Eucalyptus: Beauty or Beast?

Restoration pits these exotics against California natives. But for some, they’re a natural.

  • Eucalyptus trees reflect in the canal at the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve.

    Sean Arbabi/Seanarbabi.com
  • A great egret in a pond surrounded by Tasmanian blue gum at the Morro Coast Audubon Society Sweet Springs Nature Preserve.

    Thomas Nash
  • "Eucalyptus trees, oak trees, redwood trees, they're all trees, and trees are good. They are now part of our ecosystem and causing us to redefine the word 'native,'" says Joey Racano, a Los Osos environmental activist.

    Thomas Nash
  • A detail of the blue gum's colorful bark.

    Thomas Nash
  • "It's simply different values, and it's hard to say what's absolutely right and what's absolutely wrong," says David Chipping, California Native Plant Society president.

    Thomas Nash
  • Mature stand of blue gum eucalyptus in California's Presidio of San Francisco.

    Thomas Nash
  • The outward march of eucalyptus from a former plantation has occurred at the rate of about two feet a year. "And over the course of seven decades, that will take you somewhere," says Matt Ritter, botany professor, Cal Poly, standing by a giant old karri eucalyptus at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.

    Thomas Nash
  • Volunteers removing invasive veldt grass from native plantings area. Morro Coast Audubon Society Sweet Springs Nature Preserve.

    Thomas Nash
 

On a Saturday morning in early September, the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos, Calif., bustles with activity. To the east, a dozen or so volunteers struggle to stem the tide of veldt grass that laps at the feet of waist-high lupines. To the west, a great egret stalks the shallows of a small pond, and a few dog-walkers meander along a trail shaded by a lacy canopy of towering Tasmanian blue gums, a type of eucalyptus tree.

Invisible but no less real is the cultural fault line that runs through this preserve, which is managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society. On one side stand those who would remove some of the blue gums to restore an embattled native ecosystem; on the other are those who believe these tall exotic trees have as much right to exist as the indigenous redwoods, California's official state tree.

As environmental clashes go, this one seems fairly minor, even inconsequential. At issue is the fate of perhaps a hundred blue gums out of the more than 450 that presently grow on the 32-acre preserve, whose springs feed the Morro Bay estuary. Yet the dispute affords insight into a much wider conflict that affects the entire California coast, one that springs from different visions of the natural world and the place of non-native species in it.

Strikingly, the combatants on both sides consider themselves environmentalists, so that beneath the fraught rhetoric lie concerns that are not easy to dismiss. Both seem to share a passionate love for nature, but disagree about which organisms deserve priority. The raptors that sometimes nest in the blue gums and the monarch butterflies that use them for winter shelter? Or the Morro blue butterfly and the myriad less charismatic creatures that thrive amid native grasses and wildflowers?

The trees are problematic for a number of reasons. They grow so fast that their branch structure often gets out of whack; left unmanaged, they tend to lose large limbs, posing a danger to people and property. They drop so much bark and leaf litter and commandeer so much water and light that only the most robust, shade-tolerant natives can grow alongside them. Blue gums can also be invasive. Given access to year-round moisture, they readily spread beyond where they were originally planted. At Sweet Springs, preserve manager Holly Sletteland regularly pulls out the blue gum "volunteers" that sprout amid native shrubs and perennials.

And that's not all. Eucalyptus stands can pose a serious fire danger, as became apparent in 1991 when blue gums burst into flames that lit up the Oakland Hills. While these non-native trees hardly bear all the blame – tinder-dry grasslands, native scrub and Monterey pines also contributed to the firestorm – the fuel load provided by eucalyptus debris unquestionably intensified the blaze. In the span of 72 hours, 25 people died, and well over 3,000 houses and apartments were destroyed.

Yet these same trees, with their shaggy bark and spicy fragrance, are beloved by many. In the blue gum's immigrant history, people see an experience that parallels their own, observes environmental historian Jared Farmer, author of Trees in Paradise: A California History. "There are still a significant number of Californians who are the first generation in the state. They have come to love California. They have come to think of it as home. And they feel this kinship with the eucalyptus. They say to themselves, 'This tree is not from here, but it's beautiful, and it seems to fit.' "

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...