If You're Afraid of Trees, Don't Live In a Forest

By Isis Feral

“Thirty years ago, the greatest threats to nature were chainsaws, bulldozers, and poisons. Now the greatest threats are wild plants and animals. And what do we use to fight them? Chainsaws, bulldozers, and poisons. Who does this serve?” — David Theodoropoulos

The forest fires throughout California are a painful reminder for many who lived on the East Bay side of the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, when a grass fire in the Oakland hills reignited after it was declared extinguished, and rapidly escalated into a massive blaze that killed 25 people, and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

Fueled by the fear of the next spark in the hills, the agencies that oversee our forested commons have come to the conclusion that the way to prevent forest fires is to….cut down the forest!

The University of California Berkeley (UCB), the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), and the City of Oakland want to kill the eucalyptus, along with acacia and Monterey pines, which they claim are a greater fire hazard than other trees because they are not native to the area.

Roughly half a million trees are on the chopping block on thousands of acres of public land spanning two counties, from Point Richmond to Castro Valley. Thousands of gallons of herbicides are to be used to prevent resprouting.

They convinced the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to grant them millions for these projects, even though 90% of 13,000 written comments, and an overwhelming majority at public hearings, expressed opposition, several vowing to put their bodies between the trees and the chainsaws.

It took a lawsuit by the Hills Conservation Network (HCN), a group of hill dwellers, with grassroots funding from the community, to sway FEMA in favor of the forests. In September a settlement terminated the funds granted to UCB and Oakland. The EBRPD grant remains, but only covers brush clearing, not tree removal.

While this was an important victory, the deforestation plans are not dependent on FEMA funding, and the struggle to defend East Bay forests is not over.

Officially UCB projects are delayed indefinitely, but we cannot trust the university not to jump the gun, as it did when it clearcut 600 trees on Frowning Ridge before the FEMA environmental review was done. HCN is now suing to challenge UCB’s compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The park district has not changed its plans to destroy most of the three tree species. It already killed many trees with Measure CC funds, and is seeking funding elsewhere to continue what it euphemistically calls ‘thinning’, which involves cutting over 90% of trees, leaving standing dozens in what are now groves of hundreds.

Oakland is still required to conduct a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under CEQA, a process that can take upwards of a couple of years, which is now further delayed as FEMA funding was expected to pay for it. The city’s Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD), which continues to meet even after voters did not renew the assessment in 2013, is now offering questionable grants that encourage the killing of eucalyptus.

Exploding Gasoline Trees

Eucalyptus got an undeservedly bad reputation after the 1991 Oakland hills fire, and have become so extensively scapegoated as the cause of that disaster, that few reports about the fire neglect to mention, however extraneously, that eucalyptus were planted here as a lumber crop, abandoned when the venture turned out not to be profitable.

Terrifying stories of exploding trees and flying embers had everyone understandably traumatized. Though less flammable than native bay laurel trees, Eucalyptus was reported to have defied the laws of physics, with burning embers propelled for miles without becoming extinguished. Somewhere the rumor began that in their native Australia, eucalyptus are called ‘gasoline trees’ by firefighters, even though Australians call gasoline ‘petrol’.

But fires do not discriminate which trees to burn on the basis of origin. They ignite and turn into an explosive conflagration most anything in their path. Native oak trees also explode when they burn, and their embers showered Angel Island during the fire in 2008, which stopped right before it reached the last few acres that had been spared in the eucalyptus eradication campaign there.

Like on Angel Island, many eucalyptus trees remained unharmed during the 1991 Oakland fire. Another dramatic example of eucalyptus that did not ignite can be seen in photos after the Scripps Ranch fire in San Diego in 2003, where charcoaled remains of houses were surrounded by a massive green eucalyptus grove.

The Oakland-Berkeley Mayors’ Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Community Restoration, tasked with investigating the 1991 fire, agreed that the spread of the fire was primarily caused by human-built structures, not trees of any kind. Often it was the houses that set the trees ablaze, not the other way around.

