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  A Younger Corbin Touts California's Biological Heritage
July 5, 2004

Jeffrey D. Corbin, Ph.D., son of former Mayor Rosemary Corbin and Douglas Corbin, and an ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, authored an a editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle urging support for two bills in the California legislature dealing with California’s biological heritage and biodiversity.


When Jeffrey’s mother was mayor, she signed into law a Richmond ordinance making our city the first in the state, and perhaps in the nation, to outlaw the uncontrolled growth of invasive exotic plants. Our city gained quite a bit of recognition for that pioneering effort, but, sadly, neither the administration nor the City staff has ever, to my knowledge, enforced it.


The Chronicle editorial follows.


Managing Nature
Save the natives from the invaders

- Jeffrey D. Corbin
Monday, July 5, 2004

This session, the California Legislature is considering two bills that represent the appreciation of our biological heritage and the preservation of our biodiversity in the future.

The first, SB1226, introduced by Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden (San Joaquin County), would name purple needlegrass (or Nassella pulchra, in scientific parlance) the official state grass. The second, AB2631, introduced by Assemblymember Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would develop a statewide plan for the prevention, control and management of invasive species.

It is worth remembering that the golden hills that most Californians associate with summertime vistas are a very different landscape than the one that would have greeted the earliest European settlers. California's grassland ecosystems were once largely dominated by native perennial bunchgrasses, including purple needlegrass, that live for more than 100 years and grow deep root systems so that they can survive our annual summer drought.

The arrival of European settlers, however, brought new species from the Old World, along with millions of grazing livestock and intensive agriculture that uprooted ancient stands of grasses. Throw in a two-year drought, during the 1850s, when almost no rain fell in large portions of the state, and you have a prime recipe for the overthrow of the old guard.

Machado's bill would recognize the prime role that purple needlegrass played in native California grasslands and its importance in the restoration of native biodiversity. This species is key to our biological heritage and is even immortalized on our state flag. (Take a look -- the grizzly bear is walking on native bunchgrasses!)

The decline of California's native bunchgrass ecosystems is a prime example of the threats that invasive species pose. Purple needlegrass and other grassland species once coexisted with a much more diverse native plant and animal community than the one we see today. The stunning wildflower displays that we enjoy in the spring are a legacy of the native grasslands, and they have been threatened by the invasive species. The shift from native perennial grasses to exotic annual grasses has also had cascading effects on the animals that depend on the perennial plants as food sources in the summer.

Wolk's bill looks to the future to implement specific policy initiatives to ward off the next generation of non-native invasive plants and animals that will crash California's borders. Already, much has been lost: Beside the conversion of California's grasslands, San Francisco Bay is considered the most invaded estuary in the world. More non-native species enter the state every year in ship ballast water, international cargo or through the horticultural industry. West Nile virus, sudden oak death and Pierce's disease are all caused by non-native species. AB2631 will catalog the invasive species already in California, improve early detection of future invasive species and develop programs, including public education, to limit their introduction.

Even in the budget crisis, the early identification and control of potential invasive species is a net gain for California taxpayers. Each year, local, state and federal agencies spend millions of dollars to control invasive species already spreading in California. But it is much more cost effective to identify invaders early and keep them from becoming established than to get rid of them once they have arrived.

It is fitting that these two bills should approach final consideration by the Legislature at the same time. If you support California's biodiversity -- past, present and future -- ask your representatives in Sacramento to support SB1226 and AB2631 (to e-mail legislators, go to www.leginfo.ca.gov, click on "your Legislature" and then type in your ZIP-code). Then, ask the governor (governor@governor.ca. gov) to sign them when they reach his desk.

Jeffrey D. Corbin is an ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley.