Creating Tree Graveyards in San Francisco

At 13.7% of tree canopy coverage, San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of any major city in the country.  When San Francisco’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC) announced its goal of planting 30,000 new street trees in the next 20 years, it seemed a modest goal.  Yet, Jake Sigg, the leader of native plant advocates in San Francisco, immediately objected to even this modest goal in his Nature News.  He announced the meeting of the UFC to consider the proposal and pronounced it a bad idea:

“JS:  Let’s start taking climate change seriously.  There is a prejudice—it is nothing more than that—that trees sequester more carbon than other life forms.  That is a simplistic view that, when looked at more closely, is found wanting.  To counter climate change we need to remove carbon from the air and put it where it will be for a millennium or more.  Removing it for a few decades or a century is pointless. 

“There are many reasons to plant trees on San Francisco streets, and many of our streets need them.  Climate change is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it is intimately related to diversity of biological elements.  That argues for planting native plants to invite dispossessed wildlife back into the city and you do that by planting the plants they need.  There are trees, shrubs, and perennials that ought to line our street to function in this way.  Carbon removal should not be a factor in our street plantings—biodiversity should be Number 1.”

Jake Sigg, Nature News, July 2, 2022

Yes, Jake, biodiversity is important because a diverse ecosystem is more resilient in a changing climate, but destroying all non-native plants does not make an ecosystem more diverse.  Climate change is the greatest long term threat to biodiversity, which makes addressing climate change a prerequisite to preserving biodiversity. 

I attended the Urban Forestry Council meeting of July 5, 2022, when this proposal was considered.  I was expecting to hear objections from Jake Sigg’s followers. Instead, the handful of written public comments objected to the meager commitment to plant only 30,000 new trees in San Francisco in the next 40 years. I learned more about the plan to plant more street trees in San Francisco:

  • There are presently an estimated 125,000 street trees in San Francisco.
  • Because the mortality of street trees is high, the expectation is that 50,000 street trees would need to be planted in the next 20 years to replace dead street trees.
  • According to the Urban Forestry Council it costs $1,500 to plant a tree and an additional $2,500 to water it for three years until it is established.
  • 4,000 trees would need to be planted every year to keep pace with expected tree mortality and to add 30,000 more street trees. 

These goals exist only on paper.  Between 1,500 and 2,000 trees per year are being planted in the city and no funding has been identified to increase this number.  After delivering this bad news about the sorry state of San Francisco’s urban forest, one member of the UFC spoke some much needed common sense.  Nicholas Crawford said we should “hold onto shabby trees” that are established and storing carbon.  He suggested that San Francisco should not remove trees that are at least stable because there are no trees to replace them. 

Existing trees in our urban forest are more valuable than ever.  They are storing more carbon than a replacement tree will store for at least 20 years.  They don’t need to be irrigated because they have the root and fungal networks needed to supply the tree with the moisture it needs.  Existing trees have proven themselves.  The fact that they are alive and well after 10 years of extreme drought proves they are adapted to current climate conditions.  So why destroy them? 

Jake Sigg acknowledged the value of forests to address the challenges of climate change in a recent newsletter:  “In order to have an impact on climate we need to stop deforestation and preserve, strengthen, and restore what is already here.” (Nature News, July 6, 2022)  But that principle does not apply to San Francisco for Sigg and his followers because the trees of San Francisco are predominantly non-native and they place a higher value on restoring pre-settlement treeless grassland and coastal scrub.  Because of the power and influence of the native plant movement in San Francisco our urban forest is being destroyed and planting trees is resisted.

San Francisco has made a commitment to destroying more than 18,000 non-native trees in San Francisco’s public parks.  The stated goal of that program is a landscape of native grassland and scrub.  UC San Francisco has also made a commitment to destroy most of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro.  Thousands of trees have been destroyed on Mount Sutro and more will be destroyed in the future.  The Executive Director of Sutro Stewards, the non-profit organization that is implementing the plans for destruction of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro is represented on the Urban Forestry Council, an odd choice for a citizen’s advisory council theoretically committed to the urban forest.

Tree destruction on Mount Sutro, January 2021.  Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

McLaren Park:  A Case Study

Today Conservation Sense and Nonsense will visit a relatively new project in McLaren Park that has destroyed non-native trees in order to create a small native plant garden.  We drill down into the project to understand why San Francisco’s urban forest is being destroyed.  We visit this project because it is an example of many similar projects that are planned in San Francisco. 

This is one of many attempts to plant native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd in San Francisco. The functional windbreak of Monterey cypress is dying of old age. Rather than replace the windbreak, native shrubs are being planted on Sunset Blvd that will not function as a windbreak in the windiest district in San Francisco. The lack of maintenance that you see here is typical of these gardens, which makes them unpopular with neighbors.

