Nativism vs the Environment

When most people think of preserving natural areas, they envision saving green growing things from encroachment by parking lots and housing development. Nativists focus on a different agenda – removing non-native plants and substituting natives.

What’s wrong with that?

Several things.

Garlon 4 Ultra, Twin Peaks

1. Toxic herbicides. Since non-native plants are well-established, and the air in our city is full of dispersing seeds from hundreds if not thousands of species, the only way to carve out native plant gardens is by using toxic herbicides – Roundup, Garlon, Imazapyr. And it’s not a one-off effort; the pesticide use has to be repeated several times each year, as we see at Twin Peaks or Stern Grove.

Imazapyr, Stern Grove

2. Destruction of trees. The Native plant movement in San Francisco works actively to reduce the number of trees and the extent of tree cover. This directly conflicts with the importance of trees in sequestering carbon.

3. Quixotic conversion to native trees. Even where they are willing to accept trees, they would remove the eucalyptus and black acacia and Monterey cypress and Monterey pine, and plant oak, douglas fir, and a few other species. Unfortunately, most of these have problems. Oak is slow-growing, and vulnerable to Sudden Oak Death, a fungal infection that has spread widely through California. (Oak is also quite allergenic.) Douglas fir requires more rain than San Francisco gets.

4. Habitat destruction. San Francisco’s wildlife is adapted to non-native plants, and for good reason. Eucalyptus, blackberry, ivy and holly provide excellent cover, and are a rich food source. They all flower and provide bee-pasture. Generally, native plants offer lower nutrient density than the non-natives – they do not grow as thickly, they have fewer flowers for a shorter season, and most have less fruit (the toyon is an exception). Many die back for much of the year, unlike the eucalyptus and blackberry, the holly and the ivy. Returning these areas to native plants would kill off birds and animals who no longer had territories in which to live and breed, and their populations would fall.

In fact, our lives depend on non-native plants. Almost everything we eat is non-native; very few people would want to revert to a diet of acorn-flour, fish, and game. Most of what we plant in our gardens is non-native.

We support the preservation of current native plant areas. Like old-growth chaparral, for instance.

We just oppose destruction of other habitats for conversion to native plants.

This entry was posted in Environment, Herbicides, Herbicides: Roundup, Garlon, nativism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Nativism vs the Environment

  1. Alicia Snow says:

    This is the only logical way to look at the controversy between natives and non-natives. We need to keep as many trees as we still have left in our city – whether they are native or not – because they will help reduce our carbon footprint. And we must not spray poisons – full stop! Everyone is trying to go “organic” and the city is spraying!

  2. Nature Lover says:

    Native plant restorations are also harmful to the environment because prescribed burns are required to maintain them. Prescribed burns reduce air quality, contribute harmful particulates to the air, and increase the risk of wildfires that threaten people, animals and property.

    Here are two specific examples of local native plant restoration programs in urban settings that require prescribed burns:

    1) The Natural Areas Program of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Departments proposes to use prescribed burns in their official management plan, known as SNRAMP. SNRAMP acknowledges the important role that fire plays in the native landscape: “…fires may help native species germinate…” (SNRAMP, page 5-4). For this reason (and also to help control non-native vegetation) SNRAMP includes fires as a possible management action in Recommendation GR-3b (page 5-4).

    The Initial Environmental Study of SNRAMP announces the intention to use prescribed fires to manage the natural areas: “SNRAMP no longer is proposing prescribed burning would not occur. The SNRAMP will be updated to reflect this change.” (IS, page 11)

    Restoration efforts on San Bruno Mountain provide a test case for the use of prescribed burns to support restoration efforts. San Bruno Mountain has been undergoing extensive restoration efforts for many years. The focus of those efforts has been to increase the population of the Mission Blue Butterfly. The San Francisco Natural Areas Program is reintroducing the Mission Blue to Twin Peaks. In 2003, a prescribed burn on San Bruno Mountain raged out of control, nearly destroying the adjacent residential neighborhoods:

    “The fire was lit Tuesday morning by the California Department of Forestry to burn off dry vegetation and restore natural habitat in San Bruno Mountain State Park…The blaze, fed by 25 mph afternoon winds, spread rapidly out of control, jumping across Guadalupe Canyon Parkway and moving southeast toward a couple of hundred homes along the mountain’s eastern approach. At one point, it crossed a steep ravine and threatened the Mission Blue Drive neighborhood, where firefighters stopped the flames just spitting distance from some homes and condominiums under construction…state firefighters called for mutual aid and received dozens of reinforcements from fire departments, including Daly City, San Bruno, Brisbane, Burlingame and South San Francisco…The fire was supposed to be contained within three to five acres in the Wax Myrtle Ravine area, but it spread to about 50 acres before it was contained…said CDF Capt. Claire Frank.” (San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 2003)

    In 2000 a prescribed burn got out of control resulting in the Bandelier National Monument Fire that burned 47,650 acres and destroyed 235 homes. In August of 2009, the Big Meadow Fire in Yosemite began as a prescribed fire which was planned to burn 91 acres. In got out of control and burned 7,425 acres. That same month a prescribed burn in Scofield, Utah, got out of control and nearly burned 50 homes. In other words, the track record for the use of prescribed burns indicates that they can and DO burn out of control.

    In the East Bay, the “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of the East Bay Regional Park District proposes to use prescribed burns. The Draft EIR for the plan asks us to believe that prescribed burns will not damage the environment because they will prevent wildfires in the future which would be even more damaging to the environment. This presumption enables the EIR to give prescribed burns a pass. That is, the EIR tells us that the prescribed burns required by the Plan do not pose a significant risk of environmental damage.

    This claim is entirely bogus because most prescribed burns will be for the stated purpose of maintaining the native plant restorations resulting from the implementation of the Plan. Here is a selection of quotes from the Plan which document the actual purpose of the prescribed burns:

    •“Grassland and Herbaceous Vegetation…broadcast burns in the summer or early fall are known to favor native plants.” (page 128)
    •“Maritime Chaparral…This [native] vegetation type and the Manzanita it supports are also fire dependent. Without disturbance by fire the Manzanita does not reproduce, becomes decadent, and is replaced by shade tolerant species.” (page 132)
    •“North Coastal Scrub…This plant community [of native plants] is adapted to natural fire cycles, and most species found within this plant community resprout easily to rejuvenate individual specimens after fire, or require fire to trigger germination.” (page 139)
    •“[Native] Coyote Brush Scrub…is adapted to natural fire cycles. Most species resprout easily to rejuvenate individual specimens after fire, or requires fire to trigger germination.” (page 149)

    Anyone who is familiar with the natural history of California is not surprised to learn that fire is beneficial to the plants that are native to California: “The [chaparral] community has evolved over millions of years in association with fires, and in fact requires fire for proper health and vigor. Thus it is not surprising that most chaparral plants exhibit adaptations enabling them to recover after a burn. Many species are sprouters; the aboveground parts may be killed, but new growth arises from roots or buds at the base of the stem…Other species have seeds that require fire in order to break dormancy; they will not germinate unless they have been heated. The cones of some chaparral conifers open only after they have been heated. Some herbaceous species will not germinate unless there is ash on the ground when it rains…In the absence of fire, a mature chaparral stand may become senile, in which case growth and reproduction are reduced.” (page 341, A Natural History of California, Schoenherr)

    Native plant advocates are well aware of the importance of fire to the sustainability of native plant populations. The San Francisco chapter (Yerba Buena) of the California Native Plant Society acknowledges the value of fire to restore and maintain native plant populations. A wildfire on San Bruno Mountain in native grassland and coastal scrub “consumed about 300 acres” in June 2008 according to an article on their website ( The article reports that “Fire is an adaptive management tool that, along with natural grazing and browsing, has been missing in promoting healthy grasslands that once covered much of the lower elevations of California…The threats to native grasslands are invasions of non-native grasses and forbs, and succession by native and invasive shrubs. Fortunately the fire scrubbed the canyons pretty clean of just about everything. This gives the land a shot of nutrients to recharge the soil and awaken the seedbanks that have long been lying dormant.”

    Nativism and environmentalism are two distinctly different ideologies. Nativism is not consistent with the original goals of environmentalism of clean water and clean air. In fact, it is diametrically opposite of those goals.

  3. HarryEye says:

    Great information, NatureLover. Thanks for educating us – it’s refreshing to have actual cites to check information, instead of the usual “just believe everything we say” that masquerades as fact.

    I often wondered if the native cult deliberately plants trees that will not survive. They do seem to be anti-tree in every way.

    I appreciate the info on fire – it is true that native plants are not very friendly to urban areas, because of the prescribed burns necessary to keep them “renewed.” It’s one thing to have periodic, natural burns in nature, but a city is not a safe place for that practice.

    We need practical green management in San Francisco and everywhere. We need trees, we need plants of all sorts, and we should welcome the plants and trees that actually thrive in our difficult climate.

    It is a total myth that San Francisco has a lot of native trees. We don’t. We do have a lot of beautiful naturalized species that do splendidly.

    I also agree about the use of toxics needed to maintain “native” landscapes – NO THANKS.

    San Francisco is starting to develop its own groundwater, and we need to keep it CLEAN.

  4. Charlie says:

    PLEASE stop using a racist term to refer to people who are trying to restore native ecosystems!

    • webmaster says:

      Nativist is a word – like so many in the English language – with multiple meanings. Linguists use it to describe supporters of the position that language acquisition is an inborn aptitude. Politicians use it to describe people who oppose immigration. Over here, we use it to refer to those who support Native Plants and ecosystems at the expense of naturalized ones, and we’ve been quite clear in our use of the term and don’t conflate it with other uses. We find it less clunky than “Native Plant Advocates” or “Native Plant Supporters.”

  5. Charlie says:

    There is actually too much fire in chaparral right now. Please go to to read about it before making knee jerk judgements about it

  6. Mark D says:

    It’s happening all over the country. The very agencies whose policies brought us many of these exotics are now trying to tell us that they are bad. The same people that spent millions and millions of taxpayer dollars telling us about smokey the bear now tell us that they were wrong. But now, all of a sudden they are right?

    The irony is that the number one exotic is european settlers. We can remove all the others (although we have little control over what comes after) and if keep ourselves here, then there will be little progress. That is the ultimate hypocricy of these kind of nativist policies.

  7. Brian says:

    Most of the statements made on this site seem rather biased to the point of not acknowledging the whole truth and they just take into account those stories that back up their side. Is it viable to return Mt sutro to its natural state? maybe-maybe not, but we can still have a forest of lets say a genetic variety of strains of wild Monterey Pines(ones that are immune to pine pitch kanker) that are ARE native. That might help give that species more of a chance of surviving and it would give the Mt. Sutro forest more of a purpose besides just being pleasant for a few people that care nothing of genetic diversity or the natural integrity of California native species.

  8. Neshnabe Benais says:

    I understand that this is a refuge where folks who share the same ideologies can prop each other up and I would like to point out that there is a story the article and most of the responses are missing. It is the one of a continued colonialist agenda because as my friend so kindly pointed out the OPPOSITE OF NATIVISM IS COLONIALISM. Who of you would stand up and say “I knowingly and willingly support colonialism?” If you look back to Americans relationship with the environment you can see that it is a European one. A Christian European one to be clear. I would also like to point out that none of you would be here if if weren’t for native plants to the Americas. It is not true that most of the plants we eat are non-native. There is tomato, potato, squash, beans, corn, peppers, the list goes on but I won’t bother you with it. Go find a Native American Elder and ask them their point of view if you truly care about the environment. Do some research into how and why the American view of nature is the way it is. Us natives were here taking care of the land long before a lost, starving, Italian showed up on the scenes. Anyways, there is too much to refute on this article and all the responses. I will save my words for people who are open to knowing ourstory not HIStory.

    • webmaster says:

      Thanks for commenting, and that’s an interesting perspective.

      However, the Native Plant advocates would not recognize most of those plants as being native to California. They even consider Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine – which grow in Monterey, California – as non-native to San Francisco. So by that reckoning, tomato, potato, squash, beans, corn and peppers weren’t native to California either; they originated or were domesticated in Meso-America or South America and spread to the East but not to the West. Here, acorn flour from oak trees was the staple along with game and fish.

      I don’t think most Native Americans are in fact “nativists.” That movement is not aimed at restoring the pre-European ownership or uses of the land, only creating semblances of the ecosystems that existed at the time. In fact, from time to time, these goals conflict with actual tribal uses of land. In Vallejo, a park “restoration” did just that. According to the SF Chronicle: “What we want to do is return it to what it was 100 years ago,” said Steve Pressley, maintenance and development manager for the Greater Vallejo Recreation District. “As an agency, we have a responsibility to the public as a whole, and we need to consider all the components, not just the needs of Native Americans.”

Comments are closed.