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Letter to the Editor: Protecting Diversity Is the Opposite of Xenophobia

by Doug Johnson on February 23, 2017

field of oxalis
Invasive Oxalis pes-caprae has overrun fields and open spaces in the Bay Area, like this field in Half Moon Bay. (Photo by Henry Zbyszynski, CC BY 2.0)

Dear Bay Nature,

I had mixed emotions reading “What Honeybees Have Taught Me About Xenophobia.” I was touched by the father-son connection based on animal husbandry and love of the land, and I appreciated the author’s epiphany that he should stop dissing organisms solely for being non-native.

However, I cringed at the exhortation that we “condemn the sentiment that something or someone is inherently bad if it is somehow not ‘native’.” First, it’s a mistake to lump people and other organisms together in this context. Second, while I 100% agree that we need to avoid sloppy communication that implies being non-native is itself a problem, it’s essential to also acknowledge that significant damage is caused by some non-native organisms. If you leave this out, as this article does, a reader (or student) may well misunderstand the seriousness of invasive species.

The simple, but complete, story is that non-native species (whether here in California or elsewhere around the globe). are generally not a problem, and often they are valuable for agriculture and horticulture, but a small percentage do cause damage. There is a rich and varied scientific literature exploring invasion biology, a fascinating field that could use more bright minds in the future, like those of the students the author teaches. The impacts of invasive species—from degraded rangelands to lost wildlife habitat, blocked waterways or increased wildfire fuels—are getting worse, and ecological literacy will be increasingly critical in the future.

Invasive species damage diversity. Protecting diversity is the opposite of xenophobia. We can love our native California wildlands, work to protect them from invasive species, love the many non-native organisms around us that aren’t invasive, and love our neighbors in the multi-cultural tapestry of the Bay Area all at the same time.

Doug Johnson is the executive director of the California Invasive Plant Council.

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16 comments:

Mary McAllister on February 23rd, 2017 at 6:37 pm

While it is true that a small number of non-native plant species are perceived to be causing environmental damage, those who are critical of eradicating them are only asking that these questions be asked and answered before doing so. Are the non-native plants spreading because of underlying changes in the environment, rather than inherently “invasive” characteristics of the plants? For example, if the non-native plants are responding to changes in the climate and/or changes in water temperature or water depth or salinity, etc., will eradicating those plants change the underlying conditions? If not, what is the point of eradicating them if the changed environmental conditions no longer support the native plants that preceded them? What animals are now dependent upon the existing landscape and will they be harmed by the loss of that landscape? How much environmental damage will be done by the methods used to eradicate the non-native plants? How much herbicide must be used and what is the toxicity of those herbicides? How much stored carbon will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when hundreds of thousands of non-native trees are destroyed?

None of these questions are being asked or answered by the thousands of “restoration” projects that are destroying existing landscapes. Do the benefits of these “restorations” outweigh the costs to the environment?

Doug Johnson on February 24th, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Damage from invasive species is real, not just perceived. The academic literature and practitioner experience are extensive.

The ecological questions posed in the comment are good ones, but the suggestion that they are not being asked is incorrect.

Do invasives exploit underlying changes in the environment? In some cases, yes. Is that the only reason they spread at the expense of native habitat? In most cases, no. Will removing invasive plants change underlying conditions? It depends on the source of the change to the underlying conditions. Evaluation of such conditions is part of setting restoration goals.

Typically the goal of a restoration project is to improve habitat for wildlife, so assessing how wildlife interact with non-native species is an important consideration. Likewise, minimizing impacts from management actions is a consideration in restoration projects. As for herbicides, they are one of the important tools in the Integrated Pest Management toolbox.
The dynamics of carbon sequestration over the long-term is an increasingly important factor to consider in vegetation management, from grasslands to wetlands to forests.

Both ecological and cultural values must be weighed when considering land management goals, especially in the urban setting. Diverse perspectives can lead to honest disagreement on management goals for eucalyptus stands and remnant natural areas. Management in such places deserves extensive analysis and dialog, and finding agreeable compromise is difficult.

Certainly nobody undertakes a restoration project to destroy a landscape. The merits of all restoration and invasive plant removal efforts should not be judged on one’s views of the unique challenge posed by conservation in the urban environment. California is a big place, 80% undeveloped, and land managers across the state work with limited resources to address the significant problems posed by the spread of invasive species over large landscapes. We should not underestimate their dedication to asking complex ecological questions to make their conservation work as effective as possible.

