Mysterious semantics of the native plant movement

In 2000, we wrote a public comment about plans to close areas at Fort Funston for native plant restoration that began with this quotation from Henry David Thoreau:

It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Native in us, that inspires that dream.  Thoreau

We chose that quote to introduce our comment about Fort Funston because it is a place that was entirely altered to serve as a military fort, its sand dunes stabilized with ice plant and studded with gun bunkers; it is not a place that is easily imagined as a pristine native landscape.  As with most poetry, Thoreau’s exact meaning escaped us, but what resonated was the suggestion that “wildness” exists in our minds, not in the material world.  We found comfort in knowing that over 150 years ago, Thoreau was as mystified by the concept of wildness as we are today.

Fort Funston
Fort Funston San Francisco 2011

Today, we revisit the question of the meaning of wildness or wilderness, prompted by the publication of an op-ed by Mark Dowie in the Point Reyes Light. (1)  Dowie is a journalist who is best known as the author of Conservation Refugees, in which he informs us that hundreds of thousands of indigenous people all over the world have been evicted from their ancestral lands by public and private land owners who believe humans are antithetical to their conservation goals.  Dowie tells us that the tradition of evicting humans in the interests of preserving “wilderness” began with the eviction of Native Americans from Yosemite Valley as advocated by John Muir.  This concept of preserving land by excluding all human activities is aptly called fortress conservation. 

Dowie begins his op-ed in the Light with the observation that some words have “attained such a vague and ambiguous definition that [they have] become virtually meaningless.”  The word “sustainability” has attained such status, he says and we agree.  But his focus in his op-ed is on the word “wilderness” because it is a word that has become a tool in a dispute about land use in Point Reyes, where Dowie lives.

The National Park Service defines “wilderness”

Drakes Estero.  NPS photo
Drakes Estero. NPS photo

After a protracted battle that lasted years, the National Park Service was finally successful in shutting down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company based on its contention that the existence of the oyster farm violated a commitment to return the Point Reyes National Seashore to “wilderness.”  This was a battle that tore a small community apart and the wounds from that fight are still deep.

Mark Dowie was one of many people who opposed the closing of the oyster farm and he was often eloquent in its defense in the Light.  One of many issues in this controversy was the National Park Service’s claim that the oyster farm was harming the environment.  Highly qualified scientists debunked that claim and after a review by the National Academy of Science, the claims of the National Park Service were entirely discredited.  Unfortunately, that had no influence on the final decision to close the oyster farm.

Within days of the oyster farm closing its retail operation, those who demanded its closure were on the warpath again.  In an op-ed published by the Oakland Tribune, William Katz asked the National Park Service to evict ranchers and dairy farmers in Point Reyes:  “The European invasion of this side of the continent over just the last 200 years is obviously a done deal.  This fact makes it especially necessary to complete the original mandate of the park’s creation by removing the ranchers and their bovine accoutrements and re-establishing a natural area in which we may only be visitors.”  The connection between those two sentences eludes us.  In fact, they seem contradictory.

Dowie searches for the meaning of “wilderness”

And so, the question of what defines a “wilderness” is still very much alive in Point Reyes.  Mark Dowie tells us that he has been actively seeking a meaningful definition for some years.  He turned to several indigenous cultures based on the modern assumption that pre-European cultures occupied the elusive “wilderness:”

“Over the next four years of research, I met and conversed with many indigenous people who thrived in landscapes that looked as wild as anywhere I had ever been, whose language had no words for ‘wild,’ or ‘wildness,’ or ‘wilderness.’  Naturally, I began to wonder why societies populated by urbane people who spend most of their lives, if not all of them, on the streets of places like New York City, London, Rome, Los Angeles and Winnipeg do have a word for wilderness.  And I wondered what exactly they meant by it, if anything.”

“What I finally figured out about ‘wilderness’ was that it’s really a concept that does not translate well from language to language, especially from western to indigenous languages.  So it’s really not the word that has to be translated, but an entire ecological enthnography.”

And so, Dowie turns to those who use the word “wilderness” as their definition of the goal for what our public lands and open spaces should look like and what activities should be allowed in them:

I recently overheard a debate in which to refine and defend his own personal definition, a local wilderness romantic divided the whole concept into two separate categories—uppercase and lowercase wilderness. Uppercase, he said, was “real” wilderness: vast roadless, trail-free areas occupied by many species, including large predators that want to eat humans.  Lowercase wilderness could be found in state and national parks; as virtual or abstract wilderness, it was a cunning, managed artifice of the uppercase version designed to convince eco-tourists that they are having a true wilderness experience.  The argument descended from there into such ridiculous semantic subterfuge that I walked away mumbling to myself that wilderness may not be a word at all, or a place for that matter, but as Roderick Nash concludes at the end of his 400-page tome on the subject, merely “a state of mind.” And that if wilderness exists at all, it could be as easily found and appreciated under a bench in Central Park as on the barrens of Baffin Island.”

Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013.  Taken June 2014
Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013. Taken June 2014

Yes, Mr. Dowie, you have indeed found the mysterious meaning of the word “wilderness” as a “bog in the brain,” to quote Mr. Thoreau.  We have our own example of a similar debate with native plant advocates about the future of Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco.  Our readers will remember Glen Canyon as the scene of the devastating removal of many huge, old trees and the repeated spraying of herbicides to prevent the trees from resprouting and destroy the non-native understory.  To those who objected to this destructive project, a native plant advocate responded:

Please note the term “wilderness.” It implies natural, native flora and fauna; the wild plants and the bird and animal populations that support one another. That is what we want to have if we want a wild retreat. A morass of garden escapes and foreign invasive species is to be deplored. Let’s progress toward returning the area to a REAL wilderness. Do not let the concept that a plant’s becoming established in an area is a sign of its becoming native to the area. It remains an invasive element, a weed. It disrupts and destroys the normal habitat of native plants, animals, and insects in its surroundings.  It will be a huge and long term task, but we can restore the entire canyon to a truly wilderness state. Let’s get started!”

In this version of “wilderness,” trees and plants must be sprayed with herbicide and a new landscape planted.  The result—if it is successful—will be an entirely artificial landscape.  There will be nothing “REAL” about it.

 Language is an obstacle to agreement

 One of many obstacles to reaching agreement with native plant advocates about the future of our public lands and open spaces is that we don’t share a vocabulary.  “Wilderness” is one of many words that cannot be defined by our mutual understanding.

“Sustainability” is another word that is used by native plant advocates, which we believe is inappropriately applied to the projects they demand because it is inconsistent with the realities of climate change and evolution.   The landscapes they are creating are no longer adapted to current environmental conditions.  They are not sustainable.

 “Integrity” has recently become a favorite buzzword of nativists, used to describe their idealized landscape.  We have absolutely no idea what that word means in the context of the contrived landscapes they attempt to create.

And so the debate continues with no end in sight.  Meanwhile our public lands are being destroyed in response to the demands of native plant advocates.  For us the word “wilderness” is now synonymous with “destruction,” which creates a fortress in which humans are not welcome.


(1) Mark Dowie, “The tortured semantics of wilderness,” Point Reyes Light, September 4, 2014

Response to Nature in the City

Nature in the City (NIC) is one of many organizations that support native plant “restorations” in San Francisco as well as the principle entity which engages in them, the Natural Areas Program (NAP) of the Recreation and Park Department.  NIC is consistently critical of anyone who questions the value of these restorations, but in their most recent newsletter they confront our objections directly.  Although we don’t presume to represent the many constituencies which are critical of the Natural Areas Program, we are responding in this post to NIC based on our knowledge of the issues. (The NIC newsletter is in quotes and is italicized.  Our response is not italicized.)

“Natural Areas in 2012

Last fall saw the the [sic] Planning Commission public meeting for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan.  Some time later this year, the City will issue a Final Environmental Impact Report, which may be appealed by opponents of the Natural Areas Program.

Unfortunately, a handful of people are still propagating misinformation about the rationale, values, and intention of ecological restoration, management and stewardship, and of the City’s celebrated Natural Areas Program.”

Webmaster:  Critics of the Natural Areas Program cannot be described accurately as a “handful of people.”  We now have four websites(1) representing our views and there have been tens of thousands of visits to our websites.  Comments on our websites are overwhelmingly supportive of our views. Our most recently created website, San Francisco Forest Alliance, lists 12 founding members.  That organization alone exceeds a “handful of people.”

Our objections to the Natural Areas Program have also been reported by three major newspapers in the past month or so (San Francisco Examiner, Wall Street Journal,  Sacramento Bee).

