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Quibbling with Jared Farmer’s “Trees in Paradise”

January 17, 2014

As we said in our most recent post, we respect Jared Farmer’s comprehensive history of eucalyptus in California as told in his book, Trees in Paradise.  However, we take issue with several of  his assessments of projects that are still on the drawing board.  Since these projects have not yet been implemented and final approval of them is still pending, for the record we will detail our quibbles in this post.

San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program

Farmer trivializes the plans of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program to remove 18,500 trees over 15 feet tall and countless smaller trees on 1,100 acres of park property managed by San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.  This is his description of their plans:

“Unfortunately, poor PR and misinformed criticism initially created the impression that the greenery of Golden Gate Park would be clear-cut.  In truth, less than 5 percent of the city’s crown jewel had been rezoned.  Even so, some neighborhood groups opposed any cuts anywhere; they wanted to ‘integrate’ the blue gums instead of “exterminating” them.  (And they didn’t want to give up any place where they could take their dogs off-leash.)

Most of these trees on Mount Davidson will be destroyed if the plans of the Natural Areas Program are implemented.

Most of these trees on Mount Davidson will be destroyed if the plans of the Natural Areas Program are implemented.

Mr. Farmer has not done his homework about San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program.  The disputed tree removals are not in Golden Gate Park.  He’s right that few acres of Golden Gate Park have been designated as “natural areas.”  Most of those acres are oak woodland, which no one would dispute are appropriately designated for preservation of native species.  There aren’t many tree removals planned in Golden Gate Park.  It therefore has not been one of the areas that are disputed by critics of the Natural Areas Program. The most controversial “natural areas” are places like Mount Davidson where the plans propose to destroy 1,600 trees, including many Monterey cypresses, of which even eucalyptus-haters are fond.  Mr. Farmer chooses to defend a “natural area” that isn’t being disputed.

Mr. Farmer repeats one of the accusations of native plant advocates that critics of the Natural Areas Program “oppose any cuts anywhere.”  This is an exaggerated description of most critics of the Natural Areas Program.  Those who have been engaged in the 15-year effort to negotiate for a less destructive program have offered many compromises over the years.  The number of planned tree removals have not been reduced during that long debate.  It would be more accurate to say that supporters of the Natural Areas Program do not want any trees in the “natural areas.”

He also repeats one of the most popular “cover stories” of native plant advocates in San Francisco that all criticism of their plans originates with dog owners.  In fact, NAP is controversial among dog owners and for good reason.  There are only 118 acres of legal off-leash areas in the 3,500 acres of San Francisco’s park land.  The Natural Areas Program claimed 80% of those acres as “natural areas:”  “Approximately 80 percent of the SFRPD off-leash acreage is located within Natural Areas.”  (SNRAMP, page 5-8).  The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Natural Areas Program proposes to close or reduce the size of several off-leash areas.  The DEIR provides no evidence that these areas have been negatively impacted by dogs.  It also states that all off-leash areas in the natural areas are subject to closure in the future if it is considered necessary to protect native plants.  Since NAP has offered no evidence that the proposed immediate closures are necessary, it is reasonable to assume it will offer no evidence if it chooses to close the remainder of the 80% of all off-leash areas in San Francisco located in “natural areas.”  We know from the DEIR public comments that NAP supporters demand their closure.

There are many reasons why people are opposed to the Natural Areas Program (NAP) and similar native plant “restoration” projects.  The loss of access to parks for walking one’s dog is only one of them.  It is the reason most often cited by defenders of NAP because there is little sympathy for that particular use of parks; it is a way of belittling our concerns.  In fact, this isn’t an issue in some of the most controversial “restoration” projects, such as Mount Sutro where no effort is being made to restrict access to hikers accompanied by dogs.  Yet, opposition to that project is even greater than opposition to NAP because more trees are in jeopardy.

About 50 trees were destroyed in the Interior Greenbelt, the "natural area" on Mount Sutro, in 2010

About 50 trees were destroyed in the Interior Greenbelt, the “natural area” on Mount Sutro, in 2010

The most common reason for opposition to NAP is the removal of healthy trees.  A closely related reason which motivates many others is that large quantities of herbicides are being sprayed in our parks for the purpose of killing non-native vegetation. Herbicides are also needed to prevent eucalypts from resprouting after they are cut down.  Mr. Farmer makes no mention of the huge quantities of herbicides that are required by the “restoration” projects that destroy eucalyptus.  Some critics of these projects are primarily concerned about the loss of habitat for the animals that live in and/or use the existing vegetation.

According to the US Forest Service, San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies in the country.  Only 12% of San Francisco is covered by a tree canopy.  Only Newark, New Jersey has a smaller tree canopy.  San Francisco is an extremely cold and windy place.  As Mark Twain famously said, he had never been colder in his life than he had been in San Francisco on a summer day.  Our trees are our protection against that wind.  Destroying them will make San Francisco an even more uncomfortable place.  Trees are an asset everywhere, but in San Francisco they are more than that.  They make an inhospitable climate livable.  The completely artificial landscape of Golden Gate Park would not exist without the windbreak of non-native trees at its Western, windward edge that enabled the transformation of barren sand dunes into a verdant park.

Golden Gate Park in 1880.  The trees are about 10 years old.  In the distance, looking south, we see the sand dunes of the Sunset District.  That's what most of Golden Gate Park looked like before the trees were planted.

Golden Gate Park in 1880. The trees are about 10 years old. In the distance, looking south, we see the sand dunes of the Sunset District. That’s what most of Golden Gate Park looked like before the trees were planted.

Despite Mr. Farmer’s inaccurate assessment of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program, we consider his chapters about eucalyptus in California very informative and we recommend Trees in Paradise to our readers.  The controversy regarding eucalyptus in California is complex and we cannot expect to agree with everyone about every facet of the issue.  Critics of ecological “restorations” in the San Francisco Bay Area are a broad coalition with a range of opinions.  We welcome Mr. Farmer into our big tent.

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