Pissing into the Ocean

In Eric Bowlby’s world, there is no discerning between legal and illegal immigrants: All newcomers are candidates for his brand of vigilante justice. Among his favorite smear-campaign strategies is to blame non-natives for the proliferation of wildfires in California, and he’s gone so far as to target one of the state’s most renowned settlers.

Bowlby, you see, is the executive director of San Diego Canyonlands (SDC), a non-profit whose mission is to bolster native trees like coastal oaks and willows while running an eradication campaign against an icon of California branding: the palm tree.

“The palm trees have a giant veil of dead palm fronds and they are unmaintained in a location like a canyon,” Bowlby told the San Diego Union-Tribune this week. “It’s a tremendous amount of dry fuel on each of those trees … Should there be a fire, they burn like Roman candles.”

To that end, SDC crews, with help from the city of San Diego, have spent the last month cutting down trees in Tierrasanta, an isolated community of privilege that bills itself on welcome signs as “The Island in the Hills.” This week, helicopter crews have descended on Tierrasanta, which was threatened by wildfires in 2003 and 2007, to fly the dead trees to a landfill. The cost of the operation: $250,000.

You’re not alone if you are taken aback by the inclusion of palm trees on the invasive species hit list of conservation groups like Bowlby’s. Fact is, only one species — Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm — is native to the state. The Mexican fan palms (aka “sky dusters”) that line innumerable boulevards in Los Angeles and, here in the Bay Area, San Jose, are native to the Sonoran Desert south of the border in Baja California. The homeland of the feather-topped Canary Island date palm so prevalent in the Golden State also is also revealed in its moniker. Even the California fan palm has been redistributed outside of its home soil; it’s a desert plant, native to Palm Springs, not LA or San Jose.

Here on Mount Tamalpais, an exhaustive survey by the the non-profit organization One Tam identified 1,101 plant species, 332 (30 percent) of which were labeled as invasive species — that is, species introduced through human manipulation, intentional or not.

Like SoCal’s palms, one of Tam’s non-native trees is among its most iconic.  After native Coastal Redwoods, the Eucalyptus tree is perhaps the most synonymous with Mount Tam flora (okay, Eucalyptus trees are synonymous with open spaces throughout California). Like palms, Eucalyptus trees began appearing locally in the mid-19th century, at the same time old-growth redwoods were being sent to slaughter en masse to build out the prospering village of San Francisco. Unlike redwoods, density-poor Eucalyptus trees proved to be disastrous for construction, so they proliferated unchecked.

Like palms, sublimely scented Eucalyptus trees are rife with flammable oils. But the biggest fire risk comes from its oft-shedded bark, which has been measured to pile up under large stands of the trees at up to 100 tons per acre (compared with the three acre/tons of tree litter typically found beneath stands of native coast oak trees). Eucalyptus trees were identified as primary culprits in a parade of East Bay fires spanning the 20th century, including the 1992 Oakland Hills Fire that was, until the apocalyptic infernos of 2017-18, considered the most destructive in California history.

In short, Eucalyptus trees were built to burn. And they’re here to stay, as entrenched as the generations of human immigrants that comprise California’s disparate demographics. For all the good intentions of conservation groups that have spent billions in federal grant money trying to mitigate the danger of non-native species, one renowned ecologist confessed to me, on a recent Mount Tam hike, the futility of it all.

“As scientists, we spend our days and months and years submerged in the details and looking for funding sources for that busy work,” he said as we dropped our backpacks on Table Rock and squinted at the ant-sized humans crawling over Stinson Beach from 600 feet above. “But when I stop to reflect, I find myself, more and more, entertaining the depressing thought that we may as well be pissing into the ocean.”

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