Love 'em or hate 'em, eucalyptus trees still remain at center of controversy

In a victory for conservation, on December 15, 2016, the Planning Commission voted 6-1, to approve the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Natural Area Program (NAP). The intent of this program is to return CA native plants back to San Francisco, lost by urbanization. Typically, plants from San Bruno Mt. will be planted in this program. That is because San Bruno Mt. contains the last vestiges of plants once found in San Francisco. Many of the plants, and the fauna that depend on them exclusively, are endangered.


The main concern on Mt. Davidson has been the prevalence of non-native species (eucalyptus, English ivy and Himalayan blackberry), which have driven out the characteristic native plants. At the hearing, numerous members of the public portrayed the desire to remove the eucalyptus trees as an act of xenophobia."

Herbicide worker on Mt. Davidson
Photo: Anastasia Glikshtern (See Letters to the Editor)

Many of those making comments at the Planning Commission needed to go to the anteroom on the first floor, watching the hearing on closed TV for hours, before finally being able to enter the Planning Commission Chamber to speak. There were 74 people that spoke in favor of NAP, (including 17 who wanted the Sharp Park Golf Course removed from the EIR) and 42 spoke opposing the NAP outright.

Sharp Park, located in Pacifica but included in this study, is 120 acres of land bequeathed to the City of San Francisco in 1917 by the widow of George Sharp (Honora). The park consists of a golf course overlaid on a natural area adjacent the ocean. The non-native grass of the golf course requires pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers which are affecting wildlife and tainting nearby water, causing genetic mutations. Maintaining the Sharp Park Golf Course has been the responsibility of San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department for years. There have been numerous incidents of endangered wildlife being killed by mowing the lawn or gopher control. The endangered wildlife protected here are the Red Legged Frog and the San Francisco Garter Snake. Therefore, the wild lands surrounding the golf course have been included in the EIR of the Natural Area Program.

The main concern on Mt. Davidson has been the prevalence of non-native species (eucalyptus, English ivy and Himalayan blackberry), which have driven out the characteristic native plants. At the hearing, numerous members of the public portrayed the desire to remove the eucalyptus trees as an act of xenophobia. Those with this position ignored the agent that poisons the ground, in the oil of the eucalyptus. This agent, called allelopathy, inhibits other plants from growing underneath eucalyptus trees, creating both a monoculture of plant growth, as well as a lack of habitat for fauna. Other plants that have this strategy for survival are the Creosote Bush, Walnut Tree and the California Bay. On Mt. Davidson, crews remove leaves of the eucalyptus from the ground regularly to allow an understory of native species to grow there. However, the residue of the oil of the eucalyptus trees has still affected the fertility of the soil, back before the Natural Areas Program started the leaf removal. No doubt this accounts for some of the lack of success for the reintroduction of native plants.

Another point those defending the eucalyptus trees made was that to remove these trees would release a tremendous amount of carbon sequestered or stored in the wood, resulting in Global Warming. A study of these trees measured that 85% are in poor health. It would seem that left alone, which was often the request of those protecting the trees, could result in fire. Possibly, as soon as a 100 years from now, all that carbon could be released into the atmosphere instantly anyway. Remember eucalyptus trees that fueled the fire in Oakland?

A short list of those that supported the Natural Area Program in testimony were: Nature in the City, Livable City, the California Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club.

Glenn Rogers is a landscape architect who lives in the Westside.

February 2017

Time to End Our Parks’ Forests?

San Franciscans love their trees. Nearly 80% of us voted last month to set aside money in the budget to maintain street trees. But there are those who consider trees in parks as little more than “invasive weeds” and want them cut down.


Natural Areas Planning

Draft Environmental
Impact Report

for Final EIR certification

Planning Commission

Thursday, December 15 • 1 PM

Room 400, City Hall

This will be a joint hearing with the SF Recreation and Park Commission who will then consider approval of the project immediately following the certification.

Please send comments to:


Rec & Park:

Unfortunately, this very vocal minority has the ear of the City’s Recreation and Park Department (RPD) in the form of its Natural Areas Program. NAP began 20 years ago as a plan to preserve the small pockets of “native” habitat – arbitrarily defined as plants that were here when the Spaniards arrived – that remained.

The landscape back then was very different. Indeed, the initial Spanish explorers described San Francisco as “the very worst place for settlement in all of California” with “nothing but sand, brambles, and raging winds.” It was grassland and dune scrub. There were no trees.


Despite several decades’ work, advocates cannot point to a single NAP-managed area that has been successful long-term. Many volunteers have spent hours planting new natives, only to return several months later to find them all dead.”

Over time, NAP’s plans morphed from preserving small remnants into the destruction of large existing non-native habitats so they could be replaced with native plants. In, ironically, the biggest land grab in San Francisco since the Spanish arrived, NAP has claimed control of one-quarter of all City parkland, including all of Mt. Davidson. There was no public debate. They just took control.

On December 15th, the Planning Commission will meet to certify NAP’s Environmental Impact Review, and later that same day, the Recreation and Park Commission will meet to decide which recommendations about NAP to adopt. These meetings may well be our last chance to stop the proposed controversial plans.

Take the Forests Out of NAP Most of the trees in city parks are eucalyptus, cypress, pine and acacia, none of which are native to San Francisco. To get rid of these “invasives,” the NAP Management Plan calls for cutting down 18,500 trees in park areas controlled by NAP, including over 1,600 trees on Mt. Davidson.

NAP will leave some trees still standing, but large sections of Mt. Davidson, for example, will have over 80% of their trees removed. That’s not thinning. That’s clearcutting.

The NAP Management Plan is very explicit about how the program views trees: “The long-term goal of urban forest management in [many NAP-controlled areas] is to slowly convert those areas to native scrub, and grassland habitats or oak woodlands.”

So, NAP’s goal for the management of its urban forests is to get rid of the forests.

Ten years ago, tree advocates asked Recreation and Park Commissioners to ensure that an arborist or forester was included in the team that conducted the environmental review of NAP. The Commissioners refused.

So those reviewing NAP’s tree-removal plans didn’t need any background or experience in forestry. Is it any wonder they didn’t find anything wrong with the plans to clearcut portions of the forests on Mt. Davidson and elsewhere?

By contrast, a few years ago, UC Berkeley Professor of Urban Forestry Joe McBride studied the forest on Mt. Davidson. He didn’t see any conditions on the mountain that would require thinning of the trees at the levels planned by NAP.

McBride noted the proposed tree cutting will increase the amount of wind hitting the remaining trees, leaving them more susceptible to breaking limbs and falling over. NAP’s plans will increase the potential danger for people walking on Mt. Davidson and for the homes that abut the park.

It makes no sense to allow native-plant advocates who see no value in the existing trees to continue to manage the forests in NAP-controlled areas. No tree should ever be removed just because its type wasn’t here when the Spanish arrived.

All forested areas currently being managed by NAP – including in Mt. Davidson, Sharp Park, and McLaren Park – must be transferred from NAP control and turned over to Department arborists who will care for and nurture the trees.

Stop NAP From Using Toxic Herbicides There’s actually very little that is “natural” about NAP-managed “natural areas.” To kill non-native trees and plants and prevent them from re-sprouting, NAP requires repeated use of very toxic herbicides, including Garlon, which carries a rating of “most hazardous.”

Indeed NAP uses more poisonous herbicides than any other division of the Recreation and Park Department, except for Harding Park, which is maintained to professional golf standards. For example, NAP used nearly 80% of the Garlon used by the entire Department last year.

NAP must stop relying on repeated applications of toxic herbicides to kill non-native plants or to stop them from growing back.

Implement the Maintenance Alternative In the EIR for the NAP Management Plan, the “Maintenance Alternative” was deemed environmentally superior. Under this Alternative, NAP could maintain areas they’ve already converted to native habitat, but could not destroy any additional non-native habitat. No new trees could be removed simply because they’re not native. This popular alternative sets limits on what NAP can do, whereas the Management Plan gives them free rein.

Despite several decades’ work, advocates cannot point to a single NAP-managed area that has been successful long-term. Many volunteers have spent hours planting new natives, only to return several months later to find them all dead.

In part, this is because the fundamental premise of NAP – that plants that were here 200 years ago are best suited for the area today – is wrong. In the time since the Spanish landed, the chemistry of the air and soil have changed from pollution and other human-driven changes. The non-native plants that flourish here today do so mainly because they are better suited to the current conditions than the natives.

Biology is all about change and evolution. NAP tries to deny both and force its areas to remain frozen at one particular point in time (pre-Spanish).

The Recreation and Park Commission should implement the Maintenance Alternative, not the NAP Management Plan.

The Time to Speak Is Now On December 15th, the Planning Commission will meet to decide whether to certify the NAP Management Plan EIR. Many opponents of NAP feel this EIR does not adequately address serious questions, especially the proposed tree removals, and it should not be certified.

Later that same day, the Recreation and Park Commission will decide which alternative to adopt – the Maintenance Alternative or the NAP Management Plan.

If you cannot attend, please write to both Commissions and tell them you want forests transferred from NAP’s control to RPD’s forestry division, you want no toxic herbicides in NAP areas, and you support the Maintenance Alternative.

December 15th will be the last chance we have to keep our neighborhood parks tree-lined, green and lush, instead of NAP’s treeless, brown and scraggly.

Nancy Wuerfel served on the Park, Recreation, and Open Space Advisory Committee for nine years. Sally Stephens is Vice-President of West of Twin Peaks Council.

December 2016/ January 2017

Will the Natural Areas Program Affect the Future of Our Parks?

Nearly every thing in this photo of McLaren Park could be removed, detractors say, by the Natural Areas Program simply because they’re not native.

When most people think of a park, they think of a lush green space with trees and pretty plants, a space where everyone can walk, play or just sit quietly. A few, however, think of a windswept area with no trees and scraggly plants, where people aren’t welcome except on a trail. Which vision would you rather see in your neighborhood park?


The NAP Management Plan is currently undergoing an environmental impact review. The Final EIR could be released any day. If the Plan is finally approved, NAP will be free to make any and all of the radical changes the Plan outlines for our parks, limited only by the funds available.”

Any day now, the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) could begin to fully implement its Natural Areas Program (NAP) that will radically change the appearance and usage in 32 RPD parks and open spaces (covering 1,100 acres, one-quarter of RPD’s parkland) including Mt. Davidson, Glen Canyon, and McLaren Park.

In the “natural areas” it controls, NAP will tear up the existing habitat of plants and trees and replace them with plants that are “native” to San Francisco, i.e., plants that were here before European colonization began in the 1700s, a completely arbitrary date that native plant advocates have adopted as their ideal time.

That means re-creating the 1700s’ habitat of grasslands, sand dunes and scrub, with no trees and raging winds. During half of the year, many native plants are dormant and appear brown and dead. Do we really want treeless, uninviting parks? Is that what we want to leave our grandchildren?

How Natural Are Natural Areas?

Ironically, there is little that’s “natural” about NAP’s “natural areas.” The climate, soil and atmosphere have all changed since the 1700s, and indigenous plants are not necessarily well suited to today’s changing conditions. To keep the often-better-suited non-native trees and plants from growing back, NAP requires repeated applications of large amounts of herbicides. The toxic chemicals are necessary because NAP has taken control of more land than they can maintain manually.

The herbicides used by NAP are known carcinogens, and NAP’s use of them –especially when they’re applied over and over again to the same area – endangers anyone, especially children and pets, who walk or play in “natural” areas. They have even sprayed the blackberries that birds – and generations of San Franciscans – eat.

Because there were few trees here in the 1700s, the NAP Management Plan calls for the removal of 18,500 trees – 3,400 in city parks (including 1,600 on Mt. Davidson) and 15,100 in Sharp Park in Pacifica. Nearly all those trees are not native (eucalyptus, Monterey Cypress, Monterey Pine, and acacias). Many were planted “only” 150 years ago, not long enough for them to be considered “native” by NAP advocates.

Unlike what NAP advocates say, the NAP Management Plan doesn’t state it will only remove dead or dangerous trees. Instead, it describes removing trees as the first step in the gradual conversion of forests to native scrub and grasslands. Clearly, the trees are being targeted because they are not indigenous and because trees don’t fit into NAP’s idea of what should be in a natural area.

No one really knows what will happen when so many trees are cut down. With fewer trees to block the wind, parks like Mt. Davidson and surrounding areas could become much windier. Eucalyptus trees intertwine their roots with those of neighboring trees. Herbicides applied to the stumps of trees to keep them from resprouting will travel to the roots of the remaining trees. Combine that with the steep hillsides, wind, and erosion, and there’s no way to know what kinds of damage could happen to the homes surrounding the park. Sadly, we may only find out after the trees are gone that it was a big mistake.

Why A Natural Areas Program?

Why are we even talking about this? NAP was inspired by a fad in academic circles in the 1970s and 1980s that native plants are somehow “better” than plants that arrived later. This “nativist” idea no longer has the support of many in academia.

Yet in San Francisco, the nativist fad took root. The original justification for the program was to preserve and protect “undeveloped remnants of the historic landscape.” But, over time, NAP expanded far beyond that and it is now more about wholesale habitat conversion to re-create the idealized, frozen-in-time gardens that NAP prefers, even in places where few native plants exist today.

NAP advocates talk about increasing biodiversity. It is true that the more biologically diverse an ecosystem is, the healthier and more sustainable it is. But for scientists, “biodiversity” includes both native and non-native species. Indeed, San Francisco’s biodiversity has actually increased in the past century; few native plants species have been lost in San Francisco while many, many new species have been added to the mix.

