Alien Shrubs From Mars?

In Pursuit of Logic: Part II of V


Continuing our description of conversations we’ve had recently concerning chaparral, fire, and illogical thinking, Part II of our series shares an often-encountered opinion that in someway, somehow, one of our favorite chaparral shrubs is an unnatural, alien invader. In this case, hoary leaved ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius).

With pretty white blossoms and gnarly leaves with fuzzy undersides, this chaparral shrub can be found in large stands decorating foothill areas from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Hoary leaved ceanothus in bloom.


The Invasion of the Alien Brush!


During a discussion about a proposed 30-35 mile long, 200-300 foot wide “fuel” break near San Rafael in Marin County at the base of Mt. Tamalpais, a renowned fire scientist suggested that a stand of ceanothus could be unnatural. And is often the case lately, his characterization was tied to the latest trend in promoting habitat clearance that we discussed in Part I of this series, past Native American fire use.

“Given that the area was likely burned frequently by First People, and if that was the case, then the greatest human impact on the ecosystems has been the lack of ecologically appropriate fire to sustain the post-Pleistocene landscape. When I was at the Fire Lab in Riverside, I occasionally asked the question regarding the baseline of consideration for what was a “native” condition. For example, from my limited understanding, an early Forest Reserve survey of Mt. Wilson (San Gabriel Mtns.) indicated significant oak-grass cover that is now largely Ceanothus crassifolius. Just a thought and curiosity regarding the Audubon and Native Plant Society concerns.”

This statement reveals several common themes in anti-chaparral chatter, shrub phobia and the pastoral bias favoring open grasslands.
 

How Did the Ceanothus Seeds Get There – Aliens from Mars?

Suggesting that ceanothus in the San Gabriel Mountains somehow replaced an historical oak/grassland due to the “lack of ecologically appropriate fire” demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of chaparral ecology.

C. crassifolius could not exist on a site that was not naturally characterized by infrequent, high-intensity fire.
 
Why? It’s a fascinating ecological story.

C. crassifolius is an obligate seeding species, meaning the species’ response to fire is the death of adult shrubs and the germination of their seed in the soil seed bank, in this case facilitated by heat (a pore in the seed coat is modified by heat, allowing water to enter, and thus stimulating the seed embryo to grow). Additional explanations (with photos) of this and other types of fire response chaparral plants have evolved can be found on our website here.
 
Under extreme, long-term drought conditions over many decades, C. crassifolius shrubs can die and disappear from a site. This is starting to happen now in the Santa Monica Mountains, featuring the characteristic curvy bundle of stems and twigs that dead ceanothus form – closing in on themselves as they sadly bid farewell to the world. The empty space left behind is usually filled in by other shrubs. However, the species still exists! Hiding in the soil seed bank are thousands of tiny seeds just waiting for a fire to kick them into action.The next high-intensity fire will cause an amazing population explosion of feisty, little ceanothus seedlings.

There is no other natural way for obligate seeding ceanothus to be present.

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We’re getting ‘Indigenous’ controlled burning all wrong

In Pursuit of Logic: Part I of V

The call by people in power* to incorporate a romanticized, stereotyped version of Native American fire use is a thinly veiled attempt to appropriate Native culture for the same reason colonial powers have done so in the past — for self-interest or financial gain.

In this case, to increase habitat clearance projects and logging operations under the guise of controlling wildfires.

The false “cultural burning was able to prevent large wildfires” narrative, promoted by U.S. Forest Service scientists and others who profit from government wildfire grants, has also had the effect of demonizing nature. Rich, dense vegetation is no longer habitat but, rather, “fuel” that must be removed.

This is not just contrary to logic and science but is a threat to wilderness.

The reality, based on multiple studies, is that Indigenous fire was used on a local basis. Most of those places are now under concrete, not miles away in the wildlands that Indigenous people knew so well — wildlands that have yet to be destroyed by us.


The above is our letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times that was published today in response to an op-ed this past Sunday (7/31/2022)** that promoted prescribed fire in the name of Native Americans. Below is the email we sent directly to the authors of the op-ed, expanding our points further.

Dear Drs. Don Hankins, Scott Stephens, and Ms. Sara A. Clark,

As you are aware, Indigenous fire use is being promoted far in excess and extent to what ever occurred historically. In the name of Native Americans, fire is being applied in plant communities that are already threatened by too much fire, such as chaparral and coastal sage scrub (Scott, this is an issue you have addressed in your own research). And Indigenous Peoples of California, who historically created one of the greatest diversity of cultures on earth, are being lumped together as a simplistic, homogeneous mass that used fire in the same way, everywhere.