 Many critics of NAP have been engaged in the effort to reduce its destructive and restrictive impacts on our parks for over 10 years.  Scores of public meetings and hearings have been held to consider our complaints.  We consistently outnumbered public speakers in support of NAP until 2006, when the NAP management plan was finally approved by the Recreation and Park Commission.  Although we were outnumbered for the first time, there were over 80 speakers who asked the Recreation and Park Commission to revise NAP’s management plan to reduce its negative impact on our parks.

The public comments on the NAP DEIR are the most recent indicator of the relative size of the groups on opposite sides of this issue.  These comments were submitted in September and October 2011.  We obtained them with a public records request.  The Planning Department reported receiving about 400 comments.  In analyzing these comments, we chose to disregard about half of them because they were submitted as form letters, even though they were from dog owners who were protesting the loss of their off-leash privileges in the natural areas.  We also leave aside the comments from golfers whose only interest is in retaining the golf course at Sharp Park.  In other words, we set aside the majority of the comments critical of the NAP management plan in order to focus on those comments that demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the impact of NAP on the city’s parks.  Of the comments remaining, those critical of NAP and its deeply flawed DEIR outnumbered comments in support of the NAP DEIR about three to one.  We urge NAP supporters to read these public comments to learn about the wide range of criticisms of NAP, including pesticide use, destruction of trees, recreational access restrictions, loss of wildlife habitat and more. 

We will challenge NIC’s accusation that we are “propagating misinformation” within the context of their specific allegations:

“Contrary to the many myths that continue to percolate, the Natural Areas Plan and Program seek to do the following (among other worthwhile endeavors):

1.       Protect and conserve our City’s natural heritage for its native wildlife and indigenous plant habitats and for the overall health of our local ecosystem;”

Webmaster:  Since the majority of acreage claimed as natural areas by NAP 15 years ago had no native plants in them, there is little truth to the claim that NAP is protecting our “natural heritage.”  The so-called “natural area” at Balboa and the Great Highway is typical of the “natural areas.”  There is photographic evidence that it was built upon for about 150 years.  It was the site of Playland by the Beach before it was designated a “natural area.”  Sand had to be trucked onto the property and disked down 18” into the construction rubble, then shaped into dunes by bulldozers before native plants could be planted on it. 

Natural Area at Balboa & Great Highway under construction

We don’t make any distinction between “native wildlife” and any other wildlife currently living in our city.  We value them all.  Most are making use of existing vegetation, whether it is native or non-native.  They do not benefit from the loss of the blackberries that are their primary food source or the loss of the thickets or trees that are their homes.  We do not believe that wildlife in San Francisco benefits from the destructive projects of the Natural Areas Program.  See photos of insects, birds, and other wildlife using non-native plants in the natural areas here.

Damselflies mating on ivy, Glen Canyon Park

We do not think an ecosystem that has been sprayed with herbicides qualifies as a “healthy ecosystem.”  NAP sprayed herbicides at least 86 times in 2011.  Their use of herbicides has increased over 330% in the last 4 years.  NAP uses herbicides that are classified as more toxic than those most used by other city departments.  Last spring, 1,000 visitors to Glen Canyon Park signed a petition, asking the Natural Areas Program to stop using pesticides in their park.  This petition was given to Scott Wiener, the Supervisor representing the district in which Glen Canyon Park is located.

These are statements of fact that can be easily verified by the public record.

2.       “Educate our culturally diverse city about the benefits of local nature and about helping with natural areas stewardship in your neighborhood;”

Webmaster:  Although we value education, we do not consider the staff of NAP and/or its supporters qualified to provide it.  We hear them make statements that are demonstrably not true, such as “grassland stores more carbon than trees.”  We see them spray herbicides in the dead of winter that are supposed to be sprayed in the spring when the plants are actively growing.  We watch them plant things where they won’t grow, such as sun-loving plants in deep shade and plants in watersheds where they will soon be drowned by seasonal rains.

And we also have had bad experiences with the volunteers who are called “stewards” by NAP, but sometimes act more like vandals.  We see them spraying herbicides that they aren’t authorized to use.  We see them hacking away at trees that haven’t been designated for removal.  NAP is not providing the necessary guidance and supervision to the volunteers many of whom seem to consider themselves the de facto owners of the parks. 

3.       “Manage the City’s wildlands for public access, safety and the health of the “urban forest.””

