Group targets eucalyptus trees

David Briggs
A citizen group hopes to raise money to clear eucalyptus trees on key evacuation routes in Bolinas.   

A new group called Wildfire Safe Bolinas is worried about the fire danger posed by eucalyptus groves in town and is looking to raise money to remove the trees, particularly at the corner of Mesa and Olema-Bolinas Roads, a key evacuation route. But other longtime residents love the beauty of the trees and want to see less dramatic changes.

The fate of the eucalyptus in Bolinas has been debated for decades—should they stay or should they go?

Some see the eucalyptus as majestic giants akin to redwoods. Towering nearly 200 feet high with shimmering leaves and a powerful scent, the trees give Bolinas its character. Birds and butterflies live in them, they block wind and they create privacy. For them, the thought of their removal is heartbreaking.

“The incredible beauty of the eucalyptus has gladdened my heart and mind for the 50 years I have lived in Bolinas,” resident Eleanor Lyman said. “Every time I go by, I am astonished by how beautiful they are.”

Yet others look at the eucalyptus and feel fear. They envision a wildfire engulfing Bolinas, jumping from grove to grove and raining embers on the town. One tree could fall across the road and trap residents from escaping. Loving the trees for their scent is like loving a serial killer for the smell of his shampoo, tree worker Jon Cozzi said.

“These people who say, ‘It’s the soul of Bolinas’ are so off-base and out to lunch, it’s hard to even have a conversation with them,” he said. 

The discussion centers on two hot topics in land management. What is the appropriate level of management of trees in the prevention of hazards like wildfire? And what place do non-native plants have on the land?

Blue gum eucalyptus trees were planted in California in the 1850s by settlers who wanted to change the landscape, produce wood and create windbreaks. The trees grow incredibly fast—as much as 100 feet in the first 10 years—and they thrive in the California climate, absent the pathogens that afflict them in their native Australia. Today, there are tens of thousands across the state, historically planted along roads and property lines.

Bolinas has around 100 stands, one of the highest concentrations of eucalyptus in Marin. The groves vary in age, size and health. Some groves have old trees with trunks over four feet wide and plenty of space between them. Other groves are less healthy, with trees skinnier than a foot and infestations of tortoise shell beetles. All of the groves have an understory littered with bark, branches and leaves, one of the defining characteristics of eucalyptus, which shed their bark in long strips. When the trees are cut down and the stumps left, new trees sprout from the old, creating sucker growth that is prone to failure.

Mr. Cozzi lives across from the grove on Mesa Road. He was first introduced to removing eucalyptus over 20 years ago as a member of arborist Russ Riviere’s crew. Mr. Riviere hated the trees, and his mission was to eradicate them and restore native vegetation. At the time, a market for eucalyptus pulp chips was developing in Japan, so there was a financial incentive for removal. He proposed allowing a logging company to remove hundreds of the trees on several properties, but the project was staunchly opposed. A panel of residents was charged with coming up with a plan, and opponents created an art show called “Celebrating the Eucalyptus.” Ultimately, the wood market waned, the required permits added up and the logging company was not brought in. And though Mr. Riviere removed eucalyptus on several properties, he was continuously blocked by the same folks who are opposed today. 

The local debate over eucalyptus goes back to at least 1987, when the National Park Service logged thousands of them in the Palomarin area, to the ire of many residents. The park later removed 6,000 trees along Highway 1 north of Bolinas and continues to thin stands along both sides of the road to maintain a fuel break; large ones are being removed now. 

Marin County Parks also recently considered removing 105 trees lining the road along the lagoon after two trees fell in the water, and people were worried that the toxins would kill fish. The project did not move forward, both because of opposition and the cost.

This time around, fire is a bigger concern. The Woodward Fire prompted several residents to connect, and they formed Wildfire Safe Bolinas this winter. Mr. Cozzi, Mark Fraser, Jonna Alexander Green, Rudi Ferris and Howard Dillon are leading the charge. They plan to form a nonprofit and solicit grants and donations between $5 million and $20 million, depending on how many groves they target.

The group’s mission statement says they aim to “contribute to the sustainable management of and eventual eradication of hazardous, invasive trees in our Bolinas community; including eucalyptus; especially along evacuation routes, community refuge areas and other hazardous locations.”

The group identified 15 groves they see as problematic, then narrowed it down to four groves along Terrace Avenue, Mesa Road, Olema-Bolinas Road and Horseshoe Hill Road, which are all evacuation routes. The grove on the corner of 30 Mesa Road, at the first intersection into town, is the top priority. On that property, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District removed saplings, low-hanging limbs and ladder fuels in 2011 and 2018. But a report from arborist Benjamin Anderson commissioned by Wildfire Safe Bolinas recommended the total removal of all trees and a conversion of the land to a native plant community. 

“Eucalyptus is adapted to periodic stand-replacing fires. In the absence of such a fire, the stand enters an unnatural pattern of decline. I believe this stand is entering this stage, which is likely accelerated by recent droughts and warmer weather,” Mr. Anderson wrote. “While much work has gone into mitigating the fire hazard associated with this stand, the fact remains that were a fire to reach the stand, it would burn intensely, hindering access/egress, and depending on wind conditions, rain embers down on the community.”

But he left some room for debate. “Eucalyptus trees, and blue gum eucalyptus trees in particular, are a very polarizing issue in California land management,” he wrote. “They clearly offer a mix of risks and benefits and which outweighs the other is a matter of opinion and personal values.”

Jennifer Blackman, the utility district’s general manager, said BCPUD is committed to being a responsible property owner and would be open to hearing any assessments or specific issues.

The chief of the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department, George Krakauer, said the department supports community efforts to increase wildfire preparedness, so they are interested in the group and will help point them to experts in the field. 

Before Wildfire Safe Bolinas moves forward, the group will find out if their project could pass the California Environmental Quality Act, and a wildfire scientist would prove the need. They aim to listen to a choir of voices before soliciting grants and donations. 

One of the most sensitive species that could be affected by the removal of the eucalyptus is the monarch butterfly. Monarchs are suffering a steep decline across the state, and their numbers in Bolinas have fallen from a population count of 22,253 in 2015 to just 328 in 2019. Opponents to cutting believe the trees will allow the butterflies to return, while the other side says they will check areas for butterflies and avoid cutting trees they have used recently. Mia Monroe, a National Park Service ranger who leads monitoring efforts in Marin, has said the monarchs prefer Monterey pines.

For Ilka Hartmann, a 50-year resident in town, removing the trees seems like a crusade against non-native plants. As an immigrant from Germany, she sees herself in the trees, and she believes all living beings should be cherished. Although she shares the group’s fear of fire, she sees room for less dramatic alterations, like cleaning up the woody debris and tall grasses in the understory. 

Nor is she convinced that eucalyptus pose more of a danger than other species of trees. Removing them would be destroying the village in order to save it, she said.