Great Blue Heron nesting season begins mid-April
Great Blue Heron nesting season begins mid-April. Will bright flashing lights and deisel's clamor a few blocks away upset their natural environment? Image /
What Is the Price of 'Fun?'
Kathy Howard
Kathy Howard

Park and Rec has been demanding that the Observation Wheel remain in Golden Gate Park for four more years, in the name of 'fun.' Certainly, we are all ready to get out and enjoy ourselves, but what will be the cost for this 'fun?' Is it fun to promote disregard of nature?   Is it fun to promote the degradation of habitat in in our precious landscape park? Golden Gate Park provides not only habitat for the wildlife and the birds who live in and migrate over it but also provides a haven for city dwellers who have found refuge in our parkland during the pandemic.

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The Music Concourse Observation Wheel is also a massive 150’ strobe light. Motion activated strobe lights are sold in Pet Stores to protect your animals in the backyard at night. The shadows Strobe Lights produce are intolerable to birds.”

ferris wheel

There will be hearings early this week to decide how long the Wheel will remain in Golden Gate Park.

Some folks have asked — what is the wildlife in the park that everyone is talking about?


Good question!  I have reached out to folks who have been trying to protect the Park's precious wildlife, and here is what they said:

A fox in GGP / Image

Early Morning in the Music Concourse
 by Ann McPherson

In the early morning I stand amidst the Columns at the Bandshell breathing in the fresh air, opening up my mind and gently dissolving, connecting to Mother Nature surrounding me. I see a skunk slowly sauntering towards me, making the rounds in the darkness just before first light. He has poor eyesight and might walk straight up to me - if I’m quiet and he doesn’t catch my scent. I generally make a little noise, stamp my foot, so that he knows I’m nearby. I don’t want to get sprayed after all!  He heads to his burrow and gives me a wide berth. 

Later, as the first light comes, three raven scouts fly in from the West. When they see me, they do some barrel rolls and call out to me. They are my friends! They find me every morning wherever I go.

Soon I see a chunky racoon waddling across the Concourse. It climbs a tree and disappears into the leaves. I wonder…Why is that racoon sleeping in the middle of the Concourse?  It’ll be quite noisy there soon with lots of people nearby. One day I hear a strange clicking sound and I try to find it. As I look up into the tree, two tiny racoon faces peered down at me. That was a Momma raccoon!  She and her little ones live in the hollow tree top.

You may see a fox sitting peacefully at the edge of the Academy of Science or a coyote meandering down the road or a raucous turkey patrolling the parking lot. And there are always plenty of squirrels, scrub jays and robins - as well as a red-tailed hawk or two!  What a beautiful world it is early morning in the Music Concourse!   

Pacific Forktail
Pacific Forktail Dragonfly /

All you have to do is look up.

by Robert Hall

If you’re a serious naturalist or just a keen observer of the little things that scamper, slither, glide, buzz and hover, you can always find entertainment in Golden Gate Park. On an hour walk you don’t have to be too lucky to spot echo azure butterflies launching off their host plant, California buckeye or slender salamanders hiding under a rock near the de Young museum or a Pacific forktail dragonfly darting above the surface of Stow Lake. If you do get a little lucky, you may get to see one of the last remaining monarch butterflies floating through the Monterey pines, a cedar waxwing exchanging toyon berries with its companion or a black-tailed bumblebee queen awakening from winter hibernation.  

The most amazing thing is that you’ll be surrounded by all of nature’s bounty and hardly a soul will notice — not the picnickers on the lawn of the Conservancy of Flowers who are being skimmed by barn swallows or the jogger who missed out on a coyote pawing at a Botta’s pocket gopher. The drama of life is all there. All you have to do is look up.

Here’s a website by Harry Fuller that gives you a little bit of the natural history of GGP from a birder’s perspective.

A giant, anti-bird strobe light in the middle of Golden Gate Park
by Stephanie Wiseman

The Music Concourse Observation Wheel is also a massive 150’ strobe light. Motion activated strobe lights are sold in Pet Stores to protect your animals in the backyard at night. The shadows Strobe Lights produce are intolerable to birds.

blinking strobe pet light
A "Pet Safety" strobe light

Strawberry Hill in in direct line of sight to the wheel. Great Horned Owlets have been born and raised here in Golden Gate Park, some on Strawberry Hill. 

Great Blue Herons have a rookery at Stow Lake. Great Blue Herons will also hunt at night, especially when feeding their young. Finally, for the human animal, strobe lights can cause photosensitive epilepsy in some individuals. 

There have been over 250 bird species observed in Golden Gate Park

by Noreen Weeden, former Volunteer Coordinator, Golden Gate Audubon Society.

During the spring and fall migration you might catch a glimpse of a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Western Wood-Pewee or a Warbling Vireo or even a Hermit Warbler, Western Tanager or a Bullock’s Oriole. These birds are taking a break in the park to get food or rest during the spring on their northward journey to their breeding grounds. In the fall these and other bird species along with their many young are migrating south to their wintering grounds. The hawks travel by day. The small songbirds travel at night using the stars and moon as their navigational tools. The Western Wood-Pewee breeds as far north as the boreal forest and migrates as far south as Central or South America. Light pollution is increasing each year and has been proven to draw birds off course.

Eddie Bartley's photo of a Townsend's Warbler

In the winter you can see the bright yellow and black of a Townsend’s Warbler or Yellow-rumped Warbler feeding on insects in trees and bushes. These small warblers have migrated to the park from areas where cold, snow and ice would not provide them with the insects they need to eat. These warblers also migrate in the spring and fall at night.

There are a variety of bird species that breed in the park although these numbers have been declining for many years. Tree Swallows typically nest in tree cavities but many dead or dying trees are removed for human safety. At the Bison Paddock, nest boxes have been installed and used by Tree Swallows and Western Bluebirds. Anna’s Hummingbirds can be seen year-round and also nest within the park. Allen’s Hummingbirds fly south to Central America for the winter and then return to nest in Golden Gate Park in the spring. In dense wooded areas or in tangled vegetation you might hear the incredible song of the small and rather unspectacularly feathered Pacific Wren. Some bird species can be seen and heard in the park year-round and raise their young in the park including Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Stellar’ s or California Scrub Jays, American Robins and Mourning Doves.  

Most songbirds consume and feed their young protein filled insects. Rest is essential for the chicks and their parents to survive. Artificial light at night has negative impacts on insects, is known to reduce nesting, and can reveal well-hidden nests to predators. Owls and hawks nest in this urban park among them Great Horned Owls, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks — you might see them hunting for pocket gophers or other rodents. The owls are active at night to find the rodents that are also active in the dark.


What do you think?  Is it worth sacrificing our local nature to the artificial 'fun' of riding around a few times in an over-priced, non-historic, metal structure?  Instead, explore your glorious landscape park, which is free and open to all. Golden Gate Park is waiting for you to explore its meadows and leafy forests, and to learn about the beauty and grace of nature.

There will be hearings at the Board of Supervisors this week. Please email them and ask that the Wheel contract be limited to one more year, maximum. And then the Wheel should be gone forever from Golden Gate Park!

Learn more at

Katherine Howard, ASLA, is an open space advocate in San Francisco. Howard was part of the original Friends of the Music Concourse group, which fought the Rec and Park proposal to cut down all of the pollarded trees in the Music Concourse for the parking garage project. FMC went on to obtain landmark status for the Music Concourse.  The landmark status is what has required a hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission on these proposals.

January 2021


More articles by Kathrine Howard...

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Congestion Pricing — Hangover from Better Days?

Now that many of San Francisco’s employers are allowing work from home, San Franciscans are leaving in large numbers to live in homes with more space in places like Tracy, California — and for half the price.”

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No to Newsom Recall

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Boycott deYoung Museum

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lighted ferris wheel
Extremely bright flashing lights and roaring diesel engines — inappropriate for birds and other wildlife.
Broken Agreements, Shilly-Shallying Vacillations
Kathy Howard
Kathy Howard

One year ago the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Park installed the brightly-lighted Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse. Rec and Park said the wheel would be in the Park for only one year as part of Golden Gate Park's 150th Anniversary celebration. The extremely bright, flashing LED lighting can be a disaster for birds and other wildlife. In addition, this carnival attraction has a negative impact on the classic design and character of the Music Concourse, a city landmark. As a result, the members of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), while expressing concerns about the wheel's out-of-place presence in this City landmark, approved the installation for only one year.

Supervisor Connie Chan
Supervisor Connie Chan

Now Rec and Park has backpedaled on the one-year commitment and asked the HPC to keep the wheel in Golden Gate Park for four more years. If one year is not enough, will four years be enough for Rec and Park — or is this the beginning of a permanent midway in the midst of a city landmark inside our premiere landscape park and urban habitat?

Fortunately, Golden Gate Park and free public access to green open space have a champion! Last week, Supervisor Connie Chan phoned in to the HPC hearing and said that she had heard substantial objections to the Wheel. She was joined by Supervisors Walton, Preston, and Peskin in asking for the opportunity to bring all of the parties together to work on a compromise.  

A Reasonable Compromise


And such a compromise is possible! A reasonable proposal would be — let the Wheel stay up to one additional year until June 2022, so that San Franciscans who haven't had a chance to ride it can do so. Turn off the intensely bright lights at sunset and replace the diesel generator with electric power. In return for allowing the Wheel to stay an extra year, Rec and Park should commit to remove the Wheel from Golden Gate Park - forever.

What is the appeal of this carnival attraction to Rec and Park? Can it be part of their efforts to commercialize our public park properties? Many Westside Observer readers will remember the battle over the privatization of the J. P. Murphy Clubhouse. Rec and Park wanted to rent it out permanently to private organizations. It took a determined band of people from the local community to stop this. According to George Wooding, former president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods and the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, “Rec and Park is a profit-seeking business. It used to be about open space; now it is all about money.”


Now Rec and Park has backpedaled on the one-year commitment and asked the Historic Preservation Commission to keep the wheel in Golden Gate Park for four more years. If one year is not enough, will four years be enough for Rec and Park — or is this the beginning of a permanent midway in the midst of a city landmark inside our premiere landscape park and urban habitat?”

With climate change raging (hello, freezing Texas!) and habitat everywhere destroyed daily, we need to start thinking about how we are going to protect our remaining parkland and keep this and other carnival attractions out of our City landmark, the beautiful, classic Music Concourse.

Need more reasons why the Wheel is such a bad idea?  See our prior article and then go to and read the 20-page analysis of all the problems with the Wheel and the many letters sent in by environmental and historic preservationists against the Wheel.

The HPC will vote on the time extension at their March 3rd meeting.   If you value Golden Gate Park and want to protect it from commercial development, then please support Supervisor Chan's initiative and Supervisor Walton's, Preston's, and Peskin's concerns, and stand up for our premiere park.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:  Write to the Historic Preservation Commission and ask them:  Please take the Wheel out of Golden Gate Park by June 2022. Until then, turn down the lights at night and silence the generator.  

You can sign the petition here.

Katherine Howard, ASLA, is an open space advocate in San Francisco. Howard was part of the original Friends of the Music Concourse group, which fought the Rec and Park proposal to cut down all of the pollarded trees in the Music Concourse for the parking garage project. FMC went on to obtain landmark status for the Music Concourse.  The landmark status is what has required a hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission on these proposals.

January 2021

The Interminable Wheel That Doesn't Turn
lighted ferris wheel
Four more years?

In April 2020 the Westside Observer reported about the Department of Recreation and Park’s first steps in turning Golden Gate Park into a revenue-generating amusement park. (“Don’t Boardwalk Golden Gate Park.”)   Fortunately, approval of the 150 foot, intensely lighted, garish Observation Wheel had to go before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).  Well aware of the value of this historic landscape, the HPC agreed to allow the Wheel to stay for one year for the 150th Golden Gate Park anniversary, but no longer. In fact, the HPC intentionally removed language from the agreement that implied the stay could be extended any longer.

Kathy Howard
Kathy Howard

Then COVID hit. The Wheel has been totally shut down, partially opened, and then totally shut down again. It sits in the Music Concourse, an eyesore in our historic park. Despite being closed down, the glaring, flashing lights are still turned on every day and into the night, and the noisy diesel generator that powers the Wheel runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


The Wheel has been totally shut down, partially opened, and then totally shut down again. It sits in the Music Concourse, an eyesore in our historic park. Despite being closed down, the glaring, flashing lights are still turned on every day and into the night, and the noisy diesel generator that powers the Wheel runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

And now, despite agreeing to remove it after the 150th Anniversary celebration, Rec and Park wants to keep the Wheel in Golden Gate Park longer – in fact, up to four years longer!  This is in the face of negative input from environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, and despite a plea from SF Heritage to shut down the Wheel or at least fix a final date by which it will be gone.

One of the reasons given to extend the Wheel is for the public to have an opportunity (for a mere $18) to ride it, ignoring that the nearby de Young Tower is equitably free to all. Another rationale is that local businesses can make money from customers attracted to the Park by the Wheel. But during COVID the Park has been packed with people who are there to enjoy Golden Gate Park as PARKLAND.  That is what has always attracted people, and that is what has also brought people to the local businesses. In fact, Rec and Park’s own publicity has bragged about the millions of people who visit Golden Gate Park each year – and this number has increased because of COVID.

John McLaren
John McLaren, Golden Gate Park Superintendent 1887-1937 His goal was to keep the park as a "sylvan and pastoral retreat" fighting every encursion into the park.

San Franciscans value Golden Gate Park for what the National Register for Historic Preservation describes as a "green oasis in a sea of urbanization."  The Register further states that, "Golden Gate Park was conceived as a naturalistic pleasure ground park to provide a sylvan retreat from urban pressures for all citizens, rich and poor.”

But with increased development and artificial ‘attractions,’ there is a point at which both wildlife habitat and the sense of parkland will be lost. All that will be left is a series of contrived amusements with a few trees interspersed in between, to remind us that this was once a great landscape park.

You can make a difference!  Two events coming up:

WEBINAR ON DARK SKIES:  January 31, 2021. 11:00 a.m.  ZOOM Webinar:  "The Incomplete Arch: How Light Pollution Affects Our Night," on the importance and value of urban Dark Skies, given by Shreenivasan Manievannan. Shreeni is an International Dark Skies Association (IDA) volunteer delegate based in the San Francisco area, as well as an accomplished astro photographer. You can sign up here:  WEBINAR

This webinar is sponsored by SFUN – San Franciscans for Urban Nature – a new group of residents from all over San Francisco who advocate for nature in urban spaces. Write to to find out more.

CITY HEARING ON EXTENDING THE FERRIS WHEEL:  February 17, 2021 – Historic Preservation Commission hearing on the Rec and Park proposal to extend the Wheel time in GGP.   Let the Commissioners know how much you value Golden Gate Park as a great landscape park and as habitat, and the beauty and serenity of the Music Concourse. Send your OPPOSITION to the time extension to the HPC at and copy the BOS

The Recreation and Park Commission at:

Katherine Howard, ASLA, is an open space advocate in San Francisco. Howard was part of the original Friends of the Music Concourse group, which fought the Rec and Park proposal to cut down all of the pollarded trees in the Music Concourse for the parking garage project. FMC went on to obtain landmark status for the Music Concourse.  The landmark status is what has required a hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission on these proposals.

January 2021

San Francisco sees itself as a 'green' city - but is it?
Property at 1776 Green Street
Workers begin drilling-boring sidewalk site for contamination at four-story, 40-foot housing project at 1776 Green Street, the toxic site of a former auto repair shop that was built in 1914. Photo: Leticia Yang
Kathy Howard
Kathy Howard

Some Westside Observer readers may have noticed in that 'other' SF paper (known as the SF Chronicle) that the City has been ignoring environmental regulations for building on toxic sites ("How SF sidestepped state law on developing toxic sites). In fact, in October there will be a hearing at the Board of Supervisors appealing the categorical exemption that was given to the proposed project on a toxic site at 1776 Green Street. Awarding a categorical exemption to this project is part of a disturbing trend by the San Francisco City government to ignore the right of environmental review for the public in dealing with potentially polluted building sites.

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The developer is proposing a six-unit condo development on the site of a former auto repair shop that is contaminated with benzene and other pollutants at levels 900 times above residential standards. While everyone acknowledges the need for housing, the City should also be concerned about the long-term health of the people who will be residing in this development. People should not have to make a trade-off between having a place to live and the health of their family.”

Drilling Permit
Letitia Yang, who took theses photos, said "they hauled off barrels and barrels of the soil" from storage tanks that were under the sidewalk

According to recent SF Chronicle articles, the City appears to have exempted at least a dozen projects on the Cortese list (a state list of contaminated sites) from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, despite that fact that CEQA requires public environmental review before projects are approved on such sites.

At 1776 Green Street, the developer proposes to construct housing on a heavily contaminated site, which was used as an automobile repair shop for over 100 years. The developer is proposing a six-unit condo development on the site of a former auto repair shop that is contaminated with benzene and other pollutants at levels 900 times above residential standards. While everyone acknowledges the need for housing, the City should also be concerned about the long-term health of the people who will be residing in this development.  People should not have to make a trade-off between having a place to live and the health of their family.

According to another recent article in the SF Chronicle, City staff has also allegedly endorsed inadequate survey methods for finding potential radiation at two other locations, Treasure Island and Hunters Point Shipyard, in disregard of potential serious health impacts. S.F. touted radiation scans with little value" )

drill rig.
The Drill Photo: Leticia Yang

Fifty years ago, California adopted the California Environmental Quality Act as a vital tool in reducing damage to the environment, reducing transportation congestion, and safeguarding historic landmarks. CEQA requires our public agencies to confront potentially damaging environmental issues and search for alternatives or mitigations to limit the damage. CEQA brings these issues to light so that the people can then hold their representatives responsible for making decisions that could harm the community or the environment.

Critics of CEQA often state that CEQA unnecessarily delays projects.  However, this is not the case.  A study from the UC Berkeley Law School Getting it Right: Examining the Local Land Use Entitlement Process in California to Inform Policy and Processanalyzed permitting processes in San Francisco and other jurisdictions.  It concludes that CEQA is not a significant source of delay in land use permitting.  The vast majority of projects are exempted from CEQA review. Furthermore, there is little difference in the permitting time for projects that receive CEQA review and those that do not.  The majority of delay is due to City staff review, variance hearings, discretionary review and other matters entirely unrelated to CEQA. 

A generic square placeholder image with rounded corners in a figure.
Original drawing for theauto repair shop

According to the Sierra Club, CEQA minimizes court challenges to projects. CEQA allows concerns to be addressed early in the development process. As a result, numerous studies have routinely shown that CEQA litigation occurs for only about 1% of all projects that must comply with the law. CEQA Fact Sheet," Sierra Club  

The Sierra Club has asked that the Board of Supervisors require a full environmental review for the 1776 Green Street project.  CEQA review is required to ensure that this contamination is adequately cleaned-up in a manner that safeguards not only future residents but also nearby residents and workers.

The City must comply with the state law to safeguard the health and safety of its residents both at this project and everywhere in the City.

What you can do:

There will be a hearing on the 1776 Green Street Project at the Board of Supervisors (BOS) on October 20, 2020.   Write letters to the BOS ahead of time to support this CEQA Appeal and tune into the BOS hearing that day to voice your support for the appeal and for environmental reviews.

If the City is allowed to build on toxic sites, your neighborhood could be next.

Katherine Howard is an environment and open space advocate.

June 2020

The Pandemic and Our Parks
Speedway Meadow
Speedway Meadow on Labor Day

In early May two members of the Board of Supervisors introduced an ordinance to require that the Department of Recreation and Park designate locations for homeless encampments on Recreation and Park-managed property.  This raised concerns among the public about the uses of our parks and the possibility of long-term use of parkland to address this and other social and economic problems.

UPDATE: 6/5/20 According to the SF Chronicle, Rec and Park and the Real Estate Division have created two lists of possible locations for homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic. You can find them here. [see above] All of the Rec and Park locations are on paved surfaces, and none of them are in Golden Gate Park. However, one 'green' park is listed on the Real Estate Division list - Mission Bay Commons Park. Neighbors might want to ask that this not be used, since it is public green space, a much-needed outdoor space while we are still social distancing. There are many school sites listed, some of which include green space. Hopefully, areas that are paved will be chosen instead.

Emergencies often produce proposals that would not necessarily be considered in calmer times.  The homeless situation in San Francisco has been the subject of much discussion and numerous proposed solutions for many years. The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought to the forefront the vulnerability of the people who are living on our streets. Although the City has passed legislation to house many of them in the currently-empty hotel rooms, for some reason many reserved hotel rooms are still not being filled. Homeless people remain in tents living in close proximity to each other, and a solution is needed.

As explained during the May BOS hearing, the intent of the emergency ordinance is to find safe and sanitary sites for those who are not being sheltered and are at risk from Covid-19. However, as a parks and open space supporter, I am very concerned about the impact of this legislation on our parks, not only immediately but also into the future. 


Our parks provide all of the people of San Francisco with the opportunity to experience and enjoy nature.  

Parks such as Golden Gate Park were originally established to provide a refuge from urban life for people. They continue to be enjoyed today in this great tradition. As our cities become more and more dense, as buildings become taller and backyards disappear, people turn to the parks to reestablish that connection. Wealthier people may be able to retreat outside of the urban areas, but for the average resident this is not an option.

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Perhaps by that time the City will have figured out indoor locations for our vulnerable populations, and our parks can continue to be a healing balm for all residents as well as a tiny island of refuge for our over-stressed wildlife.”

The proposed legislation briefly mentions protecting recreation — but that often means organized sports such as soccer and baseball.  There is no mention of preserving parks for the enjoyment of just being outdoors in a natural setting. The pandemic has shown that, when life becomes stressful, many people find great comfort in 'passive' recreation, that is, RE-creation of their peace of mind by getting outside and enjoying nature in their parks.

Parkland is vital habitat for wildlife.

The earth is experiencing an unprecedented era of extinctions. Habitat is being systematically destroyed all over the world, and the United States is not an exception to this devastating trend. As wildlands are lost, some plants and animals are able to find a small niche in our city parks. But with more and more buildings in our parks, with paving over with artificial turf, and with hosting large events such as concerts, this little remaining habitat and its wild inhabitants are put under a great deal of stress.   

The language in the ordinance sets an unfortunate precedent of stating that a purpose of parks is to be used for encampments in emergencies

This language may be setting official park policy without full review by the public and an analysis of the implications of the policy.

Firstly, this ordinance states that the purpose of our parks is to provide a place for emergency uses; this is not the case. San Francisco has used parks to respond to emergencies, but to call that a 'long history,' as is stated in the legislation, is inaccurate. The 1906 earthquake was a singular event, resulting in the destruction of a major portion of the built City. With the strong aftershocks, the inhabitants were afraid to return to the remaining houses. The western part of San Francisco was not built up — there still remained considerable open space and habitat. In addition, there was not the current awareness of the importance of habitat; nature was considered a source of abundant and unending supply. But even then, San Franciscans wanted their parks back, and the earthquake shacks were moved out as soon as possible.

Secondly, stating that a limited past use equals the purpose of our parks opens the door to losing our parks completely. Over the years, more and more buildings and paving have been added to Golden Gate Park. Does this precedent mean that there should be even more construction? If we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, then eventually all that will be left of our parks is a series of buildings, roads, and amusements, with a few trees here and there to remind us these were once great parks.

The ordinance lists many requirements to meet good public health standards at emergency response sites located in parks, but there is no mention of how habitat will be protected if there is increased human habitation in our parks.   

This ordinance contains no mention of habitat, appreciation for nature, wildlife or otherwise recognition of nature in our parks. Park habitats can be fragile. There is no recognition in the ordinance of any requirements for protecting what has taken years to establish and can be easily destroyed. 

The Sierra Club discussed this point in a letter expressing concern about the proposal, in which they said, "Park areas with plants are not indestructible. For example, Golden Gate Park, situated as it is on sandy, relatively infertile soil and dependent on irrigation to maintain its landscape, is particularly susceptible to damage. Any damage from over-use will result in long recovery for the plantings and for the habitat that is so important to local wildlife. . ."

