Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Eucalyptus Trees & the Bay Area

Eucalyptus trees are a fact of life for us here in the East Bay, but relatively few people know by whom, how, and why we were swept under a tide of non-native and fast-growing trees.  The stands of eucalyptus trees that cover the East Bay hills and decorate yards and public spaces throughout Oakland and Berkeley are the result of deliberate planting at the beginning of the 20th century and constitute a legacy of poor land management that we are still burdened with.

The eucalyptus tree first arrived in California around 1856 and demand for the trees grew rapidly as the cities and towns of the East Bay developed.  Towards the end of the 19th century, and into the first decades of the 20th century, especially immediately following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the East Bay experienced a housing boom and incredibly rapid growth.  This is the era of widespread land speculation, the platting and development of what would become the core neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, and the spread of the rail network.  Lumber was needed to build homes and businesses and the Bay Area lacked a substantial reserve of naturally occurring hardwood trees that could be converted into building materials.  The 1870 Biennial Report of the State Board of agriculture reported on California's need for hardwood trees and suggested the development of "artificial forests" to meet these needs.  Enter the eucalyptus tree, which grows, as anyone who has one on their property will tell you, at a truly astonishing rate.  And so began the great Eucalyptus boom.  Developers, land speculators, and get-rich-quick schemers planted hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees throughout the East Bay, hoping that they would be able to turn a substantial profit within a few years when the trees were large enough to harvest for lumber.  Chief among the advocates of the eucalyptus trees was one of the most consequential Eat Bay residents that you've probably never heard of, Frank C. Havens.  A business partner of Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, Havens was central to the development of the Key Route, the Claremont Hotel, Idora Park, north Oakland's premier amusement park at the beginning of the 20th century, and was heavily involved in real estate and property development throughout the East Bay.  Havens founded the People's Water Company in 1906 and used his resources to gain control of almost all of the undeveloped watershed property in the immediate East Bay.  He developed a second company, the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company, and began planting the watershed property with eucalyptus trees in the hopes of cashing in on the riches that were available to the savvy tree planter.  His workers planted somewhere between one and three million eucalyptus seedlings across a twenty square mile swathe of East Bay land.

The eucalyptus tree was held to be the most important and valuable economic investment that could be made in the Bay Area during the first decade of the 20th century.  It was claimed that the trees could be used to clear bronchial disorders, the trees could be used to dry swamps and bogs, the lumber was a valuable hardwood resource, and, in a fit of schizophrenic enthusiasm, the wood was described both as fire preventative, and therefore perfect for building homes and businesses, and as a superior firewood, burning clean and without excessive smoke.  However, much to the chagrin of those who had invested heavily in developing eucalyptus tree plantations, there were a number of unsettling discoveries regarding these wondrous trees.  Primarily, eucalyptus wood could not be cured in the same manner that native hardwoods were cured.  Eucalyptus lumber warped and split, and therefore could not be used for construction.  Mature eucalyptus trees would yield excellent lumber, but that would require many, many more years of growth than the decade that was initially predicted by land and resource speculators.  The market for eucalyptus trees dried up, plantations and lumber mills closed, and the residents of the East Bay never saw the expected return on their investment of money and land.

There are still hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees in the immediate Bay Area and, depending on who you ask, they are either an attractive wind break or a dangerous nuisance, littering the ground with bark, seed pods, and leaves.  One of the primary criticisms that has been offered in recent years was that the trees, along with their abundant leaf litter, comprise a danger in case of wild fires.  The eucalyptus trees in the East bay hills are considered a factor that aggravated the Berkeley Hills fire of 1991, and there are a number of initiatives to control the trees in case of another large fire.  The trees are also intensely competitive and push out native species of trees and shrubs, leading to the creation of a eucalyptus monoculture that displaces native ecosystems.

Fun Eucalyptus Facts
  • Eucalyptus trees "coppice" when cut; that is they develop multiple new trunks from a single cut trunk.  This was seen as a benefit by early plantation owners since they imagined getting increasing returns on their investment in a single tree.  However, in practice, it makes eucalyptus trees incredibly hard to kill, and removing large stands of them is difficult enough that it is not generally seen as economically feasible.
  • During the Great Depression, and in the heyday of Federal work programs, Bay Area work crews were paid by the federal government to cut down and remove eucalyptus trees from the East Bay hills in an effort to control their growth.
  • Eucalyptus trees have been folded into the Bay Area ecosystem and groves of the trees are particularly rich with animal life.  Many different kinds of birds have taken to nesting in the trees, and monarch butterflies winter in the trees since the dense foliage protects them from the cold and wind.
  • The East Bay Regional Parks District has a long-term eucalyptus control plan that has been in place for a number of years.  They advocate slowly controlling and diminishing the eucalyptus groves of the East Bay and have several distinct programs that are intended to reduce the total eucalyptus population on park lands.
Getting There by Bike...
Alright, go outside and get on your bike.  Look around.  Chances are, there is a eucalyptus tree within a block of where you are standing.  If not, or if you would like to see larger stands of the trees, get your bike and yourself up to the top of the hills.  The climb up Tunnel road is lined with large eucalyptus trees, especially near the intersection with Grizzly Peak Road, and Skyline Blvd., and the regional parks that dot it, are home to some particularly large stands of them. 

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