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Friday, July 19, 2002

Doing What Comes Naturally?

The fight over Rec & Park’s Natural Areas Program

The Chronicle’s 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 Neighborhoods 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 plans.

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, Walter Levison.

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 Francisco.

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 Program

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 one another....

On July 15, 2002, Supervisor Leland Yee introduced the following resolutions to the Board of Supervisors, in an effort to calm the storm:

021260 [Work Group for Natural Areas Program] 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.

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 website is quiet as a clam.