Webmaster:  We do not oppose the removal of hazardous trees.  However, we also know that most of the trees that have been designated for removal by the NAP management plan are NOT hazardous.  They have been selected for removal solely because they are not native and are perceived to be obstacles to the reintroduction of native plants.  Claims to the contrary are inconsistent with the management plan as well as our experience in the past 15 years.  (Watch video about the destruction of 1,600 trees over 15 feet tall planned for Mt. Davidson.)

“We hear occasional complaints about public access and tree removal. Three simple facts are thus:

1. Every single natural area in the City has at least one trail through it, where one can walk a dog on a leash;”

Webmaster:  The loss of recreational access in the natural areas is real, not imagined.  The following are verbatim quotes from the NAP management plan:

  • “Approximately 80 percent of the SFRPD off-leash acreage is located within Natural Areas.” (page 5-8).  The NAP DEIR 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, one reasonably assumes 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.
  • Public use in all Natural Areas, unless otherwise specified, should encourage on-trail use… Additionally, interpretive and park signs should be installed or modified as appropriate to include “Please Stay on Trails” with information about why on-trail use is required.”  (page 5-14)   In other words, the only form of recreation allowed in the natural areas is walking on a trail.  Throwing a ball or frisbee, having a picnic on the grass, flying a kite, climbing the rocks are all prohibited activities in the natural areas.  And in some parks, bicycles have been prohibited on the trails by NAP. 
  • “Finally, this plan recommends re-routing or closing 10.3 miles of trail (approximately 26 percent of total existing trails).” (page 5-14)  So, the only thing visitors are allowed to do in a natural area is walk on the trails and 26% of all the trails in the natural areas will be closed to the public.

2. “The act of removing (a small subset of) non-native trees, e.g., eucalyptus, that are in natural areas has the following benefits:
   a. Restores native habitat for indigenous plants and wildlife;
   b. Restores health, light and space to the “urban forest,” since the trees are all crowded together and being choked by ivy;
   c. Contributes to the prevention of catastrophic fire in our communities.”

Webmaster:  Destroying non-native plants and trees does not restore indigenous plants and wildlife. Native plants do not magically emerge when non-native plants and trees are destroyed. Planting indigenous plants might restore them to a location if they are intensively gardened to sustain them.  However, in the past 15 years we have seen little evidence that NAP is able to create and sustain successful native plant gardens.  Native plants have been repeatedly planted and they have repeatedly failed. 

NAP has not “restored” the health of the urban forest.  They remove trees in big groups as they expand their native plant gardens.  They are not thinning trees.  They are creating large openings for the grassland and dune scrub that they plant in the place of the urban forest.  Every tree designated for removal by the NAP management plan is clearly selected for its proximity to native plants.  It is disingenuous to suggest that NAP’s tree removal plans are intended to benefit the urban forest.

Of all the fictions fabricated by native plant advocates to justify the destruction of our urban forest, the claim that its destruction will “prevent catastrophic fire” is the most ridiculous.  The native ecology of California is highly flammable.  Most fires in California are in native chaparral.  According to San Francisco’s hazard mitigation plan, there has never been a wildfire in San Francisco (2) and one is unlikely in the future because the climate is mild and moist.  When it is hot in the interior, it is foggy in San Francisco.  The hot winds that drive most fires in California never reach San Francisco because it is separated from the hot interior by the bay.  San Francisco is surrounded by water, which moderates its climate and virtually eliminates the chances of wildfire. The tall non-native trees precipitate moisture from the summer fog, which moistens the forest floor and reduces the chances of ignition.  In the unlikely event of a wind-driven fire, the trees provide the windbreak which would stop the advance of the fire. 

3. “The overall visual landscape of the natural areas will not change since only a small subset of trees are planned to be removed over a 20-year period.”

Webmaster:  In addition to the 18,500 trees over 15 feet tall which NAP proposes to destroy, the NAP management plan also states its intention to destroy non-native trees less than 15 feet tall.  In other words, the future of the forest will also be killed.  The intention is to eliminate the urban forest in San Francisco’s parks over the long term.  Yes, this will take some time, but the long-term intention to eliminate the forest is clear.

“Please feel free to email if you would like more clarification about the intention, values and rationale of natural resources management.”

Webmaster:  We urge our readers to take NIC up on this offer to provide  ”more clarification” of its spirited defense of the Natural Areas Program. 

