Albion Monitor /Features

eu-ca-lyp-tus (n) 1. An aromatic tree. 2. A gigantic torch. 3. A colossal historical mistake. 4. A way to get rich quick. (obsolete)

by Simone Wilson

Environmentalists applaud clearcuts

Loggers on San Bruno Mountain kicked their chainsaws into action as environmentalists gathered to watch the destruction of a stand of trees. Rotating chains bit deep into the wood. A buzz went up from the wooded slope. The fragrance of fresh-cut eucalyptus drifted over the hilltop as the first tree heeled over onto the parched earth with a thud. The enviros cheered.

This unlikely camaraderie of loggers and greenbelt lovers at the site of a clear-cut shows how little respect eucaluptus get these days in the Golden State. Once the darling of ranchers and gardeners, the Australian-born tree, planted widely in the last century, has worn out its welcome.

At San Bruno Mountain County Park last February, the chainsaws went to work on 120 of the park's 200 acres of eucaluptus, to the delight of the local Committee for Green Foothills. "This isn't logging -- it's habitat restoration," says Roman Gankin, planner for San Mateo County's Environment and Resources Section. "San Bruno Mountain is recognized worldwide as a unique ecosystem, and we're returning it back to native mountain." The cuts will make life easier for rare migrating butterflies -- the Mission Blue, Callippe Silverspot and the San Bruno Elfin -- and for native plants like the San Bruno Manzanita, which grows there and nowhere else.

The trees thrive in California's dry climate and crowd out native plants

Loggers are revving up their chainsaws in state and county parks all over California -- in Annadel and Jack London Parks in Sonoma County for instance, and in Montañ a de Oro and Morro Bay further south. Rangers offer plenty of reasons to topple the eucs, especially the fast-growing Blue Gums. They drop heavy limbs on campers and make fuel for brush fires. They grow like mad, crowd out native plants, starve local fauna, and shed a flammable litter of bark and leaves. In short, park rangers and ecologists wish the vigorous eucalyptus would just go away.

State Parks has a mission to preserve the native landscape the way it was before Europeans showed up and -- botanically speaking -- ruined the neighborhood. "Coming into a park here and seeing groves of eucalyptus is like going into a park in Australia and finding rows of redwoods," says Rene Avant, ranger at Montañ a de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo. "Parks are natural museums of what California was like before things like eucalyptus came on the scene," explains David Boyd, the Marin district resource ecologist who's known to his colleagues as "the guru of eucalyptus in California."

First brought to California in the 1850's, the tree has a long history in California, none of it particularly happy. It was used for windbreaks and firewood, then later cultivated for lumber. Unfortunately they chose the Tasmanian Blue Gum, among the very worst of Australia's 600 eucalypt species for any of these purposes.

According to Boyd, eucalypts are a nuisance precisely because they are such successful transplants. "Other non-native plants -- French broom, gorse, thistle -- pose the same threat," says Boyd. "They're free from the pests that kept them in check at home, so they grow just great here. Nothing's eating them." The trees thrive in California's dry climate and crowd out native plants. The Blue Gum's outer bark falls to the ground in long strips along its heavy, crescent-shaped leaves and smothers the foliage underneath.

That's one reason Marla Hastings, resource ecologist for Parks' Silverado District (which includes parts of Sonoma and Napa), supervised removal of numerous eucalypts from Annadel Park near Santa Rosa. Home of one of the finest examples of northern oak woodland in the state, Annadel is "the showcase of eucalyptus eradicaton" says Hastings. The eucs "were overtopping the oaks and they had their feet in Ledson Marsh." After their removal, the water level increased dramatically and the marsh recovered.

It's shocking how readily they burn

Once native plants are crowded out, the resulting eucalyptus forest isn't user-friendly for California's native fauna. Avant of Montañ a de Oro calls the eucalyptus forest "a desert of native species."A UC Berkeley study of wildlife on Angel Island showed that the diversity of birds was less than in native forests. "There's no food in a eucalyptus forest for native species like deer," says Hastings.

"The only species using eucalyptus were species that will use anything," says Boyd. "Deer move through eucalyptus forest, but there's no forage value for them." Hawks and owls will nest in eucalyptus, adds Boyd, "but they would use anything else if it were there. " It is another difference between California and their native Australia, where koala couldn't live without the oily trees.