NAP supporters, however, incorrectly define “biodiversity” as “native-plant-only biodiversity.” By destroying many non-native species, NAP may actually decrease the existing biodiversity in San Francisco parks.

Recent research has highlighted the important role non-native plants play in helping ecosystems deal with stressors like climate change. By focusing solely on native plants for biodiversity, NAP advocates may be making large sections of our parks less sustainable and adaptable in the future.

A Law Unto Itself?

NAP has operated for decades with little oversight or accountability. When voters mandated maintenance standards for all parks, NAP opted out of having any standards apply to its natural areas or to allow any yearly independent inspection of those areas.

NAP staff never asked neighbors and park users if they wanted a NAP-controlled natural area in their park. They just claimed the space as theirs.

When told that NAP’s removal of non-native iceplant at Grandview Park had caused damage to surrounding backyards from now-drifting sand, NAP staff responded that they had no responsibility for anything that happened outside park boundaries, even if their actions caused it.

NAP staff intentionally planted poison oak, a native plant, just off trails at Pine Lake Park to limit where people can go. Do they not understand that people in the second-most-dense city in the country need full access to city parks?

Coming Soon To A Park Near You

The NAP Management Plan is currently undergoing an environmental impact review. The Final EIR could be released any day. If the Plan is finally approved, NAP will be free to make any and all of the radical changes the Plan outlines for our parks, limited only by the funds available. And wholesale habitat conversion does not come cheap.

Supervisor Mark Farrell has introduced a charter amendment to secure a more sustainable source of funding for RPD. Protections need to be built into that amendment to ensure that any new money is earmarked for regular park and tree maintenance and rec center programming, which people want funded, not siphoned into NAP’s expansionist plans.

NAP is a gardening preference, not science. NAP’s attempt to freeze the landscape at a single point in time ignores the most basic tenet of biology – things change over time. NAP has few success stories in the relatively small areas they’ve planted so far. If these small-scale projects aren’t sustainable, why should we let them manage one-quarter of RPD’s parkland?

The future of our parks depends on the choices we make today. Will we allow the Natural Areas Program to turn large sections into plant museums that restrict where you can go and what you can do? Once trees are cut down, they’re gone. Once habitat has been destroyed, it’s gone. Our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have to live with our decisions.

Nancy Wuerfel served on the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee for nine years. Sally Stephens is Vice-President of West of Twin Peaks Council.

February 2016

Natural Areas Plan:
Eucalyptus Advocates Fight Back Eucalyptus trees survive SD fire

In 2003 Scripps Ranch Fire in San Diego, wildfire swept through a subdivision, burning houses to the ground, but leaving adjacent eucalyptus trees untouched

It’s hard to believe, but in San Francisco, there are some people who want to cut down our healthy forests (and use toxic herbicides to keep them from re-growing) simply because the trees are not “native” enough.

The claims against the trees, most of which are eucalyptus, have changed over the years. First, it was that they will spread unchecked and take over nearby parkland. Then it was that chemicals in their leaves kill plants on the ground. Then it was that they are a huge fire risk. Now, it’s that they’re dying due to the drought. Turns out none of these are true.


The NAP Management Plan (its Final EIR will be released soon) calls for the removal of over 18,000 healthy, mature trees, mostly eucalypts, because they are non-native and so that they can be replaced with native grasses and scrub.”


The trees’ real “crime” is that, like many of us, they came here from somewhere else and haven’t been here long enough to be considered “native” by native plant activists.

To be “native,” plants must have been here before Spanish settlers arrived 250 years ago. Then, San Francisco was a barren, wind-whipped place, filled with sand and dune scrub, and few, if any, trees. By this definition, nearly all trees are non-native to San Francisco. Eucalyptus trees, planted “only”150 years ago are, to native plant advocates, unwelcome immigrants.

The question facing San Francisco is: Do we really want to see most of the trees on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson cut down because of the preference of some people for the former, treeless San Francisco? Do we, as a City, really want to support an ideology that says arbitrarily defined natives are “better” than more recent arrivals, even those who have been here for over a hundred years?

Let’s look more closely at the arguments against eucalypts.

For years, native plant advocates said eucalyptus trees were highly “invasive” and would spread uncontrollably if left alone, and, therefore, should be cut down. The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) originally agreed. But last March, after significant criticism of that position, Cal-IPC took another look at eucalypts. As a result, they have downgraded the invasiveness of blue gum eucalyptus trees from “moderate” to “limited.”