In fact, living trees do not catch fire easily, but help prevent the spread of fires by providing windbreaks for winds that drive fires and embers into neighborhoods, and shade that keeps vegetation and the forest floor moist, which tall trees in the Bay Area further contribute to by precipitating several inches of annual fog drip. According to retired Oakland firefighter Dave Maloney, who was on the mayor’s task force, removing the trees would make the hills more vulnerable to catastrophic fire, with a potential of spreading far into the flatlands.

In news reports we rarely see how fires start. By the time the news crews show up, the first spark is past, and flames are climbing walls and trees, and explosive heat has built up into a spectacular, raging inferno that attracts the attention of the cameras. But the spark matters, and all official reports agreed the 1991 fire started in grasslands, as most wildfires do, including the fires burning throughout California.

Yet EBRPD hopes that flammable native grasslands and islands of shrubs take over where the trees are now, while using pesticides that contribute to flammability of vegetation and may themselves be flammable, contradicting its own goal of fire safety.

Of Immigrants, Invasions, and Good Intentions

While fire fears are the official reason, at the root of these projects is an ideology masquerading as science that benefits and is promoted by the chemical industry, and is fooling many sincere environmentalist activists:

‘Invasion biology’ drives a lot of government policy about pesticide use, like the medfly spraying that started in the 1980’s, the gypsy moth programs across the country, the ongoing light brown apple moth program in California, and countless other programs like it. Many of us were injured and disabled by the pesticides from these programs invading our neighborhoods.

The trees targeted for destruction in the East Bay hills are considered illegal aliens, and much like human immigrants are unfairly blamed for all sorts of problems they are not responsible for.

This ideology and its accompanying pesticide use is also becoming increasingly rampant in other countries, like Canada and New Zealand, and with capitalist trade laws ‘harmonizing’ environmental policies across borders, we are likely to see these toxic programs continue to expand elsewhere, unless we come together to stop them.

What’s ‘native’ is a slippery concept in this ideology. Spartina is being sprayed up and down the west coast, including along shorelines of the East Bay, while revered on the east coast. Monterey pines are an endangered species native to Monterey County, only about 80 miles away from the East Bay where they are being eradicated instead of saved from extinction.

Claims about eucalyptus as an ‘invasive species’ are increasingly challenged as prejudicial and proven inaccurate. Eucalyptus forests are not monocultures that kill everything else, but coexist with a great diversity of native and other plants, have an abundance of wildlife living in them, are a particularly important supply of nectar for bees because they bloom year-round, and are a preferred nesting site of hawks, and overwintering site for Monarch butterflies. While these trees were at one time deliberate monocrop plantations, they have long since become part of the complex ecology of the East Bay hills.

Ironically these projects to rid the hills of ‘non-native’ trees are actually a direct threat to endangered native species in the East Bay. The herbicides threaten the California red-legged frog and Presidio clarkia. Both the Alameda whipsnake and pallid manzanita are fire-dependent and threatened by exclusion of fire from their habitat. The pallid manzanita cannot reproduce without fire to sterilize the soil and scar its seeds.

These species are threatened with extinction because of human development, chemical vegetation management practices, and aggressive wildfire prevention, the very actions these projects propose more of. The entire framework of native vs. non-native species is full of such contradictions.

The very existence of fire-dependent species in the East Bay hills points to the inescapable fact that they are in a natural fire zone, and anyone committed to the protection of native species must therefore speak out in defense of fire itself.

Just like fire-dependent species, there is also snag-dependent wildlife that relies on dead trees for food and habitat. The black-backed woodpecker seeks out burned trees for wood boring beetles that feed on them. The otherwise elusive and tasty morel mushroom is abundant the first year after a fire. A vast number of animals use downed logs as their homes.