The ordinance opens up our park to many ill-defined uses.

As outlined in the legislative summary, the ordinance ". . . would direct RPD (Rec and Park) to prepare a report identifying park properties that could be used as temporary shelters or for other uses that may be necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., testing facilities)."  Although the ordinance gives one example of testing facilities, it does not in any way limit what could be done in parks. Any proposed use that could be linked to the pandemic — however tenuously — would be allowed. 

While it is unlikely to occur, there are always more proposed uses than land in San Francisco; and there is all that park land, free and available for the taking in the name of a good cause. Any legislation that opens the door to new uses in our parks must be carefully reviewed and vetted by the public, to protect against further loss of our parkland.

A change in park policy deserves a full review by and input from the public.

If park policy is going to be established that changes the purpose of our parks, changes people's experience of it, and has the possibility of negatively impacting those parks, this should be discussed in a public forum with a full review of the reasons for the policy, an analysis of the potential impacts on our parkland, and an evaluation of additional alternatives for meeting the needs of the homeless.

Many public comments against this proposal and reconsideration by the sponsors helped to avoid passing this legislation — at least for now.

The issue was resolved conditionally by the legislation sponsors (Supervisors Fewer and Mar) reaching an agreement with Rec and Park and with the Department of Real Estate.  Under that agreement, both departments would create lists of sites that they felt would be appropriate for homeless tent camps. The lists of locations will be made available to the public in early June. 

Perhaps by that time the City will have figured out indoor locations for our vulnerable populations, and our parks can continue to be a healing balm for all residents as well as a tiny island of refuge for our over-stressed wildlife.

If you are concerned about any of these issues, please contact your Supervisor and copy the full BOS.   Please copy the Westside Observer on your letters so that we know you care about your parks.

Katherine Howard is an environment and open space advocate.

June 2020

Planning Department NoticeCity Hall's End Run Around Environmental Review

If you thought that our local city government was implementing only emergency measures during the pandemic, you would be wrong.   Despite the fact that the average citizen is focused on dealing with the coronavirus, the San Francisco Planning Department is pushing through City Hall a new policy that would limit environmental reviews for development projects.

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Under the SER process, projects that formerly might have needed extensive review under CEQA would be approved unilaterally by Planning staff if the projects met specific requirements.

The Department's proposed policy to 'streamline' the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process in San Francisco is known as SER - Standard Environmental Requirements.  Under the SER process, projects that formerly might have needed extensive review under CEQA would be approved unilaterally by Planning staff if the projects met specific requirements.  This could eliminate up to 3 months of review, but it could also eliminate public notice, public hearings, and input that could, and often does, result in a better project. 

Proposal Graphic

SER is a long-term policy that will have an impact on planning decisions and projects that will affect all San Franciscans for many years to come, yet the Planning Department scheduled the first official approval meeting for SER on April 15th, during the stay-in-place order.  At this online public meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), callers expressed their outrage that a vote was being held at the same time as first responders, doctors, nurses, and food providers were working long hours and risking their lives to stem the pandemic and could not weigh in on a public policy hearing.


Under public pressure, the HPC voted to continue the matter, but only to May 6th.  The SER policy is already scheduled to be heard at the Planning Commission on May 21st.  After that, it goes before the Board of Supervisors.

PLEASE contact the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission and ask them to continue the CEQA SER policy votes until after the stay-at-home order has been lifted for at least a month. 

Both commissions can be reached through:  Commission Secretary     

Be sure to copy the Board of Supervisors on your letter; they have the final vote and need to know your thoughts.

For the next issue of the Westside Observer we will be interviewing a prominent CEQA attorney, who will explain in more detail the importance of CEQA and why the Planning Department's move to 'streamline' environmental review locally is not beneficial to either the environment or to San Franciscans. 

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

May 2020

It’s Earthday 2020 and a coyote attack raises the question...

How do we coexist with wildlife?
Coyote: tug-of-war

Photo: Janet Kessler

Recent headlines featured a coyote biting a child in an East Bay park. As of our publication deadline, the details are not known about the circumstances surrounding this attack. Yet according to news items, one reaction already is to propose killing the offending animal, with at least one report suggesting destroying its entire family group.


... we need to think carefully about whether or not the principles many of us espouse about protecting the earth and co-existing with wildlife are realistic ideals or vague abstractions that melt away when faced with the reality that wildlife is wild.”

As Earthday 2020 approaches, we need to think carefully about whether or not the principles many of us espouse about protecting the earth and co-existing with wildlife are realistic ideals or vague abstractions that melt away when faced with the reality that wildlife is wild. If we are going to preserve wildlife, it is up to humans to figure out how to live alongside them to the benefit and safety of both them and us.

To do this, I turned to Janet Kessler, our local resident coyote expert who has spent vast amounts of time with and gained an enormous amount of direct knowledge about our San Francisco coyotes.

Kessler will be the first to tell you that she does not have formal training in ecology or wildlife; her undergraduate degree is in cultural anthropology and her graduate degree is in art history. She credits both parts of her education with helping her learn how to understand and document the family interactions of these fascinating creatures.

Coyotes live all over the continental U.S.

Coyotes used to be native to San Francisco and lived alongside the Native Americans and later the Spanish. Coyotes were driven out of San Francisco as it became more populous. Then in 2002, they returned to San Francisco from the northern counties. One story that they trotted across the Golden Gate Bridge is improbable; another story that a trapper from Northern California released some in the Presidio is more likely (which is, by the way, illegal for the general public, as is killing them or otherwise threatening them.)

Historically, coyotes expanded their range from Mexico and the Midwest. They spread far and wide when their main predator, the wolf, was driven out by hunting and by loss of habitat. In the eastern U.S. coyotes at one or several points in time in the past interbred with dogs and wolves, resulting in a larger subspecies which can even come in black! Here in California, coyotes are a buff color, with variations in tone that help them to blend in to the dry, summer landscape.

Wherever they are, like people, coyotes have adapted to their new habitat with ease, and basically, just want to be left alone. In addition to their adaptability, coyotes have a lot of other similarities to humans and our human society.

Coyotes have a strong family structure.

Like people, the main social structure for the coyote is the family. They search for a mate and then mate for life. Most coyotes live in families, with an alpha male and female. Both mom and dad take care of the pups. The youngsters stick around until about 9 months of age and sometimes up to two years, and then they either leave on their own, or are told to move out - in essence, to get their own job (territory) to make room for the next generation.

Coyotes take care of their families and siblings.

Both mom and dad raise the pups. Coyotes have been known to help injured family members. They groom each other constantly, which helps with flea or tick infestations and also cements good family relations.

Coyotes have family arguments.

Coyotes have emotions, moods, problems, and family issues. They may argue with each other. In one family observed by Kessler, two young males have taken a dislike to each other and either fight or blatantly ignore each other. Disruption will not be tolerated for very long by other family members.. At some point, one of those boys causing the problems is going to be drummed out by mom or dad or by a more dominant brother. Order is very important in the coyote family.

Coyotes control the size of their families.

When a female coyote comes of age, the alpha female will harass her so much that she reacts to the stress either by leaving the area or by not becoming pregnant. This is known as being behaviorally sterile. However, if a hunter kills members of a family, then the younger females will produce litters, and the family’s numbers can increase above what was there before the killings.

Coyotes maintain a variety of family structures.

Like people, the coyote family structure varies. It can be just a mom and dad, or mom, dad, and the pups, or all of the above and the yearlings. A youngster driven out from his birth family by siblings may be taken under the wing of an older loner female. Coyotes also may live in groups of just siblings, for example, a brother and two sisters. And there is the occasional loner. No matter who makes up the family group, they have one goal - to survive. And to do this effectively, they need to protect their territory.

Coyote families stake out territory.

We say, “ A (wo)man’s home is his/her castle.” What if your castle included not only your home but also your job, and a small plot of land where you grew all of your food? That is what territory is to a coyote. Coyotes need a certain amount of room to forage and to provide a home for their family. When you see a coyote acting aggressively, they are only trying to protect their territory.

Think what happens when someone approaches your front door or, even worse, enters your private side or back yard without your permission. You are immediately on alert; you want to know their intent. That is what happens when you enter a coyote’s territory. They will watch you and decide if you are a threat. If you walk away, they will stand down. If you walk towards them, then they have to decide how to deal with you. If your dog runs towards them, then the coyote has to decide how to deal with him. If coyote pups are nearby, the results will not be good for your dog. After all, how would you react if a strange person ran towards your children and you had no idea of their intent? Protection of the young is a universal instinct, and coyotes are the same as we are in this reaction.

Communication is important to keep a coyote family running smoothly.

How many times does Dear Abby say to someone asking for advice, “Have you tried talking with your spouse/friend/ boss?” Coyotes are constantly communicating. Communication takes various forms, including facial expressions, body language, rough play, and vocalizations - yips, howls, barks, and snarls. Communication stabilizes the internal hierarchy and is the basic glue that holds the family together.

Coyotes hold family reunions.

Does your family get together once a year or every few years? Coyotes have you beat. They often sleep separately and then, upon arising, they come together for a joyous reunion, with play, jumping, grooming, and vocalizations. After that -- it is time to search out the day’s or night’s meals.

Coyotes are diurnal, but ....

Like people, coyotes are naturally diurnal but also like people, coyotes will adjust to a nocturnal schedule. In cities, there are fewer people and cars to avoid at night, so many coyotes have adjusted to a nighttime schedule.

Ways that coyotes are smarter and better equipped than people.

Coyotes have an extraordinarily keen sense of smell. Through scent, they can tell if another animal is sick or injured. Their hearing is better than ours, and they can hear higher and lower pitches than we can. Their eyesight is also excellent - and they can see in the dark. Coyotes can run up to 43 MPH and they can run up steep hillsides swiftly, wearing out a bulkier pursuer.

Coyotes are so adaptable that they have learned to watch traffic patterns to avoid cars. Kessler has observed some coyotes looking both ways before crossing the street and others waiting for traffic lights to change. Actually, that may put them ahead of some people in intelligence, at least in my experience.

Domestic dogs are much more dangerous to people than coyotes.

Only two deaths of humans from coyotes have ever been recorded in all of North America. In North America people report about 17 bites or scratches from coyotes a year -- and those are mostly from someone interfering in a dog vs. coyote encounter or hand feeding coyotes. On the other hand, people go to emergency rooms for over 1,000 dog bites every day.

The number of reported coyote rabies cases is relatively low; in fact, coyotes help to mitigate rabies by eating the wildlife that does spread rabies, such as raccoons and skunks.

What about the East Bay incident?

I asked Kessler if she had any ideas about the East Bay park situation. Acknowledging that we don’t yet know the exact situation, she replied, “I don’t know what provoked the attack, but I’m sure there was a trigger. The first possible explanation (not excuse) for the attack might be that people have been feeding the coyotes there. Also, pupping season is going on right now, and the sudden surge of people into the parks (due to the coronavirus) and human encroachment close to a den area may have been involved. For all we know, a mother coyote could have actually been in the process of pupping, and her mate would have been very tense. It is stress and fear that cause a coyote to become reactive -- humans aren’t on their menu.”

How to do citizen science.

Kessler is up early every morning and out by 5:00 a.m. to observe her favorite creatures. She comes home mid-morning and is out again at the end of the day, to record their activities until it is too dark for her (with her limited human eyesight) to see. You don’t have to do that -- you can go to her prolific website and watch videos, read articles, and look at her beautiful photos to learn more the fascinating family life of coyotes.

Here are seven suggestions on how to share the earth peacefully with coyotes:

Don’t feed them. Never. Ever.

Don’t intrude on them by approaching them — give them plenty of space. SF Rec and Park puts up signs warning of coyote sightings. Pay attention to them!

When you do see a coyote - walk away slowly and quietly.

Keep your dog on a leash and lead it away. It is not ‘fun’ for a coyote to ‘play’ with a dog. And it could be very damaging to your dog.

Pick up your small dog as you walk away. Coyotes eat skunks and raccoons — how big is your dog? How is the coyote supposed to know that he/she is a pet?

Keep your domestic cats indoors, the healthiest place for them. Not only are outdoor cats more susceptible to disease and injury, but also cats are tasty bites for coyotes. If this upsets you, remember that your neighborhood bird-lover is not happy when Fluffy shows up at their bird feeder. According to ‘National Geographic’, “domestic cats pounce on one billion to four billion birds a year in the lower 48 states, as well as 6.3 billion to 22.3 billion small mammals and hundreds of millions of reptiles and amphibians.”

Don’t use rat poison. Coyotes will eat poisoned prey, and the current poisons either kill the coyote outright or dull its reactions, resulting in it getting hit by cars or otherwise injured. Rat poison kills more than coyotes -- see our April 2018 article on the dreadful toll that rat poison takes on wildlife. Tolerate the coyotes -- and they will dispose of your rats, mice, and gophers for you. And it’s free!

So, everyone, while you are out in nature and social-distancing, follow Kessler’s advice above. With a little understanding and help from people like Kessler, we can enjoy the company of our fellow creatures as we share the earth with them.

Kessler’s website:

National Geographic on birds killed by cats:

Katherine Howard is an environment and open space advocate in San Francisco.

April 2020

Please Don't "Boardwalk" Golden Gate Park

As part of Golden Gate Park’s 150th Anniversary celebration, the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Park is implementing two projects in the historic Music Concourse that could be detrimental to the very parkland and cultural features the department is seeking to celebrate.

lighted ferris wheel

The first project will place a 150 foot tall ferris wheel in the Music Concourse for up to one year. This towering structure will be lighted from dusk to 10 p.m. every night. Furthermore, after the wheel is shut down for the night, bright LED-based security lighting will light the structure from 10 p.m. to dawn every morning. For $18. a person, the public may ride in an enclosed glass booth, cut off from the nature and parkland surrounding it, and listen to an audio narration of the ‘views.’ It should be noted that the ferris wheel will be twice as tall as the Bandshell, reaching the same height as the currently free tower on the De Young Museum.

The second proposal is to light the historic Music Bandshell and to attach a modern sound system to a structure that was designed to act as a natural acoustic reflector.

In addition to the impact on all wildlife of more amplified sound in the Park, combining bright lighting with glassed-in booths on a rotating wheel is a recipe for disaster for birds.


For the 150th Anniversary of Golden Gate Park, events that give the public the opportunity to enjoy nature, that teach about climate change, and that spur people to action to save life on our planet before it is too late, would more truly celebrate the park than an urban, mechanized carnival ride.”

Golden Gate Park is known primarily for its naturalistic landscape. An important part of this landscape has been the wildlife, which gives ‘life’ to the park and which many visitors come to the park to experience. Wildlife requires nighttime darkness and quiet to thrive and even in some cases to survive. However, in recent years, intrusive artificial light and amplified sound have been added to more and more formerly dark and quiet areas of the Park.

The anniversary celebration in the Music Concourse will take place during the nesting and spring and fall migrations. And yet, SF Environment has approved these projects without even considering a full CEQA process to evaluate the potential impacts in an Environmental Impact Report. Many environmental and wildlife organizations are concerned about the combined impacts of these projects…The Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, Raptors Are The Solution…and Coyote Yips have all submitted letters of opposition.

A few years ago the Sierra Club, along with thousands of San Franciscans, fought unsuccessfully against the installation of 150,000 watts of stadium lighting at Beach Chalet Soccer Fields in the western end of Golden Gate Park. Since then, more artificial lighting has been introduced to the parkland, first at the Conservatory of Flowers and soon at the new tennis center. As more and more lighting is added to the formerly dark areas of Golden Gate Park, the negative impact on Dark Skies and wildlife habitat increases.

Outside Lands and other major concerts attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park and further add to wildlife stress by installing fencing, which inhibits travel and foraging. Added to this are stressors such as extremely bright all-night security lighting that is in place weeks before the concerts and over-amplified sound which impacts not only the park’s wild residents but also the families in the surrounding homes.

The Department of Recreation and Park has tried to justify the carnival ride by stating that there was such a ride in the Music Concourse during the six-month 1894 Mid-winter Fair. This argument was eloquently countered by HPC Commissioner Pearlman during the January Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) review of the project.

“. . . .I respond to the phrase that one of the speakers said, that this is inappropriate to the history of the park. It is an amusement park ride in a cultural setting. And while I agree that the original moment of inception of the Music Concourse was a six-month period in 1894, we’re looking at a six-month period in reference to 150 years. That is 1/300th of the time that the park has been there, did it have a ferris wheel there. So that doesn’t, to me, say that this is a significant piece of the history of the park . . .”

Opposition to locating the ferris wheel in the historic setting of the Music Concourse was further registered in a letter of opposition submitted by Robert Cherny, Professor Emeritus of History at San Francisco State University, and a member of the original Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board that approved landmark status for the Music Concourse.

Golden Gate Park as a whole was conceived as a naturalistic pleasure ground park to provide a sylvan retreat from urban pressures for all citizens, rich and poor. The parkland has evolved into a space in which wildlife has also found a refuge and a home. With climate change upon us, protecting that refuge becomes of vital importance. But with increased development, there is a point at which both wildlife habitat and the sense of parkland will be lost. All that will be left is a series of artificial amusements with a few trees interspersed in between, to remind us that this was once a great landscape park.

For the 150th Anniversary of Golden Gate Park, events that give the public the opportunity to enjoy nature, that teach about climate change, and that spur people to action to save life on our planet before it is too late, would more truly celebrate the park than an urban, mechanized carnival ride.

Or as Commissioner Pearlman said, “. . .we’re not here to determine if something is cool on social media, but our job is to evaluate if this . . . is appropriate for this particular landmark in the city . . . If this is the item that is drawing people to the park to celebrate the park, then they are doing something wrong. Then the 150th Anniversary Committee is doing something wrong if the observation wheel that you have to pay $18 to ride is the thing that will excite people about Golden Gate Park. “

The publics’ objections are summed up in the comments submitted by the wildlife advocacy group Coyote Yipps, “Again, I am asking you to OPPOSE this plan. It’s a perfectly horrible way to ruin the natural beauty which is the essence of Golden Gate Park with its trees, vegetation, old carved stone structures, and all the wonderful wildlife there. In fact, it will interfere with wildlife and actually cause stress. Our “wildness” areas are a valuable but vanishing commodity in our modern world where those who want to make a buck are eschewing nature for lights, noise, artificiality and anything else that will bring in money, which is then turned around to pave over more of paradise. Our youth are not going to value nature if there is less and less of it for them to fall in love with. “

By the time this article goes to press, final approvals will have been granted for both projects. However, one HPC condition for the approval of the ferris wheel is that Rec and Park solicit public input on the impacts from the ferris wheel. If you are interested in taking part in that process and supporting the historic character of the Music Concourse and Golden Gate Park as parkland, please contact the author through the Westside Observer website.

Katherine Howard, ASLA, is an open space advocate in San Francisco. Howard was part of the original Friends of the Music Concourse group, which fought the Rec and Park proposal to cut down all of the pollarded trees in the Music Concourse for the parking garage project. FMC went on to obtain landmark status for the Music Concourse. The landmark status is what has required a hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission on these proposals.

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

February 2020

The Greatness of Humanity

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” Every year the San Francisco Vegetarian Society holds their “World Veg Fest” in Golden Gate Park’s County Fair Building (Hall of Flowers to all you old-timers.) The event has evolved over the last 20 years from vegetarian (dairy, eggs OK) to vegan (no animal products.) The SFVS focuses on four main subject areas - the health aspects of a vegetarian diet, the humane implications, the benefits to under-served communities, and, of course, the benefit to the environment of cutting down on the production and consumption of animal products.

This year the talks and tables ranged from ‘Building Bridges Between Vegetarians and Non-vegetarians’ to ‘Vegan dogs’. I cruised the tables and talks to find out what is new and different in the efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable, and humane society. Here are some of the folks whom I met and how they are trying to change the world.

Food Empowerment Project: food production, supermarkets, and local communities


I cruised the tables and talks to find out what is new and different in the efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable, and humane society.”

lauren Ornelas, Food Empowerment Project

lauren Ornelas is the founder and director of the Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), a “vegan food justice nonprofit seeking to create a more just world by helping consumers recognize the power of their food choices.” Among the many projects she is embarked on are promoting ethical veganism, helping farm workers have better working conditions, advocating for chocolate that comes from farms that do not use exploitative child labor, and encouraging access to healthy foods in low-income communities.

Our discussion of food access led to an enlightening conversation about the practices of certain supermarket chains. According to Ornelas, some chains put restrictions on their deed when they leave an area and sell or lease the land. The restrictions can mean that no other property owner can open another supermarket on that property for a specific numbers of years — sometimes 15 or even 20 years. Although this might seem a smart marketing practice if the market is moving a few blocks away, unfortunately the limitations include sites that are far away from the new location for the store. In urban areas land is hard to come by, and large locations for supermarkets are even harder to find. This practice is especially impactful for low-income communities, where people have few options for travelling far from home to buy their groceries.

One company that follows this practice, according to Ornelas, is Safeway/Albertsons. Learn more about this practice and how you can persuade Safeway/Albertsons to not restrict grocery stores in low-income communities.

Chilis on Wheels: Not just another food truck

Just around the corner from Ornelas sat Tiffany Walker-Roper with Chilis on Wheels. Walker-Roper explained that the group started just like its name, serving vegan chili to homeless people in Brooklyn, NY. It has since grown to include vegan food demonstrations, sharing of meals, and mentoring. This is in stark contrast to a discussion I had years ago with someone teaching nutrition to low-income communities; they felt that it was necessary to serve meat and that eating meat somehow meant that people had ‘arrived’ into the middle class.

In contrast to that, Chilis works all over the US to make veganism accessible to underserved communities. Their goal of “treating all living beings with kindness, empathy, and respect . . . “ extends to all species - from the human homeless to animals. According to Walker-Roper, “Instead of focusing only on animal rights activism, we are spreading the message of compassion to our unhoused neighbors by feeding them delicious home-cooked vegan food.” As part of their work, Chilis also provides support networks and help to empower local communities.

The newly formed Bay Area Chapter is now into its second year here and, yes, they can use volunteers!

VAPA: Vegan outreach to vets and humane training for vet students

What about Fido and Fluffy? Is anyone speaking up for them? As a matter of fact, yes. Dr. Armaiti May is an integrative house call veterinarian and vegan advocate in Los Angeles. Dr. May founded the Veterinary Association for the Protection of Animals. According to May, their goal is “to educate the veterinary profession about the benefits of veganism for people and to encourage veterinary schools to adopt humane surgical teaching methods in their curriculum.” This would include allowing high school students to use alternatives to dissection, ending the requirement for terminal surgeries in veterinary school education, using mannequins and surgical models as well as interactive multimedia software, doing beneficial work with actual animal patients, and collecting deceased pets for students to practice their training on, instead of raising and killing animals for that purpose. You can start with the 540 page online resource: “From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse,” or contact Dr. May at that site.

But, wait, there’s more....

Other talks and tables included such intriguing topics as Green Mondays (FFAC, Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, and combating massive agriculture tax subsidies to the meat and dairy industries (the Vegan Justice League). And, of course, lots of great vegan food.

You can always count on the festival for a new and humane perspective on our changing world. To learn more, go to their website.

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

December 2019

Love at first flapa bat in the hand

What’s small, furry, adorable, full of mystery and yet extraordinarily useful? According to Gabriel Reyes, it is the bat! Now a researcher for the US Geological Survey, Reyes fell in love with bats when he was an undergrad and took an elective class in bats. He ended up writing his Master’s thesis on the social behavior of migrating bats. The rest is, as they say, history or, in this case, research.

“It was the challenge of studying tiny, nocturnal animals that are silent,” according to Reyes. Bats are not birds, as one might think, despite their flying skills. They are actually mammals, complete with fur and live young fed on milk. Not only are they the only flying mammals, but also they comprise 20% of all species of mammal. There are 1,408 recognized bat species and probably more hiding from us.

Bats are just about everywhere.

Bats are on every continent except Antarctica. Their behaviors reflect the diversity of their species.

Many bats do live in the classic cavernous roosts, where they hang from the roof of a cave or mine, in the hollow of a burned out redwood, or in an abandoned building. But others are crevice roosters, seeking out protected nooks and cracks in trees, rocks, cliff faces, and buildings. Some species overlap in their choice of roosting locations, and many species are flexible, utilizing what’s available.


Bats perform ecosystem services of which many of us are not aware. The pest control services of bats have been valued at billions of dollars a year. Bats regularly munch on agricultural pests and on forest pests. Loss of bat populations means higher crop losses and more pesticide use. It also means loss of human comfort and the possibility of the spread of diseases - one bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour!”

Many bats gather in maternity colonies in spring and summer; for example, in some species there can be 20 mom bats in one tree. To view a more impressive number, visit the Yolo Bypass under the Yolo Causeway on the way to Sacramento, where hundreds of thousands of Mexican Free-tailed Bats gather in an enormous maternity colony. To be really impressed, visit Texas where there are maternity colonies of 4 to 5 million bats.

Ponds are great places to see bats, as they fly over the water not only to dip in their tongues to drink but also to catch aquatic-emerging insects as the luckless bugs hatch. Bats will fly several miles each night to forage or to find water.

Bats such as the Yuma myotis are found near ponds, streams and other open surfaces of water. Other species forage where forests transition to meadows or other open space. California myotis eat tiny insects. The Mexican Free-tailed Bat is an open air forager — flying hundreds of feet in the air to catch moths and other tasty treats. Gleaner bats pick bugs off of leaves and can detect moths or beetles. They either eat while on the wing or carry dinner back to their night roost to dine in. Pallid bats are the toughies of the gleaners - they track, attack, and eat scorpions.

Enter the Hoary bat.

Reyes’ favorite bat is the hoary bat. He finds them very beautiful with “amazing fur, frosty colored with a mane.” In fact, their furry mane has earned them the nickname of “sky lions.”

You may remember our article on bird migration. Surprisingly, some bat species migrate, too. Bats can fly high and long — the Air Force keeps track of animal strikes and has recorded a hoary bat strike at 8,000 feet elevation.

Hoary bats are long-distance migrators. Many may spend the winter in Mexico, although they have been recorded in other locations. They mate during the fall migration. Reyes says that science is not yet sure how they decide to get together, but one possibility is that the males congregate in an area and the females may choose their mates. Hoary bats, and most species in our area, are not monogamous; it is more like speed-mating.

The female hoary bats have developed a neat trick that all us girls might envy — after mating they can delay implantation until they are sure they will have shelter and food to raise a family. This means hooking up in the fall and then deciding to get pregnant months later during the spring migration.

Both sexes of hoary bat migrate, but they have different migratory patterns. In the spring, the males seem to fly a shorter distance. The females flap on up to Canada to maternity sites where they have their babies (known as pups.) Other species of bats that stay put may have one pup, but hoary bats usually have two. Migration is an effective long-term survival strategy, but it also involves risks compared to staying in one place; the heir and the spare help to compensate for those risks. Once settled in, the new hoary bat family hangs together on a tree in what Reyes describes as, “a perfectly adorable round ball of mom and babies.”

The loneliness of the long-distance bat . . .

Mexico to Canada may seem a long way for such a small critter, but some bats are thought to have embarked on a much more difficult journey. In Hawaii, the only native land mammal is the Hawaiian hoary bat. A few times in the misty past, a hoary bat got lost and flew across the Pacific to Hawaii. Hoary bats cannot land on water to rest, so she would have been airborne for her entire journey. We can imagine the relief when she saw the emerald green of the Hawaiian Islands below them.

Bats are not only cute but also useful.

Bats perform ecosystem services of which many of us are not aware. The pest control services of bats have been valued at billions of dollars a year. Bats regularly munch on agricultural pests and on forest pests. Loss of bat populations means higher crop losses and more pesticide use. It also means loss of human comfort and the possibility of the spread of diseases - one bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour!

The future of bats is in danger.

In the eastern United States many species of bats roost in large groups and are being endangered by white-nose syndrome. This fungal pathogen awakens bats from hibernation during the winter and causes them to burn through their fat stores to early and eventually die. Unfortunately, white nose syndrome is spreading from the concentrated eastern populations across the United States.

Out west, according to at least one study, hoary bats may have declined. It is more difficult to track the cause because of the challenge of tracking bat populations that are so inconspicuous and secretive. However, one culprit could be the development of wind energy. Those giant turbines may look like they are turning slowly, but the outer edge of the blades can be turning as fast as 100 mph, killing bats during migration.

It seems that once again, like the giant desert solar arrays in in our previous article, what may seem like an environmentally-positive solution can have unintended, negative consequences. Researchers are working with the wind energy companies to find a solution to this dilemma.

There is much more to learn about bats.

It may seem like we know everything about bats, but that is far from the case. Currently, Reyes is studying our local bats right here on Mount Tamalpais. He is collaborating with One Tam and the Golden Gate Park Conservancy to provide data to land managers to develop recommendations for studying and protecting bats. They would like to learn more about the distribution and habitats of the 13 local bat species in Marin and especially whether or not their populations are stable, increasing, or decreasing.

How does one track a small, elusive, night-time critter? One tool is a tiny radio transmitter. They don’t work well for long-distance migrants, because the small battery runs out of juice; however, for local research they are invaluable. The transmitters are glued to the bat; the batteries and the glue both last less than two weeks, at which time the transmitter falls off. During those two weeks, the researcher runs around with an antenna, tracking the location and path of that particular bat.

Reyes’ research is not yet complete - stay tuned!

You can help bats to survive and thrive.

According to Reyes, “Bats are a huge component of our natural diversity and wildlife. While they may be difficult to observe in the wild, learning about them and appreciating them is a good step to promoting their conservation.”

We can help by putting up a bat box. If something happens to their habitat, they may then move in to your bat box. If you provide home for even one bat that results in one pup, that pup may live over 30 years. So your bat box is making a contribution to the bat population that will have an impact over time.

An online search turned up information about bat boxes - at Bat Conservation International (BCI.) You can also learn more about bats and rabies.

Learn more bat facts:

USGS (United States Geological Society)

Watch a great introductory bat talk by Reyes:

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

November 2019

High Sierra viewThis land is your land . . .

Our National Forest System comprises over 188 million acres of forests, all of them managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). About 20 million acres of those forests are in California. Since 1980 the Forest Service has been required to come up with plans every 15 years to manage them. These plans are the best opportunity for public input into how our forests are managed. Recently, the plans for two nearby forests you may have visited, the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests (2.1 million acres combined, stretching from Yosemite almost to Bakersfield), were under review.

Faced with the complexity of dealing with 2.1 million acres of forests, streams, watersheds, and habitats, I contacted Vicky Hoover, a local Sierra Club member. Hoover has been involved with the Sierra Club since the 1960’s, working on issues from planning California outings to editing the Alaska and Wilderness newsletters. Nowadays she employs her considerable energy working to get more support in Congress for two bills to fund deferred maintenance in our national parks and to expand protected wilderness areas. But she also keeps up with our California forests.


The wilderness designation is the strongest protection our laws offer for keeping lands wild...With our population and development pressures, the sooner we can preserve our wild lands, the better it will be for future generations.

What is a forest plan supposed to do? The 2012 Planning Rule for our forests “requires that land management plans provide for ecological sustainability and contribute to social and economic sustainability, using public input and the best available scientific information to inform plan decisions. The rule contains a strong emphasis on protecting and enhancing water resources, restoring land and water ecosystems, and providing ecological conditions to support the diversity of plant and animal communities, while providing for ecosystem services and multiple uses.”

Sierra fieldThe specific goals of the current forest plans for the Sequoia and Sierra forests are described in detail in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released in June for public review. The Draft EIS presented a range of alternatives for managing both forests and analyzed the environmental, social, and economic effects of the plans. A Draft EIS was first published two years ago, but after much public comment, the Forest Service decided that the plans needed revision. As a result, the current Draft EIS has more information on fire management (not a surprise given the events of the last two years), ecological integrity, and sustainable recreation and designated areas.

The Draft EIS outlined five alternatives — five choices for the direction that the Forest Service will go in its care and feeding of these forests. I’m not going to go into them here — they’re all in the (1,900 plus) pages of the report (as well as additional reports for background data.) However, it is clear that a great many people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what would be the best approach to protecting the major resource that is our forests.

Reading the Draft EIS is of course the preferable way to learn about this plan. But most people, short of the serious forest fanciers, have neither the time nor the background to do this effectively. So I turned to Hoover for her suggestions.

The wilderness designation is the strongest protection our laws offer for keeping lands wild. Hoover wants to see more wilderness areas added to the National Forests. She supports Alternative C, Passive Restoration, and that this alternative be strengthened by recommending that more areas be protected as wilderness. With our population and development pressures, the sooner we can preserve our wild lands, the better it will be for future generations.

Congress has to designate the lands, but the forest plans are the first place to start this process. If a government agency such as the Forest Service recommends the addition of wilderness lands, then those recommendations weigh heavily with Congress. According to Hoover, these two new plans are woefully skimpy on any wilderness recommendations.

field of wild poppiesHere are just a few of the areas that are worthy of wilderness designation. In the Sierra National Forest, the Hite Cove Trail area is known for its beautiful wildflower displays and hiking trails. This could become part of a brand new South Fork Merced Wilderness. Adjacent to the Sequoia National Forest, the Domeland Wilderness West Addition provides a more remote wilderness experience, with pinyon-covered mountains and flowing streams, challenging terrain, and mixed vegetation.

Other suggestions: For the Sequoia National Forest, Hoover recommended also adding the Golden Trout Wilderness Addition, Stormy Canyon, Oat Mountain and Cannell Peak.

For the Sierra National Forest, the most important areas to recommend as wilderness were the Kings River-Monarch Wilderness Addition and Devils Gulch-Ferguson Ridge. And we might as well throw in Sycamore Springs, the San Joaquin River-Ansel Adams Wilderness Addition, and Bear Mountain.

Comment on the report closed on September 26, 2019, before we could get this to press. But there is always more to do. To learn more about the next steps and what you can do to keep our forests safe, contact Vicky Hoover at

According to Hoover, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

“This land is your land and this land is my land

From California to the New York island

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.”

Woody Guthrie

October 2019

Massive solar arrays - bright for our future or cloudy for the environment?Massive Array

Solar power seems like a slam-dunk for being environmentally benign, but some solar projects are not as completely beneficial to the environment as they are portrayed. One problematic type of project is an immense bank of solar panels built on public land, far from those who need the power.

In the past, the American desert was sometimes considered merely a scenic landscape with little other value. Today this flat, cheap-to-lease public land is very attractive to large solar and other development projects. This is the case with the Gemini Solar Project proposed for U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Nevada, northeast of Las Vegas.


They have survived because they have remained virtually untouched by large-scale development for thousands of years. Desert lands may appear vacant, but they are full of life…”

Laura Cunningham
Laura Cunningham

I learned about this project from Laura Cunningham, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, a non-profit dedicated to protecting our deserts and public lands. Cunningham is a field biologist; she grew up in the Bay Area, studied paleontology, zoology, botany, herpetology, and natural resources management at U.C. Berkeley, and worked as a contract biologist for various development projects. One part of her job was to walk a project site, map its plants and animals, and find ways to relocate or otherwise preserve species.

As a result of her direct experience with the damage inflicted by large-scale developments, Cunningham has spent the last ten years opposing certain projects. The mission of her group is no bull-dozing in the Mohave Desert ecosystems.

Our public lands are being exploited with little protection for the ecosystems that live there. The BLM gives developers permission to bulldoze thriving plant and animal communities based on the premise that damage to an ecosystem can be mitigated by moving threatened species to another area. This doesn’t always work.

Our government leases out our public land for low prices, compared to what a private landowner would charge. Tax incentives are often added to the deal.

The area selected for the Gemini Solar Project is one such landscape. How big an area are we talking about here? The Gemini Solar Project will occupy over 7,100 acres of prime desert habitat. That is an area almost seven times the size of Golden Gate Park or one-quarter the size of the City of San Francisco.

America’s desert lands are extremely vulnerable to ecological disturbance. They have survived because they have remained virtually untouched by large-scale development for thousands of years. Desert lands may appear vacant, but they are full of life, both above ground and under the surface.

The desert has developed a biological soil crust within which live algae and blue-green fungi, all part of the web that sustains life there. Construction of the Gemini Solar Project involves clearing this land and grading it flat, damaging the upper layer of soil. The Gemini Solar Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows a picture of a 23,500 pound, 250 HP “heavy duty mulcher” as possible mowing equipment (EIS, Vol 2, page 21). This is not your grand-dad’s lawnmower.

Protected species­—desert tortoises, kit foxes, and burrowing owls may be moved out or shooed away but no such luck for the other residents. Heavy grading equipment will crush and plow up burrows, destroying the homes of kangaroo rats, pocket mice, ground squirrels, iguana, lizards, and even tarantulas. Habitat will be shredded and plowed under—Joshua trees and wildflowers alike.

Roadways will be cleared, graded, and paved. Concrete drainage channels, detention ponds, berms, and spillways will be installed to control the runoff during rainstorms. Posts to support the panels will be pounded into the ground. Massive transmission lines will be installed. The entire area will be fenced off, with fences from ground level up to 8 feet tall with concertina wire on top.

Even the relocated tortoises (over 300!) will be negatively impacted. Just like people, tortoises don’t always do well when evicted from their homes. Many never adapt and wander the desert, stymied by fences, until they die from dehydration or are eaten by predators such as coyotes — who watch translocations with interest.

Those tortoises that do survive have to deal with an unfamiliar terrain and competition from the current residents. Males in particular have difficulty finding a mate. The local tortoise girls prefer the boy-next-door to a stranger. And the hometown boys will fight to defend their territory. Although a tortoise-on-tortoise fight is not going to garner the same ratings as American Ninja, it can result in injury or death for the defeated male.

Land that links habitat areas is known as a connectivity corridor. Most species need to be able to travel to vary the gene pool and preserve the genetic flow (health of the gene pool.) Too much in-breeding can cause a population decline. The Gemini Solar Project and its fences are right in the middle of a connectivity corridor between prime tortoise habitats.

In addition, there are huge cumulative impacts across the range of all desert tortoise habitats from other solar and wind projects and military base expansions.

How serious are these impacts? Desert tortoises are dying throughout their range; they are in an extinction spiral. Yes, this is serious.

Birds are not immune to the damage wrought by construction. Nests in low bushes may be spared during construction, but all of the habitat surrounding the nest will be removed, making it more difficult for the adults to feed their young. After the young have fledged, work crews will clear out the remaining nests and bushes. With their homes completely destroyed, the birds will have to move to other areas, where they will be in competition with the resident birds, putting stress on both populations.

Birds will be in further danger once the solar panels are installed. The bright reflective surfaces, so close to the ground, look like lakes from the air. Nevada is part of the Pacific Flyway. We don’t think of water birds flying over the desert, actually many do - on their way to the Salton Sea or the Great Salt Lake. What happens when a tired, thirsty bird sees a large body of water below? They fly down to it - very fast, and crash into the panels, usually resulting in death.

We need to pull back and look at the big picture in our efforts. Alternatives to massive desert solar arrays:

1. Aggressively support insulation (homes and businesses) and purchase of energy-saving appliances and lighting.

2. Aggressively promote and fund distributed solar. Install solar panels right where the energy will be used - on top of houses, parking lots, commercial buildings. Protect the panels from shadowing with tough new legislation. On a recent BART trip to Walnut Creek, I saw miles of roofs but very few solar panels. Why is that?

3. If massive solar farms are absolutely necessary, build them much closer to the urban centers that will be using the power; for example, brownfields (polluted sites) and farmland that has been degraded by overuse or under which the water table has been sucked dry. (Do we sense a pattern of environmental destruction here?)

There is a cost to the environment from every new project, no matter how well intentioned — whether it is building sea walls against the rising oceans or installing ‘green’ projects on public lands. This environmental cost should be factored into every project that purports to be beneficial, so that comprehensive planning can occur and long-term decisions can made based on all the potential impacts.

The Gemini Solar Project will supply power to California as well as Nevada. We all have a stake in how this is done.

Contact Cunningham to find out how you can help: bluerockiguana To learn more about what is going on in your deserts on your public land at:

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

September 2019

Are we in over our heads?

Recent news stories feature vivid pictures of record-breaking flooding across the United States. These stories make dramatic evening news coverage, because they show extreme damage in simple before and after pictures. But there is another story around flooding that is not as dramatic - at least not yet - but it is going to happen, and it is going to happen all over the world. That is the unavoidable inundation that will be caused by sea level rise.


Sea walls around a city are expensive not only to build but also to maintain. And one breach means disaster - think New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina.”

To learn more about the potential impacts of sea level rise (SLR), I spoke with Arthur Feinstein, Sierra Club California State Conservation Chair and champion of bays and estuaries. Feinstein and a SLR Task Force have just finished developing a set of positions for Club members to follow when addressing sea level rise issues.

Areas of SF impacted by sea level rise

Yes, climate change is causing melting glaciers and disappearing ice packs. The oceans are warming, and that leads to thermal expansion. The net result is that the levels of our oceans are definitely rising.

Sea level rise is happening every day, but it is so gradual that most people are not aware of the enormous risk that it poses to the future not only of those of us who live along the coasts, but also of the ecosystems on which we depend.

Various government and international agencies have released reports on expected SLR over the next 100 years. By 2050 it is expected that the oceans will rise steadily about 1.0 to 1.5 feet. Scientists say that there is nothing that can be done about this rise; it is locked in, and it is going to happen. After 2050, the amount of SLR will be both faster and more unpredictable. No one is certain how soon the ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, and Greenland will melt. Final predictions for SLR now go as high as a 10 foot rise by 2100. And this is just when the oceans are relatively calm.

Added to the impact of the rise in the static levels of the oceans is the impact of major storms with wind waves, storm surge, nearby river discharge and other events that can intensify SLR by contributing to the erosion of beaches and cliffs and consequent flooding. According to at least one research paper, these dynamic amplifiers can increase the impacts of flooding by up to seven times.

The coming SLR events will result in not only damage to the coastline and destruction of wildlife habitats, but also the loss of homes, businesses, and the infrastructure on which they have come to depend.

Let’s start with habitat. The shallow waters along our coasts are the nurseries for ocean life. According to Feinstein, the tidal marshes, mudflats, sea grass, and kelp beds support 70% to 90% of commercial fish and shellfish species. In addition to providing the food that is much of the basis for the ocean web of life, these living coastlines are effective at sequestering carbon from all those decaying plants. (Have you gotten a whiff of that intense odor at low tide? That is life in the making.) Tidal marshes also help to control flooding and inundation by slowing up storm surges. They purify water, trap impurities, and hold in mud. This in turn influences temperatures and helps cool the air.

Sea Level Rise threatens all of this life as these habitats drown in deeper waters. Loss of coastal habitat will impact fisheries in the deep oceans. At the same time as agriculture is impacted by rising temperatures inland due to climate change, another food source, ocean fisheries, will be depleted. And as the carbon sequestration these coastal habitats now provide is lost, Greenhouse Gases will increase, resulting in further global warming.

However, if the oceans rise slowly, and if there is room for the wetlands to move inland, sea life might gradually adapt.

That is why Feinstein recommends that coastal land be set aside to allow the oceans to gradually inundate new coastal areas over the next 30 years and, with luck, the plants and other life will move inland as the oceans rise.

After 2050 other processes may have to be employed to preserve the viability of coastal waters in the face of faster changes.

The need to plan for creating new living shorelines is resulting in some interesting policy reversals. The Bay Conservation and Development Committee (BCDC) was originally formed to protect San Francisco Bay from rampant filling during the mid-twentieth century. Today, BCDC is considering rewriting its guidelines to once again allow Bay fill in order to adapt to the rising levels of the Bay. For example, at the newly recovered salt ponds, mud could be added to raise the elevation of the sea bed to allow for shoreline habitat to re-establish itself at the new coastlines.

But establishing new coastal habitat at higher elevations depends on having vacant land along the coast to inundate. In areas where there is no undeveloped land next to the existing shorelines, there is a whole other set of problems that must be faced.

Here things become sticky. In principle, we need to allow for open space inland for the rising coastal waters. This may mean saying “no” to new development. At the least, new development should plan for the eventual incursion of the ocean, and property owners should plan ahead to remove the new structures when that happens.

What happens if homes and businesses are already located in harm’s way?

There are no easy solutions for land that is already developed. One key phrase you will see in coming years is “Managed Retreat,” or permanently clearing out occupants (that’s people) and structures from coastlines that are going to be inundated. As you can imagine, proposals for Managed Retreat have already drawn storms of dissension in some communities. Homeowners are reluctant to give up a place they have lived in and loved for many years, and which may be their major financial investment.

Lots of questions to ponder here. As the oceans rise, should there be government buy-outs? Should new property owners be treated differently than those who lived along the coast before SLR became a possibility? Some low-income communities were forced into areas that are close to the coast but were not considered desirable at the time they were established. Their homes may be their only resource. What happens to people whose only nest-egg is their nest? Should compensation be given based on income or property values? Or would flat rate compensation be fairer to everyone?

In addition to the impacts on homes and businesses, the financial toll for SLR on surrounding communities will be enormous. Consider the impact on infrastructure - roads, railways, harbors, airports, power plants, wastewater facilities may all be flooded out. How will this be dealt with and paid for, on top of the need to help local homeowners and business owners?

In case you were thinking that SLR could be solved with sea walls, think again. Building a sea wall around your home may protect you for a few years, but in the meantime, it will increase wave action on your neighbor’s house. And, eventually, how will you get home at night? Canoeing to Trader Joe’s may feel authentic, but it will lose its appeal after awhile.

Wave action against sea walls often precludes healthy marine habitat in the nearby area. Sea walls around a city are expensive not only to build but also to maintain. And one breach means disaster - think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sea walls also require concrete; manufacturing concrete adds to Greenhouse Gases. And so with building sea walls the cycle of climate change builds upon itself.

As in most of the environmental challenges we now face, there are many questions and no easy answers. Feinstein advises keeping an eye on news items and attending public meetings that will be held to deal with this. Ask for a living shoreline whenever this is mentioned. Sea level rise is a problem that is very much not going away, and we will have to plan for it and adapt to it in the future.

To learn more: San Francisco’s Sea Level Rise Action plan is a work in process:

The USGS mapping system illustrates what may be flooded, combining the level of rising oceans with the strength of storms.

NOAA interactive maps and photos shows the impacts of SLR :

For the truly wonky among you: USGS Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS)

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.

JULY 2019

Clothes make the earth go round . . .

On Earthday I attended the San Francisco festival, held this year in the Mission District. I saw some wondrous clothing made from recycled materials. I wondered how important clothing is in the whole reduce/reuse/recycle continuum. So I called our “Waste” expert, Ruth Abbe. Abbe is the chair of the Sierra Club California Zero Waste and Recycling Committee and was our advisor for the “Ghost of Christmas Presents” column last winter.

It was no surprise to learn that Abbe has definite ideas about how to save the earth through our clothing choices. In fact, the whole subject of textiles is now prominent in sustainability circles. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes over 700 gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt. This is enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years! Other resources used are fertilizer to grow the cotton for a natural fabric or oil for a synthetic fabric, as well as various chemicals used in processing and dying the fabric, and the energy for the manufacture and shipping of the T-shirt. But even with all of the energy that goes into making it, it’s not like we wear that T-shirt until it falls off our bods.


We think of ocean pollution as fishing line or plastic bottles, but synthetics in clothes break down eventually. And they never, ever go away.”

Sustainable dress
Sustainable Fashion Week International SF,
gown by Christina Cree. Photo Alces Images

With the advent of Fast Fashion, manufacturers started providing low-priced clothes, made with cheap fabrics, poorly cut and stitched, and often exploiting local communities environmentally and even using child labor. Fast Fashion produces clothing quickly to sell new “looks” to consumers (that’s us) each fashion season. Garments are worn a few times and then tossed away as the next fashion cycle rolls through. Worldwide, over 80 - 150 billion garments, depending on the source you check, are produced each year.

After the owner tires of the message/style/ color/whatever, that 700-gallons-of-water T-shirt may be recycled, donated, or just dumped. According to CalRecycle “more than 1.24 million tons of textiles were disposed in California landfills in 2014. Textiles are the sixth most prevalent material type in the overall disposed waste stream and comprise 4 percent of landfilled waste.”

OK, so you have decided to re-examine how you clothe yourself. Don’t worry, you don’t have to glue together snack bags, like the talented designers did for the Earthday fashion show gown in the photo. You have lots of options.

1. Want to buy something new? Buy Slow Fashion. Return to quality materials, quality craft(wo)manship, and classic styles for your basic clothing pieces. They’ll last longer, and really, you’ll look better in them.

2. Want something unique even if a bit pricey? Look for designers who now emphasize minimum or zero waste in clothing design—whether it is in the amount of fabric used or taking scraps of fabric and creating one-of-a-kind clothing from them.

3. Want to support companies that make zero-waste part of their mantra? Companies such as Patagonia have programs to make it easy to repair, to buy used, or to trade in their clothing. When the article of clothing is worn out, you can often return it to the company, so the item can be recycled into new fiber and fabric.

4. Want to investigate manufacturing practices more deeply? Look into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an improbable joint venture of Patagonia and Walmart aiming to improve manufacturing practices worldwide for sustainability and for social impacts

5. Want the adventure of the hunt? Get thee to thy local thrift shop — you will often find better fabrics, better work(wo)man ship, and budget-friendly prices when compared to mainstream retailers.

6. Want to have a broader selection of ‘gently used’ (i.e., second hand) clothes to choose from? Online consignment stores offer used name-brand clothing at discounted prices.

7. Want to choose the best fabrics for the environment? This choice is easy — go for natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and linen. They can be recycled into rags (see below). They can be composted. If done right, they will eventually break down and return to their natural components. Avoid synthetics such as nylon and polyester, which will break down into synthetic microfibers. We think of ocean pollution as fishing line or plastic bottles (see our 2018 articles on plastics in our oceans), but synthetics in clothes break down eventually. And they never, ever go away. Science is just now exploring the possible impact of these fibers on animal and human health. According to Abbe, microfibers have been found in the French Alps! And in wine and beer! Now, this is getting serious. There are a few microfiber filtering products out there - filters you attach to your washing machine or filter bags for your clothes. These are new products. Do some online searches and decide what is right for you.

8. Want to learn to be more self-sufficient while being environmentally conscious? Repair the clothes you own! Don’t know how? There are fix-it clinics and repair fairs. You can learn to fix a hem, sew on a button, and darn your sweaters or socks. Abbe learned darning at one of these clinics, and was delighted about repairing tiny moth holes in a favorite sweater — and her repairs were completely undetectable.

9. Want to know what to do if that T-shirt is still in good shape but no longer reflects your values (or your changing body shape — just sayin’, we all deal with that eventually). Donate good clothes back to that thrift shop you visited earlier. Go to Recycle Where to find locations to donate clothes in good condition and those shoes, belts, and purses that can’t go in the garbage company’s Blue Bin.

10. Want to know what to do once that beloved T-shirt is worn beyond repair? In San Francisco, put recyclable, clean but unusable fabric items in a clear plastic bag (sorry - someday we’ll get away from those pesky plastic bags), then in the Blue Bin. Rips, holes, single socks are okay here.

11. Want to know where worn fabric goes? One use is in cotton industrial wiping cloths. You’ve seen these for sale at big box and paint stores. Rags are better for cleaning than microfibers — and, of course, as the microfiber cloths break down, they end up back in our water supply and in the ocean. Rags are also used in shoddy pad — the underlayment for carpeting and under the floorboards of cars. Some clothing is recycled into clothing! The fabric is separated back into threads and ends up as new fabric. Learn more through SMART - The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association.

As is often true, the simplest action is the most effective. The best way to cut down on clothing waste is to just not buy as much. You’ll save time, you’ll save money, and you’ll help to save a bit more of the environment.

Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.

JUNE 2019

Earthday and you - What can li’l ol’ you do to save the earth?

sketch of juggler

Earthday held its 50th anniversary celebration last month. From its birth in the ‘70s Earth Day has provided an opportunity for people to participate in local, national and international events devoted to protecting our environment. Legislation has been passed, lawsuits filed, petitions signed, and articles written on the topic ‘save the earth’ (over 1.4 billion Google search results).

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the world is going to hell in a human-woven hand basket, we can find inspiration and ideas about what each one of us can do to take a small step towards shrinking our own ‘ecological footprint’ (25 million search results.)

To find out what local environmentally-oriented folks were doing, I put out a request to members of the Conservation Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club. These volunteers are all working to enact environmentally beneficial policies and practices, but they also try to use them in their daily lives. Here are some of their ideas:


. . . take the bus as much as you can … Muni uses less than 2 percent of all energy expended on transportation in SF.”

ONE SMALL CHANGE MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE “Change out your light bulbs to LED’s. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint and save money, too. “ (John Rizzo)

There are over 21 million search results on ‘incandescent vs. LED bulb comparisons,’ but we’ll make it easy. The simple dollar website has basic charts on how much energy can be saved by upgrading your light bulbs. One incandescent bulb might use 60 watts; a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) might use 14 watts. Compare this to an LED that gives the same amount of illumination but uses 10 watts. Now go around your home, count the number of bulbs, and multiply by 50 watts (savings over incandescent) per bulb. Not only will you save energy, but also, even with the higher purchase price of the LED’s factored in, you will save money over the life of the bulbs. LED’s last a very, very long time. LED’s are often subsidized by the government - look for rebates and special offers.

BIG PICTURE “Make a contribution to any one of the candidates running for president who supports the ‘Green New Deal’ (110 million search result.) Due to game-changing advances in clean energy, addressing climate change is now almost entirely a political problem, not an economic burden. Early money is the most important money, and the race for next President of the United States will be critically important in making the slingshot maneuver needed to give our children hope for prosperity.” (Hunter Cutting)

CARS FIGURED LARGE, UBER AND LYFT ALSO “Drive less. That includes in Ubers or the like. Walk, bike or take the bus a little more than you would have.” (Vicky Hoover)

“ . . . walk, bicycle, or take the bus as much as you can — leave your car in the garage and certainly don’t call for an Uber or a Lyft. In fact Muni uses less than 2 percent of all energy expended on transportation in SF.” (Sue Vaughan)

“If you have a car, think about how you might travel occasionally without it. For a meeting in S. San Francisco last weekend my choices were 60 minutes of driving to cover the 40 miles there and back home. Or, take public transit which would take three times as long. I always bring reading materials and also enjoy looking out the window while leaving the driving to someone else. If you like to go to malls, the 122 line starts at Stonestown and stops at Westlake and Sierra Monte Shopping Centers - $1 for seniors. “Keep it in the ground” is a popular phrase in the environmental movement when talking about fossil fuels. More than 2 gallons of diesel were not burned and spewed into the atmosphere with just this one trip.” (Barry Hermanson)

CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT - GAIN A NEW COMPANION “We’ve just rescued 2 animals (a puppy and a kitten) from the SPCA, and we are trying to incorporate every environmentally friendly product that comes with having indoor pets. Thus far, we have: Biodegradable puppy potty-training pads; Biodegradable kitty litter; Pet toys made from recycled materials; Recyclable/reusable pet food containers.” (Kim-Shree Maufas)

Other pet hints -- keep your cat healthy and non-avian-homicidal by keeping her/him indoors. (According to a 2013 study, cats in the continental U.S. kill 1.4 to 3.7 million birds a year. They also run into all kinds of trouble outdoors.) Spay or neuter your cat to cut down on the over-population, and for heaven’s sake, don’t dump pets in the wild - take them to a no-kill shelter. Otherwise, they suffer and so do all of the other critters out there from these introduced, non-native predators.

ALWAYS GOOD - PLANT A TREE “If you have the space - plant a tree, or many trees. Preferably an organically grown sapling. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, provide habitat for a host of other species, and help regulate water flows among their many ecological benefits. Some day, if I have the time and money, I dream of acquiring a tract of degraded land somewhere and planting a forest.” (Rupa Bose)

AN EASY WAY TO SAVE WATER “ . . . A practical recommendation to save water is to use your washing machine on the ‘express’ or ‘delicate’ setting, which is half the time for a usual load (save water, save money, save time) - same for a dishwasher (for those who have one- use ‘quick time’ setting).” (Linda Weiner)

Do you run the water in the sink to get it hot? Put the excess in a pitcher and use it to water plants.

GO AFTER THOSE PESKY PLASTIC BAGS As we learned in a prior interview, only 9% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide. Look around and see what you can do. Plastic bags at farmers’ markets? Tsk. Tsk. Take your own cloth bags. Catalogs that arrive encased in “recyclable” plastic? Write a quick note to the publisher. And my favorite bug-a-boo — The SF Chronicle arriving in a plastic bag every day, 365 days a year - even on sunny days. Call them and ask, “Please do NOT use a plastic bag, unless it is raining. Please use a rubber band instead.” (It prevents blowing around.) 415-777-7000. Warning: It may take a few calls to get the message transmitted to the people who do the actual delivery work. Persevere! (Author)

AFTER WORKING HARD TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, TAKE A BREAK AND “ . . . try to replenish your spirit every day by exposure to nature - even if it’s five minutes walking by a park (not only is it peaceful, but studies have shown it reduces depression). “ (Linda Weiner)

AND MOST POETIC “Walk in a forest or along the shore, a reminder of what we’re working to save.” (Becky Evans)

Meet these folks in person, along with other members of the SF Group. Meetings are at 6 pm on the 3rd Tuesday of the month. Locations alternate between Park Police and Mission Police Stations. Go online to learn more about the SF Group. Click on About Us/Leader Resources/Chapter Leadership/ San Francisco Group and voila!

MAY 2019

In spring, a young bird’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — and flight

Back in November, in “As the Crows - and other birds - fly,” we learned from bird expert Eddie Bartley about which birds migrate and where they go. Some birds travel hundreds, even thousands of miles. How can something so small perform such an athletic task, often with little or no rest along the way and without a Smartphone to look up directions on? I called Bartley back, and here is what I learned.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird
Ruby Throated Hummingbird

In spring, as the days start to get longer, birds’ bodies start to undergo changes. Just as teenagers experience hormonal changes, so too do birds. Every species of bird, and even within individual bird populations, has different physiological modifications caused by hormonal change. Unlike people, birds experience the changes every year and within a short time frame. Imagine going through puberty every year!

The bird’s hypothalamus triggers hormones in the pituitary gland. Hormones affect future egg-laying and stimulate the thyroid. Thyroxine affects the growth and pigmentation of feathers. Males develop more color to impress the girls. The adrenals are stimulated; testosterone and estrogen production are increased. And the part of the brain that controls singing is stimulated. (Hey-ba-by! Hey-ba-by!)


Over 200 species migrate through the Bay Area … Turning off unnecessary lighting at night … saves the lives of these wayfarers as they wing their way over our sleeping neighborhoods.

In addition to raging hormones, pancreatic enzymes trigger eating behavior. The birds start to stuff themselves, a condition called hyperphagia (over-eating). As the bird gorge themselves on whatever they can find to eat, they layer on fat. The pancreas produces more insulin, increasing the concentration of blood sugar.

These extraordinary changes are happening to birds right now. The medium and long-distance migrants - the birds in the tropics, Mexico, and the southern United States - are bulking up for the Big Push north. They are waiting for their nesting territory to thaw out and then they will start their spring migration.

But birds can’t watch the weather channel to find out what is going on in the home nesting area. The Big Push is triggered by the photo-period, the amount of daylight every day. Photo-period is a more reliable indicator of what is happening in another part of the world than the local weather in the birds’ wintering grounds. Scientists have proven this by experimenting with giving birds different photo-periods and observing how the birds react to the change in the amount of light during the day.

As the days get longer, the birds’ sex organs increase in size and the muscles associated with long-distant flight bulk up. By the time the increasing daylight tells them to leave, birds must be in peak physiological shape.

Local weather does, however, play a part in when the birds decide to take off on the Big Push. In North America in the spring, there are more low pressure zones and the winds blow counter-clockwise. Birds will catch the northbound winds on the edges of these low pressure zones. For example, in California as the days get longer and the temperature climbs, birds will ride the winds to head north.

Fall migration is in many ways a mirror image of the spring changes. In the fall, as high pressure builds, the winds come from the northwest and the birds use them to aid in their southbound flight.

After the mating and nesting season are over, the birds don’t need the sex organs, and the organs reduce in size. Kidneys also reduce in size, because they are not needed as much during the migration.

Hyperphagia still occurs. Shorebirds can double their weight. Imagine if you went from 150 lbs. to 300 lbs in a few months. As the birds fly, all that newly acquired fat gets burned off.

In spring or in fall, how do birds find their way across hundreds or even thousands of miles of land and sea? According to Bartley, they follow a wide variety of clues due to the unique abilities with which they are born.

Birds that fly during the day can see polarization patterns that let them locate the position of the sun, even on cloudy days.

Songbirds navigate at night by star maps. Researchers have placed them in planetariums and then rearranged the star maps to see which direction the birds go. (And no, I don’t know who cleans up after all this.) Songbirds get so restless at night that the Germans have a word for it - Zugunruhe or migrating restlessness. Songbirds need the stars, and they won’t migrate when it is cloudy. They also depend on tailwinds to help them travel long distances.

Many birds are diurnal and migrate during the day. Swallows, swifts, and raptors all benefit from the thermal uplift during the warmer daytime hours.

Some birds migrate by using landmarks such as mountains and rivers. They get better at it as they gain more experience. Ducks and pelicans travel in flocks, sharing the knowledge of the more experienced birds.

Doves and pigeons navigate photo-magnetically, using magnetic material at the base of their bill to detect the magnetic patterns of the earth. This same geo-magnetism is used by salmon to return back to their place of birth.

Some birds may even be able to navigate by scent. This would be especially helpful in finding an island in a large body of water, where there are no distinguishing landmarks.

How far and fast can birds go? There are as many answers as there are birds.

A barn swallow might travel 90 miles in a day. A red knot might travel 90 miles or up to 600 miles in a day. A hawk might travel 10 miles one day and 300 miles the next day. Hummingbirds make an amazing journey across the Gulf of Mexico. The ruby-throated hummingbird travels 500 miles non-stop in an epic one-day journey.

Migration speeds also vary widely. Most birds (90 %) fly at 15 to 45 mph. (Yes, that’s miles per hour.) In general, larger birds fly faster, and all are affected by the direction and speed of the wind. Songbirds travel at 10 to 30 mph. Raptors may lollygag around or get motivated and travel at 20 to 45 mph. Waterfowl such as ducks and loons travel at 30 to 50 mph.

Wing loading affects how high and far birds can fly. The loading is calculated by a complex formula involving the weight of the bird compared to the surface of the wing and other factors. You’ve probably noticed that some birds have a hard time getting off the ground and others soar easily. Wing shape and size all affect how easily a bird takes off, how high they can fly, and how long they can stay afloat in the air.

With differing flight capabilities, it is not surprising that birds have their own preferred air corridors as they migrate.

Among songbirds, 75% travel at elevations of 500 to 2,000 feet. Raptors range from 700 to 4,000 feet. Waterfowl travel from 1,200 to 4,000 feet. Shorebirds can fly at 1,000 to 13,000 feet elevation. Bar-headed geese fly over Mt. Everest and have been seen by aircraft at 30,000 feet. These geese have specialized hemoglobin that can store higher amounts of oxygen.

Even if we cannot always see them, birds can see us - or rather, they can see our building lights.

According to the Golden Gate Audubon Society website, birds that migrate at night can be drawn off course by tall, lighted structures along their flight path. Drawn by the bright city lights, birds sometimes collide with buildings or rooftop structures. At the speed they are travelling, these collisions are usually fatal. Other times the birds will circle a lighted building until they drop from exhaustion.

Over 200 species migrate through the Bay Area in the spring and fall. Turning off unnecessary lighting at night not only saves energy costs but also saves the lives of these wayfarers as they wing their way over our sleeping neighborhoods.

Ask your company to participate in Lights Out for Birds. Lights Out is a voluntary program where building owners, managers, and tenants work together to ensure that unnecessary lighting is turned off during migration periods. Spring migration dates for the Lights Out program are February 15 through May 30.

Bartley reminds us that all this wonderful information gathered by scientists applies to the birds they have observed. Birds may be part of a flock, but just as with people, there will always be birds who fly to a different drummer.

In addition, a lot of migration is not detected by us. At the Raptor Observatory, Bartley watches birds that eventually fly so high they can’t be seen against the blue sky. Bartley suggests, “Just go out and admire it wherever you can.”

Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.

April 2019

The Real Dirt-y Dozen

handful of soil

Last December in “Dishing the Dirt During the Holidays,” we interviewed soils aficionado and Sierra Club Loma Prieta Soils Committee co-Chair Anne Stauffer about soil health and how important it is to growing your Thanksgiving meal. I expect that you all sat around the holiday dinner table, digesting your food along with the article, and asked yourselves, “Well, how about my home garden? What can I do to be more environmentally aware as I garden?” It just so happens that Stauffer has some easy tips you can use for a flourishing home garden. Here are her twelve Do’s and Don’ts for great soil health for your garden:

1. Don’t Use Herbicides and Pesticides.

Herbicides and pesticides kill not only “bad” critters (aphids, snails, slugs) but also the “good” ones (earthworms, ladybugs, bees, butterflies, birds, and on and on).


What can I do to be more environmentally aware as I garden? ... Here are her twelve Do’s and Don’ts for great soil health for your garden

2. Don’t Compact Your Soil.

Lay out paths for people to walk on - every time you walk through a garden bed, you are squishing the tiny pockets of air and water that soil microbes have formed and need to survive. Yes, soil life-forms need air and water, too!

3. Don’t rake up leaves, pine needles or other debris.

OK, maybe we are too late with this suggestion this year (unless you are a laid-back gardener.) But think of your leaves and pine needles as free organic mulch! Leave the leaves. (This may not apply to roses and some other plants if diseases are present, but for the most part, this is a good rule of thumb.)

4. Don’t dig or till unnecessarily.

Digging and tilling disturb and can even kill soil fungi, worms, and other beneficial microbes. Make planting holes just big enough for the plant’s root ball.

5. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers.

Did you know that synthetic fertilizers actually harm soil health? Plants become dependent on the fertilizer, and their roots stop working with soil life-forms. The soil microbes that would naturally nourish your plants then die off or move away -- and you are stuck buying more synthetic fertilizer.

6. Do get rid of that lawn.

Try California natives instead. California native plants thrive in our soils and dry climate. Natives also support California’s endangered bugs—butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles—and therefore the birds, lizards, and other creatures that eat those bugs.

7. Do encourage fungi in your soil.

Soil fungi work with and “extend” roots, maximizing plants’ ability to draw nutrients from the soil. Mulch and organic compost help with this. See more below.

8. Do plant cover crops.

Cover crops nourish and rebuild depleted soils by adding vital plant nutrients and increasing soil aeration. Some cover crops are sweet peas, fava beans, California lupine, California barley, wheat, and wild rye.

9. Do grow numerous, diverse plants.

Stauffer says that, “the greater the diversity and number of plants, the healthier the soil.” Deep-rooted perennials, such as many native California grasses, are especially beneficial. They extend throughout a larger area of the soil and form networks with more fungi, bacteria, and microbes.

10. Do use organic compost.

You, too, can make rich, organic compost at home using food scraps, yard cuttings, and shredded newspaper. Many websites give instructions for this free source of soil nutrients. Apply the finished compost to the surface of your soil and cover with lots of mulch (see #12.)

11. Do make compost extract to quickly improve soil health.

You can use your organic compost to make a liquid extract fertilizer. Stauffer’s recipe: “Add a few trowels of organic compost to a bucket of water, stir vigorously, and promptly pour it around your plants.”

12. Do add mulch, mulch, mulch.

Apply a few inches of organic mulch to your planting beds. Leave a three-inch mulch-free diameter around each of your plants to prevent plant diseases. Mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and saves water. As the mulch breaks down, it provides food for all those underground critters so important to soil health.

As you nourish your garden, you are nourishing the earth as a whole. Healthy soil helps clean the air, holds up to 30% more water, and nurtures strong, beautiful plants, whether in acres of cropland or in your own small backyard.

Lessons we learn in our gardens show us the way to helping care for our Mother Earth.

Join Stauffer in her efforts at:

Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate and a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

March 2019

Treasure Island’s Real Treasure

Our environment is made up of many small, delicate building blocks that interact in wondrous ways to create the natural world we enjoy every day. One such building block is a sea grass with the somewhat unappealing name of eelgrass.

True to its label, eelgrass (Zostera marina) has long, ribbon-like leaves that extend vertically in the water. The blade-shaped leaves grow from 18 inches to over 12 feet in length but only half an inch wide. Eelgrass grows completely underwater, but given the right conditions, it manages to flower, to spread, and to support a great many other organisms. It is so important to the health of its ecosystem that it is known as a keystone species. If the eelgrass does well, then so will the lives dependent on it. If it does poorly, then its many dependent species will also suffer.

When a disease wiped out eelgrass beds along the eastern coast of the United States in the 1930’s, it also wiped out - forever - the eelgrass limpet, a small creature dependent on this one food source. That disease also resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of brandt geese - a bird that depends on the plant extensively.


... it is known as a keystone species. If the eelgrass does well, then so will the lives dependent on it. If it does poorly, then its many dependent species will also suffer.”

This very special eelgrass also grows in San Francisco Bay.

Blades of eelgrass provide a place for Pacific Herring to lay their eggs, and then a place for diving birds to strip those eggs off for a nutritious lunch. Juvenile salmon and Dungeness Crabs hide from predators in eelgrass meadows. Bay pipefish camouflage themselves as a swaying eelgrass blade. Even the decaying plant materials support the estuary’s food web.

Eelgrass meadows catch minute particles floating in the water and deposit them on the Bay floor, slowly building up the sandy and muddy bottom. Large beds of eelgrass can absorb wave shocks, protecting adjacent shorelines.

Eelgrass is sensitive to water clarity, to changes in currents, to increases or decreases in the sediment in which it lives, and to changes in depth of water. Its presence off of Treasure Island is discussed in the Environmental Impact Report for the Treasure Island / Yerba Buena Island Redevelopment Project. Of particular interest is the Clipper Cove Marina Project.

I learned more about Clipper Cove in a discussion with Mr. Hunter Cutting, an advocate for protecting this ecological and recreational resource. Cutting has been following the Treasure Island Redevelopment Project since 2015.

Cutting is worried that the proposed marina development project could damage the eelgrass population now living in Clipper Cove. These concerns were mirrored early on in Environmental Impact Report comment letters from environmental and other groups. Last year new concerns arose, due to the revelation that the new marina and entrance channel might result in increased sedimentation and yearly dredging.

The precise impact on the eelgrass beds is not known; in public documents the developers stated that even they were not sure of the overall impact. An eelgrass expert wrote that the impacts could and should be studied. Studying those impacts sooner rather than later was part of last year’s understanding with the developers.

However, last month the Treasure Island Development Authority suddenly submitted a new proposal. The new proposal asks that the project be approved by the City before an environmental study of the impacts on the eelgrass is completed. Unfortunately, this position is also being supported by the Office of the Mayor.

You can help to protect the eelgrass and the habitat it supports. The measure has been referred to the Budget Committee of the Board of Supervisors for a vote on this new proposal. Contact the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Breed, and ask them to reject the new proposal until environmental safeguards are added back to the agreement.

San Francisco Bay belongs to everyone and should be devoted to the common good for everyone — not only for the marina users but also for the eelgrass and for the myriad forms of life it supports.

For more information, contact Hunter Cutting c/o the Westside Observer at:

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate and a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.Illustration : Alces Images

February 2019

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