Free Advertising

How Grant-Funded Half-Truths Induce Big Environmental Problems

Copyright 2003, by Mark Edward Vande Pol
Originally posted here.
You can find it here



Media stories about the environment are often directed to create a mythology that supports a political agenda. They are clothed in scientific guise to lend legitimacy to the story. Gross technical inaccuracies and unqualified data, in the hands of an audience with great political and financial power can result in unfortunate environmental results. This article addresses such a case.

Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have historically solicited two major sources of money: foundation grants and individual bequests.[1] Small donors do not necessarily expect to see a specific promise to be met as a result of the gift, but they do prefer to have a sense of its general purpose. To successfully solicit foundation grants or major bequests demands that the gift be effectively employed toward a significant goal. In both instances, it is essential to the NGO to maintain a continuing perception of the need for public support. They need a story to sell to the prospective donor.

It is equally important to the academic beneficiaries of grant funding, to portray their work as glamorous and important. The supplicant can then blandish the story to the government or the foundations of the plutocracy as evidence of both the public benefit of their work and the significance of their ongoing need for funding.

It takes regular advertising to maintain any product in the market. Given the collinear politics shared by environmentalists and the media, such valuable coverage is easy to get, for free. Unfortunately, serious environmental problems can arise when people with great political clout get a hold of these stories and forcefully apply their limited understanding of ecology. The following example discusses a New York Times article that elicits such a case.

Page 1 of the Science Times Section dated November 24, 1998 had an almost full-page article, devoted to the good work of a Dr. Todd E. Dawson[2] of Cornell University originating from a rather obscure technical journal.[3] The subject of the Times article was fog-drip from California redwoods. Most of the front page consisted of expensive graphics with the appearance of soft airbrushed watercolors of the trees, with arrows diagramming the fog pouring in off the ocean, captured by the trees and dripping onto surface soil to be absorbed by thirsty roots of the tree. It was really pretty. It was also largely wrong.

The message is precisely that intended: that 'fog drip from redwood trees is a critical element of a unique, complex, and irreplaceable ecology with unappreciated and amazing capabilities upon which we all depend. It must be preserved at all costs. It is vital work.'

It's free advertising.

We'll start with an analysis of some of the misstatements of fact found in the article.

"The Fog Moves In. Moisture laden air from the Arctic warms as it descends over the Pacific Coast."

Unfortunately, the type of cloud cover to which the article refers is not fog at all. It is stratus cloud cover, both because of the typically higher altitude of the ceiling and the mechanics of its origin. This "fog" has nothing to do with "moisture laden" Arctic air. It's the ocean that controls the air temperature and humidity conditions that generate the cloud cover.[4]

The season of interest insofar as this "fog" is concerned is summer and early fall. During this period there is virtually no rain in California. The air passes over the open ocean and acquires moisture from surface evaporation. Both air temperature and total moisture content are directly due to local surface water temperature and are therefore phenomena local to California, almost entirely due to water originating from the Arctic.

The Santa Cruz Mountains are at the extreme southern reaches of the redwood where summer water should be more critical to the trees. Depending upon the altitude of the stratus, the onshore marine airflow during the day is usually blocked by the first range of hills. There are relatively few days in the summer with full cloud cover. Without stratus clouds, there could be no fog-drip during the day. The redwoods are here anyway.

Peak daytime summer temperatures can be over 100°F for several days in a row. The redwoods that grow here can transpire 300-500 pounds of water on a warm day. So, why don't they dry out and scorch without cloud cover on such hot days? Do they get the water at night?

The article goes on, "a relatively small 100' tall redwood can gather the equivalent of four inches of rain in a single evening." Four inches per evening... 120" per month... really?

The article infers that 4" per evening is not uncommon because such a small tree gathered so much fog-drip. The literature, which encompasses the areas similar to that sampled by Dr. Dawson, suggests this is a grossly extreme exaggeration. (See the attached abstracts). [5], [6], [7]

During the day the onshore flow of breezes freshen as the land continues to heat the air inland. In the late afternoon the lower angle of the sun reduces the rate at which it dries the corresponding flow of clouds. If the altitude of the marine layer is high enough, the stratus pours over the coastal hills above the tops of the trees in the valleys. If the clouds are lower, they crawl in fingers up the coastal valleys and through the Golden Gate, leaving many of the redwoods at higher altitudes and higher daytime temperature without fog at all. Just after dark, the air over the land cools and the wind usually dies. If the air temperature over the land drops below the ocean temperature, the breezes weakly reverse to the ocean, drawing the remaining moist air out with them. Stars appear. There just isn't that much "fog" around here at ground level with which to get very much fog-drip.[8]

The New York "Science" Times story is simply bogus except under the most extreme circumstances near the mouth of the Klamath River in far northern California where Dr. Dawson did his study.

In much of the southern reaches of the redwood, the average amount of fog-drip is almost nil. It is hotter and drier here in Santa Cruz County, with far less winter precipitation over fewer months than on the North Coast. One would think therefore, if summer fog-drip were crucial to the survival of the tree, that collection efficiency should be even more critical further south in its range. For the implications of the story to be true, that redwoods must have fog-drip to survive, then perhaps they are specifically adapted to collect it.

There is one problem with that idea. They are not even good at it. Redwood is a lousy collector of fog-drip compared to other local trees.

If, for example, one consults a commonly available text, Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John Hunter Thomas,(circa 1961)[9] it reports that George T. Oberlander compared fog-drip from the following three types of trees: Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Tanbark Oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus). Mr. Oberlander collected samples for a period of one month in the Santa Cruz Mountains from July 20 to August 28, 1951 (as if studies of such things were new). He reported the following amounts of fog-drip accumulated over that one-month period: Redwood 1.8", Douglas Fir 17.1", tanbark oak 58.8". That's right, the oak tree collected over 30 TIMES the amount of the fog-drip as the redwood.

One does not have to take Mr. Oberlander's numbers to be terribly accurate for the sheer magnitude of the difference to be sufficient to make the point. The summer here has many days with a high temperature of over 90°F. The water from redwood fog-drip, at rates of less than 2" per month, cannot reach the roots, especially when it would have to flow down through 8-12" of dry litter on the forest floor.

Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains grow just fine without fog-drip. They grew just fine without any collection capability in the least.

The logging of the last century was devastating. They clearcut it, they burned it, and they did absolutely nothing to control erosion. The second growth returned as fast as it did against vastly more initial sun exposure (before they crowded), top soils stripped of mulch (that could retain moisture), no fog-drip collection capability (no trees), poorer water storage capability in the wood, and more evaporative loss during the day due to both the resulting higher surface to volume ratio of crown-sprouted trees and an the adjacent exposed surface on the top of a very large stump.

What fog-drip? They grew back anyway. The tree is an incredible survivor.

Perhaps the fog-drip model is not such a significant issue regulating the survival and range of the redwood. There are definitely other ground species that depend upon it, but NOT the redwood itself. Then why do they keep redoing studies of fog-drip from redwood when the tanbark oak case is so interesting?

Tanbark oak, has large leaves that hang downward to collect the water on a glossy, top surface that repels the water into beads, that coalesce into rivulets, that run down to the pointed tip of the leaf, and off. The drops land on top of other leaves and clean the water off as they progress downward in a chain of rivulets. It is an elegant system. Tanbark oak fog-drip concentrates more toward the drip-line of the tree than does redwood fog-drip, but then tanbark oak roots concentrate right at the "drip line" of the tree. They do not extend nearly as far from the trunk as do redwood roots.

Maybe this explains in part why fir and tanbark oak are more common on ridges in the Santa Cruz Mountains, while the redwood is more commonly found in the valleys below. Southern redwood stands are also more commonly mixed with tanbark oak. The coastal forests in the North are nearly uniformly redwood, with the oak more predominant further inland where the fog is less dense and of shorter duration during the day (too much fog causes fungal diseases in oaks). Could the tanbark oaks and firs collect the water, which then permeates the surface soils to reach the much more extensive redwood root system? It could be, but one thing is certain: few bother to study tanbark oak, much less its relationship to the forest. There's no grant funding. The problem is that tanbark oak just isn't glamorous... that is, until you have seen one with a trunk six feet across.

