Case Study

Agency and Institutional Failures in
Endangered Species Management of
Florida Torreya

Report by Connie Barlow

founder of Torreya Guardians

May 2021

Photo above: Connie Barlow with Fred Bess in Cleveland Ohio, October 2018. They are examining the tallest of Fred's 4-specimen grove of Florida Torreyas, which he planted in his front yard. Nearby is a female, which bears 19 seeds. To comply with the Endangered Species Act prohibition of interstate commerce of designated plants, Fred had to drive to South Carolina to purchase the potted seedlings at Woodlanders Nursery in 2009.

Case Study Supplement: "Petition to DOWNLIST from endangered to threatened Torreya taxifolia"

Petition to Downlist (26 pages)
History of Petition to Downlist (the filing and correspondence)

Note: September 2019, Connie Barlow (as an individual) submitted a petition to downlist Florida Torreya. The petition is a crucial supplemment to this case study because it focuses on Torreya Guardians accomplishments, rather than agency and institutional failures.

Introduction to the Case Study

The following list was compiled by Connie Barlow in May 2021, based on her experience as founder and chief advocate for Torreya Guardians beginning in 2004. As always, she writes as an individual because

Torreya Guardians does not speak or take action as a group, but instead encourages subsets of those involved to post ideas and initiatives on this website and to help establish links with synergistic organizations and websites. There are no by-laws, officers, board, staff, overhead costs, dues, formal organizational structure, or physical location to this organization.

Barlow's critique herein of endangered species program management as it pertains to Florida Torreya is intended to offer her personal experience of what she regards as "failures" in official agency and institutional actions, documentation, and stakeholder/public relations pursuant to the USA Endangered Species Act designation of Florida Torreya as an endangered species in 1984. Her aim is to help professionals develop their own sense of what went wrong — and what could henceforth go right — by way of careful study of this first and well documented case of conflict over whether, how, and who to commence "assisted migration" of a recognized endangered plant species.

Barlow was motivated to assemble this page following publication of an April 2021 "Policy Forum" advocacy piece that appeared in the journal Science:

"Global Policy for Assisted Colonization of Species", by Jedediah F. Brodie, Susan Lieberman, Axel Moehrenschlager, Kent H. Redford, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Mark Schwartz, Philip J. Seddon, James E. M. Watson.

   Via that paper, Barlow became aware that global decisions on "climate adaptation" practices will be worked into the existing U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, scheduled for update at a conference in China October 2021.

She hopes that in communicating wrong turns by agency and institutional implementers of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, other imperiled plant species may have smoother rides toward habitable futures.

See also a news article on the Brodie et al. paper and its context: "Amid Climate Pressures, a Call for a Plan to Move Endangered Species", by Zach St. George, in Yale Environment 360, 19 May 2021.

For readers unfamiliar with "assisted migration/colonization" as a climate adaptation tool, you may wish to begin by accessing the "Assisted Migration Scholarly Links" webpage, which Barlow created in 2007 and has been updating ever since. Her aim has been to report, link, and excerpt all the key papers (and some media reports) — whether pro or con, and without bias. Many of these papers presented Florida Torreya as the leading test case. For example, of the 15 citations listed for the above, "Global Policy ..." paper in Science, these four mention Florida Torreya and/or Torreya Guardians: Butt et al. 2020; Schwartz and Martin 2013; Ricciardi and Simberloff 2009; Schwartz et al. 2012.
     Global participants in endangered plant recovery are encouraged to become acquainted with the ongoing debate in terminology — especially the importance of "decolonizing" scientific language.

Case Study
Agency and Institutional Failures of Florida Torreya
Endangered Species Implementation re "Assisted Migration"

by Connie Barlow, founder of Torreya Guardians
May 2021

1. FAILURE to include paleoecological scientific knowledge when discerning whether and for how long the risk of potential "invasiveness" in "recipient ecosystems" should stand as a barrier to beginning experimentation with poleward assisted migration of Florida torreya. Distinct failures include:

1A. Failure to engage a broad understanding that shifts in geographic ranges during the past 2.5 million years of glacial/interglacial cycling repeatedly subjected plant species of the eastern USA to different community types and species interactions — by which one would arrive at greatly reduced fears that same-continent poleward assistance in migration of any native plant species could result in ecological harm to species in the "recipient ecosystems."

1B. Failure to acknowledge that absence of Cenozoic fossil evidence is not evidence of Torreya's absence poleward of its Cretaceous fossil locale. Unlike the volcanic-rich western USA, the Cenozoic calm of the eastern USA means that very few upland plant species are represented as macrofossils. And while the eastern USA has a rich Pleistocene-Holocene record of pollen of many tree species preserved in bogs, palynologists cannot distinguish morphological differences in pollen of these four genera: Torreya, Taxus, Taxodium, and Cupressus.

2. FAILURE to recognize and act upon the fact that species categorized as "glacial relicts" deserve expedited decision-making in this time of super-interglacial warming anthropogenically caused.

SOURCE: Natural History of Florida Torreya webpage on Torreya Guardians website.
2A. Failure to recognize that, by definition, glacial relicts were unable to adjust their ranges in sync with interglacial warming. Even before industrialization of the human presence on Earth initiated rapid additional warming, glacial relicts had been "left behind" in habitats and in numbers far reduced in size from what is necessary for long-term survival, especially as climate warming continues.

2B. Failure to carry forward the significance of Florida torreya as a glacial relict, which was a prime descriptor of this species in its 1984 ESA designation as an officially endangered species and in its first recovery plan (1986) and even in its 2010 recovery plan update. Only one sentence in the 2020 updated plan speaks to this range mismatch, p. 16:

"Based on fossil records, we can speculate that the geographical range of T. taxifolia included North Carolina and perhaps, it was forced south by glaciers, and when they retreated, it became isolated in small areas of the southeastern United States."
Unfortunately, the two major implementing institutions of the recovery plan (Atlanta Botanical Garden and State Botanical Garden of Georgia) do not make note of the glacial relict status of Florida Torreya in their current taxon descriptions online and in public writings and statements.

2C. Failure to take note of microsite evidence that Florida torreya cannot be restored to health in its historically native range. Clearly the species has already retreated to the coolest microsites. This, on the wikipedia page of Torreya taxifolia:

"It grows at altitudes of 15 to 30 meters (49 to 98 ft), mostly on wooded ravines, bluffs and steep,[1][9][8] north-facing slopes.[1] These ravines have nearly permanent seeps. It also occurs in the bottoms of ravines and adjacent floodplains.[8] It grows in the shade under the canopy of larger trees.[1][7][8]"
3. FAILURE to distinguish ultimate cause (Holocene warming) from proximate causes (various diseases) in posing and evaluating palliative actions and experiments for achieving species recovery. Barlow presents this argument in depth in this subsection of the webpage "Endangerment: causes of" on the Torreya Guardians website, which she updated in detail in 2018, following media reports that a University of Florida forestry pathologist recommended genetic engineering for disease resistance — prior to any official attempt to evaluate historic and recent horticultural successes in planting Florida Torreya northward.

4. FAILURE to visit and evaluate existing mature horticultural plantings in northward states, and from such assessments see for themselves that northward plantings are not impaired by disease and thus continue to evidence health, reproduction, and (in some cases) full naturalization in northward states. In contrast, Torreya Guardians have accomplished this work and posted text and illustrations on our Historic Groves webpage.

   4A. Torreya Guardians volunteers have documented thrival, reproduction, and even naturalization of next-generation seedlings and saplings at near-century-old horticultural plantings of Florida Torreya at the Biltmore Gardens and Harbison House in the mountains of North Carolina.

LEFT: Jack Johnston measures girth of the largest torreya at Harbison House, south of Highlands, North Carolina. This site documents that in the course of a century, the species has been able to disperse seed and thus establish an expanding population only a distance of 40 yards — far less than what will be required of all species in even the next decade.

   4B. Our own Torreya Guardians plantings have documented not only survival but seed production as far north as Cleveland, Ohio.

LEFT: In October 2018, Connie Barlow and Fred Bess were thrilled to count 19 seeds on one of the torreya trees Fred had planted in his yard in Cleveland Ohio a decade earlier.

Some of those seeds are now seedlings, soon to be outplanted into the regrowth forest of another Torreya Guardian in a mountainous section of Virginia.

   4C. Failure to value seeds produced in horticultural settings as (a) potentially suitable for boosting genetic diversity and (b) offering opportunities for experimental plantings that could yield important learnings, while risking substantial losses in the process. (One learns the full scope of habitat preferences not only by successes but equally by failures.)

LEFT: 1,383 ripe seeds were collected on 31 October 2020 by Torreya Guardian Joe Facendola, at two horticultural plantings near his home in south-central North Carolina. Connie Barlow immediately went into action, contacting existing planters and new volunteers who had expressed interest. Within 3 weeks, she and Joe had distributed the bulk of the seeds — mostly to volunteers who had the right forest types for "free-planting" seeds directly into forest soils. (Torreya seeds are recalcitrant; they cannot be stored.)

5. FAILURE to visit wild Torreya californica to learn genus habitat preferences and abilities — not just minimal tolerances in relictual Florida range. Such preferences include elevation, slope, aspect, canopy lighting, associated plants, stem regeneration, conditions for seed production in the wild, seed dispersal distances, ability for root crown to resprout new stems after fire.

   In contrast, the founder of Torreya Guardians (Connie Barlow) conducted such site visits in 2005 and posted results in the California Torreya section on the Torreya Guardians website.

In 2018 she aggregated her photos and findings into VIDEO format and posted this two-part series on youtube: "Florida Torreya's California Cousin Has Clues for Ex Situ Plantings".

This is Episode 23 on the Torreya Guardians Video webpage.

Note: Mark W. Schwartz and Sharon M. Hermann did visit field locales of wild California Torreya in 1998. But their research objective was to measure a statistically significant number of T. californica specimens for imputing annual upward growth of leader stems. This was accomplished in order to determine "Is Slow Growth of the Endangered Torreya taxifolia (Arn.) Normal?". This paper was published in the Oct-Dec 1999 issue of Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society. Because there was no conclusive determination at that early time whether some disease or failing environmental conditions in the Florida native range were the ultimate cause of loss of mature stems and reproduction, the authors did not document environmental information that could be helpful for learning the sister species' preferences and tolerances in habitat types. And no papers or online documentation were later offered that could assist in habitat comparisons until Barlow's photo and text postings of her 2005 California field visits.
6. FAILURE to document numbers of seeds produced annually in the ex situ groves, especially in northern Georgia (southernmost Appalachian foothills and mountains) and to record their ultimate destinations.

   Because north Georgia is significantly poleward of northern Florida, the ex situ groves offer valuable scientific evidence of ability to thrive and reproduce poleward. Both the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia have failed to document seed production and ultimate destinations of those seeds.

This failure was confirmed via the results of a Freedom of Information Act query placed by Barlow in 2018. All results and correspondence are accessible on the FOIA webpage of the Torreya Guardians website.

Because Torreya seeds are recalcitrant; they cannot be stored dry or in cryo. The results of the FOIA confirm that genetically significant seeds likely numbering in the tens of thousands have thus been wasted over the past dozen years, since seeding began in north Georgia.

UPDATE JUNE 2021: Barlow encountered this month a posted VIDEO of a presentation made by Dr. Emily Coffey of Atlanta Botanical Garden in May 2018. Her 10-minute presentation at the national meeting of the Center for Plant Conservation is an excellent review of Florida Torreya's deteriorating presence in its small native range. Her presentation also presents ongoing actions by Atlanta Botanical Garden — including reporting that in one of the ex situ plantings in northern Georgia (Blairsville), some 13,000 seeds were produced fall 2017. Of those, she reports that some 4,000 were distributed to various institutions. She does not specify the ultimate destinations of the remaining 9,000 seeds. Note: Because Dr. Coffey's documentation of 13,000 seeds produced in 2017 is so important, Barlow collected a half-dozen screenshots from the video and posted these with excerpts of the audio presentation onto a new webpage on the Torreya Guardians website. Here is the link to images and excerpts of Dr. Coffey's 2018 presentation.
7. FAILURE to document just about everything that the agency and institutions have learned over 35 years of operating under a recovery plan. The agency and participating institutions have also failed to offer those accomplishments and learnings in a form (online) that is readily accessible, searchable, and updatable — such that other professionals and the public could learn and make their own evaluations toward enhancing recovery of this species. In contrast, Torreya Guardians documents and posts online its actions, learnings, successes, and failures.

8. FAILURE to ensure that all ex situ seeds would be put to use in advancing scientific understanding, including experimenting with poleward ability to thrive. Because the large seeds of genus Torreya are recalcitrant, they cannot be stored by drying or by freezing in cryo. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by Torreya Guardians, even thousands of seeds annually can be put to use experimentally simply by way of direct planting of seeds into forested landscapes. Refer to the Freeplanting Seeds and Propagation Best Practices pages on the Torreya Guardians website for documentation of what this group has learned about planting placement and depth for achieving the best results.

   8A. Because Torreya Guardians had already nurtured northward private planters of potted seedlings legally obtained from nurseries, it was possible for us to ramp up plantings during the years we had access to thousands of seeds annually (most recently, the 2019 and 2020 seed harvests in North Carolina). We simply advised recipients to put seeds directly into forest soil. Our first such large-scale planter owns a 232-acre forest west of Spring City, Tennessee. The Anderson family was able to plant (and mark by flags) 400 seeds over the course of two days.

9. FAILURE of the U.S. government and NGOs to offer mediation and work toward solutions when the relationship between volunteers in Torreya Guardians and the two official botanical gardens had deteriorated to such a point that collaboration (which had been written into the 2010 recovery plan update, p. 18, as an activity to seek) had turned into its opposite.

This break was set into policy when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service signed a document May 2016 with other institutions in Georgia urging a halt to communications with Torreya Guardians — but neglecting to advise our organization of this step and thus never giving us a chance to refute the accusations against us. Excerpt of this statement:
"...GPCA members and Botanical Guardian volunteers are advised to be cautious when speaking to any members of Torreya Guardians. They have taken advantage of professional courtesies, making broad claims from simple correspondence, and linking their work with members of the GPCA. GPCA is publicly distancing itself from Torreya Guardians and their methods of rewilding an endangered species outside its range...."

The 6 signatories entailed one staff person from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, one from Georgia DNR, one from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, two from the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and one from the Chattahoochee Nature Center. Torreya Guardians (Connie Barlow) did not learn of this statement and its consequent shut-down of communications until February 2018, by way of a non-signatory, newly hired staff person at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

When Barlow finally received a copy of this document two years after it was set as policy, she sought redress. Failing that, in retaliation she launched the FOIA process (see Failure 6, above) to make public the scientific lapses in seed documentation and distribution by the official institutions that she was well aware of. In her view, these lapses by the managers of the two most seed-productive ex situ groves (clones of the native genotypes) at Smithgall Woods and Blairsville GA were far greater impediments to torreya's recovery than any accusations or complaints that had been made against the actions of Torreya Guardians.
     Two years later, the federal agency in charge of recovery also failed to notify Torreya Guardians of a draft recovery plan update offered for public comment in 2020. (In contrast, we were invited by that same agency to participate in an advisory conference call during the 2010 update process.) As well, the 2020 plan not only failed to include as accomplishments any of our documented plantings and seed production, but slandered we citizens by describing us as "a religious group based out of northern Georgia" (p. 6). Note: For anyone unaware of how Torreya Guardians is viewed in the wider scope of conservation, visit the "media" section of our History of Torreya Guardians webpage.

10. FAILURE (even after 35 years of management) to reach actionable conclusions as to whether the risks posed in the abstract for any plant translocation beyond historically native range actually merited concern when applied to the case of Florida Torreya. The two risks identified in the early and continuing scientific papers and appraisals are: (1) risk of inability to thrive in a poleward locale (hence wastage of public or NGO funds), and (2) risk that poleward migration might be too successful in the "recipient ecosytem", thus invasively upsetting the health of the ecological community and/or the survival of any of the resident species. In contrast, the homepage of Torreya Guardians makes easily accessible documentation for professionals and the public to gain confidence for themselves that the risks are minimal to non-existent. The lengthy documentation includes links to the Historic Groves webpage, our Learnings webpage, and to state-by-state webpages pertaining to each site of Torreya Guardians volunteer plantings.

11. FAILURE to value the importance of qualitative, multi-factor experienced judgment that cannot emerge from solely quantifiable, publishable data. In other words, this is a failure to carry forward the experiential practice of our natural history elders in what is now called western science, and who made significant discoveries prior to the favoring of quantitative forms of data gathering and documentation. In contrast, the value of Torreya Guardians "citizen science" is almost entirely of a natural history, qualitative type.

12. FAILURE to value and declare "rewilding" as the ultimate goal of recovery action, rather than settling for mere "prevention of extinction" or, worse, minimalist "safeguarding of genetic material." As I stated in my 24 July 2018 communication to the agency staff working through my FOIA inquiry:

... But the Endangered Species Act, which was enacted while I was still in college, was not limited to merely preventing extinction or "safeguarding" the genetics of the species. As a young adult, I was thrilled to witness the gains of how the act was implemented in its early years. The ESA not only prevented extinction of the Peregrine Falcon and the Bald Eagle but helped them to regain their prominence and geographic range in the wild...."

Note: Connie Barlow was an early advocate and shaper of the understanding of conservation "rewilding" of species, via a 1999 essay she contributed to Wild Earth magazine: "Rewilding for Evolution". In 2021, she added a section to the wikipedia page "Rewilding (conservation biology)". The section she added is titled "Rewilding Plants".

13. FAILURE to act on Barlow's Petition to Downlist from Endangered to Threatened Torreya taxifolia, which entails 26 pages in pdf and was submitted 9 September 2019.

Note: Barlow mistakenly used 9 September 2018 on the title page of the petition she submitted on 9 September 2019 to USF&WS. She corrected this mistake on the version on this website.

Below are the first two pages of the 26-page pdf PETITION:


Since 2005, Torreya Guardians has been planting this climate-endangered "glacial relict" northward. We do so experimentally in a wide range of habitats as well as latitudes. See, for example, linked lists of our plantings in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Ohio, locales proven to be conducive not only to Torreya's growth and maturation (unimpeded by serious disease setbacks) but that also easily produce seeds in natural outdoor settings.
     We also experiment with plantings as far north as Michigan and New Hampshire and have documented an historic planting of mature trees in Pennsylvania. These northern-most states are testing the limits of Torreya's cold-hardiness in today's climate, while safeguarding opportunities for the tree to flourish at those latitudes in the later decades of this rapidly warming century.
     We document our results openly (failures as well as successes) via our website. These results contribute to our own learnings and our honing of best practices. By featuring photos and videos of our projects, we hope that academics, horticulturalists, and seasoned naturalists anywhere in the world will engage in offering their own interpretations and advice, without having to personally visit the sites.
     We have priortized documentation of the mature groves planted in horticultural settings before the species was listed in 1984, as these plantings offer ready-made, long-term experiments for ascertaining the tree's ability to thrive — and reproduce — hundreds of miles north of where Torreya became stranded in Florida at the end of the Pleistocene glaciations. Botanists recognized Torreya as having been stranded in a glacial refugium as early as 1905.
     Our efforts have been recognized in the media, in book chapters, and in academic journals. In fact, we have been so successful in our efforts to assist the migration northward of this climate-endangered "glacial relict" tree that in December 2017 an editorial in one of the top science journals stated,

"... A common prediction for how plants will respond to climate change is that it is humans who got them into this mess and so it is humans who will have to get them out of it. That's why the idea of assisted migration of species, although often illustrated with the proposal to shift polar bears to the Antarctic, crops up more frequently in conversations about how to preserve iconic trees. Indeed, in one of the only real-world examples of assisted migration so far, campaigners have planted the seeds of the critically endangered conifer Torreya taxifolia hundreds of miles north of its Florida home..." — Nature 552, 5-6 (2017)

Staff with the Fish and Wildlife Service have not been an impediment to our citizen initiative. Indeed, the agency wrote into its 2010 recovery plan update: "Foster a working partnership between the Torreya Guardians, the Service, and other interested parties to help direct their managed relocation efforts." (p. 18). Five of our webpages are listed as references (beginning with "http").
     The endangered listing need not have been a problem. However, the two botanical gardens that control seed harvest and distribution are so adverse to our northward experimental efforts (and openly hostile to our citizen leadership) that rather than donating nonessential surplus seeds produced ex situ in northern Georgia, the seeds have been left for local squirrels to harvest. This we know because of a Freedom of Information Act query (FOIA) that Barlow was motivated to make in 2018, following a University of Florida press release announcing intent to pursue a genetic engineering initiative to implant disease resistance into the Torreya genome.
     This turn of events prompted Barlow to directly challenge the assumed need for genetic engineering. That challenge is included in the last section of this petition, "Advocacy for translocation; against genetic engineering." Following a summary and references, page 22 of this report reasons that:

1. Any possible immediate need for genetic engineering has been disqualified by a combination of (a) Prof. Jason Smith's documentation of the canker pathogen at Biltmore Gardens NC and (b) Connie Barlow's subsequent documentation of original Torreyas and their offspring still in good health at the Biltmore.

2. The most reasonable hypothesis for northward health despite pathogen presence is that the Fusarium causes serious injury to Torreya stems only in a climate zone as warm as Florida became by mid-20th-Century.

3. The implication is that no further effort or funds should be dedicated toward attempting to manipulate the Florida habitat or manipulate the Torreya genome for the purpose of returning Florida Torreya to its peak-glacal refuge.

4. Poleward translocation (and supplementing existing Torreya groves in northward states) should thus become the core activity of all officially authorized parties.


Downlisting would

(a) encourage citizens and organizations to recognize that that they themselves can take responsibilty for recovering endangered plants and that many private landowners would be grateful to be given an opportunity to nurture an endangered plant species. Simultaneously, it would

(b) quash the institutional trends toward cryopreservation of seed embryos in service of genetic engineering. Countering a presumptive statement (at the 2018 "Torreya Symposium") that "extinction is imminent" by the documented success of citizen volunteers in boosting recovery would

(c) draw the attention of national conservation organizations and regional land trusts. These nongovernmental organizations could then

(d) launch their own translocation experiments on citizen properties, notably those with conservation easements. Once these mainstream conservation institutions are involved

(e) Torreya Guardians could step aside. Once that happens

(f) the botanical gardens controlling seed distribution could be expected to cooperate in donating surplus seeds. Finally, with citizen plantings underway and trusted institutions handling the organization and monitoring

(g) federal taxpayer money could be freed up for recovering endangered species that aren't as easy to work with as putting seeds in a pocket and digging little holes in the forest.

Return to HOME PAGE of Torreya Guardians

Annotated List of Papers/Reports Online re Assisted Migration

• Contact: conniebarlow52 at gmail dot com