Scientists critique UCSF’s plans for Mount Sutro and native plant advocates react

Nature is considered one of the top journals in science globally.  So, we were very excited about the article they published in their September 2013 edition about Mount Sutro. (1) The article starts with every bogus claim UCSF makes to justify the destruction of the forest, i.e., that it is flammable, that it is diseased, that it will store more carbon when most of it is destroyed.  We have responded to those claims many times on Million Trees, so we won’t repeat those arguments here.  (We have provided links to our articles about each of these issues, so you can read them if you wish by clicking on each issue.)

Sutro forest before recent tree removals.  Courtesy Save Sutro
Sutro forest before recent tree removals. Courtesy Save Sutro

After faithfully repeating UCSF’s storyline, Nature turns to the opposite side of this debate, starting with the welcome introduction of critics of the Sutro project as “environmentalists and ecologists” for whom “a hardline devotion to preserving native ecosystems is giving way to a more post-modern idea of what constitutes a natural landscape.”  The author of the Nature article interviewed scientists who agree with this new perspective:

  • “’Mount Sutro is part of a larger story,’ says Richard Hobbs, an ecolo­gist at the University of Western Australia in Crawley. ‘What some people see as a weed-filled blot on the landscape, others see as something extremely valuable, worthy of managing in its own right. People are increasingly moving away from the belief that a native ecosystem is always best….There is a lot of tension about how to deal with situations like these right now,’ he says. ‘With so much non-native habitat, the old views — that everything must be natural — no longer apply.’”
  • “In the early 1990s, Patricia Kennedy of Oregon State University in Corvallis helped to develop management guidelines for northern goshawks. She found that the raptors do not strictly need old-growth forests; land used for timber harvesting can work, too. She says that, at the time, accept­ing the idea felt like a move to the ‘dark side’. ‘The whole culture in wildlife biology and conservation circles has been that you can’t approximate Mother Nature,’ she says.  But those ideas are changing today, with altered ecosystems such as Mount Sutro’s providing a case in point.”
  • Joe Mascaro, an ecologist at Stanford University in California [2] who has been publicly critical of UCSF’s management plans, says that Mount Sutro has long since given way to a completely new ecosystem. ‘Restoring it to an original state would be borderline impossible, so why stop the succession that is already in place?’”
  • “Resistance to such a heretical idea runs deep among ecologists, but growing num­bers are embracing altered ecosystems in the name of pragmatism. ‘You can reach more win–win situations if you don’t insist on purity,’ says Katharine Suding, an ecologist at the University of Califor­nia, Berkeley, who specializes in restoring human-affected areas. ‘It doesn’t have to be a natural versus non-natural dichotomy.’”
Same section of Sutro forest after tree and understory removal at the end of August 2013.  Courtesy Save Sutro
Same section of Sutro forest after tree and understory removal at the end of August 2013. Courtesy Save Sutro

The reaction of native plant advocates

As pleased as we were to hear from the international scientific community, we didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the article until we read the reaction of native plant advocates in Jake Sigg’s Nature News:

“On Sep 15, 2013, at 4:13 PM, Peter Brastow wrote (re NYT editorial on Mt Sutro):
‘Yes, and recall that the NYT article linked to an awful piece in Nature. I see this as PhD Academicians liking the sound of their own voice, and certain members of the media who, likewise, don’t actually know anything about on-the-ground land management. To boot, their arguments support continued environmental destruction around the world, whether for palm plantations, bio-fuel production, cattle grazing, suburban development, you name it. Do you think these same people advocate letting the Amazon rainforest be clearcut from end to end?’” 
(Jake Sigg’s Nature News, September 21, 2013)

It seems that native plant advocates disliked the Nature article as much as we liked it. This comment from a prominent native plant advocate in San Francisco is more evidence of the growing gap between restorationists and the scientists of invasion biology who spawned the native plant movement.  We have noted before the inevitable tension between theoretical science and its practical application and in the case of ecological restoration in the Bay Area, it is becoming more and more distant from its scientific underpinnings.

What is San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program?

You might think that the loss of scientific support for the projects in the Bay Area which are attempting to convert non-native to native landscapes would weaken the local native plant movement.  You would be mistaken.  Peter Brastow, the author of this comment, is employed by the City of San Francisco as the Director of Biodiversity in the Department of the Environment.  The creation of this program and the selection of Mr. Brastow as its first director suggest official endorsement of these projects and imply their expansion beyond their present footprint.  This is the mission of San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program according to the Department of Environment’s website:

“The mission of the Biodiversity Program is to conserve the biodiversity, habitats and ecological integrity of San Francisco’s natural environment, toward a comprehensive watershed- and ecosystem-based natural resources management, stewardship and education program.

Our approach is to advance collaboration and coordination for biodiversity policy development and interagency conservation planning and management.

San Francisco’s indigenous biodiversity exists among diverse open lands and habitats in a complex urban geography of parklands, natural areas, urban forests, community gardens and backyards. The scope of the program includes protection of all of the City’s biological diversity and natural lands, and for strategic integration of nature conservation best practices into planning, implementation and education for the built environment.

We hope to raise the bar on integrating considerations for nature and biodiversity into the operations of every City Department as well as into every aspect of city life, including making significant increases in public and City employee awareness.”

Our interpretation of this vague, abstract description is that the goal of San Francisco’s Biodiversity Program is to extend the native plant restorations of the Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program to all city departments and all city-owned open space, perhaps even to your backyard.

Since we think the Natural Areas Program has been a miserable failure, with respect to successfully converting naturalized non-native landscapes to native plant gardens, we have serious doubts about expanding the program to the entire city.  And since the Natural Areas Program is using a great deal of pesticide, destroying many healthy trees, and plans to destroy thousands more, we are not enthusiastic about subjecting more public land to such damage.

We are equally alarmed by the dismissal of scientists by the Director of Biodiversity, Peter Brastow, as people who like to hear themselves talk.  This suggests that the Director of Biodiversity isn’t listening to the rapidly changing science of invasion biology.  You might wonder what Peter Brastow’s qualifications are to enable him to dismiss academic scientists as a resource for the application of invasion biology to native plant restorations.  You can visit his resume on the internet to satisfy that curiosity.


For the record, we are not supporters of the “environmental destruction” of which Mr. Brastow accuses the scientists who are quoted in the Nature article.  We do not “advocate letting the Amazon rainforest be clearcut from end to end,” as Mr. Brastow claims.  We are confident that no one else with whom we collaborate does so either.  The only clearcutting we have witnessed first-hand was done in response to the demands of native plant advocates; these projects have already destroyed 18,000 non-native trees in the East Bay hills and are determined to clearcut about 80,000 more.  This looks like a classic case of “pot-calls-kettle-black.”


(1)    Danielle Venton, “Forest management plans in a tangle,” Nature, September 2013, Vol. 501

(2)    When Mr. Mascaro was interviewed, he was at the Carnegie Institute of Research in Stanford, California.

5 thoughts on “Scientists critique UCSF’s plans for Mount Sutro and native plant advocates react”

  1. It seems to me that someone with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology should know that you cannot increase “biodiversity” by clear cutting areas and poisoning some species.

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