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Con-tree-versy : Eucalyptus Lovers Take On State Over Cutting Plan

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Times Staff Writer

Angel Island’s Mt. Livermore rises 781 feet above San Francisco Bay, rewarding hikers and bicyclists who sweat their way to the top with a panoramic view of miles of sparkling water, three bridges and four counties. But a screen of fast-growing eucalyptus trees on the island’s southern slopes may soon block part of that view, hiding neighboring Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline.

That grove and other eucalyptus trees on 80 of Angel Island’s approximately 740 acres are at the center of a controversy that has stirred debate among Bay Area environmentalists and challenged state park policy.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation wants to cut the trees.

A Marin County group known as POET, which stands for Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees, wants the groves left alone.

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The argument is over more than just whether to save a pretty view. The plan to cut Angel Island’s eucalyptus trees raises philosophical and scientific questions about the role within state parks of non-native plants, known as exotics, and how much trouble it is worth to get rid of them.

Eucalyptus trees are perhaps the largest and most visible exotic plants in California. Some groups, such as the California Native Plant Society, view the species as a giant weed and applaud state efforts to remove it and make room for native plants.

The members of POET, on the other hand, love eucalyptus trees for their beauty and the cool shade they provide along Angel Island’s trails.

“We’re here to support trees,” said Chris Womack, a spokesman for POET. Womack said that some members of the group consider the plan to remove eucalyptus as “plant racism” or “specism.”

David Boyd, senior resource ecologist for the state park system’s northern region, said that “people who are less emotional about it can see the value of native vegetation.”

While POET and the parks department disagree about the aesthetic and recreational value of eucalyptus, forestry experts also disagree about the danger involved in the tree removal plan. The first stage of that plan calls for clear-cutting 24.5 acres with logging equipment and using a controversial herbicide to keep the stumps from resprouting.

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“I’m very concerned that in an ill-conceived attempt to convert eucalyptus sites to native vegetation, they are going to create an ecological disaster,” said Ray Moritz, a private forestry consultant.

According to Moritz, logging equipment would damage the fragile soil on Angel Island’s slopes and the use of herbicides could delay the regrowth of erosion-preventing ground cover.

Boyd insists that the program will improve rather than damage the park.

“I hate to hear this project called eucalyptus removal or eucalyptus logging,” Boyd said. “It is restoration of a natural area.”

The cutting had been scheduled to begin in September, but months of protest by POET and intervention by Assemblymen Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) and William Filante (R-San Rafael) won a last-minute reprieve for the groves.

Now, a focused environmental study is in progress. The park system will present the results at a public hearing and take public testimony before deciding what to do next. That means the eucalyptus trees are safe for the moment.

The first eucalyptus trees in California came from Australia shortly after the Gold Rush. Over the next half a century, investors and farmers planted them for timber and as wind screens for crops and homes. By 1912, when it was discovered that eucalyptus was useless for timber, tens of thousands of acres had already been planted.

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Eucalyptus are towering, aromatic trees famous for their rapid growth and their ability to suppress other plant life within their dense groves. Eucalyptus globulus, or blue gum, is the most common species in California. Blue gums have adapted well to California’s coastal climate, and groves have expanded where rainfall and soil permit.

It is exactly this success that makes eucalyptus an especially unwelcome exotic on Angel Island, according to state park ecologist Boyd.

Natives Squeezed Out

Eucalyptus squeezes out native plants and provides a less desirable habitat for native animals than would a native oak forest, Boyd said.

“We’re looking at this island as a unique opportunity to preserve a natural area,” Boyd said. “This is like a small museum of what California looked like before the changes.”

Some park users disagree.

“The island is not really a natural park,” said Clyde Wahrhaftig, emeritus professor of geology at UC Berkeley. “It is a historical park, and the eucalyptus are part of that history.”

Angel Island became an Army base during the Civil War. The military planted eucalyptus there between 1863 and the 1930s to provide wind breaks for gardens, picnic areas and encampments.

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According to Boyd, the eucalyptus trees have spread rapidly and now pose a fire danger to many of the park’s historical buildings, some of which date to the Civil War.

