Why does UCSF want to destroy the Sutro forest?

The short answer to that question is “I don’t know.”  However, since many of the over 1,200 signers of the petition to University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to save the forest have asked this question, it seems that they deserve some answer.  So, in this post, we will tell you the reasons that UCSF has given for its plans to destroy the forest.

UCSF makes two erroneous claims about the Sutro forest which it uses to justify its destruction.  They claim that the forest is unhealthy and that destroying most of the forest will benefit the few trees that remain.  They also claim that the forest is very flammable and that destroying most of the forest will make it less flammable.  This is our response to these claims.

The Sutro Forest is not unhealthy

Mount Sutro Forest
Mount Sutro Forest

The Save Sutro website recently posted the professional opinion of two arborists who evaluated the Sutro forest and pronounced it healthy.  We recommend that article as a starting point for anyone who wishes to be reassured on this important point.

The Draft Environmental Impact Report for UCSF’s planned project claims that the forest is old and dying.  If we don’t beat it to the punch and kill it first, it will soon die without our help.  An analogy comes to mind: “We had to destroy the village to save it,” which was the explanation given for the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War.  It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now.

The fact is, the Sutro forest is young and in the prime of its life.  Eighty-two percent of the forest is blue gum eucalyptus.  Blue gums live in Australia from 200 to 500 years. (1)  They live toward the longer end of that range in milder climates such as the San Francisco Bay Area.  The blue gum eucalypts were planted on Mount Sutro in the 1880s.  It is still a young forest.

Another indication that the forest is young is that the individual trees are small by blue gum standards.  The study plots used by the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) to calculate how much carbon is stored in the trees found that 77% of the trunks of the trees are 5 inches in diameter at breast height or less (if the study plots are representative of the entire forest, which is questionable).  It also says that this species of eucalyptus grows very fast and that its trunk is 9 inches in diameter after only three years of growth.  In other words, the DEIR claims that the trees are old and no longer growing, yet it says that most of the trees are very small and it intends to destroy the small trees, not the big ones.  This is just one of many contradictions that we find in the DEIR. 

There is little risk of wildfire in the Sutro Forest

One of the most powerful rhetorical tools used by native plant advocates to justify the destruction of our urban forest and motivate the public to pay for these expensive projects is the fear of fire.  UCSF uses this strategy as well.  Frankly, we doubt that UCSF believes it themselves because they applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to pay for this project in 2008. FEMA informed UCSF that there is little risk of wildfire on Mount Sutro. UCSF withdrew its grant application rather than answer FEMA’s questions.

FEMA asked UCSF to supply scientific evidence that the project would reduce fire risk despite the fact that the project would reduce fog condensation from the tall trees which moistens the forest floor, making ignition unlikely.  FEMA also asked for scientific evidence that a wind driven wildfire would not be more likely after the destruction of the wind break provided by the forest.  UCSF chose to withdraw its grant application, presumably because they could not answer those questions. 

In 2010, UCSF applied for another fire hazard mitigation grant from the California Fire Safe Council.  The Council has funded 150 such grants in California, but they denied UCSF’s application.  That suggests that the California Fire Safe Council shares FEMA’s opinion.

You might ask, where is UCSF getting the money to pay for this project?  We don’t know, but we consider that a legitimate and important question given that UCSF is a publicly funded enterprise. 

UCSF may not be able to answer FEMA’s questions, but we can, using specific scientific studies.   In 1987, 20,000 hectares burned in a wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.  The effects of that fire on the forest were studied by Weatherspoon and Skinner of the USDA Forest Service.  They reported the results of their study in Forest Science. (2)  They found the least amount of fire damage in those sections of the forest that had not been thinned or clear-cut.  In other words, the more trees there were, the less damage was done by the fire.  They explained that finding:

“The occurrence of lower Fire Damage Classes in uncut stands [of trees] probably is attributable largely to the absence of activity fuels [e.g., grasses] and to the relatively closed canopy, which reduces insolation [exposure to the sun], wind movement near the surface, and associated drying of fuels.  Conversely, opening the stand by partial cutting adds fuels and creates a microclimate conducive to increased fire intensities.”

In other words the denser the forest,

  • The less wind on the forest floor, thereby slowing the spread of fire
  • The more shade on the forest floor.
    • The less flammable vegetation on the forest floor
    • The more moist the forest floor

All of these factors combine to reduce fire hazard in dense forest. Likewise, in a study of fire behavior in eucalyptus forest in Australia, based on a series of experimental controlled burns, wind speed and fire spread were significantly reduced on the forest floor.(3)   Thinning the forest will not reduce fire hazard.  In fact, it will increase fire hazard.

Jon E. Keeley of the USGS is a world-renowned expert on the fire ecology of California.  We have read his recently published book (Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems:  Ecology, Evolution and Management, Cambridge University Press, 2011) and many of his articles.  Anyone with a sincere interest in wildfire hazards in California would be wise to read these publications.  Reference to Keeley’s work is conspicuously absent from the Draft EIR. 

Keeley’s most recently published study  of specific wildfires in the Wildland-Urban-Interface (WUI) of California is most relevant to consideration of wildfire hazard in the Sutro Reserve.  (4) The authors studied the property damage resulting from specific wildfires in California “…and identified the main contributors to property loss.”  Keeley and his colleagues found that steep slopes in canyons that create wind corridors were the best predictors of fire damage and that grassy fuels were more likely to spread the fire than woody fuels.  Applying these observations to Mount Sutro, its topography is the biggest factor in the potential for wildfire and substituting the forest with grassland and scrub will result in more dangerous fuel loads. 

Scripps Ranch fire, San Diego, 2003.  All the homes burned, but the eucalypts that surrounded them did not catch fire.  New York Times
Scripps Ranch fire, San Diego, 2003. All the homes burned, but the eucalypts that surrounded them did not catch fire.

UCSF and native plant advocates make allegations about the flammability of eucalypts by misrepresenting actual wildfires in the Bay Area.  These allegations are addressed elsewhere on Million Trees, which we invite you to visit if you have more questions:

All pain, no gain

So, if the forest is healthy and destroying it does not reduce fire hazards, how can UCSF justify all the damage this project will do to the environment:

    • Releasing thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that are stored in the trees and significantly reducing the ability of the forest to sequester carbon in the future, thereby contributing to climate change.
    • Increasing air pollution by reducing the ability of the forest to absorb air pollutants.
    • Using pesticides to destroy the vegetation in the understory and preventing the trees that are destroyed from resprouting.
    • Destroying the food and cover of the birds and animals that live in the forest.
    • Eliminating the noise and wind barrier that protects UCSF’s neighbors
    • Increasing the risk of wildfire by eliminating the windbreak, reducing the moisture in the forest, and littering the forest with the dead logs and wood chips of the trees that are destroyed.

We can’t imagine why UCSF wants to destroy its forest.  We understand why native plant advocates support this project because they are making the same demands all over the Bay Area.  They want land managers to destroy non-native trees because they believe that destroying them will result in the return of native plants.  The UCSF project makes no commitment to plant native plants after the forest is destroyed, with the exception of a few small areas and then only if “money is available.”  Native plants will not magically emerge from the wood-chip tomb on the forest floor.  Is it possible that UCSF shares the fantasy of native plant advocates that this destructive project will result in a landscape of grassland and chaparral which is the native landscape on Mount Sutro?  Surely a scientific institution of such distinction knows better.  Or it should. 

Here are the things you can do to help us save this beautiful forest:

  • Sign the petition to save the forest.  Available here.
  • Attend and speak at a UCSF hearing about the project:  Monday, February 25, 2013, 7 pm, Millberry Union Conference Center, 500 Parnassus Ave, Golden Gate Room                                                                             
  • Submit a written public comment by 5 PM, March 19, 2013 to UCSF Environmental Coordinator Diane Wong at EIR@planning.ucsf.edu or mail to UCSF Campus Planning, Box 0286, San Francisco, CA 94143-0286.  Include your full name and address.
  • Write to the Board of Regents to ask why a public medical institution is engaging in such a controversial, expensive, and environmentally destructive act.  Address:   Office of the Secretary and Chief of Staff to the Regents,
1111 Franklin St., 12th Floor, Oakland, CA 94607
  Fax: (510) 987-9224
  • Subscribe to the website SaveSutro.com for ongoing information and analysis.


