How eucalyptus trees are connected to denying climate change

Here on Legal Planet, we talk a lot about climate skeptics/deniers, and we’re highly critical of them (for good reason!).  A lot of those climate skeptics/deniers are conservatives.

But there’s no monopoly on scientific ignorance on one end of the political spectrum.  An example of that is close to home here at UC Berkeley.

In 1991, a deadly firestorm raced through the Oakland/Berkeley hills, killing 25 people and destroying thousands of homes.  A key factor in the blaze were the groves of eucalyptus trees growing in the area.  Eucalpytus, which is native to Australia (not California) is an extremely flammable tree species, and native Californian plants are generally unable to grow and reproduce successfully in eucalyptus groves (in part because eucalyptus trees acidify the soil).  UC Berkeley is applying to receive federal funds to eliminate tens of thousands of these trees in order to reduce fire risk and help restore native plants and ecosystems to campus.  One would think that this would receive universal support.  One would think, but this is Berkeley, where conspiracy theories sprout profligately from the soil like mushrooms after spring rains…

It turns out that a few folks are outraged about this.  Some have simply latched onto the fact that the university is “clearcutting” trees as the basis for condemning the proposal – as if logging or clearcutting were inherently evil.  Others object to the “xenophobia” inherent in eliminating non-native trees in favor of native ones (see the comments following the article).  Still others have concerns about herbicide use – which is a reasonable concern, though it appears that the university is taking a lot of steps to make sure the usage is appropriate and the harms are limited.  And finally, a few seem to believe that anything that involves herbicide use must be part of a giant conspiracy by giant chemical companies to destroy the planet (again, see some of the comments after the original news article).

Let me be clear here.  Cutting down eucalyptus trees to reduce fire risk and restore native plants and ecosystems is generally an environmentally sensible thing to do.  It will help native plants and animals do better.  And it will keep people safer.  Those who argue otherwise are ignoring a lot of fairly clear ecological evidence, primarily because of other prior commitments they have (such as, logging is bad, or chemicals are bad).  Sounds a little like climate skeptics/deniers to me.

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Reader Comments

13 Replies to “How eucalyptus trees are connected to denying climate change”

  1. Please correct me if I am wrong (it’s always possible) but don’t eucalyptus trees also suck up inordinate amounts of water? I remember visiting some mass “conservation-based” plantings that had sucked their environment dry and actually lowered the water table.

  2. Please correct me if I am wrong (it’s always possible) but don’t eucalyptus trees also suck up inordinate amounts of water? I remember visiting some mass “conservation-based” plantings that had sucked their environment dry and actually lowered the water table.

  3. Here in Portugal, fully 8% of the country’s land area is now planted to Eucalyptus and the problems it’s causing – devastating fires being the most obvious but perhaps least of the them – are enormous. The trees were first brought into the country to drain the swamps on the river Mondego flood plain, but their widespread planting is the fault of the IMF who demanded their cultivation in return for loans made in the early 1970s. Now there is a whole industry turning them into toilet paper and people make an income out of growing Eucalyptus in a country with 18% unemployment and huge underemployment.

    Eucalyptus trees do indeed consume prodigious amounts of water. They also rapidly impoverish soils to the extent that it becomes very difficult to grow anything else after them, leading to soil erosion and desertification. They grow at an astronomical rate, taking an average of 10 years from planting to harvest, but that growth comes at huge cost to the environment.

    From the age of 2 years on, the eucalyptus plantations here are consuming more water than falls on them (in average terms), rising to 3x what falls on them by the time they’re of harvestable age. The average amount of water consumed by the trees over their 10-year life cycle is 14% of Portugal’s entire average annual rainfall. No wonder then that small watercourses which used to run year-round do no longer, and wells, water mines and boreholes are drying up. Their continued cultivation is clearly unsustainable, but halting it seems to be beyond the will and means of successive governments. If it continues, the country’s fragile native ecosystems will simply collapse. To call it an environmental disaster is not hyperbole.

  4. Here in Portugal, fully 8% of the country’s land area is now planted to Eucalyptus and the problems it’s causing – devastating fires being the most obvious but perhaps least of the them – are enormous. The trees were first brought into the country to drain the swamps on the river Mondego flood plain, but their widespread planting is the fault of the IMF who demanded their cultivation in return for loans made in the early 1970s. Now there is a whole industry turning them into toilet paper and people make an income out of growing Eucalyptus in a country with 18% unemployment and huge underemployment.

    Eucalyptus trees do indeed consume prodigious amounts of water. They also rapidly impoverish soils to the extent that it becomes very difficult to grow anything else after them, leading to soil erosion and desertification. They grow at an astronomical rate, taking an average of 10 years from planting to harvest, but that growth comes at huge cost to the environment.

    From the age of 2 years on, the eucalyptus plantations here are consuming more water than falls on them (in average terms), rising to 3x what falls on them by the time they’re of harvestable age. The average amount of water consumed by the trees over their 10-year life cycle is 14% of Portugal’s entire average annual rainfall. No wonder then that small watercourses which used to run year-round do no longer, and wells, water mines and boreholes are drying up. Their continued cultivation is clearly unsustainable, but halting it seems to be beyond the will and means of successive governments. If it continues, the country’s fragile native ecosystems will simply collapse. To call it an environmental disaster is not hyperbole.