At 312 acres, McLaren Park is one of the largest parks in San Francisco.  Fifty-three percent (165 acres) of McLaren Park is designated as a “natural area,” which means that a commitment was made nearly 25 years ago to transform it into a native plant garden.  The new native plant garden that we visit today is not actually inside one of the designated “natural areas.”  The reach of the native plant movement in San Francisco extends far beyond the 1,100 park acres of “natural areas” that were claimed in 1998. 

The new native plant garden is located in the southeast corner of McLaren, south of the community garden at the intersection of Visitation Ave and Hahn St.  This is a photo of some of the trees that were destroyed to create the native garden:

©Lance Mellon with permission.  July 2020

And this is a photo taken in December 2021, after the trees deemed “non-native” were destroyed:

© Lance Mellon with permission

The plans for the native plant garden say that 18 non-native trees would be destroyed and 6 native trees would be retained.  The plan claims that tree removals of all non-native trees were based on “professional assessments.”  Such “assessments” are routinely used by the Recreation and Park Department to justify the removal of non-native trees.  Photos of the trees indicate otherwise.  Retention of only native trees suggests that assessments aren’t even-handed.  The claim does not pass the smell test. 

Plans for the native plant garden indicate that more native trees will be planted:

The trees will need to be irrigated for at least 3 years to establish their root systems and ensure their survival.  The entire garden will need to be irrigated if it is to survive.  Let’s be clear:  an established grove of trees with an understory of annual grasses that did not require irrigation or maintenance was destroyed and replaced with new plants and trees that will require irrigation.  Is that a suitable use of scarce water resources during an extreme drought that is expected to get worse, if not be a permanent change in the climate?  That is the question we consider today.

About 9 months later, the “native plant garden” looks more like a tree graveyard:

McLaren Native Plant Garden, July 2022
Some of the newly planted trees are holly leaf cherry. Signs on the trees indicate that the project was paid for with a CAL FIRE grant. One wonders how a garden full of dead wood is less flammable than a garden full of living trees.

Granted, the native plant garden is likely to look better as plants grow.  However, it will only look better if it is irrigated and taken care of.  Why should we expect it to be taken better care of than the existing garden that required no maintenance?  Wishful thinking will not make it so.

The death grip of nativism

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  We are seemingly incapable of doing anything substantive to address climate change.  Political gridlock prevents us from controlling the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate polluting emissions from power plants. 

We focus on the preservation of our forests because it is the only tool we have left to absorb carbon emissions from the fossil fuels to which we are wedded.  Native plant advocates have taken that tool away from us.  Our urban forests are being destroyed and replaced with grassland and scrub.  Claims that grassland and scrub store more carbon than forests are ridiculous.  Those claims earn native plant advocates the label of climate change deniers.  As the drought continues to plague California, established landscapes that required no water are being destroyed and replaced with native plants that require irrigation. 

12 thoughts on “Creating Tree Graveyards in San Francisco”

  1. Excellent article with excellent photos that certainly bring home how stupid all of this tree removal is. When people are driven by environmental narratives that are wrong (i.e., that non-native plants MUST be removed and native plants put in their place), the environment pays the price. It’s truly horrific what is happening in California and elsewhere throughout this country, thanks to the so-called invasive-plant “story”.

    1. The graphic shown in the article is from this USDA publication: https://www.fs.fed.us/research/publications/gtr/gtr_wo95.pdf It clearly shows that wetlands store more carbon per hectare than grassland. In the East, wetlands store more carbon per hectare than forests. The publication contains interesting information about why carbon storage is different in different regions. The USDA publication is the source of information for my article. I believe it is accurate.

  2. Thanks for this excellent expose of the senseless damage being done by “well-meaning” nativists. It’s too bad that new information (like global warming) doesn’t appear to penetrate their closed minds.

  3. A couple decades ago, I was given a “native” bunchgrass plant in a big tub, one of those ice bucket types with some holds along the lower sides. . I never have had a plant that requires so much water. It needed daily watering but still was full of dead grasses below the new grasses emerging from the center. Recognizing the fire danger if someone flipped a cigarette butt out the window, I was constantly removing handsful of the dead matter. It was a frequent job .
    This experienced helped me understand the folly of the Nativists’ claims and assumptions that, “native” plants are superior to
    non-native plants. Had it been planted in the ground, it would been crowding out other plants, and would have been usurping the water other plants would need to survive. Assuming what is good without the context of the fact of people living in an area is just stupid. I guess we all should just move somewhere else to ruin another area so that Nativists can have have their demonstration gardens which then turn into fire danger for neighbors?
    To see another example of UC’s deforestation of healthy trees (which is accompanied by pesticiding for a minimum of 10 years after every cut), to to PeoplesPark.org and scroll down to see the logs and wood chips UC dumped in the park in June. While we’ve worked madly to spread wood chips to tamp down the danger of spontaneous combustion, we recognize the danger of the wood chips being spread if someone flings out a cigarette butt. That’s why we’ve been encouraging people to help out by taking some, though that, also, exports possibility of fire jumping from yard to yard (SF Chronicle article on that: https://www.sfchronicle.com/california-wildfires/article/California-firefighters-shudder-at-use-of-15768412.php).