Just look at Mount Davidson, half covered in a eucalyptus forest, and half covered in grassland. The borderline between the two halves hasn’t changed significantly in over 100 years. Eucalypts are not the invasive threat we’d been told they were.

Native plant advocates then tried to claim that eucalyptus leaves that fall to the ground contain chemicals that kill all other plants, turning forest floors into ecological deserts or “mono-cultures” to justify cutting them down. However, laboratory studies and inventories of plants on the ground around trees have largely disproved this old wives’ tale. Indeed, as part of its re-evaluation of eucalypts, Cal-IPC removed most references to eucalyptus leaf litter killing plants on the forest floor.

The Cal-IPC re-evaluation also noted that eucalyptus trees provide needed habitat for raptors, owls, and other animals. They are one of the few sources of nectar available during winter months for bees, hummingbirds, and monarch butterflies. Turns out, cutting down eucalypts won’t help forest biodiversity.

Searching for a new justification, native plant advocates then seized on the idea that the trees present a significant fire danger. This grew out of the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, in which eucalyptus trees (along with nearly everything else) burned. Native plant advocates told us that had the eucalypts not been there, the tragedy might not have happened.

But there have been other urban wildfires in which eucalyptus trees did not burn. For example, in the 2003 Scripps Ranch Fire in San Diego, wildfire swept through a subdivision, burning houses to the ground, but leaving adjacent eucalyptus trees untouched. Clearly, at Scripps Ranch, fire plus eucalypts did not equal disaster.

The Oakland fire occurred after a prolonged, deep winter freeze in the East Bay. According to a FEMA analysis, the freeze caused many plants to die and eucalypts to drop more leaves than usual onto the ground. The increased ground litter and dead vegetation was never cleaned up and contributed more fuel to the fire than would normally have been found in a eucalyptus forest.

Generally speaking, wildfires start in grass or in litter on the ground, as happened in Oakland. Grass fires spread quickly, but, on their own, tend to stay close to the ground and don’t burn hot enough to ignite trees. It’s only if the grass fire moves into shrubs and bushes that it begins to burn hotter and higher. According to wildfire experts at the US Geological Survey, only 3% of fires in California involve trees.

What ignites trees in a wildfire is wind. In Oakland, a strong, hot, dry wind pushed the fire. When wind whips up a grass fire, it can burn everything in its path – grass, shrubs, trees, and, tragically, homes.

The fear-mongering that warns of an Oakland-style firestorm in San Francisco ignores an important fact – San Francisco is not Oakland. The conditions that caused the Oakland fire – dry, hot temperatures after a prolonged, deep winter freeze – do not occur in San Francisco’s moderate, foggy climate. Eucalypts are not the fire danger here that we’ve been told.

It is ironic that native plant advocates cite fire as a reason to cut down non-native eucalyptus trees since they want to replace the forests with native grassland. Grass ignites easily; trees don’t. Replacing eucalyptus forests with native grassland may actually increase the fire danger to surrounding homes.

What about the drought? Is it killing the eucalyptus? Jake Sigg, a well-known native plant advocate, has called for cutting down blue gum eucalyptus in city parks for over a decade. He has cited all the reasons debunked above. Now he’s claiming that in the next few years, all the eucalyptus will be dead from the drought.

Sigg claims that epicormic sprouts, an unusual growth of leaves, have recently been seen on eucalyptus in San Francisco, and are a sure sign the trees will soon die. Except, that’s not true. Epicormic sprouts are a survival mechanism for eucalyptus trees. Sometimes, they’re a response to stress, but other times they’re just part of the normal growth cycle of the tree. The epicormic sprouts Sigg is seeing are actually a sign the trees are coping with the drought, not necessarily surrendering to it.

Ironically, the drought is not the only environmental stressor facing the eucalypts. Over the past few years, thousands of the trees have been cut down in San Francisco to “thin” the non-native forests. Thinning changes the environment in which the remaining trees live – more light, more wind, less fog drip, herbicides use, etc. – all of which can trigger the trees’ protective response of epicormic sprouting.

Academic foresters and professional arborists who have looked at eucalyptus in San Francisco city parks say the forests are largely healthy, even with the sprouts, and they expect the trees to live another 200 years.

This discussion about eucalyptus trees isn’t just academic. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department has a Natural Areas Program (NAP) that plans to convert existing habitat (including eucalyptus forests) in one-quarter of the City’s parkland to a native plant gardens. The NAP Management Plan (its Final EIR will be released soon) calls for the removal of over 18,000 healthy, mature trees, mostly eucalypts, because they are non-native and so that they can be replaced with native grasses and scrub. On Mount Davidson, for example, 1,600 trees are slated for removal.

