Friday, July 19, 2002
Doing What Comes Naturally?
The fight over Rec & Park’s Natural Areas
Ken Garcia summed it up:
The native plant enthusiasts who want to take over
large chunks of San Francisco's parks have done a poor job of
cultivating their agenda, but they have allowed one unalienable truth
about the city to bloom.
People here don't like being told what's good for them
and especially dislike being left in the dark about plans that
allegedly have been conceived for their benefit.
Garcia was referring to Rec & Park’s Natural Areas
Program, the subject of a spate of Independent attention and a
heated hearing last week before the supervisors’ Neighborhood Services
and Recreation Committee. Members of the
Coalition for San Francisco
debated the issue at their meeting on July 16. Two of the speakers,
Steve Cockrell and Jake Sigg, have agreed to
reprint their arguments here:
Natural Areas Moratorium
A brief summary
By Steve Cockrell
Because the Natural Areas Program is proceeding without
public oversight, San Francisco has lost over 1,500 trees and could lose
control of large areas of recreational open space and hundreds of acres
of non-native forest. The San Francisco Parks Coalition has asked for a
moratorium on tree cutting, trail closures, and restrictions on pets,
recreation, and public access.
The three-year, $400,000 Natural Areas planning project
is near completion. However, since its beginning it has violated the
Management Plan and contractual requirements to ensure public
participation. Brought into the open through Sunshine Ordinance
complaints, the Recreation and Park Department has offered only an
apology and a “Green Ribbon” panel of experts to review the completed
Opponents of public participation in Natural Areas
planning argue that only experts are qualified to monitor the planning
process. However, these same individuals and groups make the opposite
argument when their own interests are at stake. Furthermore, a
Scientific Advisory Board already exists. Only the general public has
been left out.
Critics of the program have had great difficulty
acquiring information, twice obtaining Sunshine Orders requiring RPD to
give access to documents. In March, as a result of public opposition to
Natural Areas activities, the Management Plan consultant asked for an
additional $180,000 to create a more “defensible” document, citing
“changes in the political climate in the City of San Francisco.”
The Natural Areas Program may have also violated the
California Environmental Quality Act which requires an analysis of
significant impacts to recreational, cultural, aesthetic, and natural
resources. Thousands of trees have already been girdled, chainsawed,
and/or killed with herbicides by the Natural Areas Program, including
over 1,000 trees on Bayview Hill alone according to consulting arborist,
While publicly describing Natural Areas as “small
fragments of original natural communities,” revised draft Management
Plans indicate that RPD expects Natural Areas to encompass at least
1,200 acres – one-third of San Francisco’s parklands – including heavily
used recreational areas of Glen Canyon, McLaren Park, Lake Merced,
Bernal Hill, and Stern Grove / Pine Lake.
San Francisco is generously doing its part in preserving
natural areas. Few people realize that, in addition to 600 acres of city
parks given to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the City of San
Francisco owns and manages a 23,000-acre fish and wildlife reserve ten
minutes south of the city (Crystal Springs watershed) and another 36,000
acres of natural areas in the East Bay (Alameda Watershed). These
natural areas equal twice the total area of the city and county of San
The San Francisco Parks Coalition, an ad hoc group of
neighborhood associations, animal welfare advocates, habitat
restorationists, and tree lovers has joined together to demand an open,
democratic process to determine the direction our Natural Areas Program
will take. At our request, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors held
hearings on these matters on Thursday, July 11, 2002. Several
resolutions have followed that hearing, including a resolution calling
for the creation of a Board of Supervisors Work Group for the Natural
Areas Program and another urging the Recreation and Parks Department to
work more closely with neighborhood groups.
Preserving urban Natural Areas seems like a good idea to
most people. Let’s make sure it’s done in a tolerant, balanced, and open
way that ensures respect for the concerns of all San Franciscans. We can
have an exemplary Natural Areas Program without bullying and excluding
the public. In fact, it’s the only way we can.
Steve Cockrell is Coordinator of the San Francisco
Parks Coalition. This article, which appeared in the Coalition for San
Francisco Neighborhoods newsletter, was revised on July 19, 2002.
In Support of the Natural Areas
By Jake Sigg
I love trees. How could I not, after being a city
gardener in Golden Gate Park for more than three decades? During that
time I helped plant thousands of trees of more than a hundred species.
During the last decade, though, I've come to realize that a few trees,
especially eucalyptus, don't need to be planted any more. In fact, it's
time to remove a few of them.
There are an estimated 150,000 trees on Recreation and
Park Department lands. Most of those, perhaps as many as 99 percent,
occur in developed parks like Golden Gate Park or otherwise altered
land. But a few are found in the city's remnant natural areas, where
monocultures of a single tree species can displace dozens of native
plant species. That's why the department's Natural Areas Program has
removed trees throughout the 33 parks and 1,000 acres that contain
significant natural resources.