In the East Bay, where a fire devastated the Oakland and Berkeley hills, parks officials are culling eucalyptus for safety reasons. "We do consider them one of the bad actors," says Ed Leon, who's in charge of fire breaks for East Bay Regional Parks, which includes Tilden, Sibley, Redwood and Chabot Parks. The program started in 1973 following a freeze that left dead, and dry eucaluptus on the hillsides, ready to act as natural torches.

"It's shocking how readily they burn," says Boyd. "Resins in the foliage are extremely flammable."

They're scary trees," Hastings agrees. "If you'd ever seen a running crown fire, it'd make your hair stand on end." Fire danger was a major reason for removing 90 acres of eucalypts along Bennet Ridge in Annadel Park. Despite initial opposition from nearby homeowners who enjoyed the view of the trees, their removal "was the neighborly thing to do," says Hastings, "because they were highly flammable."

At Annadel and San Bruno, professional loggers worked for free in exchange for the wood, which they sold to chippers. At Jack London Park, crews from the California Conservaton Corps and Clinton's Americorp weilded the saws, likely cutting some trees planted by Jack London himself in one of his misguided get-rich-quick schemes.

They're tall, they're shady, and they smell good. What's not to like?

The public's attitude toward felling eucalyptus altered following the Oakland Hills fire. Eucalypts and Monterey Pines were tagged as major culprits in the devastating blaze. (Other factors included high winds and the difficulty in getting fire equipment up the winding streets of the trendy hillside neighborhoods.) "We now have lots of support for anything to reduce fire hazards," says Boyd, "even controlled burns across the street from people's homes."

Still, many Californians get riled when chainsaws start buzzing. Even Native Californians often like the eucs just fine. They're tall, they're shady, and they smell good. What's not to like?

"It's an emotional issue," says Vince Cicero, resource ecologist for State Parks' San Luis Obispo District, which includes Montañ a de Oro. "People come to me all the time and say, 'I hear you're going to clear-cut all the trees in the park!' You'd be amazed at the letters calling me a zealot and comparing the cutting eucalyptus to destroying the rain forest." Felling eucs really has the opposite effect, says Cicero. "We're trying to preserve the diversity of the park, as opposed to perpetuating a monoculture, which the Blue Gum tends to be."

One reason for the passionate defense of eucalypts is sheer size. "Everybody wants to see something big and showy," says Cicero. "The brush community harbors a much bigger range of wildlife, but people aren't always interested in lizards and rodents."

Montañ a de Oro's masterplan calls for removal of all non-native plants, but Cicero doesn't get much flak for pulling out other exotics. "If I kill a bunch of Germany ivy, nobody cares," says Cicero. "People relate to large stuff, like eucalyptus trees and Orcas."

Visitors often find trees more impressive than the scrubby native foliage they replaced. "People think anything that isn't trees is brush, and that brush has no value," explains Avant, ranger at Montañ a de Oro. "Ranchers see brush as grazing land that hasn't been developed. They don't see that these are plants that support native wildlife."

Other non-native plants are on the rangers' hit-list, including thistle, poison hemlock, iceplant and ivy. Some of those plants would be considered weeds in almost any context. But in State Parks, the word weed has a precise definition.

"We call anything that's not a California plant a weed in the park," says Avant. "In the park, a rose is a weed."

There are a couple of good safety reasons for clearing away eucalyptus trees: one is fire and the other is gravity

If all non-native species are a problem, humans should invite themselves to leave the state, too. But philosophy aside, there are a couple of good safety reasons for clearing away eucalyptus trees, say parks officials. One is fire danger. The other is, well, gravity.

"Blue Gums are dangerous," says Avant. "Dry branches break off all the time. Campers visiting from Australia told us it's illegal to camp under eucalypts there because it's so dangerous." The root system is fairly shallow, especially in sandy soil, and, says Cicero, "it's hard to predict which ones will topple over."

The guru of eucalyptus agrees. "The branches break off, and it grows fast and produces all that fuel," Boyd says flatly. "It's a lousy tree."

Albion Monitor September 16, 1995 (

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