John Pritchard on February 28th, 2017 at 10:34 am

I want to thank Bay Nature for highlighting Doug Johnson’s response to Benjamin Eichorn’s essay.
While Mr. Eichorn may be well meaning, using the term xenophobia is extremely offensive. Saying that people who combat invasive species are xenophobic is like accusing Sitting Bull of being xenophobic because he fought back against Custer. And using xenophobic to describe the heroic professionals and thousands of dedicated volunteers who battle these invasive plants is really just a step away from calling them racists. In fact some opponents of invasive control efforts have gone a step further, they have compared us to Hitler.
As we have seen recently with the loss of $5 million in funding for control of Eucalyptus in the Oakland hill, these people have become well organized, they are influencing policymakers, and thus they themselves are becoming a major obstacle in our struggle to conserve biodiversity.
These invasive species deniers create a straw man argument by saying that the ecologists who work to control invasive species are trying to exterminate every single non-native just because we hate them. In fact these amazing weed warriors are working with inadequate resources to protect some of our most precious plant communities, targeting the worst invasives, and exploring the costs and benefits of different projects and control methods. The whole invasive species crisis is just beginning and the science of controlling them is still in its infancy. Yet much like global warming deniers, the opponents of invasive species control projects are using every trick in the book to confuse the issue, block any action, and just let our unique local ecosystems become a conglomeration of invasive species.

Mary McAllister on February 28th, 2017 at 4:55 pm

Mr. Pritchard says, “As we have seen recently with the loss of $5 million in funding for control of Eucalyptus in the Oakland hill, these people have become well organized, they are influencing policymakers, and thus they themselves are becoming a major obstacle in our struggle to conserve biodiversity.”

A few corrections to this statement are needed, which should be reassuring to those who believe in the benefits of eradicating eucalyptus.

There were three FEMA grants to public land owners in the East Bay. Only two of those grants to the City of Oakland and UC Berkeley were cancelled. The FEMA projects of Oakland and UCB proposed the destruction of ALL non-native trees on their project acres. In other words, “controlling” eucalyptus is not an accurate description of what was planned.

The third FEMA grant to East Bay Regional Park District was not cancelled. That project did not plan to eradicate all non-native trees. Rather EBRPD is “thinning” about 90% of the non-native trees on their project acres. They began implementing those plans in 2011.

East Bay Regional Park District was awarded the grant funds that were originally awarded to the City of Oakland and to UC Berkeley. In other words, there was no net loss of funding for the destruction of eucalyptus in the East Bay.

The City of Oakland is engaged in a three-year process of developing a new vegetation
management plan. It will be developed by a public process so that it will reflect the viewpoints of everyone in Oakland who chooses to participate.

The status of UC Berkeley’s projects is not yet known to the public. UC Berkeley had planned to implement their plans using their own fund sources after the FEMA grant was cancelled. However, as a result of a successful lawsuit, UCB will be required to complete an Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act before they can legally implement their project.

Those who believe in the benefits of destroying non-native plants don’t have much to complain about. If the projects had been planned with an inclusive public process, they would have encountered less opposition.

John Pritchard on February 28th, 2017 at 6:11 pm

Ms. McAllister, while the some of the funding is going through, that does not negate the great expense that the agencies have to incur when they are attacked. Now I could go through the points you made in your first comment one by one, but let me just address this comment: “How much herbicide must be used and what is the toxicity of those herbicides?” Now look at the picture at the top of the page, of a field totally infested with Bermuda Buttercup or Oxalis pes-caprae. The Material Safety Data Sheet for Oxalic Acid states: “The substance may be toxic to kidneys, the nervous system, mucous membranes, heart, brain, skin, eyes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage. Repeated exposure of the eyes to a low level of dust can produce eye irritation. Repeated skin exposure can produce local skin destruction, or dermatitis. Repeated inhalation of dust can produce varying degree of respiratory irritation or lung damage.” Of course that is for the concentrated chemical, but I think that it is safe to assume that infestations of this plant are not good from a toxicological standpoint, and the same can be said for eucalyptus oil.