  5. There is an overriding problem related to people simply not recognizing that the natural areas we’ve grown up with are in fact highly altered by land use decisions and plant introductions. California has something like 3000 well-naturalized non-native plants, many which dominate landscapes we perceive to be natural. Eucalyptus groves, iceplant covered seacliffs, and low elevation grasslands are good examples of places where the introduced species are now predominant. The grasslands in the east bay hills 500 years ago were dominated by conservatively growing perennial grasses and likely had a tint of green through the summer.

    Fire suppression has allowed thicket-like conditions to develop across the west. Ponderosa thickets in the rockies, lodgepole pine thickets in the eastern cascades, chaparral thickets in southern california, andJuniper thickets in Texas, have invaded into grasslands and made conditions ripe for devastating fires. These forest also have the effect of lowering water tables and drying up springs.

    On the east coast the landscape is a mosaic of adventitious forest attempting to recover from logging, farming, swamp draining, etc.

    The rare natural system that resembles a pre-Columbian ecosystem is a real rarity. Old growth ponderosa in Oregon, oak savannah in California, serpentine grasslands south of San Jose.

  6. There is an overriding problem related to people simply not recognizing that the natural areas we’ve grown up with are in fact highly altered by land use decisions and plant introductions. California has something like 3000 well-naturalized non-native plants, many which dominate landscapes we perceive to be natural. Eucalyptus groves, iceplant covered seacliffs, and low elevation grasslands are good examples of places where the introduced species are now predominant. The grasslands in the east bay hills 500 years ago were dominated by conservatively growing perennial grasses and likely had a tint of green through the summer.

    Fire suppression has allowed thicket-like conditions to develop across the west. Ponderosa thickets in the rockies, lodgepole pine thickets in the eastern cascades, chaparral thickets in southern california, andJuniper thickets in Texas, have invaded into grasslands and made conditions ripe for devastating fires. These forest also have the effect of lowering water tables and drying up springs.

    On the east coast the landscape is a mosaic of adventitious forest attempting to recover from logging, farming, swamp draining, etc.

    The rare natural system that resembles a pre-Columbian ecosystem is a real rarity. Old growth ponderosa in Oregon, oak savannah in California, serpentine grasslands south of San Jose.

  7. I should add that the currently popular practice of equating the “anti-science” viewpoints on the left and the right really misses the point if you’re comparing the views of US senators and presidential candidates on one side and Berkeley city council members (or public commenters) on the other. So-called liberal conspiracy theories about defensible space for fires, don’t go very far up the food chain.

    And some so-called liberal conspiracy theories (anti-vaccine folks) or so-called liberal “nanny-state” policies (smoking bans) are actually supported by about equal numbers of folks on both sides of the aisle.

  8. I should add that the currently popular practice of equating the “anti-science” viewpoints on the left and the right really misses the point if you’re comparing the views of US senators and presidential candidates on one side and Berkeley city council members (or public commenters) on the other. So-called liberal conspiracy theories about defensible space for fires, don’t go very far up the food chain.

    And some so-called liberal conspiracy theories (anti-vaccine folks) or so-called liberal “nanny-state” policies (smoking bans) are actually supported by about equal numbers of folks on both sides of the aisle.

  9. Wendy said:
    “…Eucalyptus trees do indeed consume prodigious amounts of water…”

    Let us not forget that water forms a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and eucalyptus trees are efficient at sequestering both water and carbon dioxide. The adverse effects of water sequestration on soil hydrology could be offset by converting water to its carbon dioxide equivalent, and selling the mitigation as “adjusted” carbon credits. Tesla motors made a profit selling its carbon credits. Eucalyptus trees offer enhanced climate mitigation which should be attractive to carbon aficionados and investors.

    1. Water is a ‘greenhouse gas’ is it now?!!! Good grief! Water is life itself! Without it, none of us would be here. The cycling of water through the biosphere is utterly essential to the maintenance of life on this planet. The end result of your line of thinking would be to turn the entire planet into a desert.

      Fictitious accounting conventions like ‘carbon credits’ aren’t real! They make no impact on the environment (other than to perpetuate mankind’s obsession with amassing large numbers of pieces of paper which is what’s got the planet into such a mess to begin with). As a much-quoted Cree proverb states, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

  10. Wendy said:
    “…Eucalyptus trees do indeed consume prodigious amounts of water…”

    Let us not forget that water forms a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and eucalyptus trees are efficient at sequestering both water and carbon dioxide. The adverse effects of water sequestration on soil hydrology could be offset by converting water to its carbon dioxide equivalent, and selling the mitigation as “adjusted” carbon credits. Tesla motors made a profit selling its carbon credits. Eucalyptus trees offer enhanced climate mitigation which should be attractive to carbon aficionados and investors.

    1. Water is a ‘greenhouse gas’ is it now?!!! Good grief! Water is life itself! Without it, none of us would be here. The cycling of water through the biosphere is utterly essential to the maintenance of life on this planet. The end result of your line of thinking would be to turn the entire planet into a desert.

      Fictitious accounting conventions like ‘carbon credits’ aren’t real! They make no impact on the environment (other than to perpetuate mankind’s obsession with amassing large numbers of pieces of paper which is what’s got the planet into such a mess to begin with). As a much-quoted Cree proverb states, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

  11. Also forgotten in the mix is the almost “zero” contribution to real habitat. While it is true that eucs provide nesting and roosting sometimes for birds, euc forests in non-Australian habitats are almost completely biologically dead and indeed there is some strong suspicions that certain bird beaks get affected by euc flower sap. If you know what you’re looking at the euc in the California landscape is actually an ugly thing.

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About Eric

Eric Biber

Eric Biber is a specialist in conservation biology, land-use planning and public lands law. Biber brings technical and legal scholarship to the field of environmental law…

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