Letters for the Week of August 14

Readers sound off on eucalyptus trees, Berkeley's minimum wage, and BART.

“The Eucalyptus Is Part of California,” Opinion, 7/24

Eucalyptus Aren’t Compatible

Gregory Davis makes an argument against the eradication of eucalyptus trees in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons based heavily upon “the tree’s beauty and recreational value,” and upon the notion that the very idea of “native plants” is faulty given that “nature is everywhere a dynamic entity.” Both of these points demonstrate that, more than forty years after the emergence of the modern environmental movement, many people are still very unclear regarding the concepts of “ecosystem” and “sustainability.” 

Nature is indeed dynamic and always changing, but such changes tend to be rather gradual in terms of human lifetime scales. And they take place systemically, i.e., in the context of the motion of entire arrays of related organisms, both flora and fauna, developed via intricate actions that took place over very long periods of time, moving in and out of territories. Eucalyptus trees, on the other hand, were introduced to California in complete isolation from their usual supporting cast back in Australia, primarily with the intent of commercial exploitation that proved unworkable in the California context. Not even the microorganisms that in Australia enable the breakdown of fallen limbs, foliage, and the like came along, let alone any animals that live in eucalyptus groves like koala bears. Look inside eucalpytus forests. They do not fit into the local ecosystem, and never will.

Mr. Davis even brings in climate change, when, in fact, the big problem with human-driven climate change is that it occurs at a much faster rate than a natural climate change, giving organisms little to no time to adjust. This is indeed why the current climate change is shaping up to be catastrophic to the entire planet’s ecosystem.

Mr. Davis also includes a not-so-subtle appeal to what he thinks is a general sense of political correctness of readers by linking the preference for native vegetation to racism. He contends that this preference is the same as a disdain for “more recent immigrants from Asia or south of the border.” There is a huge difference. Humans are all one species, regardless of variations in secondary characteristics such as skin shading or eye shape. Plants and animals are not. Humans are also relatively free of ecosystem constraints, due to the development of tools, language, and cultivation. Undomesticated plants and animals are, on the other hand, very much anchored in specific mosaics of associated organisms. Without those, they will usually either die or expand without constraints in myriad ways, such as the displacement of other organisms and excessive draining of nutrients and water from the soil, to the detriment of their new ecological homes. Ultimately, as we are finding out, humans are also constrained by ecological limits.

I work with a group called CHIA — California Habitat Indigenous Activists. We as a group have been cultivating a garden along the BART tracks in North Berkeley for the last fourteen years, dedicated to plants that were part of the California ecosystem at the time of European colonization. These plants draw numerous indigenous insects, such as local bees, co-exist well with one another, and were used in all sorts of ways by the people we know as the Ohlone who inhabited the Bay Area at the time of colonization. Our key criteria isn’t so much “native” as it is whether a plant is compatible with the general ecosystem and is capable of contributing to this system’s long-term sustainability, particularly in terms of drought resistance. The notions of “beauty and recreation” have nothing to do with such considerations. In fact, they remind me of arguments I have seen in favor of destructive projects in other parts of the country and against limiting access to heavily impacted areas such as Yosemite Valley. The way a grove looks to humans has nothing to do with how it interacts with other species of flora and fauna. There have been contentions by some people that birds roost on eucalyptus trees, and that deer herds walk through them. Well, birds also roost on power lines, and deer, given the current overpopulation of certain species, can be seen walking through streets in the Berkeley and Oakland hills. I don’t think anyone would take seriously the notion that power lines and streets are therefore part of the ecosystem.

This in no way should be taken as an endorsement for the massive use of chemical pesticides. There are other ways to deal with the problem. But the remnants of eucalyptus plantations in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills cannot in any way be integrated into the regional ecosystem. The eucalyptus is no more a part of the Bay Area’s and California’s various ecosystems than are freeways or downtown high-rises, even if many people find them beautiful and useful for recreation. The need for educating the public on what true long-term sustainability means is greater than ever. 