We urge you to make mention of these points when you promote Indigenous fire use – points you failed to make in your op-ed on Sunday. Otherwise, California’s native habitats will continue to be compromised and Native Californian culture will be dishonored as has occurred so many times in the past by our species’ greatest liability – hubris.

The Endangered Habitats League and we also addressed these issues in our letters to the editor today in response to your op-ed.

Sincerely,
The California Chaparral Institute

Further discussion of Indigenous fire use, with linked research, can be found on our website here: https://californiachaparral.org/fire/native-americans/

*The term we used in our letter to the editor was “non-Indigenous People.”
**If you can not access the LA Times op-ed we are addressing, please send us a private email to nature(at)californiachaparral.org and we’ll send you a copy.

Next week’s topic in pursuit of logic: Part II – Invasion of the Alien Brush!

A beautiful stand of native Ceanothus palmeri in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, representing the first stage in post-fire succession.
The consequence of hubris – thinking we know better than Nature. California State Parks used giant grinding machines, herbicides, and fire to destroy the naturally regenerating ecosystem on Middle Peak in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park in a misguided effort to “restore” the burned forest. This is the often the actual on-the-ground consequence of the perspective being promoted by the authors of the op-ed mentioned above, in the name of Native Americans. Prior to prescribed fire, the logging of trees, mastication of shrub habitat, and soil disruption are usually carried out to reduce the “fuel” load. The use of prescribed fire is not the gentle, natural process that is portrayed by the US Forest Service and fire scientists funded by wildfire grants. And it is certainly not what Native Americans did.

In Pursuit of Logic Part II: Alien Shrubs From Mars

In Pursuit of Logic Part III: When Factual Arguments Fail – Almost Always

In Pursuit of Logic Part IV: Animals and Plants Have the Right to be Left Alone

THE CONCLUSION – In Pursuit of Logic Part V: Science Provides, Wisdom will Lead

Deserting Nature for Identity Politics. Why I’m Resigning from the Sierra Club After 52 Years.

To the National Leadership of the Sierra Club,

Nature is paying the price for the Club’s new emphasis on the social conflicts of human beings.

The Sierra Club’s lead mission, one that has inspired so many to fight for Nature, “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth,” is no longer reflected by the Club’s values, goals, or actions. Instead, the Club is equating polarizing political positions with the protection of old-growth forests, saving endangered species, and helping inspire people to love Nature, creating an exclusive group that shames those who do not align with its opinions on divisive cultural issues.

When Nature needs us the most, it is being left behind.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Lead from a Place of Compassion

One of the key objectives in our Chaparral Naturalist course is to help current environmental activists lead from a place of compassion, empathy, and truth. We do this because the only way to influence others is through emotional connections built on honest, mutual respect. This approach is unfortunately not the norm when different perspectives collide – opposing sides react, tell, and frequently shame and ridicule each other, only causing further entrenchment.

There is nothing new to our approach. Peaceful, compassionate activism was the path Martin Luther King described when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Over the past decade, as the important work of recognizing, acknowledging, and correcting our society’s systemic inequalities has progressed, the Club has been a leader in diversifying its membership and helping to make wild spaces more accessible to traditionally disadvantaged people.

Then the murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought the issue of racism to the forefront for everyone.

After the tragedy, many individuals and groups expressed solidarity in addressing the systemic inequalities we saw around us and to acknowledge past thoughts or behaviors that may have unconsciously facilitated those inequalities. As did many organizations, we expressed our thoughts on these issues in a personal essay, For People, for Nature – Acknowledging the Racist Within.

Addressing a behavior that has caused so much pain for so many is not an easy task. Anger and resentment, blame, and the desire to seek retribution all lie in wait to poison the effort, generating the same attitudes and actions that we are seeking to change, to heal. But acknowledging one’s own mistakes, searching for truth, and using language of compassion rather than anger and shame can create the necessary environment for long term, positive change.

We looked forward to the Sierra Club’s response and solutions as it had a history of embracing diversity long before many other organizations, especially with its LGBTQ group in the 1970s, having more ethnic diversity on its board of directors in the 1990s, and how its own membership rejected by vote a takeover by anti-immigrant forces. Even earlier in the 1950s, the Club’s board overturned a local chapter’s denial of membership to an African-American. And John Muir, the Club’s founder, became a model for the kind of personal change necessary to acknowledge and address the impacts of inequality as he grew older and wiser.

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