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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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A large and majestic tree has divided the town of Bolinas in northern California. The eucalyptus was once called "the wonder tree" for it’s ability to grow in the coastal scrub. But some say the non-native destroys sensitive habitat and should be cut down. Louise Rafkin has the story.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A debate over the fate of eucalyptus trees is dividing the town of Bolinas, in northern California. The Australian trees have been shading that charming seaside town for almost 100 years, but now an anti-eucalyptus contingent wants to fell the stately trees, saying they wreak havoc on native species. Despite that, there’s an opposing and ardent group of eucalyptus defenders. Louise Rafkin has our story:


RAFKIN: While driving on Highway One just north of San Francisco it would be easy to miss the turn-off for Bolinas. That’s partially because Bolinas residents— artists, surfers, and ecologists-- tear down road signs as soon as they’re posted. It’s this plucky separatism that gives Bolinas its flavor as an alternative enclave. So visitors in-the-know are told to turn off the highway after the lagoon and before the farmhouse, and then follow the line of towering eucalyptus trees to the end of the road.

But it’s these majestic trees, some rising hundreds of feet into the air, that are at the center of an ongoing battle between many of the 1,500 townspeople of Bolinas. The fast-growing eucalyptus are loved by some and hated by others, and those factions have been fighting over the trees now for years.


RAFKIN: Russ Riviere is a local tree cutter. He’s been busy felling the non-natives for dozens of Bolinas homeowners. An affable, bearded local, he loses his easy-going tone when he speaks of the Australian imports. He sees the eucalyptus as predatory, an invader that must be stopped.


RIVIERE: We barely have the machines able to deal with it. I mean, just this year I took 120, 25 ton loads of eucalyptus wood off of this road and haven’t even dented it.


RAFKIN: Riviere says the eucs, brought here in the late 1880’s for fuel and windbreaks, have all but choked out the native trees which support local animals and bird life.

REVIERE: Since we don’t have the enzymes, the bacteria, the fungus that break down the forest soil in Australia, we end up with huge sometimes seven feet, eight feet deep, four feet deep of just stuff— broken litter, branches, bark. It’s got shredding bark.

RAFKIN: The mounding debris is like a tinderbox, ready to explode in fire season, he says, and the clean-smelling camphor that floats off the trees is actually toxic to native plants

MOLYNEUX: For me, they somehow rather evoke the spirit of California.

RAFKIN: But artist Judy Molyneux, a strong supporter of the eucalyptus, has as much affection for the tree as Riviere has antipathy. She’s lived in the area over 30 years and was taken by the trees immediately when she moved to town.

MOLYNEUX: The way they moved in the wind, the sounds that the made, the way the light reflected and bounced off of them, their majesty. I have a love affair going with eucalyptus trees.

RAFKIN: Molyneux is part of a vocal contingent that has all but stopped eucalyptus cutting in Bolinas. There have been numerous boisterous meetings and the county recently got involved. Officials have already cited tree cutter Riviere for cutting without pulling a $1400 permit. But Molyneux says the support for eucalyptus trees is more than nostalgia. She cites the monarch butterflies as an important reason to keep the growth. The colorful monarchs sometimes over- winter in Bolinas. Studies are currently being done to see just how many monarchs use the groves. But while the jury is still out on whether the monarchs need the trees, the eucalyptus clearly have a negative effect on other natives.


GEUPAL: Just poison oak and the little blackberries are the only species that really can handle the soils under eucalyptus. So again, the diversity here has gotten real poor. There’s no structural diversity, and birds can’t nest in it.

RAFKIN: Jeff Geupal is the scientist in charge of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory located just out of town. At nearby Jack’s Creek he points to a spot where the eucs have taken over the native bush. The creek-bed walls are denuded and caving in. Mud and tangled tree roots are all that show. Geupal says the trees have greatly upset the diversity of songbirds. Unlike their long-beaked cousins in Australia, California birds have short beaks. That means when they forage for insects in the eucalyptus, their beaks get blocked with the eucs’ gummy sap.

GEUPAL: This should be covered with yellow warblers and yellow throats. Even some of the shore birds might come up here because we’re so close to the ocean. When the tides are high they would use they would use the riparian. Again, this creek is more or less dead.

RAFKIN: Bolinas residents on both sides of the euc debate agree that emotions may have overrun the discussion.


RAFKIN: Native plant activist and author Judy Lowry makes a living restoring people’s yards to their native state. Her own yard is covered in fragrant California mugwort and young oak saplings. In her garden there are birds and quail.


LOWRY: This is coyote bush. And this time of year, it’s pretty quiet, flower-wise.

RAFKIN: Lowry says the fighting among her neighbors has been bitter and ugly and that many harsh words have been said on both sides. But she says it’s one thing to restore a backyard to its native state. It’s very different to tackle the invasion of a whole town.

LOWRY: Since these eco-systems have never been disrupted to the point that they are now, there are no answers. But I feel that what I’ve seen in my garden has been really satisfying.

RAFKIN: Even pro-euc activist Molyneux knows the answer isn’t as simple as whether to cut or not to cut.

MOLYNEUX: I think the eucalyptus has become the scapegoat for the sense that, you know, we’re frustrated by the fact that we feel like we are damaging the environment.

RAFKIN: Meanwhile, as scientists continue to monitor the trees, birds, and butterflies, and the county continues to audit the number of eucalyptus felled, the townspeople of Bolinas keep one eye on each other and an ear cocked for the sound of chain saws.


RAFKIN: For Living on Earth, I’m Louise Rafkin in Bolinas, California.




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