Taming the Australian weed

Are eucalyptus trees the next biofuel savior? A note of caution from California.

Published November 14, 2006 1:05AM (EST)

The Bangkok Post reported over the weekend that renewable energy experts are calling for the government to expand the nation's eucalyptus plantations. The plan is to produce eucalyptus "bio-oil" via "fast pyrolysis," a process that exposes organic matter to super-high temperatures. One hundred tons of eucalyptus would "generate 75,000 liters of bio-oil, which can be used as a substitute for crude oil in electricity generation and vehicle gasoline," said Nikhom Laemsak, director of Kasetsart University's forestry research center. (Thanks to Biopact for the link.)

For veterans of the great East Bay firestorm that ravaged the Oakland hills in 1991, the proposal makes automatic sense. The reputation of eucalyptus trees in Northern California took a huge hit after the fire. Their high oil content made them extraordinarily flammable. Eucalyptus trees are evolutionarily designed to propagate via forest fire; once alight, they often explode, sending burning matter and seeds rocketing through the air. Since the firestorm, a massive eradication effort in the East Bay hills has resulted in the logging of some 15,000 trees, but it is slow work. Wouldn't it be the sweetest of revenges to goose their ouster by transforming the evil, invasive Australian weeds into fuel oil for Bay Area Priuses?

Eucalyptus trees have come under consideration as a potential energy crop in California, but so far there hasn't been much progress on that front. It's possible that cultural memories of the great eucalyptus boom of the early 1900s, in which the tree was lauded as the solution for everything from California's treeless aesthetic deficiencies to its lack of hardwoods suitable for railway ties or quality furniture, raged across the state, only to be exposed as an utter failure when the wood turned out to be near useless. Even worse, ecologically speaking, eucalyptus forests have been hammered for their baleful effect on biodiversity. Where eucalyptus trees grow, little else does, and few birds sing.

This being California, ecologists who advocate the removal of eucalpytus trees get decried as "plant nazis" and accused of engaging in specism by defenders of the noble gum tree, and furious battles have been waged up and down the coast between eucalyptus preservationists and their would-be exterminators. Similar disputes have been plaguing Thailand for decades, between ecologists and NGOs critical of the impact of monocultural eucalyptus plantations on both local flora and fauna and traditional farming practices, and forestry companies that cherish the fast-growing trees as a ready source of charcoal and pulp for paper mills.

That the Australian export should now jump into the middle of the biofuel battleground seems only right and fitting. And useful, because there's a clear historical lesson to be learned from the checkered history of the eucalyptus. I recommend a voluminous, if more than a trifle florid, tract by Robert L. Santos, librarian/archivist at California State University, Stanislaus, "The Eucalyptus of California: Seeds of Good, or Seeds of Evil?" Lantos does a fine job of depicting how government, horticulturalists, forestry experts and private enterprise fueled the great eucalyptus craze a hundred years ago.

By the end of the nineteenth century, California had been fully invaded by the eucalyptus. It could be seen most anywhere in the state where climate permitted. It was being used for fuel, windbreaks, medicines, shade, and beautification. Writing in Out West in 1904, Alfred McClatchie observes, "Without the Eucalyptus, California would be a very different state. What she owes to them it is impossible to fully estimate. Nothing short of being entirely deprived of these trees would enable her citizens to realize how much their presence means. Without them, landscapes now varied and softened by their presence would be comparatively monotonous and unattractive. Winds would sweep unchecked over regions where their progress is now impeded by avenues and groves of Eucalypts. Orchards that in the shelter of Eucalypts are profitable would be unproductive. Had not these trees been introduced, the fuel problem would be a very different one. Were some agency to destroy all the Eucalypts now growing in California, the price of real estate would fall at once."

But even then, there were dissenters.

In this passage from "Old Calabria," novelist Norman Douglas vents his disgust on the wonder tree: "A single eucalyptus can ruin the faire landscape. No plant on earth rustles such a horribly metalic fashion when the wind blows through these everlasting withered branches; the noise chills on the marrow; it is like the sibilant chant of ghosts. Its oil is called "medicine" only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless timber, objectionable in form and hue -- objectionable above all things, in its perverse, and inhuman habits. "

Today, the value of California real estate may well be enhanced by an absence of eucalyptus. Which raises the obvious question: Have we learned anything in the intervening hundred years? Eucalyptus seeds were first brought to California by Australian miners on their way to take part in the Gold Rush. Will the current rush to biofuels result in new invasions with their own unpredictable consequences? It is awfully tempting to look at the oily gum tree and think, how pleasant would it be to get my transportation fuel needs from a graceful forest. But when the tree blows up in your face and sets fire to your house, your opinion can change in a hurry.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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