  • Do you think NIC is deluded about there being only a “handful of people” that are critical of the Natural Areas Program?
  • Did you notice that NIC does not acknowledge the use of herbicides by NAP?  Do you think that a fair representation of criticism of NAP can omit this issue?
  • If you visit a park that is a natural area, do you think NAP has demonstrated in the past 15 years what NIC claims it is accomplishing?
  • Do you think NIC has accurately described recreational access restrictions in the natural areas?
  • Do you think that San Francisco’s urban forest will be improved by the destruction of 18,500 mature trees and countless young trees?

(1) Save Sutro Forest, Urban Wildness, San Francisco Forest Alliance, Death of a Million Trees

(2) “The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has no record of any wildfire in San Francisco.” San Francisco Hazard Mitigation Plan, 2008, page 5-18.

“Museumification” of our parks separates children from nature

The Berkeley Meadow

We recently published an article about the Berkeley Meadow, a 72-acre fenced pen for native plants and animals.  In response, one of our readers alerted us to a video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow which we recommend to you.  “Grandpa Takes the Kids to the Plant Zoo” captures the absurdity of this “restoration” project. 

The sentiments expressed by the children in this video remind us of an article published in 2004 about similar restoration projects in Chicago and San Francisco.  “Urban Park Restoration and the ‘Museumification’ of Nature” was written by Dr. Paul Gobster after he visited the Bay Area as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, collaborating with colleagues in landscape architecture. 

Dr. Gobster is a social scientist with the US Forest Service, stationed in the Chicago area and the editor of a book* about the restoration movement there.  The restorations in Chicago are similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area because both places were primarily grassland prior to the arrival of Europeans.   Restorations in both areas therefore require the destruction of most trees.  In the Chicago area, many of the trees are native because of the natural succession of grassland to shrubland and finally to forest.  The fires of Native Americans that sustained the grassland were stopped at the time of settlement. 

In “Museumification,” Dr. Gobster expresses his opinion of the restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Chicago:

“…it is my contention that little headway has been made in exploiting the key role urban parks might have in strengthening the ties between nature and culture.  To the contrary, some current attempts at ecological restoration in urban parks may distance people from the experience of nature even further than did earlier naturalistic designs, leading to a form of detached observation not unlike what one might experience in a museum.  Instead of providing a bridge between nature and the city…park restoration can lock nature inside the gates of paradise and leave people on the outside looking in.”

Dr. Gobster is particularly concerned about the impact of “museumification” of parks on children who should be the primary beneficiaries of our parks.  Their earliest experiences with nature may foster a lifelong interest in nature or an alienation from it. 

“The wild and weedy nature that existed in many of these urban park areas prior to restoration provided [a setting for unstructured play]…Now displaced by a more ecologically diverse yet more fragile nature, these kinds of activities are discouraged just as they are in more manicured park settings.  Children are much less likely to attain satisfying nature experiences through passive forms of interaction and thus may be disproportionately affected by such changesThe result of this museumification is that we are creating a significant gap in the spectrum of nature experiences available to urban children precisely at the nearby places where children stand the best chances for getting acquainted with nature.  Thus while striving to achieve authenticity in the restoration of ecosystems we may be sacrificing the authenticity of children’s nature experiences.” 

Children discovering nature. NPS photo

In “Grandpa Takes the Kids to the Plant Zoo,” we see that the kids are uninterested in looking at the plants on the other side of the fence.  They ask Grandpa to take them elsewhere so they can play.  Grandpa must also ask them not to touch the few plants within reach because they have been sprayed with herbicides.  The park is not accessible to the kids because it is behind a fence and it has also been sprayed with herbicides, so it’s not a safe place for them to play.  In the East Bay Regional Park District, for example, herbicide use in its restoration projects (AKA “resource management”) increased 300% in 2009.  Herbicides had not been sprayed in the Serpentine Prairie prior to 2009, when it was fenced for “restoration.”  Now it is sprayed with herbicides, mowed, planted, and is due for periodic prescribed burns to prevent its succession to shrubs and subsequently to oak woodland.  

When we alienate children from nature, we jeopardize the future of our parks.  If parks are not viewed as useful places, they will not enjoy the support needed to sustain them.  And if nature is not viewed as valuable, we undermine the public’s support for preservation of the environment.  As adults debate the merits of native plant restorations, they should keep in mind the needs of children because the future of our public lands is in their hands and children are unable to speak for themselves in the public policy arena. 

* Gobster & Hull, eds., Restoring Nature, Washington DC, Island Press, 2000

The Sierra Club redefines “recreation”

In the current edition of the newsletter of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Club explains why it doesn’t like the revised Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan.  The Club has a long list of complaints about the new ROSE, but the one that caught our eye was this particular criticism:

“The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.”