    In west Berkeley a line of Cypress was taken down in order to plant a “native” garden. Right by a freeway, Hwy 80. We are having to myth-bust from 40 years or more of active lies reeling in people who mean well, and do not understand even the basic biology of transpiration. The systemic removal of critical thinking from this society in many ways stemmed from compulsory schooling where people were taken away from learning from “real” life to learning limited facts to regurgitate for tests, where those facts were not much related to real-life experience. I remember having to draw a cell and the cell’s components but never really took that in until in college studies for my line of health work. It was as though I’d never “learned” the workings of a cell decades prior.

    What we are seeing is very much about design. Pesticide companies have had their way with this society, and others around the world. We’re in a fast fast fast society where it’s been named bad to not do something constantly, and that leads people away from observation of a natural world. When we look at Environmental Impact Reports, we see options to do nothing; yet, how many people take that seriously?

    We need a lot more of doing nothing, so to speak, to be able to survive as a species. We need to be able to access common sense. I can tell you that, many young people are repeating the Nativist agenda, saying that removing trees and planting grasses will soak up more carbon.. It’s a repeat of the 80’s when in Earth First! people kept parroting the line that Eucalyptus was not native so we had to get rid of it. I was as guilty as the next person of parroting that until realizing there was no sense in that. I’d gone up to the hills after the ’91 fire and saw many live eucs but noted that the fire followed the gas and electric lines house to house, gas tank to gas tank, appliance to appliance, and of course roof to roof. We’re still having to bust the myth the ecus caused the fire and remind people that it was other factors such as spontaneous combustion under porches, and all the house and car-related factors, and eucs in some cases probably saved some lives in holding off fire in some instances. The struggle continues to help people learn a few facts, but mostly trust their instincts that, when they look up at majestic trees, these are our friends. They have thrived here because we are well-suited to one another.

    1. I learned about the water requirements of bunch grass many years ago when the GGNRA replaced a functional grass lawn with native bunch grasses at Crissy Field. The grass lawn was a place for people to play, picnic, sunbath, whatever. The bunch grass created an uneven surface that was uncomfortable to lie on, walk on, and play on.

      The GGNRA learned something from that experience. Native bunch grasses are perennials that live for a long time, but they are adapted to the lack of rain in the summer by going dormant above ground so that they die back above ground. The public wasn’t happy about a brown, useless meadow half the year and complained about the change. Therefore, the GGNRA irrigated it all summer to keep it green. I learned this story from the gardener who was watering the grass. He said that bunch grasses required much more water than the previous lawn and taking care of it was much more trouble. He wasn’t happy about how devotion to native plants had made his work more difficult.

      The folks “in charge” make decisions based on their ideological beliefs and preferences. The people who do the work often don’t see the benefits of those ideological decisions.

  4. I also wonder if it’s yet another way to get people to install rooftop Solar Panels. The Solar company salesmen still stop by and try to convince my 92 year old Mother to top here huge six California Sycamores and two Canary Island Pines and one Torrey Pine. Altogether they create a cool screen from the Sun on the south and west side of the house, which makes Solar impossible.

  5. Excellent article. The images alone demonstrate that what was created is not worth the cost. You could do so much better with the money spent on that planting. There was a native plant group that was maintaining a city park near me for a while. It was messy. They decided to only plant natives, etc. Slowly it got very weedy and abandoned looking. Eventually the park went back into the hands of a nearby neighborhood association and it looks spectacular this year with so much more diversity and life in it. They kept the native rain garden but it’s separate. I checked it out. Still messy!! One of the board members told me, they were happy to get it back and got a lot of volunteers to help with it. One of the native groups was unhappy losing control of it evidently. These organizations are trying to manage everything with their philosophy and not thinking about others. Can’t I enjoy some peonies without someone telling me its not native?

    1. “Can’t I enjoy some peonies without someone telling me it’s not native?” I LOVE this comment! Not only because people should be able to get enjoyment from their plantings, but also because all plants–including non-native plants–provide something (at the very least, shelter) for wildlife. In the case of peonies, ants get nectar from them. Sincerely, Marlene

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