Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Economics of Eucalyptus Management

Recently, Jerry Kent, a former assistant general manager for the East Bay Regional Park District, analyzed the cost of trying to manage the eucalyptus groves on Park District land (PDF here)Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee, wrote an article about it in The Sierra Club's Yodeler Magazine.

I took pictures of an unmanaged hillside with a eucalyptus grove and contrasted it with the surrounding native woodland. Both are unmanaged. I will let the reader decide which is less flammable and more aesthetically pleasing. 

Dan Grazzetti commented on Norman's article, but the comment was deleted from The Yodeler for violating the comment policy.  He has since cleaned it up. You can read his initial comment here.

Since the moderator at The Yodeler addressed the ad hominem fallacies of Mr. Grassetti's comment, I will address the other fallacies and falsehoods here.
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. .
No evidence has been provided that supports the argument that eradicating the unmanaged eucalyptus groves in the East Bay Hills is at odds with the principles of environmental stewardship. In fact, the evidence supports the argument that eucalyptus groves in the East Bay Hills are detrimental to the natural environment.

Eucalyptus understory

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.
The Sierra Club is not determined to eradicate the trees from the Bay
Area. Dan's comment here is a hyperbolic overstatement, strawman fallacy and red herring diversion from the issue. The objective assessment is that these trees exclusively pose a risk for catastrophic fires in the East Bay Hills. That is the motivation to remove them. Dan is committing the logical fallacy of making a false equivalency with other species that do not pose a risk for catastrophic urban/wildland fires.
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.
This is an irrelevant point since the fire risk and economic factors are real issues, unrelated to other alleged motivations.
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.
Again, this is an irrelevant point. What role the trees played in the fire and how a big role it was, is an open question. That they did play a role, especially in spreading the fire across the 24 freeway, is not subject to debate. Either way, it is irrelevant to the fact that eucalypti produce prodigious amounts of ground, ladder, and canopy fuels.
Eucalypti produce prodigious amounts of ground fuels.
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.
Ground fuels are ignition sources, ladder fuels carry the fire to the crown, and crown fires are generally catastrophic in an urban/wildland interface. Eucalyptus trees create all three fuels at three times the rate of native trees.

Ground and ladder fuels

Vertical ladder fuels to the canopy

Fallen branches add to the ground and ladder fuels

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.
The real threat of catastrophic fire is not; 'scaring the public in an attempt to deceive them.' That is another straw man fallacy. There is no evidence to support the premise that the proposed projects will increase the risk of catastrophic fire. Basic common sense tells us that eliminating or reducing the conditions under which catastrophic fires occur, will reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. The evidence, particularly the recent fire under the redwoods this past January suggests that removing the source of most ground and ladder fuels (eucalypti) greatly suppresses the speed at which a wildfire can travel.  That particular fire had about 30 minutes to get going and only burned the base of the redwoods, even during the driest year on record!
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.
The CO2 would not be released since the trees would be left to decompose. The younger native trees that are stunted under the oppressive eucalypti will more than make up for what is emitted over the next 25 years as the logs slowly decompose. The UC Berkeley test area is proof of concept that eradication and restoration works.
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.
The stumps are left as pilings and the trunks are laid down in such a way as to prevent erosion and shore up the hillsides. The eucalyptus do not store water since they don't close their stomata during drought, they just keep evaporating every drop of water from the soil within 100 feet that their highly efficient roots can absorb. The amount of fog drip from eucalyptus is comparable to that of a coast live oak. There are no hikers, runners, or bicyclists under these unmanaged groves. Dan is simply throwing specious arguments here, hoping one will stick.
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.
The biological opinion of the US Fish and Wildlife Service concludes that the eradication and conversion of eucalyptus to native bay/oak and scrub woodland is self mitigating. I believe their opinion trumps Mr. Grassetti's.
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.
"Real experts in the field"... Sounds like a climate science denier's opening remark when getting ready to quote a paid hack. The herbicides are painted onto the cambium layer with a non-drip brush, at least 50 feet from creeks. Besides, there are no pristine creeks left in the Bay Area, although the efforts of real environmentalists,  like Friends of Five Creeks, and the Oakland Wildland Stewards have gone a long way in restoring our local creeks to at least a semblance of what they once were. The understory under the eucalypti are native bay, oak, maple, and buckeye. Grassetti's management plan would remove the native understory in order to protect the eucalypti.

California Buckeye covered with eucalyptus bark

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.
Actually, if you have the right trees, you don't need to manage the understory at all. Here is the unmanaged understory of the native trees. Dan is making a very strong argument here for eradication and restoration.

Native trees don't generate the ground and ladder fuels that lead to catastrophic fires.

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?
It is because the Sierra Club is not afflicted with confirmation bias that is powerful enough to override cognitive dissonance. As Jerry Kent's analysis (analysis not unsupported opinion there is a difference Dan.) shows that even without the 350 acres that would need to be purchased and $25 million dollar trust to manage them in perpetuity, in order to mitigate the projects, should the agencies pursue the HCN's so-called "alternative," managing these groves is prohibitively expensive.
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.
Arguing against a strawman is like tilting at windmills. Since this is not what the Sierra Club is doing... Dan is addressing an argument of his own creation.