It's an awesome tree. They were decimated to make leather, charcoal, and firewood.

Mr. Oberlander did measure a second growth forest on Cahill ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains and he did measure tanbark oaks. But then his funding was not part of a redwood preservation agenda. He just wanted to measure fog-drip from trees.

Dr. Dawson measured fog-drip from old growth trees in Redwood National Park in one of the most extreme locations available for stratus clouds near the mouth of the Klamath River. But there is another major technical difference between the two reports besides location and Dr. Dawson's sophisticated isotope tracing through plant tissue (which wasn't mentioned in the article). A second growth forest, that has not been logged, is structurally different than an ancient stand. The trees in ancient forests are far enough apart to permit a flux field of "fog" to pass through. The trees in second growth stands are so packed together that they effectively stagnate the airflow and the "fog" passes over the top of the forest instead of through the trees. It can't deposit nearly as much water as in an ancient forest because the droplets do not contact the needles without the airflow. Selective logging could improve the collection of cloud precipitation in second growth stands, perhaps to the benefit of their overall health by thinning the trees and improving the airflow.

Instead, in his article in the Proceedings of Coast Redwood Forest Ecology, Dr. Dawson denounces logging, and with it selective logging, as his funding source at the Mellon Foundation would of course demand. He is obviously ignorant of the above distinction. Was it the product of selective ignorance?

No it's worse than that. Dr. Dawson's expertise is in tracing chemical isotopes of through plant tissues. He probably hadn't considered the differences between old growth and second growth forests. He is unqualified as an expert on redwood forest management. But it doesn't keep either the New York Times or the Mellon Foundation from using him as such.

Old growth stands are less than 5% of the total redwood forested acreage, almost all of which are already protected. Why did Dr. Dawson measure fog-drip in old growth forests when nearly all logging is of second growth forests?

In 1998, the Sierra Club and other NGOs were hustling money with which to buy the Headwaters Forest from the infamous Charles Hurwitz of Pacific Lumber Company. (Unknown to most of their contributors, the Headwaters has large amounts of second growth forest.) Such studies and promo articles as that in the New York Times are used to help raise the big bucks from New York donors and there is nothing wrong with that goal. They get their promo and Dr. Dawson does some interesting work on how various species in old growth forests actually use the water from fog-drip. The Times should just tell the truth and qualify it. If they don't, stories like this end up being a contributing cause to at least the degradation if not an absolute tragedy in the 95% of the redwood forest acreage consisting of second growth stands and other coastal forests as well. [10]

The real problem with using stories like this is that resulting myths end up being used for political purposes unrelated to preserving or learning more about old growth forests. People offer fog-drip as a reason for banning thinning of second growth forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains and as reason not to be concerned about catastrophic fire. Court cases have been won and lost on the basis of baseless fog-drip testimony. It's insanity. Preserving a second growth forest, particularly in the south, is very likely a very bad idea.

Second growth redwoods sprout off the cut stump and end up so packed together, with vastly more dead lower branches that they are primed with fuel to burn. Their legendary bark, the trees' first defense against fire, is thinner on these younger trees than is typical in old growth forests. Second growth heartwood stores only half the water for the same volume as does old growth. The second growth redwood is simply much more susceptible to fire mortality.[11]

The second growth forests of the southern march of the redwood are more arid than further North, with more mixed fir and hardwood. These species are both more combustible than redwood and equally overpopulated because they all sprouted at the same time after the area was cleared and largely abandoned.

The frequency of fires under aboriginal management varied from 6 to 30 years in old growth forests. Frequent fires would have removed many of them as young trees. Not only do we now have more trees than perhaps ever, but because of modern fire suppression, much of the area hasn't had a fire in over 100 years.[12], [13]

To make things worse, tanbark oaks are under attack by infestations of beetles.[14], [15]

One contributing factor may be the lack of both thinning and regular, relatively cool fires. The tanbark oaks were particularly stressed by fungal attacks in the spring subsequent to the recent El Niño just prior to the beetle infestation. The forests were too crowded for sufficient sun and airflow to dry them out during the heat of the day. The beetle infestation is now running rampant and spreading into other oak species particularly those specimens already stressed by other causes, primarily residential development. The infested trees stand dead and dry, their leaves still attached. Few people cut them down before they infest other trees. It's fuel.

A hot, late-summer fire with a strong offshore wind will be a disaster, and not just for the forests.[16]

The State of California suppresses fires in Santa Cruz County to protect the single largest political and financial constituency for these fog-drip stories that filter down from the Sierra Club and other NGOs: wealthy rural-suburban professionals, many of whom support the political and legal effort to coerce "protection" of the adjacent redwood forests for the purpose personal entertainment.

These yuppies don't want the trees thinned and they don't want the smoke from controlled burns. This same political constituency is also a highly probable source of ignition.

Nature will thin it for them, one way or another.

The houses of these people, complete with private vineyards, horse corrals, permanent clearings, crumbling roads, drainage diversions, aggressive pets, and exotic plants, are the single largest adverse environmental impact in these forests. These suburban communities are infested with exotic weeds that will be abetted by both the fire and the effort to stop it.

With a few well-publicized exceptions, the private timberlands in Santa Cruz County are the only forests in the County that are not a mess. Most of the other forests, including the parks, are badly in need of huge amounts of work. In addition to reducing the fire risk and increasing the light (and fog-drip) for understory species, a selective timber harvest would require old logging roads to be fixed or retired and stream-beds to be rehabilitated with large woody debris to improve spawning conditions for salmon and steelhead trout. It's expensive.

Proper modern logging technique, as usually practiced in Santa Cruz County, is nothing like the devastation of the last century. Without the cash flow from timber harvesting, many of the landowners simply can't afford to maintain their land and pay the taxes. They sell, and usually to developers, or else they turn it over to an NGO for conversion into a permanent status of mandated neglect when they sell it to the government eventually to burn.

What kinds of timber practice "improvements" do these suburban yuppies and their local chapter of the Sierra Club demand? If the landowner gets to take that one last harvest and fix those old roads, they want the ones that remain to be PAVED. We'll get more houses with more suburbanites wailing about fog-drip and an eventual holocaust tossed in with the deal.

Fog-drip. What a crock! What was once a productive forest has been politically reduced by stories like this into a socialized commons to enrich a pro-development constituency.

What one must understand about this kind of fog-drip-eco-drivel from ignorant reporters is not the content of the story but its purpose. The question is, 'Why is the New York Times selling the story?'

The following quote is the real reason for articles like this. It's the pitch:

"Conservationists working to save these charismatic trees, which can inspire people to extremes of impassioned zeal, have long argued that fog drip is vital not only for plants, but for endangered animal species, as well as people who struggle to maintain water supplies in habitats that can see little or no rain in the summer. Coastal redwoods or Sequoia sempervirens, are found patchily mostly along the California coast and into southern Oregon."

It makes for great chitchat at cocktail parties, fundraisers, and membership drives.

There are very few redwoods in Oregon in only the first twenty miles or so from the southern border. It is too cold.

Note the inferred dependence of human survival upon the fog-drip from the trees. Humans are not dependent upon fog-drip because domestic water sources around here must come from wells. The environmentalists would just as soon get rid of anyone living in a redwood forest.

So how do the trees around here make it through the summer without fog-drip? First, they need enough winter rain. An average of thirty-five to forty inches or so in the winter months will do. Research by Big Creek Lumber has correlated drought years with growth constraint, but has found no growth benefit from wet years. To them, light matters more than water for tree growth.

There is a substantial shade factor for redwoods from the steep hillsides above. This cuts evaporation and shades competitors from the hot afternoon sun. The trees thus favor North and East-facing slopes in the more southern reaches of their march. You won't find many of them on the level plains until you get to the far northern reaches of the state. Soils are important too. Redwoods in this area seem to prefer the higher clay content soils and landslide deposits that retain more moisture in summer. Ground water also enters the picture. These mountains are a geological mess of fractured sedimentary strata with water forcing up through fissures that water numerous small patches of trees along the ridges.

