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Tempest in the Treetops

Some prize the blue gum eucalyptus for its beauty and scent, while others see a messy fire hazard. Battles are being waged across California.


Alford remembers taking a few steps backward just as the swollen green-gray mass of another blue gum eucalyptus slammed to the ground nearby.

In its descent, the tree took out electrical lines on both sides of the street and snapped a telephone pole like a toothpick. The local newspaper put this near-miss story on its front page.

Alford was left with a fright that remains to this day.

"When the wind blows, you hear that awful creaking," Alford said, voice shuddering. On those nights, the couple retreat from their bedroom to sleep at the far side of the house, away from the groaning trees.

After his wife's experience, Sward launched a crusade against the eucalyptus.


Gold Rush-Era Roots

He began by boning up on his foe. Sward learned that the tree's domestic roots date to the Gold Rush era; by most accounts, San Francisco nurseryman W.C. Walker propagated the first seeds in 1853.

In the years since, blue gum eucalyptus has been eyed as quick-strike treasure by a long parade of California schemers. Eucalyptus was to be a medicinal cure for all kinds of ailments, the abundant replacement for vanishing hardwoods, rough-sawed framing lumber and railroad ties.

But the state's young trees, denied the century of growth needed to achieve the density of Australia's venerable eucalyptuses, proved to be under-performers. Railroad ties wouldn't hold a spike. Lumber cracked. Cure-alls succumbed to reality. Even its most common use--as firewood--was scuttled by the advent of electric and natural gas heaters.

Still, vast eucalyptus groves remained, gaining fame as subjects for a whole genre of California art, becoming parks and sanctuaries for road-weary travelers, providing windbreaks for citrus orchards and Central Valley highways.

In the right places, away from homes and buildings, that's fine, arborists say. But in several parts of the state, aggressive efforts are underway to clear out trees where mankind has crept close, pests have interfered or native plants are threatened.

On Angel Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, parks officials overcame significant opposition to take out stands of eucalyptuses and replant with native trees. Across the bay, a fight is being waged over logging 4,000 trees--mostly eucalyptuses--at San Francisco's Presidio, a former military installation.

Los Angeles faces the costly task of removing 20,000 pest-infested eucalyptus trees in parks, said Eric Oldar, a state urban forester in Southern California. In San Diego County, some insurance companies have refused to renew policies for homes near fire-hazard groves, Oldar said. "Eucalyptus is about as explosive a tree as there is," he said.

Globally, the eucalyptus is still seen as a cash crop, albeit a controversial one. In China, where eucalyptus plantations are producing biomass fuel and pulp for paper, some complain that the trees rob soil of nutrients and push back natural vegetation. During the early 1990s, farmers in Spain and Portugal uprooted eucalyptus seedlings and battled police over such industrial forests.

Robert Sward's fight in Santa Cruz was not nearly so grand. He simply wanted to remove eight blue gum eucalyptuses. When his appeals went nowhere, Sward turned to his pen.

In tough-worded newspaper opinion pieces and on a Web site otherwise devoted to his poetry, Sward called the Santa Cruz tree ordinance an "unreasonable use of police power" and warned of a "blue gum apocalypse."

These days, a tree more than 14 inches in diameter is considered of heritage stature in Santa Cruz. A healthy blue gum can achieve that size in less than a decade.

Even so, saving such trees in Santa Cruz "has become a religious crusade, a matter not of reason, but of faith," said Gerald Bowden, an attorney who helped craft the heritage tree law two decades ago. Though intended to preserve a few big native trees, the law has been twisted, Bowden said. Nowadays, "Anyone who wants to cut a tree of any size is regarded as a philistine."


Blue Gum's Advocate

More often than not, he said, Gillian Greensite is the preacher in that pulpit.

A native of Australia who has resided in Santa Cruz for a quarter of a century, Greensite has scored several victories, most notably halting a housing tract that Alford's ex-husband planned a decade ago in a thick eucalyptus forest next to the house where Alford and Sward now live.

Sward, Greensite contends, is spreading "ignorance and misinformation" about the eucalyptus.

She calls the notion of songbird deaths absurd and notes that hawks and herons roost in eucalyptuses. The blue gum's role in the Oakland Hills fire has been overstated, Greensite says. Wood roofs and thick brush were the real problems, she says. The coast's native oaks were eliminated by dairy farmers, she contends, not by any spreading scourge of eucalyptuses.

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