While this may be an uncomfortable reality, and a landscape of burned trees more upsetting to some people than chainsawed tree stumps covered in toxic chemicals, wildlife biologists at the Wild Nature Institute insist “a severely burned forest is a living, thriving habitat that has always been a natural part of western forest ecosystems”, but the US Forest Service relies on most of its funding from ecologically damaging firefighting and logging practices, supported by the myth that fires are fundamentally destructive to forests.

In 2003 Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) even filed suit, because the policy of fighting all fires endangers firefighters, prompting the father of one killed on the job to say: “we’ve got these kids out there dying for something that is scientifically bankrupt. We are subverting nature, causing more damage than good.”

Restoring What Past?

Proponents of the East Bay hills projects insist that this massive assault on forest life will restore an ecology that was destroyed when eucalyptus were planted over a hundred years ago, to what it was originally ‘intended to be’, which sounds more like religious belief in destiny determined by an invisible deity, than sound evolutionary science that recognizes that nature is never static and unchanging.

The notion that ecocide somehow fixes previous ecocide is more than a little troubling. By this logic, people of European descent should be killed as to magically reverse the genocide of the native people who were here before the European invasion. It is particularly perverse that this hostility towards ‘non-native’ organisms is largely promoted by people of European descent, some who refer to themselves as natives of the Bay Area.

In contrast, a nearby native human community expressed a very different attitude towards so-called ‘non-native’ plants threatened at Sogorea Te in Vallejo: “Elders in the local Native community say that All Life is Sacred. We oppose extermination of the trees and plants that have taken root on this Sacred Burial Ground, regardless of whether they are endemic species or relative newcomers.”

In An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants, evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould described that the Nazis used this concept to further fuel their racist ideology.

Conservation biologist David Theodoropoulos, who has done extensive research and fieldwork to debunk ‘invasion biology’ as a pseudoscience, also traces the first government policy based on this ideology back to the Nazis, who thankfully were overthrown before they could destroy all non-German vegetation throughout the country. Millions of humans were not so lucky, gassed with poison developed by a conglomerate that included still existing pesticide company Bayer, now merging with Monsanto, manufacturer of glyphosate, the #1 herbicide used in so called ‘restoration’ work, including in the East Bay hills.

Budgeting Pesticides vs. Firefighters

Proponents of ‘invasion biology’ have been exploiting our fire fears ever since the 1991 fire to push their ideological agenda. Maloney described having to argue about fire science with people on the mayor’s task force, who were obsessed with killing eucalyptus.

But the toxic writing was on the wall in 2003, when Donna Hom, Chief Financial Officer for the Oakland Fire Department, gave a presentation at a Public Managers Forum on deficit budgeting, in which she included herbicide use as a financially feasible option.

That year budget cuts decimated the fire department, and the city instead spent massively on overtime on overworked firefighters, whose union complained about reduced response time and endangered lives due to understaffing and rotating closures, especially of fire stations in the hills.

As millions were cut from essential services, and the governor invoked emergency powers to authorize funds for fire departments, only to take the money back a month later, the WPAD, originally established after the 1991 fire to collect a special fire management tax from hills residents, was pushed back through, and funding of community response group CORE further shifted the burden on the community instead of trained firefighters.

In 2005 pesticides were on the agenda outright, when Jean Quan, then city council member, held a town hall of the WPAD, with all landowning ‘stakeholders’ represented, including UCB, EBRPD, and the water district EBMUD (which also uses pesticides and destroys eucalyptus and Monterey pines).

Friends of Sausal Creek, under the guise of fuel reduction, but openly motivated by its own native plant ‘restoration’ activities, had requested Oakland exempt herbicide use on a long list of ‘non-native’ plants from its Integrated Pest Management (IPM) policy, which bans pesticides on public lands, but has extensive exemptions, including routine applications on median strips.

Most opposition came from a handful of us who had been poisoned by pesticides. We were not yet aware it was part of a massive, coordinated effort to deforest the East Bay. We spun our wheels providing nontoxic alternatives for vegetation management until we realized that the listed plants were not targeted under limited circumstances, but would be eradicated on principle. The EIR that now delays Oakland was the small victory we won during that struggle (though shortly after the city contracted with UCB to violate its own pesticide policies).