Mary McAllister on February 28th, 2017 at 6:50 pm

Wikipedia refutes your dire description of the toxicity of oxalis: “Various sources suggest that oxalis ingestion causes calcium oxalate kidney stones, but clinical experience and physiological considerations as described in the Wikipedia article on kidney stone make it unlikely that any realistic intake of Oxalis would affect human liability to kidney stones. Accordingly, some Australian references to the hazards of oxalis to livestock tend to be dismissive of this risk.”

The herbicide that is used to eradicate oxalis is Garlon with the active ingredient triclopyr. EPA mandated studies report that triclopyr is very toxic to aquatic life and mildly toxic to bees and birds. The risk assessment of triclopyr done by the Pesticide Research Institute for the California Invasive Plant Council reports that it “poses developmental and reproductive risks to female applicators.”

The UC Davis website about invasive weeds tells us that the herbicide only kills the top growth of oxalis. It does not kill the bulbils, which will produce the top growth the following year. The herbicide must be sprayed every year and it has been in the parks of San Francisco for over 5 years. It comes back with a vengeance.

Eucalyptus oil has many beneficial uses: “Eucalyptus oil has a history of wide application, as a pharmaceutical, antiseptic, repellent, flavouring, fragrance and industrial uses.” (Wikipedia)

Many chemicals have the potential to be harmful if ingested in large quantities. Long lists of toxic plants are available on the internet, including many native plants such as columbine and oaks which contain tannins that are toxic to animals in large quantities.

Most negative statements made about some non-native plants also apply to some native plants. Native plants are not fundamentally different from non-native plants. Many are in the same genus and are therefore chemically similar. Even more are in the same families.

As for the money that was wasted defending projects that proposed to destroy trees, as I said before, these lawsuits could have been avoided if any effort had been made to reflect the horticultural preferences of the public. There is a long public record of those efforts to be heard. Lawsuits were the last resort.

John Pritchard on March 1st, 2017 at 6:18 pm

Ms. McAllister, The whole invasive species denial movement is just extremely insulting and offensive. They are trying to disparage some of the most dedicated people who have devoted their lives to conservation of biodiversity and defense of our unique local ecosystems. They have tried to brand these wonderful people as ignorant, xenophobic monsters who are destroying wildlife habitat and poisoning the Earth. These deniers have been getting away with this slander for far too long. The invasive species denial movement is just so similar to the global warming denial movement that has been so successful in sowing doubt and blocking action. It is time to expose them for what they are.

John Pritchard on March 3rd, 2017 at 5:34 am

Anyone interested in what the invasive species denial movement is promoting should check out what is happening in Chile. Native forests of roble beech have been replaced by eucalyptus and other exotic trees, and now whole towns are being destroyed by fire.

Marg Hall on March 3rd, 2017 at 9:02 am

I oppose pesticides, love eucalyptus trees, have a background in science and am an environmental activist, including work to stop climate change. Linking us to climate change denial is absurd. Trees are precious. I look carefully at the evidence when evaluating claims such as that eucalyptus pose a fire danger to homes. My personal investment in this issue springs from the fact that exposure to pesticides make me sick, literally. My position is not compromised by business ties, as it appears your is. Pesticides manufacturers have for decades used fear to sell us poison.
If organic farmers can figure out how to grow food without pesticides, why can’t public land managers?

Alison Hawkes on March 3rd, 2017 at 10:06 am

I’d like to put out a reminder that Bay Nature is not a platform for personal attacks. We encourage the expression of diverse opinions but let’s keep it respectful.

John Pritchard on March 3rd, 2017 at 11:13 am

Thanks Allison, I see that you removed the posts that were getting into personal attacks instead of dealing with the issues. I don’t want to vilify the people who are promoting invasive plant denial, I assume that they have good intentions. But there are similarities to global warming denial. Both are taking a position that is well outside the mainstream of the scientific consensus, both are accusing scientists of being corrupt, both are spreading misinformation, and both are blocking action that is desperately needed to save the Earth.

Mary McAllister on March 3rd, 2017 at 12:12 pm

You’re right. Let’s stick to the issues. Here are a few specific examples of damage that was done and wildlife that was harmed by LOCAL “restoration” projects.

