SAN FRANCISCO — Angel Island's Mt. Livermore rises 781 feet above San Francisco Bay, rewarding hikers and bicyclists who sweat their way to the top with a panoramic view of miles of sparkling water, three bridges and four counties. But a screen of fast-growing eucalyptus trees on the island's southern slopes may soon block part of that view, hiding neighboring Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline.
That grove and other eucalyptus trees on 80 of Angel Island's approximately 740 acres are at the center of a controversy that has stirred debate among Bay Area environmentalists and challenged state park policy.
The state Department of Parks and Recreation wants to cut the trees.
A Marin County group known as POET, which stands for Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees, wants the groves left alone.
The argument is over more than just whether to save a pretty view. The plan to cut Angel Island's eucalyptus trees raises philosophical and scientific questions about the role within state parks of non-native plants, known as exotics, and how much trouble it is worth to get rid of them.
Eucalyptus trees are perhaps the largest and most visible exotic plants in California. Some groups, such as the California Native Plant Society, view the species as a giant weed and applaud state efforts to remove it and make room for native plants.
The members of POET, on the other hand, love eucalyptus trees for their beauty and the cool shade they provide along Angel Island's trails.
"We're here to support trees," said Chris Womack, a spokesman for POET. Womack said that some members of the group consider the plan to remove eucalyptus as "plant racism" or "specism."
David Boyd, senior resource ecologist for the state park system's northern region, said that "people who are less emotional about it can see the value of native vegetation."
While POET and the parks department disagree about the aesthetic and recreational value of eucalyptus, forestry experts also disagree about the danger involved in the tree removal plan. The first stage of that plan calls for clear-cutting 24.5 acres with logging equipment and using a controversial herbicide to keep the stumps from resprouting.
"I'm very concerned that in an ill-conceived attempt to convert eucalyptus sites to native vegetation, they are going to create an ecological disaster," said Ray Moritz, a private forestry consultant.
According to Moritz, logging equipment would damage the fragile soil on Angel Island's slopes and the use of herbicides could delay the regrowth of erosion-preventing ground cover.
Boyd insists that the program will improve rather than damage the park.
"I hate to hear this project called eucalyptus removal or eucalyptus logging," Boyd said. "It is restoration of a natural area."
The cutting had been scheduled to begin in September, but months of protest by POET and intervention by Assemblymen Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) and William Filante (R-San Rafael) won a last-minute reprieve for the groves.
Now, a focused environmental study is in progress. The park system will present the results at a public hearing and take public testimony before deciding what to do next. That means the eucalyptus trees are safe for the moment.
The first eucalyptus trees in California came from Australia shortly after the Gold Rush. Over the next half a century, investors and farmers planted them for timber and as wind screens for crops and homes. By 1912, when it was discovered that eucalyptus was useless for timber, tens of thousands of acres had already been planted.
Eucalyptus are towering, aromatic trees famous for their rapid growth and their ability to suppress other plant life within their dense groves. Eucalyptus globulus, or blue gum, is the most common species in California. Blue gums have adapted well to California's coastal climate, and groves have expanded where rainfall and soil permit.
It is exactly this success that makes eucalyptus an especially unwelcome exotic on Angel Island, according to state park ecologist Boyd.
Natives Squeezed Out
Eucalyptus squeezes out native plants and provides a less desirable habitat for native animals than would a native oak forest, Boyd said.
"We're looking at this island as a unique opportunity to preserve a natural area," Boyd said. "This is like a small museum of what California looked like before the changes."
Some park users disagree.
"The island is not really a natural park," said Clyde Wahrhaftig, emeritus professor of geology at UC Berkeley. "It is a historical park, and the eucalyptus are part of that history."
Angel Island became an Army base during the Civil War. The military planted eucalyptus there between 1863 and the 1930s to provide wind breaks for gardens, picnic areas and encampments.
According to Boyd, the eucalyptus trees have spread rapidly and now pose a fire danger to many of the park's historical buildings, some of which date to the Civil War.