The point is that it's complex. Nobody knows all the reasons why some places favor redwood any more than we understand all of the mechanisms associated with "fog".

One knows these things when one has lived here a long time as a forest landowner, which again argues against the Sustainable Development model so advocated by environmentalists and the UN. But then neither the details nor the limited applicability of the factual content really matter in articles like this.

It doesn't matter if the facts are distorted or wrong. It doesn't matter that the situation the article cited only applies in a few places. It doesn't matter if scarce research dollars are debased into serving a political agenda. It doesn't matter if the oak forests are infested and nobody seems to know why. It doesn't matter that property owners who have cared for the land all their lives are driven into bankruptcy and forced sales. It doesn't matter if a forest that needs love and care gets infested with houses instead. It doesn't matter if it all burns to a crisp with needless death, loss of species, and wasted capital. It doesn't matter that it will be subsequently overrun with weeds. It doesn't matter that there will be massive destruction to watersheds from erosion and loss of canopy vegetation.

The activists will celebrate. It's a crisis that will require them to take charge and they'll make a pretty penny in the process. Nature will have been 'cleansed' of people that 'didn't belong there'. This kind of fog-drip story is just what they need for continued political support as well as an operating cash flow.

There are big donors in New York.

Mark Edward Vande Pol is a medical device engineer, author, and hobbyist in habitat restoration science. He has no interest in commercial logging. His new book: Natural Process: That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature details the adverse environmental impact of political and legal ecosystem management. He details an alternative, free-market environmental management system that can account for externalities. This article was adapted from a piece of flotsam that didn't fit in the book. You can send your complaints to contact(a) To buy a copy go to

©2000 by Mark Edward Vande Pol, All Rights Reserved. This article may not be published, transmitted, copied, or distributed without written permission by the author.


[1] Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, Trashing the Economy, (Bellevue, Washington: Free Enterprise Press, 1993), pp81-127, for example.

[2] Wasson, Ernie, The Bay Area Gardener: "All plants Considered", 1997, URL: Quoted Dr. Todd E. Dawson, from The Use of Fog Precipitation by Plants in Coastal Redwood Forests, Conference on Coast Redwood Forest Ecology and Management, hosted by Humboldt State University, June 1996:

"His (Dawson's -ed) data indicates... 'between 8-34 % of the water used by the coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, and between 6-100% of the water used by the understory vegetation came from fog precipitation.'

[3] Dawson, T. E. 1993. Hydraulic lift and water use by plants: Implications for water balance, performance, and plant-plant interactions. Oecologia 95:565-574.

(Editor's note: The article was not specifically cited by name in the New York Times article. The above reference was the most likely fit among the publications listed on Mr. Dawson's web page. I have not read it and have not found the journal referenced. Instead I acquired a similar article which appears to be the source of the above reference, THE USE OF FOG PRECIPITATION BY PLANTS IN COASTAL REDWOOD FORESTS, in the Proceedings of Coast Redwood Forest Ecology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, 1996, pp90-93.

[4] Gilliam, Harold; "Dance of the Two Veils: Frisco's Fog Fandango" Pacific Discovery, California Academy of Sciences 1868, 49(4), FALL 1996, pp8-15

[5] Azevedo, J. and D.L. Morgan. 1974. Fog precipitation in coastal California forests. Referenced abstract from the Save the Redwoods League, URL:

Summer fog precipitation, a feature of much of the natural range of coast redwood, was measured at two forested sites on ridges bordering the Eel River Valley in northern California. One of the rain gauges was installed under a 70-meter redwood: during one 48-hour period this gauge recorded 8 cm (3" -ed) of fog precipitation. Temporal fluctuations and chemical composition of the summer fog were measured. It is concluded that additions of ample amounts of nutrients to forests from fog precipitation throughout much of the growing season is at least as significant as those additions from rain.