NAP also endorses the repeated and large-scale use of the toxic herbicides (such as Roundup, recently classified as a probable carcinogen) in its “natural” areas. The herbicides, applied to eucalyptus stumps, are the only way to prevent felled trees from re-sprouting.

San Francisco will soon have to decide if it really wants to decimate its urban forests in the name of native plant ideology. No one is saying that dead trees or branches should not be removed to protect the public. That’s not what this “debate” about eucalypts is about.

San Francisco has significantly fewer trees than most cities our size. Mature trees scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, helping reduce the effects of climate change. We need more trees, not less.

Our choice – protect healthy trees that may have originated somewhere else but have thrived here for over a century, or cut them down in service to an ideology that says anything not native is bad simply because it hasn’t been here long enough.

Nancy Wuerfel served on the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee for nine years. Sally Stephens is Vice-President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Avrum Shepard is a Past-President of the Greater West Portal Neighborhood Association.

October 2015

UCSF’s Mount Sutro forest grows controversySutro Forrest

Westside residents are concerned the University of California - San Francisco will be cutting down 30,000 trees in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. While the university says this is fallacy, Save Mount Sutro Forest (SMSF) says it is a fact.

“Tree-felling could start as early as Fall 2013,” SMSF’s website says.


…a petition, which now has more than 2,000 signatures, to stop the plan to kill more than 30,000 trees in the open space. But the university says the plan is not to kill the trees, but to manage the space. Managing the open space, the university says, will improve the forest’s health…”

Activists with SMSF have started a petition, which now has more than 2,000 signatures, to stop the plan to kill more than 30,000 trees in the open space. But the university says the plan is not to kill the trees, but to manage the space. Managing the open space, the university says, will improve the forest’s health; maintain a safe environment for neighbors, visitors, and the campus community; and protect neighboring homes and other buildings from a potential wildfire.

However, activists say the fire hazard is low. Activists say the work to manage the forest could increase the fire danger. By thinning the forest, the forest will become drier and windier, activists say. And the eucalyptus trees that grow in the forest are more fire resistant than anything else that will grow there.

UCSF though, says that the forest is “comparatively dry due to the characteristics of the eucalyptus trees,” which pull water from the soil and tie up moisture in their roots. “The forest in the Reserve is at risk of catching fire for just this reason,” a UCSF fact sheet says, “and our history tells us that the fog zone of the San Francisco Bay region is not immune to catastrophic wildfires.”

The 61-acre reserve is on the south side of the University of California San Francisco Parnassus Heights campus, and northeast of the Forest Hill neighborhood. The university owns the property, but the property is available for use by residents and visitors to San Francisco.

The university has published a draft environmental impact report, and the report’s public comment period is open until March 19. UCSF says that the idea the university is cutting down 30,000 trees is a misinterpretation of the draft EIR. By law the EIR draft has “to examine what the maximum impact of the most aggressive management practice contemplated would be in its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Reserve,” UCSF says in a frequently asked questions sheet, “so someone may be confusing the report with a final forest management plan.”

It appears SMSF and the university disagree about the potential for a wildfire in the reserve. SMSF says the idea that the eucalyptus trees in the reserve are flammable and are involved in most California wildfires is a partial myth. They say that eucalyptus trees are fire-resistant, and may act as a windbreak during a wildfire. The site points to a story in the Contra Costa Times saying the 1991 Oakland Hills fire was not primarily due to burning eucalyptus.

That story, written by David Maloney, a member of the Task Force investigating the Oakland Hills fire, says that the fire spread due to radiant heat from burning houses. Maloney said that the blue gum eucalyptus trees, one of two species that make up most of the eucalyptus in the Hills, has a thick bark and branches starting at 25 feet off the ground, making it resistant to ground fires. But a forester in a university-sponsored video pointed to vines that travel from the ground into the canopy of Mount Sutro eucalyptus trees that could spread a fire. It’s unclear if the eucalyptus trees in the Oakland Hills are the same kind as on Mount Sutro.

Before the plan is implemented, four separate study areas will be examined to determine the best way to manage the forest. In all, the study areas will total less than 7.5 acres of land, according to UCSF and neighbors will have a chance to evaluate the four forest management options using criteria developed in a 2009-2010 community process.

Herbicide use is another controversial issue for activists with SMSF. UCSF says it does not use herbicides now to manage the forest, and herbicide use will be limited to no more than three acres as the university determines what forest management plan to use. The university “will clearly mark where herbicides are applied. Results of herbicides on this single acre and other re-growth control methods used in the remainder of the demonstration project areas will be compared and evaluated before developing a policy for the remainder of the Reserve,” a university source said.

But SMSF says “this will introduce toxic chemicals where there are none.” The activists say that thousands of applications will be needed because the herbicide or herbicides will be used on thousands of stumps, vines, and stems. Also, the herbicide use will occur over many years because the trees will sprout again, according to SMSF.

UCSF says it is committed to preserving Mount Sutro as a place for San Francisco residents and visitors. The university says the reserve was designated permanent open space by the UC Board of Regents in 1976, but rules to manage the property were not developed then. The open space attracts hundreds of visitors each year, and many of the hiking trails in the reserve have been rediscovered or reopened recently, bringing more visitors.

Today the reserve is an aging eucalyptus forest that has residents concerned about the health of the forest and their safety, including the possibility of a wildfire, according to a university source.

The university says thinning and managing the forest will make it healthier and reduce the potential for a wildfire.

Keith Burbank is a freelance SF reporter.

March 2013

Trouble on the Mountain

Fight Brews Over Future of Mt. Davidson’s Forest

Mt Davidson Forest

Mt. Davidson is the subject of a heated debate once again due to potentially large proposed changes to the forest that could affect the recreation of park visitors. While it has yet to gain attention from a larger population, close observers of Mt. Davidson are warning that the park as we know it will be changed for the worse when at least 1,600 trees are cut down and more than half a mile of trails are closed as a long term plan goes into effect.

Many people know Mt. Davidson and the roughly forty acre park for its historic cross, annual Easter Sunrise service, hiking trails, sweeping views, active wildlife, location as an urban refuge, or for many other recreation-related reasons. Fewer people are aware that the park is considered to be one of San Francisco’s “Natural Areas,” therefore under the ambit of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. The Natural Areas Program has designed a plan to manage the natural areas of San Francisco in accordance with their objectives.

graphic Many environmental groups support the changes to Mt. Davidson and other areas as necessary to preserve San Francisco’s natural historic areas. They promote urban ecological restoration as necessary to restore an ecological balance in the city. Trees such as the Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress are non-native, and considered invasive by these groups. Not all neighbors of Mt. Davidson agree.


For those watching at home, that means the maintenance and alterations of Mt. Davidson (as well as Twin Peaks, Mt. Sutro, Golden Gate Heights, and other natural areas of SF) will be geared towards appeasing objectives that focus on:

• Loss of special status or unusual native species or habitats;

• Loss of diversity and components of a healthy ecosystem;

• Effect of nonnative invasive species on the local native flora and fauna;

• Erosion of Natural Areas from inappropriately located or constructed trails and access roads;

• Effect of human uses (recreation, poor trail location or too many trails, and a general increase in use) that conflict with conservation values; and

• Effects of feral animals and domestic pets on native flora and fauna.

With this focus, specific changes to Mt. Davidson include 1,600 trees to be cut down in concentrated areas that may be replaced in other areas of the city rather than Mt. Davidson. However, the unaccounted for tree losses make the total number of felled trees likely to be much greater than 1,600. Trees that might be cut down not included in the 1,600 count are any trees that are under 15 feet tall (which are not considered mature trees), trees that might be damaged when their wind barriers are altered, or trees that are within 50-100 feet of trails and might be cut down due to trail management. Sections of the forest are going to be remade as prairies, with some scattered large trees remaining.

As well as changing the natural landscape, recreation will also be altered. Changes include closing 2,867 feet of trails out of 15,456, while creating zero feet of new trails. It is unknown how these trail closures will affect some of the historic steps leading to Mt. Davidson. Some of those steps are in areas deemed to require high priority attention, and those areas are to be significantly altered to foster native plant growth. A viewing bench has already been removed from its prime viewing location near the cross.

The current appearance of Mt. Davidson is a byproduct of the century old border between Adolph Sutro and Leland Stanford. In promoting Arbor Days, Sutro had many Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees planted, in the process creating a non-native forest as well as an urban oasis. Stanford’s side remained unchanged, leaving a large piece of pre-European San Francisco native plants in place. By the time the city had purchased all of the land for the park in 1950, the two sides were clearly delineated, and the dualistic character of the park remains to this day.

Of course, no discussion of Mt. Davidson would be complete without considering the effect on the cross. No plans have been made to make the cross more visible. The trees will be felled with the intention of fostering native plants, not allowing any better views of the cross or from the mountain. Presumably nothing will be changed at the sliver of land at the top (as it is not owned by the city). The only change would be potentially reduced access to the cross due to reduced trails and wind impediments.

In addition to active landscaping, recreation may also be affected by other side effects. As most visitors are aware, conditions can be windy at the top of San Francisco’s highest point. While the tree-less side of the Eastern side can be very blustery, often visitors will retreat towards the forested portion for protection from the wind. Any reduction of trees would be a natural cause for an increase in windy conditions on the mountain. This can affect both hapless hikers and unprotected trees. Windthrow is the condition that occurred when previously wind-toughened trees are removed from a stand, leaving unprotected trees vulnerable to high and hazardous wind. The report examining the potential changes discounted the potential for increased wind on Mt. Davidson, despite a vast majority of trees being felled in a 3.8 acre section on the Western side, where the highest winds usually occur.

The finding of less than significant wind impact has raised concerns from neighbors, who say that the City’s reasoning is faulty. The reasoning behind a prediction of little wind changes includes an assertion that because the trees will be cut down near the center of the park over a several year period, and trees that are cut would be small and medium, the wind increase will be less than significant. Critics note that because Mt. Davidson is 938 feet tall, and sharply sloping in many areas, holes in the windbreak will be exploited easily by the wind. They also note that the felled trees examined by the report only include planned cut trees, and the cumulative effect of a loss of that many trees and the western locations could make for high wind conditions throughout the park.

Many environmental groups support the changes to Mt. Davidson and other areas as necessary to preserve San Francisco’s natural historic areas. They promote urban ecological restoration as necessary to restore an ecological balance in the city. Trees such as the Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress are non-native, and considered invasive by these groups. Not all neighbors of Mt. Davidson agree.

Jacquie Proctor, a neighbor of Mt. Davidson, co-founder of the Mt. Davidson Conservancy, noted historian and publisher of a book on the Mt. Davidson area, is considered one of the most knowledgeable people regarding Mt. Davidson and is troubled by the potential changes. “The high number of Monterey Cypress in the forest was greatly underestimated in the Natural Areas Plan. The clearing of these trees has fostered the growth of poison oak. New native plant seedlings require the ongoing application of toxic herbicides to maintain,” she said.

Avrum Shepard, a neighbor of Mt. Davidson, believes biodiversity is important, and that the current environment provides more biodiversity than native plants historically provided on Mt. Davidson. “Professor Arthur Shapiro’s research shows that attempting to restore the mountain to what it was in 1776, would provide less biodiversity and actually damage the balance that exists now. Eliminating the non-natives would harm the environment, not enhance it, and stress the existing mix of plants, animals, and air quality. To eliminate the number of trees planned would decimate the forest and reduce its carbon absorbing benefits. The NAP plan is not environmentally sound. It is a disaster that would do irreparable harm,” he said.

Don Enochson, a long time West of Twin Peaks resident, and neighbor of Mt. Davidson, is concerned with both the cost and purpose of the change. “I have not seen a specific plan with architectural landscape drawings so it is difficult to see what they plan to do. But cutting down healthy trees does not seem justified. The value of restoring Mt. Davidson to some past natural state is questionable. The eucalyptus forest does provide a meditative environment. Removing trees would be like destroying a cathedral. I also find the concept of restoration to be questionable. Fighting nature to restore nature is a fool’s errand,” he said.

At the very local level, this fight is about the future of Mt. Davidson. On a citywide level, people are concerned about the purpose of the Natural Area Program itself. For a department that is continually said to be broke by its director, some wonder why money would be spent to cut down trees while recreation clubhouses remain closed. Others argue that people deserve to see San Francisco in its natural state as much as possible, and point to Twin Peaks as an example of a natural area enjoyed by many.

Recently, neighborhood activists from the West of Twin Peaks area and other areas of the city have joined together to form the SF Forest Alliance. The stated purpose and goals are “halt destruction of city park trees and wildlife habitat, reverse plans that deny public access to trails and natural areas, eliminate unwarranted toxic hazards to children and wildlife, [and] stop abuse of tax revenue and funding within city natural areas.”

No matter one’s views, trees will be felled and trails will be closed if the current plans go through. The plans are still under review, and need to be approved by the Planning Commission, and then possibly appealed to the Board of Supervisors. If you are in support of, or are concerned about the changes, contacting Planning Commissioners or Supervisors would be the most effective way to make your opinion known.

Further information:

SF Natural Areas Program (Supporting the Changes) –

SF Forest Alliance (Opposing the Changes) -

SF Planning Department (For a full copy of the Citywide Plans) –

March 2012