–          The Yodeler, June 29, 2011

In the same article, the Sierra Club redefines “recreation” as follows:

“…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing… The document does not talk about the one thing that only parks can provide, the experience of nature.”  Ibid.

In other words, in the opinion of the Sierra Club, public parks are for the benefit of plants and animals.  The public is welcome to look at the plants and animals, so long as they do not disturb them in doing so.  However, if the public seeks more active forms of recreation, such as playing ball, hiking, or riding a bike, the Club invites them to take to the streets or join a gym.

Having debated park issues with the leadership of the Sierra Club many times and observing their advocacy closely, we are well aware of their rather narrow view of the purpose of parks.  However, we think it is unlikely that most Sierra Club members realize that their organization is actively trying to prevent all traditional forms of recreation in their parks.  We therefore shine a bright light on the role that the Sierra Club plays in turning urban parks into native plant museums.  In “Fortress Conservation:  The loss of recreational access” we described three specific examples of parks in the San Francisco Bay Area in which recreational access has been restricted as the result of advocacy and lawsuits by the Sierra Club and other organizations which share their view.

“Active” vs “Passive” Recreation

We were originally introduced to the Sierra Club’s objectives for our urban parks in the Bay Area with the terms, “active” and “passive” recreation.  The Sierra Club advocates for “passive” recreation, which it defined in its article about the ROSE as “respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing.”

The Berkeley Meadow

We visited a park today which is an example of what the Sierra Club has in mind.  The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow at the foot of University Ave in Berkeley is one of many parks in the Bay Area that reflects the wishes of the Sierra Club.  The Berkeley Meadow is part of the Eastshore State Park that is owned by the State of California, but operated by East Bay Regional Park District.  The Berkeley Meadow was at one time part of the San Francisco Bay, until it was created with landfill and used as a city dump until the 1960s.  The East Bay Regional Park District “restored” the meadow over a period of 5 years at a cost of $6 million.  It is now a huge fenced pen with a fenced trail running diagonally through it.  Bicycles and dogs on leash are both prohibited from using this fenced path.  One wonders what harm could come to the plants and animals that reside on the other side of the fence.  The meadow is predominantly non-native annual grassland, with willows in wetter portions of the meadow and some coyote bush scrub in the grassland.  (see video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow:  “Grandpa takes the kids to the plant zoo.”)

The Berkeley Meadow

Cesar Chavez Park due west of the Berkeley Meadow provides a multiuse contrast.  Cesar Chavez Park is a Berkeley city park, NOT a park owned by East Bay Regional Park District.  This 90-acre park provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including a popular kite-flying area, an off-leash dog park, a restricted “natural area” (predominantly non-native plants), and a fenced area in which burrowing owls nest half of the year.  The unfenced paths are used by bicycles, joggers, people walking, some with dogs on leash.  Cesar Chavez is a successful park, enjoyed by a wide variety of visitors every day.  The Sierra Club made every effort to prevent this multi-use park from accommodating all forms of “active” recreation.

Multiuse recreation at Cesar Chavez Park: a panda flying a kite

Environmentalism has been hijacked by extremists

Let us be perfectly clear about our opinion of “active” vs “passive” recreation.  We do not object to parks such as the Berkeley Meadow in which human access is severely restricted.  What we object to is that the Sierra Club wishes to turn all parks in the Bay Area into native plant and animal reserves in which humans are not welcome, except as passive observers.  This is an example of the extremism that has earned environmentalists the reputation of being unreasonable.

In 2004, the authors of the controversial paper entitled, “Death of Environmentalism” reported that “The number of Americans who agreed that, ‘Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,’ leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.”  Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, in his recent talk in San Francisco sponsored by the Long Now Foundation (a summary of this talk is available on the Save Sutro website), reported that over half of those surveyed in 2011 now agree that “environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.”  This loss of support for environmentalism is a great tragedy, for there is much legitimate work to be done by environmental organizations which are now distracted by tangential issues such as creating native plant museums in our urban parks.

Fortress Conservation: The loss of recreational access

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

The recent publication of an article about Sharp Park in Pacifica, featuring a photo of this sign has inspired us to consider the recreational access restrictions that often accompany native plant and animal conservation projects.