[6] Freeman, G.J. 1971. Summer fog drip in the coastal redwood forest. M.S. thesis, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, Referenced abstract from the Save the Redwoods League, URL:

Fog drip was studied in the virgin redwood forest at Lady Bird Johnson Grove near Orick, California (far northern - ed), during the period July 4 to Sept. 15, 1970. Four 1/4-acre plots were placed on a southwest aspect of the study area to sample fog drip. Results show that during that 10-week period, 0.12" of fog drip was collected at 1,200' elevation, trace amounts at 1,000', and none at the 800' elevation sample point. Fog drip was more frequent in August than July and none occurred in September. High relative humidity and reduced insolation as a result of fog appear to be more important than drip in reducing summer water losses in the coastal redwood forest.

[7]. Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains, John Hunter Thomas, Stanford Univ. Press, 1961, p11

[8]. Op Cit., Gillman

[9]. Op Cit., Thomas

[10]. Op Cit., Dawson

[11]. Finney, M.A. and R.E. Martin. 1993a. Modeling effects of prescribed fire on young-growth coast redwood trees. Can. J. For. Res. 23: 1125-1135. Referenced abstract from the Save the Redwoods League, URL:

Old-growth coast redwoods are very resistant and resilient to fire; young or small trees are more susceptible to fire damage or mortality. Using controlled fire treatments, models were developed relating fire characteristics, tree characteristics, and tree damage from fire. Tree diameter, surface fuel consumption, flame length, and crown scorch were significant predictors in all models of top killing and basal sprouting.

[12] Finney, M.A. and R.E. Martin. 1989. Fire history in a Sequoia sempervirens forest at Salt Point State Park, California. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 19: 1451-1457. Referenced abstract from the Save the Redwoods League, URL:

It is difficult to generalize about patterns of fire occurrence throughout the natural range of coast redwood. Part of the reason is due to the different methodologies employed in fire history studies. This study investigated historical fire occurrence in the (coast redwood and bishop pine) forests at Salt Point State Park, California, and compared the results from two techniques used to analyze fire history data. Mean fire intervals estimated from point data (20.5 to 29.0 years) were more than three times greater than mean intervals from composite data (6.1 to 9.3 years.)

[13] Greenlee, J.M. and J.H. Langenheim. 1990. Historic fire regimes and their relation to vegetation patterns in the Monterey Bay Area of California. American Midland Naturalist 124: 239-253. Referenced abstract from the Save the Redwoods League, URL:

Fire history in the Monterey Bay area of California, concentrating on the area forested with coast redwood, was categorized into five fire regimes: prehuman (lightning- ignition), aboriginal, Spanish occupation, Anglo, and recent. Fire occurrence and coverage based on estimates (i.e., modeling fire behavior), natural records (e.g., fire scar dating), or human records (e.g., from newspapers, journals and fire records for Anglo and recent fire regimes) were compared for the five regimes. It is estimated that prehuman fire intervals in the redwood forest of this area were approximately 135 years. The frequency of fires apparently increased in the aboriginal (17-82 years), Spanish (82 years), and Anglo (20-50 years) fire regimes, and has decreased recently (130 years) due to limitation of human-caused fires. It is concluded that the present fire regime is similar in several respects to that which existed prior to the arrival of humans.

[14] Coate, Barrie D., ASCA; WHY ARE TANBARK OAKS DYING?; Mountain Network News, Vol XII, No. 10, Oct, 1999, p30

[15] Švihra, Pavel; Western Oak Bark Beetles and Ambrosia Beetles, Killers of Live Oaks; University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin County, Pest Alert #3, June 1999.

[16] Hirsch, K.G.; Pinedo, M.M.; Greenlee, J.M. Urban-Wildland Interface Fire: The I-Zone Series Overview : Bibliography; 1996. Natural Resources Canada., Canadian Forest Service, Northwest Region., Northern Forest Centre, Edmonton, Alberta. Inf. Rep. NOR-X-344.

A bibliographic listing of about 2200 urban-wildland interface resource materials that have been compiled by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre are listed alphabetically by author. Most items in this collection were produced prior to 1993 and pertain to the United States, Australia, and Canada.