more crowded—Muir Woods is moving toward a reservations-only visitor system because of congestion, and yet we are packing more and more residents into smaller and more crowded spaces, in Berkeley and elsewhere. Where will they go for outdoor recreation? What shade trees would replace the eucs? 

The principal stated reason for getting rid of the trees in the close-in parkland is that they pose a fire risk to houses built in the high hills. Yet after the last big Hills fire we allowed the fire area to be completely rebuilt. There’s an analogy here to the much-criticized practice of permitting houses in flood plains to be endlessly rebuilt despite clear evidence that climate change is causing repeated floods. This is a topic which those of us who live in the more crowded flatter areas of the East Bay are uncomfortable raising, but we might reasonably ask why our parklands must be sacrificed to protect expensive homes built in the wrong places. 

Certainly no more of these should be built. Those of us who have lived a while in Elmwood might remember how hard we had to fight to prevent housing development on Claremont Hill just a couple of decades ago, and yet at this very moment the new owners of the Claremont Hotel are lobbying to add a lot of new condos to an already dicey area on that hill. I can vividly remember looking up from my bedroom window down on Ashby Avenue and seeing the flames licking at the edges of the hotel site in the 1991 great fire. 

We must prohibit new development in close proximity to our parkland. Also, there are reasonable measures which can be taken to provide defensible perimeters close to existing buildings. The best paper I’ve seen on the fire suppression science involved, too long to get into at this point, can be found here. 

Most important, it’s time to revisit the now-obsolete environmental analysis which is being promoted as a rationale for what might be irreparable harm to our parks. The sentimental and romanticized view of native restoration should be scrutinized more thoroughly from a political and scientific perspective before irrevocable steps are taken to destroy the current viable landscape.There's a good chance that the current proposal is neat, plausible and wrong, and it’s almost too late to correct it.