OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
Terracide. Land killing. Earth murder. Only the most oblivious would deny that’s the crime we’re committing.
To hear our SLO City Council – all self-proclaimed environmentalists — tell this story, environmentalism’s all about greenhouse gases and climate change and they’re going to stop that in its tracks! All by themselves. No matter that last year U.S. carbon emissions went up, not down.
Yet there’s so much more – terracides the council actually has the power to stop, but which instead they promote and permit to happen at an alarmingly accelerated pace.
Right at holiday time, two announcements, timed so few would note them, spotlighted the city’s ongoing terracide.
The first was the Tribune’s puff piece – do they do news over there anymore or is it all just PR? – that work is about to begin on the “San Luis Ranch” land massacre.
I call it that because that’s what it is. The best topsoil in the world, a 12-month growing climate, and even in a drought-inflicted world an abundant source of irrigation water from a shallow aquifer that refills even in low-rain years. Preserved, this prime farmland could feed a large part of the city’s people in perpetuity.
In some parts of the world nations go to war over control of such precious soil. Here we kill it because “we need housing!” – although much of the “ranch” will be retail and office and parking lots, which we surely don’t need – and because the city favors pursuit of developers’ profit over earth sustainability.
There’s little of this quality of food-producing soil left in the world, so why are we nonchalant about murdering it?
Here’s how this land murder unfolds. Raw land is relatively unstable and incapable of supporting buildings and streets. So it is mechanically compacted, made hard and tight. At that point, it’s agriculturally as productive as pavement. Its productivity has been murdered.
This land floods, so buildings must be raised above 100-year flood level, on the assumption nature knows not to exceed that magnitude flood. Buildings could be on stilts or tall foundations, but the chosen method is to bury the native topsoil under several feet of fill. Typically, this often inert fill is imported, piled atop native topsoil and compacted, thus destroying any possibility of future fertility if through some miracle development were someday removed and compaction undone. This is terracide forever, and that sort of terracide has recently taken place atop equally fine soil on Tank Farm, next to Farm Supply, also courtesy of our city’s permitting it.
At “San Luis Ranch,” there’s a more greedy and complete method of terracide.
“San Luis Ranch” must leave a strip of “ag preserve” along the freeway, as required by the city’s General Plan. The Tribune’s pretty picture of the development shows seemingly endless green fields in the foreground with some buildings in the background. The developer’s PR waxes poetic about organic farm-to-table viands for “ranch” residents, but that’s mere propaganda since the farmland will be owned by the city, which will determine its use – AFTER the developer removes many feet of topsoil from the “farmland” he’s leaving to the city to provide cheap fill on the land he’s profiting from.
This was laid out before the SLO City Council at its approval hearing, and not a peep of objection from any of them.
What’s going to be left in that hole after top soil is removed? Will there still be farmable soil? Nobody asked.
Is it possible this “ag preserve” will be unfit for agriculture, organic or otherwise? I don’t know, but neither does the city. What we do know is it will not have the fine topsoil we see there today, the token preservation of which is the basis for requiring the preserve.
Further, it’s hard to imagine farming in a hole that may fill with water many months of the year. Not only does a pool of water mean no farming while water’s there, intermittent standing water changes the nature of soil for the worse.
So terracide is overtaking the entire 130-acre parcel about half of which was to be “preserved.”
Our council has the power to preserve our last remnants of the best farmland in the world, for the benefit of future generations, but they don’t. How can they claim to be environmentalists if they don’t get – and care about — this simple fact?
The second holiday announcement was from the city itself. It stated work was to begin the day after Christmas on clear-cutting hundreds of ancient eucalyptus trees from “San Luis Ranch.” The announcement referred the public’s questions to a staff member who had no idea where the announcement had originated. So, this tree massacre, another type of terracide, is underway.
The breezy tone of the tree announcement is typical of the city’s terracider disinformation. “90% of the trees being removed are non-native species and the replacement trees will be native to the region,” we are informed. This fits with the notions of armchair enviros that eucalyptus are evil exotics, that removing and replacing them with nursery-grown “natives,” likely with non-local “native” genes, is always a good thing.
Which ignores significant facts about these particular trees, the most telling of which is that they provide – through their height and density – arguably the central coast’s most significant heron rookery. They also provide wintering grounds for threatened Monarch butterflies, who are the subject of much concern about extinction and whose California numbers this year have tumbled 86% below last year’s perilously low population to close to extinction. And the eucs are a major buzzard roost, those carrion birds doing us major service by cleaning up messes that might go epidemic without their help.
Cut all these trees, and other species suffer. An important stable and complex biological system is instantly destroyed. Forever.
This too is a form of terracide. We are not alone on this earth, and harming our earthly companions means we spread misery, death and destruction among our earth-sharers for our own selfish convenience. We alone among species have such awareness as well as the brains to figure how to avoid harm to the rest of creation.
But in SLO we don’t. The city’s attitude is habitat doesn’t matter if it stands in the way of profit, pleasure or convenience. “We don’t care,” might well be their motto.