The full extent of the destruction planned only became clear in 2010, after FEMA combined the grant applications by Oakland, UCB, and EBRPD, and published its intent to conduct an Environmental Impact Study.

Developing Nature

UCB forests are under the jurisdiction of the ‘real estate’ department, illustrating the attitude towards the trees, which are seen as property, natural ‘resources’, a crop, not nature with its own right to exist on its own terms. The concept of undisturbed wilderness is clearly lost on these people, who consider the forest a garden to be manipulated and managed, quite literally to death.

An already logged area in Claremont Canyon is a teaching site, but what UCB teaches there are toxic vegetation management practices, and entitlement to controlling nature and waging war against it.

The East Bay hills projects are at their core about development. UCB plans in particular appear to be a development scheme to build more student housing, and expand Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is adjacent to the targeted forests.

While I sympathize with the desire to live in a natural environment, I strongly oppose any further destruction of precious forests so that people can feel comfortable building (and rebuilding) exquisitely flammable wooden tinderboxes out of more dead trees in a natural wildfire zone.

In Let Malibu Burn: A political history of the Fire Coast, historian Mike Davis described how the fire cycle of wealthy fire-prone neighborhoods like Malibu also contribute to a repetitive cycle of “public subsidization of firebelt suburbs” to perpetually rebuild and develop on increasing scale, and displace working class residents.

Fundamentally, if the goal is fire safety, then residents in the hills have the responsibility to create defensible space around their own homes, not chop down entire forests. It shouldn’t be the prerogative of wealthy people to build their homes in forested areas, and then decide to kill all the trees and deny them to the rest of us. The bottom line is that if you’re afraid of trees, don’t live in a forest!

A particularly poignant example of irresponsibility was when Jean Quan herself, by then Oakland mayor, was called the ‘Queen of Blight’ by her neighbors for failing to secure the space around her own house in the hills.

A more reasonable approach for fire safety than devastating ecosystems would be to address the problem at the root, and focus on what provided the primary fuel for the 1991 fire: human development.

Continuous expansion of development must end, while already existing structures should be made safer with fire resistant materials. Last year’s Valley Fire destroyed Harbin Hot Springs in Lake County, but the temple’s earthen cob walls remained standing, ceramicized by the blaze, while all wooden parts of the structure had turned to ash. Even straw bale houses are dramatically less flammable than wooden houses.

Protecting human life should not be at the expense of East Bay wildlife, but focus on defensible space where people live, reliable road and water access for firefighters, and additional firefighters and tools to aid their work.

Defend East Bay Forests

Instead of defending our neighbors in the hills from fires, it is now the hills themselves that need defending from agencies that aim to fundamentally transform the East Bay landscape. The tree roots and canopies connect a complex ecology of other living things that are being killed along with the forest.

But don’t rely on professional activists like the Sierra Club to defend the East Bay from deforestation.

While the Sierra Club’s presents itself as an organization opposed to deforestation and pesticides, it has been one of the primary promoters of these practices in the East Bay hills. One of its local leaders, Norman La Force, proudly takes credit for coming up with the “resource management and habitat enhancement approach, which the Park District adopted, for the Park District’s Fire Management Program”.

When HCN sued FEMA, the Sierra Club went so far as to file a countersuit, demanding that all the ‘non-native’ trees should be eradicated immediately. In response members burned their membership cards in front of their Berkeley office.

Pesticide applications and killing hundreds of thousands of healthy trees cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered conservation. Xenophobia and ecocide are not environmentalism. John Muir would be turning in his grave.

If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to stop it, not only does it make a sound as it’s put through the chipper, but we allow the deforestation of yet one more hill, one more landmass, and ever more of the planet.

We need your help to stop it.

The Coalition to Defend East Bay Forests meets at the Long Haul Infoshop in Berkeley. Please check the calendar on our website for meeting times, events, and actions at DefendEastBayForests.wordpress.com