The Eucalyptus: Sacred or profane?

 

Only God can make a tree, but any ecological illiterate can plant it in the wrong place.

Ansel Adams understood this. On running tree-planting Boy Scouts out of California's Marin Headlands, the photographer declared: "I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder and the excellence of eternity."

In Australia, "excellence of eternity" includes eucalyptus, which has fueled recent fires. Eucs depend on fire, promote fire, support complex, fire-dependent ecosystems. Koalas eat euc leaves; the "old gum tree" that kookaburra sat on in the song was a eucalyptus. These trees are beautiful and precious. In Australia.

In California, they are our largest and most dangerous weed. Eucalyptus, impregnated with flammable oil, don't just burn; they explode, spewing firebrands hundreds of feet. Long, peeling bark is designed to carry flames to crowns. Most everything dies except the euc, whose seed pods open with the heat. And if these trees don't burn out the competition, they may poison it out with their toxic drippings.

Yet town and county ordinances protect these aliens. In Santa Cruz, even a juvenile euc is a "heritage tree," and if you cut yours without a permit (tough to get), the fine is $500. When poet Robert Sward hired a crew to trim his eucalyptus, the "euc police" from the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department appeared and chased the men off the roof. Living next to a eucalyptus, says Sward, is "like keeping uncovered barrels of gasoline in your garage."

In Bolinas, just north of San Francisco, eucs are creating extreme fire hazards. But when the town tried to remove a stand, euc-huggers killed the project. It would be "clear-cutting," they proclaimed, "genocide," "ethnic cleansing," "terrorism." It would cause "global warming." The town fathers were "plant Nazis." The impenetrable, toxic monoculture was an "old-growth forest," a "cathedral," a "sacred grove."

At hearings, they dispensed eucalyptus cough drops, chanted, "Save our eucalyptus." They convinced Marin County regulators that monarch butterflies, which sometimes winter on eucs, depend on them. Now, if Bolinas residents want to cut their eucalyptus, they have to check with the county to see if they need to apply for a permit. Applications cost $1,400.

The notion that monarchs depend on eucalyptus - gospel in California - raises an interesting question: How did the insects survive before 1853, the year the trees were unleashed in North America? Basically, monarchs roost on eucs for the same reason they roost on Ferris wheels - because they are there. When they weren't there, monarchs probably migrated down the coast to safer climes. Geoff Geupel of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory believes that eucs may create "monarch sinks" - that is, monarchs are attracted to them, then get blown out by storms, perishing en masse.

Observatory data show that eucalyptus do create bird sinks. For example, 50 percent of the Anna's hummingbird nests are shaken out of the trees by wind compared with 10 percent for native vegetation. Insectivorous North American birds attracted to euc blossoms haven't evolved the long beaks of their Australian counterparts and therefore can't deal with the sticky gum. Frequently, it kills them by clogging their faces and nostrils. Wherever eucalyptus replaces native vegetation, bird-species diversity drops by at least 70 percent. And eucs provide nesting habitat for great horned owls, predators that don't belong in lots of coastal settings and that take a heavy toll of troubled species that do belong, such as barn owls and northern spotted owls.

The "wonder trees," as they were called, were going to provide timber for ships, houses and railroad ties. Their oil was going to relieve insomnia, cystitis, pain, irritation, venereal disease, bladder infections, malaria, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid and the "fetid smell of gangrenous limbs." But the lumber was weak and brittle; the elixirs didn't work.

One of the better indications of what we've learned in 149 years was provided Jan. 2 by Carolyn Blair, director of the San Francisco Tree Council, an organization that calls city-sponsored habitat restoration via euc removal "unnecessary destruction of non-native, healthy trees ... simply to make way for native plants." Replying to a note from my friend Cindy, a native-ecosystem activist, Blair demanded: "If native trees were so great, why didn't they plant them back in 1870?"

Cindy says those words remind her of Lucy Van Pelt's immortal question to piano player Schroeder about why, if Beethoven was so great, he wasn't on bubble gum cards.

Naturalist and writer Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Ted Williams

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac