AB 1573 Reaches a Stopping Point

The bill’s 2023 fate marks a victory for the status quo, but change is on the horizon.

By Liv O’Keeffe

Yesterday, at the request of Assemblymember Laura Friedman, AB 1573 entered the California Legislature’s  “inactive file,” therein ending its run this legislative season. The Assemblymember’s transformative legislation was derailed by last-minute amendments on Sep. 1 as it passed through the California Senate Appropriations Committee. Sponsored by CNPS, the bill would have implemented California’s first requirement for the inclusion of low-water native plants in public and commercial landscapes. It also offered an exciting new policy imperative that native plant landscaping be used at a large scale to support the web of life amid the global biodiversity crisis.

Low-water California native plants. Photo: CNPS

Following its introduction, AB 1573 quickly earned the support of dozens of environmental and community organizations, even receiving the attention of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.  Over the summer, AB 1573 passed successfully through the CA State Assembly and the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. The Appropriations Committee was the bill’s last stop before a Senate floor vote. But in the 11th hour of the legislative process, opponents of the bill, in what can only be characterized as a hostile legislative maneuver, inserted a logic-defying change to the definition of “California native plant” to include non-native plants – a poison pill that would have fundamentally undermined its biodiversity focus.

Why we need policy like AB 1573

AB 1573 was a direct response to recent data showing an alarming risk for extinction in California – and the potential for landscaping to help by creating native habitat. According to a 2023 Nature Serve report, California is one of three regions in the U.S. with the highest risk for species extinction. California’s native bees, which comprise 40% of North America’s bee populations – critical for both biodiversity and agriculture – are at the greatest risk in the nation, alongside native plants.

Research is showing that one way to help combat these trends is the introduction of more native plants, especially keystone species like oaks, back into our built environments. Here’s why: Local insects have evolved alongside native plants to evade their natural phytochemical defense systems, thus allowing those insects to eat them. One well-known example of this phenomenon in California is the Monarch butterfly– tropical milkweed isn’t healthy for their reproduction and migration, but native milkweed is. Native plants are needed not just for “pollinator friendly” nectar but also to support leaf-munching caterpillars and other insects, which in turn feed baby birds and more. In fact, research out of the University of Delaware shows that bird populations suffer when native plant biomass drops below 70% in a landscape. Based on that first-of-its-kind research, AB 1573 began with an ambitious requirement that native plants should comprise at least 75% of nonresidential landscapes like highway plantings, corporate headquarters, parks, and government buildings.

Caterpillar. Credit Elizabeth Kubey.
Caterpillars need their host plants, and birds needs caterpillars in enormous quantities to feed their young; Image: Elizabeth Kubey

For most CNPS supporters, this research isn’t news. CNPS alongside organizations like the Xerces Society, Audubon, and Homegrown National Park have long advocated for the importance of native plants to support life in both the wild and built environments. AB 1573 would have resulted in  California doing something tangible about it. Unfortunately, last-minute hostile amendments gutted the bill by substantively changing the bill’s definition of “California native plant” to include any non-native, non-invasive plant “that provides pollinator benefits, and that is a low-water use plant.” This nonsensical definition would mean that non-native plants marketed as “drought-“ and “pollinator-friendly” would be considered “native” plants for the purposes of this bill, therein undermining the biodiversity benefit of this bill while also exacerbating market confusion. The reality is that plants that have not co-evolved with native insects, birds, and other wildlife that depend on specialized relationships with host plants provide less habitat value than native plants. The amendments also reduced the required percentage of native plants for use in projects down to 10%.

What happened behind the scenes

AB 1573 was a remarkable experiment with strong conservation support and industry-driven opposition.

Representatives from Assemblymember Friedman’s office and CNPS participated in frank but positive conversations with a wide range of stakeholders, listening carefully and working in earnest to address concerns raised. The bill’s original draft included exemptions for functional (recreational) turf and edible landscapes, and over time added amendments to exempt landscapes planted for cultural reasons and protect established non-native trees. The bill also shifted from a requirement for “local native plants” to “California native plants,” and reduced its original 75% requirement down to 25%. Based on various inputs, Assemblymember Friedman pursued a good-faith practical path forward, extending the bill’s onramp to 2029. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to bring the bill’s opponents to a neutral position and maintain the spirit of the bill.

Major industry representatives, including California Plant Alliance and Ag Council, fought the bill, arguing against any mandate that a minimum percentage of landscaping must be California native plants.  AB 1573’s opponents’ current business model did not involve growing more California native plants. This kind of opposition may sound familiar because it is same kind of argument made by the industry when California mandated a certain percentage of cars sold had to be zero-emissions or when our state set carbon emission reduction goals. And while frustrating for proponents of the bill, these industry analogs help demonstrate the important role requirements play in ultimately creating change.

Looking ahead with gratitude

Although we are disappointed in this year’s legislative outcome, CNPS has appreciated the helpful feedback and insights gleaned throughout the session. We’re looking forward to regrouping and continuing conversations with close partners and concerned stakeholders. We remain committed to working with leaders like Assemblymember Friedman to activate the untapped power of Californians everywhere to create beautiful, native landscapes that support life, improve access to nature, and conserve natural resources.

On behalf of CNPS’s nearly 13,000 members and hundreds of thousands of followers and supporters, we thank Assemblymember Friedman for her leadership in carrying AB 1573 and most of all, standing by the bill’s biodiversity principles. We thank the bill’s many supporters and partners, who provide wise counsel and shared experience along the way. And we celebrate the CNPS chapters and individuals who inspire and push us to make sure more people understand that our landscaping choices are a matter of life and death. Thank you to all who spoke up on behalf of the bill, made calls to legislators, and helped set the record straight.

We are energized and look forward to great work ahead.  In the meantime, we want to hear from you. Please reach out and share your thoughts on AB 1573 and transforming the built environment with native plants by emailing us at cnps@cnps.org with the subject line: AB 1573.

Liv O’Keeffe is the Senior Director of Public Affairs for the California Native Plant Society.

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