Jeffrey G. Strahl, Berkeley

I Love Eucalyptus

I greatly appreciate the author of this wonderful and sane article about the proposed eradication of eucalyptus. The people who propose to eradicate eucalyptus and other “non-native” trees are making decisions based on fear and dogmatism, which are never the appropriate drivers for good decision-making. Let me shout out loud that I love the eucalyptus, the acacia, and the Monterey pine. They are not dangerous or destructive forces; rather, they have long provided us with more oxygen to breathe, shaded us, captured the fog to water the dry land, held the hillsides, and brought us beauty and fragrance. To wantonly destroy them and all the animals that depend upon them is a grossly wrong, thoughtless, cruel, and irresponsible act.

Vicki Thomas, Oakland

Propagandist and Offensive

The loaded language (“single-minded”, “drastic, meat-axe”, “snob”, “smugly”, “eucalyptus-hating”, “brutal” three times!) is propagandist and offensive.

Eucalyptus 1) provides fuel for fires 2) offers virtually no habitat value 3) displaces native species and 4) dewaters drainages (e.g., creeks and ephemeral streams). Get rid of it! By doing so, we’re acting brutal in a good way, like a brute, consistent with a sustainable ecosystem.

Gordon Becker, Kensington

Let’s Work with Nature

Thank you for this excellent, well-informed and carefully reasoned article.

I’d like to add that, in my forty years in the East Bay hiking on trails and observing all trees with great appreciation, I’ve noticed that groves and stands of eucalyptus tend to occupy the same size areas for decades. It’s inaccurate to describe them as “invasive” — a word that is emotionally loaded, anyway, and has its origins in warfare.

It’s technologically dependent human beings who continue to build and spread artificial environments that destroy plant and animal habitats, who use poisons that injure and kill, and who have created hazards that did not exist before. Using chainsaws and bulldozers to kill “non-native” trees and adding yet more poison to land, water, and air only perpetuates the same pattern. Instead, we need to put our energies and resources toward learning how to work and live with nature instead of against it.

Linda Giannoni, Oakland

Where’s the Copy Editor?

“Does the zealous aversion to the ‘non-native’ plant of the clear-cutters have some of the same snob appeal as that of Californians who drive smugly around with a ‘native’ bumper sticker on their car, meaning they or their descendants came to our state before more recent immigrants from Asia or south of the border? “

Are the descendants coming by time machine?

Eileen Berkun, Oakland

The Poison Is the Problem

Thanks to the Express for publishing this op-ed. Exaggerated claims of the flammability of non-native plants and trees are one of many strategies used by native plant advocates to support their demands for their destruction. The fact is, California’s native ecosystems are adapted to and dependent on fire. What do we see burning on the television news? Usually grassland, which ignites easily and through which fire travels quickly, and sometimes native chaparral, especially in Southern California. These are the vegetation types that native plant advocates are trying to reintroduce to the San Francisco Bay Area, usually with little success.

Bay Area residents should be more concerned about poisoning our watershed than the unlikely prospect of a fire that will ignite tall trees.

Mary McAllister, Oakland

No Tears for Eucalyptus

Anyone who thinks eucalyptus have become native doesn’t understand biology. Eucalyptus have no natural predators here and oils from their leaves denude the under-story of many native plants — including redwoods. If you ultimately want a eucalyptus monoculture, do nothing. I’d rather keep California hospitable to the biodiversity that evolved here. A few well-maintained, historical groves of eucalyptus? Sure. Nothing wrong with that. But I, for one, won’t shed a tear for the eradication of the rest. Nor for Scotch Broom.

Chris Nappo, Berkeley

The Eucs Aren’t at Fault

I live in a neighborhood that was surrounded by houses that burned in the 1991 fire. We have lived in this same house for 39 years. I am glad that our house did not burn, and I deeply sympathize with those who lost so much in that tragic fire. However, I cannot understand why many in this North Hills community, even those whose houses were nowhere close to the fire, have scapegoated eucalyptus for the fire’s spread. Almost everything that was in the path of the flames blown by the Diablo winds burned. Fire, unlike the advocates for native plants, does not discriminate between native and non-native vegetation. I saw coast live oaks across the street burn right down to the ground. Yet many tall eucalyptus with their thick hardwood trunks (so important for storing carbon dioxide) survived the fire; their leaves did not ignite from the embers that were rising and falling like blazing snowflakes.