(1)     Eucalypt ecology: Individuals to ecosystems, by Jann Elizabeth Williams, John Woinarski ,Cambridge University Press, 1997

(2)     Weatherspoon, C.P. and Skinner, C.N., “An Assessment of Factors Associated with Damage to Tree Crowns from the 1987 Wildfires in Northern California,” Forest Science, Vol. 41, No 3, pages 430-453

(3)     Gould, J.S., et. al., Project Vesta:  Fire in Dry Eucalyptus Forests, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia, November 2007

(4)     Alexandra Syphard, Jon E. Keeley, et. al., “Housing Arrangement and Location Determine the Likelihood of Housing Loss Due to Wildire.” PLOS ONE, March 18, 2012

6 thoughts on “Why does UCSF want to destroy the Sutro forest?”

  1. There have been large eucalyptus fires in foggy areas on the Marin and Santa Cruz coast, but they did not start in the forest itself. Sutro forest has caught fire several times but mostly on the eastern side. In recent history the fires were put out before they could take hold. Fire suppression is much better now than it was in the earlier years when the 60 or 10 acre fires occurred. And the fire department has required UCSF to clean up dangerous areas; especially those not easily accessible to fire equipment near homes. The fires were not from natural causes but human stupidity. I recall one that was caused by a campfire. I don’t see UCSF’s plan the same as the the Natural Area’s back to nature nonsense. It appears to be an attempt to be responsible stewards. The plan calls for demonstration sites before anything else is done. Many of these speculations pro and con can be tested at those sites. I would help UCSF take responsible actions. I think they will listen. But it is difficult hearing someone yelling at you.

    Webmaster: The Sutro project is identical to other native plant restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you would read the plans and the Environmental Impact Report for the project you would learn that. Here is a brief quote that makes the purpose of this project perfectly clear: “The proposed project would involve implementation of a number of management activities, including thinning of the forest, native plant restoration and enhancement, and conversion planting (removal of non-native trees and plants and conversion to native species).” (DEIR, page 2-1)

    The neighbors of the Sutro forest have spent nearly 15 years trying to influence UCSF not to destroy its forest. If UCSF had been listening, would they be proceeding with these plans?

  2. I would differentiate between the Natural Areas Program and what UCSF has in mind; although some of the NAP influence is present. UCSF regards Sutro as a man-made forest/Park for the enjoyment of people. The NAP wants to return man-made parks to nature where people are considered a disease. From my reading of the DEIR it is clear that UCSF is guided by experts past and present and the National Park Service. I am sure there may be disagreements among experts and the NPS is not above making mistakes. But if not the establishment sources, whose guidance should they follow?

    Webmaster: UCSF chose to listen to the National Park Service because they have the same objective, i.e., to destroy non-native plants and trees in order to reintroduce native plants. UCSF could choose to listen to other experts, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or Jon E. Keeley of the US Geological Service. These experts tell us that there is little danger of wildfire in San Francisco and that UCSF’s project will increase fire danger, not decrease it. These are “establishment sources” which UCSF chooses to ignore. Please read the article on which you are commenting.

  3. Wow, you show us a nice picture of San Diego where the eucalyptus trees didn’t burn, but how about across the bay, when the East Bay hills burned in 1991? The eucalyptus out there certainly didn’t help. That was a terrifying few days. The sooner California gets rid of all its eucalyptus, the better. They don’t belong here.

    Webmaster: The climate in the East Bay is different from San Francisco. Because San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water, its climate is milder. It’s warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than the East Bay. All the fires in the East Bay occurred in the fall after an extreme winter with hard freezes that caused many plants—including eucalyptus—to die back, creating a lot of dead litter on the forest floor. These hard freezes do not occur in San Francisco.

    Furthermore, the fire in the East Bay was a wind driven fire that started in dry grass. Everything burned in that fire, including the houses which were considered the predominant fuel by the FEMA technical report. See this post: https://milliontrees.me/fire-the-cover-story/

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