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But Tweti and van de Hoek’s conflict also cuts into a conundrum at the center of many environmental debates: How far should we go to restore local habitats to their native state, and to what extent should man manage nature?
Tweti contends that the trouble between them started two years ago, when she headed out to the Del Rey Lagoon carrying two chicken feeders full of fresh water for the passing ducks and geese. Van de Hoek ran after her on her way out. He told her that geese don’t need to be watered by humans. Tweti also says that van de Hoek threatened to kill all the geese “because they don’t belong here anyway,” she claims he said. Van de Hoek denies that accusation, saying only that he told Tweti that ducks and geese don’t need to drink water.
“Birds don’t have liquid urine,” he says. “They excrete urea — you know, the white stuff — to conserve water. They will drink opportunistically, but they don’t need water to live.”
Tweti was deeply offended. “How crazy is it to deprive geese and ducks and migratory birds of fresh water?” she asks, standing on the banks where the incident occurred. “And then to kill this tree in an area bereft of shade? I used to think that Roy at least had respect for life. But I don’t think that anymore. Not after what he’s done to this creature.”
As she talks, a woman walks up and down the banks of the lagoon, scattering bread at the feet of the birds.
“I used to do that,” Tweti admits, shaking her head. “I used to feed them. But I don’t anymore.”
Debates over California’s native ecology have raged at least since the 1960s, when the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants was established. “Our environment was becoming less and less natural,” says Holliday Wagner, the foundation’s current nursery manager. “We’d made it so easy for humans to live here, and in the process, a lot of what lived here before was being lost.”
But local residents have loved their imports too much to root them all out: When rows of bounteous non-native fig trees in the City of Commerce lifted the sidewalks, tree lovers objected to their wholesale removal. And, when the National Park Service launched a $7 million campaign to protect nine native plants and a dwindling kit-fox population by slaughtering all wild pigs on the Channel Islands, animal-rights activists sued to protect the pigs. Besides, argue the opponents of activists who have become known as “native Nazis,” not every non-native plant is a pest — and not every native plant can still thrive in modern Southern California’s smog-choked hills. (In case it needs to be pointed out, we’re not native either.)
Tweti argues that even though the ficus was a non-native tree, it posed no threat to the local ecosystem.
“You can’t use these words ‘non-native’ and ‘invasive’ interchangeably. I used to do it too,” she says, “and it’s wrong. Just because the tree isn’t native, doesn’t mean it’s invasive. How can it be? It’s surrounded by concrete.”
When the Ficus microcarpa traveled here from Asia via Bermuda in 1912, it was merely a benign ornamental, essentially sterile because the species-specific wasp needed to pollinate the tree had not come with it. But sometime in the 1970s, that wasp showed up in Florida, and laurel figs, which need no soil to germinate, began to turn up wherever its seed could find purchase — in concrete swimming pools, freeway overpasses and parks.
But the laurel fig has not yet invaded the Ballona Valley. It spreads throughout California simply because people plant it. Although some botanists believe the wasp has come west, few seedlings have been found.
“Only Ficus microcarpa’s roots are invasive,” says Frank McDonough, Los Angeles Arboretum botanist and host of the Sunday Gardens of California show on cable-access Channel 36. “Its roots can cause great damage by displacing man-made objects like sidewalks, walls and entire civilizations — just ask anybody [at the great Cambodian temples] at Angkor Wat. Every year, older plantings inflict millions of dollars of damage on sidewalks, streets, walls and other city infrastructure.”
Yet with nothing but city park green space around it, the ficus on the banks of the Del Rey Lagoon seems unlikely to bring ruin to our civilization. Then again, it wasn’t civilization that van de Hoek was out to protect, but a ground squirrel, native to California, that is being threatened by a non-native tree-nesting fox squirrel, introduced from the Eastern U.S.
“It’s a nest-robbing squirrel,” he says. “I don’t think Mira, or many other people, know that a squirrel is not a squirrel is not a squirrel. The ground squirrel digs a hole and raises its young underground, and in its den it supports different beetles and bugs. It’s not aggressive — if a frog comes into its burrow it just goes, ‘Huh! There’s a frog in my burrow.’ For that reason it’s a ‘keystone species’ — all these other animals that are native depend on it. That ground squirrel is being impacted by the tree squirrel living in the ficus tree.”