I cannot say what caused the fire to spread in other parts of these hills. But I know that, where I live, the fire spread from house to house, and embers spread more often from houses to nearby grass, shrubs, and trees, than from trees to houses. It is unfortunate that nativists have had so much influence on our community. Their hatred of non-native trees goes beyond common sense. I certainly hope that they will not be successful in taking down these beautiful tall trees in forests that are habitat for many birds, insects, and animal species.

We know that the larger East Bay community is with us in opposing the deforestation of the hills that we all share. Almost 6,000 residents signed an online petition to FEMA — sponsored by the Hills Conservation Network — that opposed the deforestation, while the Claremont Canyon Conservancy got fewer than 500 signers to its petition to remove all of the non-native eucs, Monterey pines, and acacias.

I cannot understand why anyone would want to transform the landscape that we see now to one that may have existed before the Europeans arrived in this part of California. In those prehistoric times, Native Americans set fire easily and frequently to dry grasslands, chaparral, and scrub oaks that covered these hills. If that type of vegetation were to dominate the landscape again, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have the type of devastating fires that occur so often in other parts of California.

Madeline Hovland, Oakland

“Proposed Minimum Wage Hike Sparks Conflict,” News, 7/17

Well-to-Do Patrons Can Afford It

Let’s do some quick math here. Let’s say you have a server at a fine dining restaurant who is doing very well and bringing in $100 to $300 in tips per shift. Conservatively, assuming that the server was tipped at an average of 20 percent —on top of tax — that means they presided over somewhere between $460 and $1,380 in food and drink sales. Conservatively, assuming that the server’s shift was eight hours (they are often shorter, with six hours being a sometimes quoted average), the wage increase would result in an increased per-shift, per-server cost of $20.40. Divided by the value of the food and drink sales attributable to the server, this yields somewhere between 1.5 and 4.4 percent.

Therefore, what these fine dining establishments seem to be arguing is that they can’t afford to increase wages because their well-to-do clientele are so price-sensitive that a 1.5 to 4.4 percent increase in food prices will send them running to another city’s restaurants or to the grocery store for a microwavable TV dinner.

Keep in mind: that was the conservative estimate. More realistically, assuming an average 18 percent tip on the pre-tax total, with a six-hour shift, the estimated range for commensurate price increases falls to 0.9 to 2.7 percent. Do we honestly believe that customers of fine dining restaurants are going to pick up and drive to another city because a $30 entrée has now gone up to something between $30.27 and $31.32?

It is actually lower-end restaurants for which the increased labor costs would represent a larger burden, given their lower grosses and a clientele that is more likely to be price-sensitive. But it is precisely these lower-end restaurants where servers who earn less in tips would most benefit from the wage increase.

Eric Panzer, Berkeley

“BART’s Big Gift to Wealthy Corporations,” News, 7/17

A Few Observations

1. Mass transit is a public good. That many of the initial decisions regarding the design and funding of BART were deeply flawed and that those flaws are still with us should not obscure that truth.

2. To suggest that BART be financed by those business interests that benefit from it the most is, in my view, to accept the notion of privatization of the public good.

3. The belated expansion of BART into Warm Springs (and then to San Jose) and Contra Costa County is the fulfillment of a promise to people in those areas who have been paying taxes to BART since the 1970s. The expansion to San Jose (payed for by Santa Clara County residents) is, in my view, forty years overdue.

4. Our system of taxation favors the rich over the poor. It’s not particularly confined to BART.

5. The arguments about “selfish” BART workers are the same arguments about teachers, nurses, public workers, etc. Should a race to the bottom be the benchmark of how workers are paid? How about raising the minimum wage?

6. If you want to see the arguments for BART expansion, get yourself onto the freeways.

7. Most important, candidates who run as progressives should be prepared to act as progressives when in office. That means being prepared to fight with the business interests that run the institutions of the Bay Area. Progressivism should mean more than fuzzy feel-good pablum.