This council has presided over many cases of “we don’t care.” At 71 Palomar, the city’s incompetent environmental analysis of impacts from clearcutting a spectacular urban forest alleged only doves and sparrows lived in its trees. A half hour sidewalk survey by a neighbor found 21 species of songbirds, with the probability that was a major undercount, plus hawk and owl nests and a buzzard roost. Faced with this evidence the city admitted their analysis was faulty, and promised to redo it. They didn’t, and never did a bird count prior to cutting more than 50 wonderful urban trees. Instead, they doubled down on the adequacy of their original incompetent documentation.
Since in both these examples massive tree cutting was a development option, not a development necessity, why does the city choose terracide rather than precaution and respect for nature?
The city apparently cannot think straight even about things it claims it stands for strongly, like reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are two ways of doing that. One is reducing emissions going into the atmosphere, the other is sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Trees are very good at the latter, and old trees have a lot of carbon sequestered in them which is emitted into the atmosphere when a tree is cut and disposed of. Yet the city is hellbent on allowing slaughter of hundreds upon hundreds of old trees, not just in these two examples, but by general policy throughout town. As for mitigating the city’s own emissions via reforestation, a proven sequestration technique, they’ve never even tried despite that being proposed as long as 30 years ago.
Then – for another example of the city’s “not getting” species oppression — there’s the night-hiking/biking fiasco. It started when some people from Santa Maria complained they couldn’t hike/bike in our natural reserves after dark. They couldn’t do that for good reason: natural reserves, a.k.a. “open space,” are not parks. They are natural space owned by we, the people of SLO, not by out-of-towners or special-interest recreation groups, and by city law, purpose, and long-established policy are nearby places where nature is given space to be itself, to benefit the plants and creatures native to the land and buffer them from human intrusion. “Passive recreation” like hiking is permitted only to the extent it doesn’t interfere with natural processes and reserve inhabitants.
It is well known many creatures come out at dusk and soon after, and that these hours are essential for their well-being, feeding, mating, and survival. Thus the ban on after-dark human presence in natural reserves, which is backed up by solid science. Until our current “enviro” council did a 180 and put destructive recreation ahead of environmental protection.
Our current council opened San Luis Mountain Natural Reserve to winter night hiking/biking despite both the law and the rationale for closure’s being made clear to them. The mayor waxed poetic about “listening to the people” while turning a deaf ear to half of them and overturning decades of good environmental practice, and self-styled enviro Aaron Gomez angrily demanded those against night use provide him with all the peer-reviewed scientific studies supporting their position before he would consider their “opinions” – despite having no such evidence to support his own opinion, which favored night use.
One council member told me allowing night use was a matter of “social justice.” I’d always thought social justice referred to things like doing right by poor communities being poisoned by nearby industrial pollution, but in SLO it apparently describes relieving the oppression of privileged affluent young white people who can’t mountain bike wherever they want at night.
So the council turned one of our key natural reserves into an after-dark Disneyland for a few self-centered “wreckCreationists,” and showed indifference to the well-being of species other than ourselves.
Much attention is focused in enviro circles on extinctions – a form of terracide – possibly coming from future climate change, yet much less is focused on those we are causing with our thoughtless yet avoidable actions. Why do we worry more about things we are nearly powerless to control, like global warming, than about things easily within our grasp, like protecting local productivity and habitats? Is it because we are such a selfish species we cannot face denial of wants when they impinge upon the mere survival of others, including our own progeny?
What is the point of tackling terracide due to climate change if we simultaneously commit terracides that would leave a climate-stable earth uninhabitable and too depleted to support future generations? I’d like the City Council to contemplate that and come up with an explanation for its anti-environmentalism, or undergo a change of heart to deal with terracides under their direct control.
Humankind’s destruction of the earth that we depend upon has been going on for eons, but our means of destruction today have become so powerful, and so pervasively engaged in, that we face an entirely different level of urgency to reassert control.
Long, long ago, George Perkins Marsh described such activity as “breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage.”
Marsh described once lush and prolific old world lands laid waste by human action – for example, deforestation leading to erosion, flooding, desertification of productive land – but could never have imagined the scale of routine terracide today, like our removal of thousands of square miles of mountain tops, filling of adjacent valleys, toxification of soil and water, all to extract a bit of coal to warm our pottage.
Nor could he have imagined the routine and deliberate destruction of our most fertile and fecund topsoils such as we in SLO undertake daily in the name of “economic development.”
The future of the earth is literally in our hands, and this is not in the abstraction of climate change – it’s in the preservation of the physical earth, its fertile gift of feeding us, its provision of other forms of life for our benefit, pleasure and to maintain natural balance, and our recognition that their well-being underwrites our own. Marsh pointed the way to understanding the relatedness of things in nature, but it was Barry Commoner in our own time who put it most clearly: in nature everything is related to everything else. Make a mess in one place, and it reverberates in through the biosphere.
If we pursue only a battle with greenhouse gases and let the rest of earth slip away, we will deserve the human extinction that surely follows.
Politically, this fight must begin with knowledgeable awareness among our elected and hired public officials, with more than rhetorical genuflection to a complex ecological environmentalism, and with the reincorporation of the word “no” into their decision-making vocabulary. Continuing on our present course simply isn’t an option – unless our actual goal is terracide. I don’t think they’ve ever put that to a popular vote, but I’ll wager if they did, they’d get a huge slap-down.
Architect Richard Schmidt, called by the SLO Chamber of Commerce “the most radical environmentalist in the world,” thinks the SLO city council and their staff have a lot to learn.