Here is an article about the toxic herbicides that have been used for years on oxalis in San Francisco’s parks with no visible decline in the size of the annual bloom. https://sfforest.org/2015/05/11/five-reasons-its-okay-to-love-oxalis-and-stop-poisoning-it/

Here are examples of erosion caused by the removal of trees on steep slopes that had stabilized the soil. https://milliontrees.me/2014/05/01/destroying-trees-causes-erosion-and-landslide-risk/
And https://glenparkassociation.org/2017/02/24/huge-boulder-plummets-down-side-of-glen-canyon-into-path/

Here is a video about a monarch sanctuary where the migrating population plummeted because the windbreak provided by eucalyptus was compromised. http://butterflytownfilm.org/thefilm.html

Here’s a place that is now infested with weeds after all the trees were destroyed. The weeds are now sprayed with herbicides every year. Shade is the most benign form of weed control. https://milliontrees.me/2016/06/03/site-29-a-preview-of-the-implementation-of-fema-grants-in-the-east-bay-hills/

The population of endangered Clapper(now Ridgeway) Rails in the Bay Area has been decimated by the eradication of non-native spartina. Herbicides were aerial sprayed from helicopters to eradicate the spartina. https://milliontrees.me/2014/06/02/spartina-eradication-herbicides-are-their-dirty-little-secret/

There are many more examples out there. This is just a selection. I stick to LOCAL examples because I can see them with my own eyes.

The analogy of our advocacy with climate change denial is absurd. In fact, the loss of our urban forest is contributing to climate change by releasing stored carbon and eliminating the ability to store carbon in the future. It is one of many reasons why people have joined the effort to inform the public of the environmental costs of the crusade against non-native trees.

Mary McAllister on March 3rd, 2017 at 12:54 pm

You’re right. Let’s stick to the issues. Here are a few specific examples of damage that was done and wildlife that was harmed by LOCAL “restoration” projects.

Here is an article about the toxic herbicides that have been used for years on oxalis in San Francisco’s parks with no visible decline in the size of the annual bloom. “Five reasons it’s okay to love oxalis and stop poisoning it” (sfforest dot org) Sorry for this clunky way to provide references. It seems that links in comments are not allowed.

Here are examples of erosion caused by the removal of trees on steep slopes that had stabilized the soil. “Destroying trees causes erosion and landslide risk” (at million trees dot me) and “Huge boulder plummets down side of glen canyon on path” (at glenpark association dot org)

Here is a film about a monarch sanctuary where the migrating population plummeted because the windbreak provided by eucalyptus was compromised. At Butterflytownfilm dot org

Here’s a place that is now infested with weeds after all the trees were destroyed. The weeds are now sprayed with herbicides every year. Shade is the most benign form of weed control. “A preview of the implementation of FEMA grants in the East Bay Hills” at milliontrees dot me

The population of endangered Clapper (now Ridgeway) Rails in the Bay Area has been decimated by the eradication of non-native spartina. Herbicides were aerial sprayed from helicopters to eradicate the spartina. “Spartina eradication: Herbicides are their dirty little secret” at milliontrees dot me

There are many more examples out there. This is just a selection. I stick to LOCAL examples because I can see them with my own eyes.

The analogy of our advocacy with climate change denial is absurd. In fact, the loss of our urban forest is contributing to climate change by releasing stored carbon and eliminating the ability to store carbon in the future. It is one of many reasons why people have joined the effort to inform the public of the environmental costs of the crusade against non-native trees.

John Pritchard on March 3rd, 2017 at 2:00 pm

Ansel Adams railed against tree plantings in the Marin Headlands by Boy Scouts. “I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder, and the excellence of eternity.”

John Pritchard on March 3rd, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Jane Goodall: “There are literally thousands of young people raising money, raising awareness – and, most importantly, rolling up their sleeves to remove invasive plants from some ecosystem, planting trees, monitoring the migrations of monarch butterflies, various birds, and so on. It is a vast, enthusiastic army determined to save the environment and animals they love.”

John Pritchard on March 3rd, 2017 at 3:07 pm

The Amah Mutsun Land Trust’s Native Stewardship Corp has been working to remove Jubata grass (Cortaderia jubata) from their Costanoa Easement for nearly two years, preventing the spread of the invasive grass into nearby Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve. In 2015, Native Stewards spent two weeks removing over 600 mature Pampas grass individuals. In 2016 in the same 40-acre area they removed over 350 individuals–many resprouts of former mature plants–in the course of only three days, demonstrating the efficacy of their previous restoration efforts.

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