Hardly clearcutting, but to some, such activities are
menacing beyond measure. There are those who think that no healthy tree
should ever be cut for any reason, anywhere, anytime. There are those
who have said that the Natural Areas Program has cut "thousands of trees
on Bayview Hill" or that there are plans for clearcutting McLaren Park
or Golden Gate Park. Such statements are patently absurd. Why would an
underfunded program that relies heavily on volunteer labor ever set such
ridiculously ambitious goals?
Such overheated rhetoric obscures the central point:
that a few trees, particularly eucalyptus, have escaped developed areas
and invaded natural areas. Who says that trees can't be weeds? Valuing
them over other life forms is both unrealistic and unjustifiable. If
invading trees proliferate, they would defeat the very purpose for which
the Natural Areas Program was established. If San Francisco had been
built in a forested area, the program would be dedicated to saving the
forests. But San Francisco was built on the almost-treeless tip of a
peninsula; the plants and animals inhabiting the dunes and
grassland-wildflower areas need full exposure to the sky and find it
difficult or impossible to coexist in the changed environment created by
trees – the shading, fog drip, and smothering by litter and duff layers.
If we want to protect the natural heritage unique to this place, we must
value organisms smaller than trees as well.
Opponents of the Natural Areas Program wish to
characterize such sentiments as radical. A little historical perspective
illustrates that it's firmly in the mainstream. It represents the
culmination of a long struggle that began in the 1920s when Mattie Brown
led a citizen movement to save Mount Davidson from development, thus
assuring acquisition of its summit for the purpose of preserving the
wildflowers. Josephine Randall continued the struggle in the 1930s and
1940s; her efforts led to the saving of Corona Heights and the
establishment of the children's nature museum now bearing her name. On
three different occasions – in 1974, 1988, and 2000 – voters
overwhelmingly approved measures to acquire and manage open space lands.
In 1991 the Planning Commission unanimously adopted Policy 13 as an
element in the city's Master Plan. This policy states that "...the
natural resources of the site should be protected and enhanced through
restrictions on use and appropriate management practices." In 1997, the
Recreation and Park Department responded to this citizen demand and the
requirements of Policy 13 by establishing the Natural Areas Program. The
department wins high marks for doing a good job of building a new
program from the ground up in only four years in the new and evolving
field of ecological restoration. Restoration in this context means
restoring health to a degraded natural system, not re-creating something
that is irretrievably gone. We can only save what is here, and that is
what gives urgency to the program. We're catching up with two centuries
of neglect – no maintenance, not even garbage collection, was done,
while erosion and invasive weeds were degrading biological communities.
It's therefore worrisome to see members of the Park,
Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) attack the Natural
Areas Program with such fervor. They propose diluting the Natural Areas
Management Plan Task Force with members lacking expertise in natural
resource management – i.e., with those whose agendas are other than
caring for our natural heritage, in violation of Policy 13, not to
mention common sense. If you care about our natural areas, let your
supervisor know that you support the Natural Areas Program and you do
not want to see the Task Force deflected from its mission. You're in the
good company of Mattie Brown, Josephine Randall, and the more than 3,000
fellow citizens who were volunteers with the program last year. It's not
about trees. In all my years as a gardener, I finally learned that its
all about the right tree in the right place.
Jake Sigg is conservation chair of the Yerba Buena
Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and retired from 31 years
on the Recreation-Park Department gardening staff. This article, which
appeared in the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods newsletter,
first appeared in The Independent on April 16.
Jocelyn Cohen, of the
San Francisco Tree
Council, adds this observation:
... Preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and
natural areas programs in our parks, along our streets, sidewalks,
backyards and open spaces bring into play many factors to balance.
Furthermore, San Francisco will never return to its "native" state, a
notion which is out of sync with the current 2002 culture i.e.
millions of people and vehicles trampling this tiny peninsula. Pitting
native plants against exotics will only result in polarizing
environmental, horticultural, neighborhood and advocacy groups against
On July 15, 2002,
Supervisor Leland Yee
introduced the following resolutions to the Board of Supervisors, in an
effort to calm the storm:
Resolution establishing a Board of Supervisors Work Group for the
Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program. Supervisor Yee presented.
RECEIVED AND ASSIGNED to Rules and Audits Committee.
021260 [Work Group for Natural Areas Program]
021264 [Urge Recreation and Parks Department to work
with neighborhood groups] Resolution urging the Recreation and
Parks Department to work more closely with neighborhood groups.
Supervisor Yee presented. REFERRED FOR ADOPTION WITHOUT COMMITTEE
REFERENCE AGENDA AT THE NEXT BOARD MEETING.
And Rec & Park? The entity at the center of the
hurricane is keeping very quiet. A copy of the revised Natural Areas
plan resides in the department’s office in Golden Gate Park (Don’t look
in the phone book or on the web for the address, but go to McLaren
Lodge, 501 Stanyan; 415 831-2700). The department’s
is quiet as a clam.