Moritz says that park officials’ fears of spreading groves and fire are exaggerated. “There has never in history been a eucalyptus crown fire in a coastal zone,” he said.

Rather than tearing out the trees all at once and spraying herbicide to prevent resprouts, Moritz says it would be safer and cheaper to manage the eucalyptus groves by thinning them and checking their spread with annual maintenance.

‘A Pipe Dream’

“It’s a pipe dream to think that we’re going to restore huge areas to native plant communities,” Moritz said.

Park officials say that managing the eucalyptus groves would involve considerable manual labor and therefore too much expense to be worthwhile.

If the trees were removed all at once, on the other hand, the logs could be sold to a paper mill, thus reducing the cost of the program, Boyd said.

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The logs would end up at the Fiberboard Corp. paper mill in Antioch, a subsidiary of Louisiana Pacific Corp. And that also worries some environmentalists.

Gordon Robinson, formerly a forester for the Sierra Club and for 27 years a manager of Southern Pacific’s timber lands, says that the eucalyptus removal plan could set a dangerous precedent for commercial logging in state parks.

Not only that, Robinson says, but the park would virtually be giving the logs away by selling them for only 10 cents a ton and subsidizing the cost of barging them off the island to the tune of $40,000.

“I think they’re so afraid of being accused of selling something that they’re giving it away to avoid scandal,” Robinson said.

Independent Look

Boyd said that the park has asked an independent forester to determine the value of the trees “and prove once and for all that we’re not giving this stuff away.”

Phil Morgan, a resources manager at the Fiberboard plant, said that the price he pays for eucalyptus chips at his Antioch mill is barely enough to make it worthwhile for independent loggers to cut, chip and haul the logs.

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Instead of clear-cutting the eucalyptus for wood chips, Robinson says, the park should look into thinning selected trees and selling them for firewood.

Some professional foresters also question the planned use of Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide, to kill sprouts on eucalyptus stumps.

Moritz said he visited Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa where 100 acres of eucalyptus trees were cut in 1985 and found that after four applications of Roundup, “they still had an average of 1,100 sprouts per acre.”

Such repeated applications are not effective, Moritz said, and retard the growth of much-needed ground cover after the logging.

Roundup’s safety for humans has been a subject of controversy for years.

Problems Cited

Julia May, spokeswoman for Citizens for a Better Environment, an environmental watchdog group based in San Francisco, said that “Roundup has been named in more eye and skin injuries” than any other herbicide.

May added that Roundup is widely used because it is thought to be less toxic than many other herbicides. Despite the compound’s popularity, it has never been adequately tested for safety, she said.

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“It’s a possible weak carcinogen and a possible weak mutagen,” she said.

Boyd said that the use of Roundup on Angel Island is not a problem because it breaks down in the ground and will be sprayed only on the target stumps.

While park ecologists and other scientists study the biological pros and cons of cutting down eucalyptus, environmentalists are also looking for answers. The Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter has formed a special task force to study the role of exotic plants in public parks.

No Clear Policy

“Sierra Club’s position has been that the restoration of native plants is a good idea and should be encouraged,” said Judith Goldsmith, task force chairman. The Sierra Club does not, however, have a clear policy on the issue, she said.

“This is kind of a new breed of issue about how to restore what has been destroyed,” Goldsmith said. “It’s a pretty important question because it has impact on how to consider the removal of Hetch Hetchy Dam (in the Yosemite Valley). Once we take a position at the chapter level, it will probably be looked at at the state level.”

What the Sierra Club and other environmental groups decide could influence policy toward exotic plants throughout the state. Other state and federal parks from San Luis Obispo to Santa Rosa contain stands of eucalyptus.

In urban areas the issue is even more serious because virtually all plant life is of the non-native, exotic variety, Goldsmith said.

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Boyd says he expects to eventually be able to resume the native plant restoration program on Angel Island. “We wouldn’t have proceeded as far as we did if we didn’t have an adequate plan,” he said. Even if the scientific debate tips in Boyd’s favor, however, he will still have to contend with the political pressure from POET and other eucalyptus lovers.

And there is confidence on that side too. Toby Spengler, an aide to Assemblyman Filante, declared flatly, “When it’s all said and done, there will not be logging out there.”

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