Jack Kurzweil, Berkeley

“A Great Disservice,” Letters, 7/24

An Omission of Facts

David Cohen writes, “As for young toughs of any color ‘skylarking’ on BART and then (surprise!) fighting, this is an assault on the public that cannot be tolerated. I cannot imagine a single person who would not want the police to wade into this situation and settle it. Mistakes are always made in battle. These consequences of the battle remain attached to those who created the situation.”

Although well-articulated, Mr. Cohen’s justification of a tragic loss of life relies on the omission of facts to make its point. It is a fact that the reported fight was over by the time police arrived on the scene, so there was no need for them to “settle” a fight which had already ended, was there? It is also a fact that the fight involved more than just young black males, according to witness accounts, yet only young black males were detained. That’s the very definition of racial profiling. It is also a fact that [BART Police Officer] Tony Pirone’s overzealous and unnecessary actions escalated the level of tension — and almost certainly influenced Johannes Mehserle’s response.

Those three things led to the creation of the situation that [Oscar] Grant found himself in, and cannot be attributed just to human error, but also procedural error, in part due to lack of training (as an independent investigator who examined BART police’s conduct on the night of Grant’s murder found). This point is upheld by the recent finding by an appeals court that disputed the constitutionality of Grant’s detainment in the first place, citing “the questionable nature of [Tony] Pirone’s authority to detain the group for a misdemeanor that abated before his arrival.” Where Mr. Cohen is especially off-base is in his assumption that lack of police accountability, to say nothing of misconduct, is something which should be tolerated by the public, at any cost.

To be perfectly clear, racial profiling, combined with overzealous police behavior witnessed by hundreds, led to a chaotic situation that ultimately caused an unarmed man to be killed. This is not a mere “mistake,” but an example of how systemic inequity plays out, with deadly consequences. Let’s ask ourselves, do we want BART police, or any police for that matter, to “battle” what Mr. Cohen refers to as “young toughs”? Or do we want police to uphold their sworn duty as peace officers and not escalate things to the point of potentially fatal injury, whether we are talking about Oscar Grant, Occupy protesters, or the black teenager who was shot in the face in downtown Oakland in April, who was mistakenly identified as a robbery suspect?

The “battle” mentality Mr. Cohen upholds was responsible for $10 million in misconduct payouts last year by OPD, as well as the more recent million-dollar judgment won by those injured by police in the Occupy protests. Taxpayers foot the bill for that, so there is a cost to pay over and above the harm done to those injured by police.

Another question is, why does Fruitvale Station need to be defended, as Mr. Cohen suggests? Moreover, why does Oscar Grant need to be defended? As with Trayvon Martin, Grant was not on trial, so even using this word in this context speaks to a presumption that the circumstances of Grant’s life are somehow responsible for his death. Or that he is culpable in his own murder, for which a police officer was charged and convicted.

Finally, it’s unclear why Mr. Cohen spends so much time in his letter defending Mehserle, a character who’s not even in the movie, and who is portrayed as a composite — Kevin Durand’s character conflates the real-life actions of Pirone as well as Mehserle. Perhaps Mr. Cohen hasn’t seen the film. If that’s the case, he would be better off to reserve judgment of any review until he has.

Eric Arnold, Oakland

“Daniel’s Caribbean Kitchen Serves Awesome Rotis in West Berkeley,” What the Fork, 7/17 

Mouth-Watering

This article is right on. Whenever I’m in the Bay Area on the weekends, I make it a point to head on over to the Berkeley Flea Market for some good, fresh, and satisfying roti or peleau. In fact, I went once a long time ago with my children — all mouths watering for Daniel’s. On this particular occasion, Daniel was away (on vacation I suppose). I thought we would all cry from disappointment, our mouths were watering for Daniel’s fare.

Rebecca Hill Long, Stockton

Correction

The August 8 response by Express contributor Ali Winston to the letter by Oakland City Administrator Deanna Santana erroneously stated that the City of Oakland had settled the police misconduct case involving protester Kayvan Sabeghi for $1.17 million. That case has not yet settled. 

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