In this case, an 18-hole golf course in Sharp Park is at stake.  A coalition of environmental organizations (1) recently sued the City of San Francisco to close this golf course, based on their claim that the golf course violates the Endangered Species Act by harming two endangered species (Red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake).  The City of San Francisco claims that the golf course can be reconfigured to accommodate these species.  Meanwhile, conservation efforts requiring closure of recreational areas, according to this sign, are continuing.

The organizations that have sued San Francisco also claim that the closures they demand will actually improve recreational opportunities.  This claim is based on an assumption that the preferred form of “recreation” is standing on a trail or boardwalk behind a fence, looking at wildlife through binoculars.  Naturally, people who play golf see it otherwise.

We don’t claim to know the needs of these particular endangered species.  However, based on similar claims in other parks, we are skeptical.  In our experience, environmentalists—and sometimes park managers—often claim that animals are more fragile than scientific evidence or actual experience suggests.  We therefore suspect that animals are sometimes used by environmentalists and park managers to justify closing recreational areas. 

Loss of recreational access at Fort Funston, San Francisco

In a series of closures from 1997 to 2000, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) fenced visitors out of more than 28 acres of Fort Funston (about 15% of total acreage), claiming the land was “bank swallow habitat” and that the swallows needed the closures for protection of their breeding colony.  In fact, the fenced land is not bank swallow habitat.  The swallows do not nest, breed, feed, roost, or do any of the normal activities a bird does in its habitat, inside the closures.  The swallows fly over it on their way from their nests on the cliff face above the beach to Lake Merced where they feed on insects.  The GGNRA sponsored a study(2) of wildlife in the fenced areas during the breeding season of the swallows, when the swallows were present.  The study included a census of all birds observed inside the enclosure and reported not a single bank swallow.

A swallow expert, William M. Shields, SUNY Professor of Biology, said of the closures, “I do not believe that a closure of the size and type described by the park service is required or even would benefit the Bank Swallow at all.”  He said that the closure was based on “…their [GGNRA’s] misrepresentations about the needs and safety of the Bank Swallows breeding in the cliffs.”  Dr. Shields classified GGNRA’s claims of providing improved feeding habitat as, “…a major stretch and smacks of special pleading to me.”

Bank swallow burrows (circled) in cliff above beach at Fort Funston

The bank swallows nest in burrows in the cliff faces at Fort Funston, where they are out of reach of recreational visitors who seldom even notice the presence of the birds.  Furthermore, as Dr. Shields notes, “The Bank Swallow like other swallows is quite suited to live with humans and their pets.”  Another swallow expert, Barrett Garrison says in his monograph Bank Swallow, Bank Swallows appear relatively insensitive to moderate levels of human-induced disturbance.”  Garrison lists documented land uses around Bank Swallow colonies:  hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, recreational boating, commercial agriculture, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and livestock grazing.

Bank swallow nests in……
…a sheep pasture

When the public was fenced out of large areas of Fort Funston, the bank swallow was just a phony excuse.  We try to avoid speculating about the motivation of others, but in this case the massive native plant “restoration” that followed the closure seems the likely goal of the closure. 

Loss of recreational access at Albany Bulb in the East Bay

Frenced enclosure at Albany Plateau for theoretical burrowing owls

In 2008, 8 acres of the Albany Plateau (the flat area at the east end of the Albany Bulb) was fenced at a cost of $125,700.  The stated purpose of this fenced enclosure was to create habitat for the burrowing owl, although owls had never been seen nesting there.  Three years later there are still no burrowing owls in this fenced enclosure.  In fact, there is nothing in this fenced area and nothing is happening there.  Update:  Ten years later, no owls have been seen nesting there.  November 2017

How did we lose this recreational resource?  That is a fascinating story:  “During the planning process for the Eastshore State Park…the demonstration of community need for sports fields led to the designation of the eastern side of the Albany Plateau as “active recreation” land use category.  This was problematic because of its proximity to the Albany Mudflats State Sanctuary and because State Parks is not in the practice of operating formal sports fields facilities.”(3)  Consequently, the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex south of Golden Gate Fields was approved for development as sports fields.  Unfortunately one burrowing owl had been seen (but was not nesting) in that area two years before.  Therefore, environmentalists demanded “mitigation” for the development of a sports field in that area.  The “mitigation” was the creation of the 8-acre fenced enclosure on the Albany Plateau.  So far, burrowing owls have not elected to use the fenced area.

But why would a burrowing owl choose to nest on the Albany Plateau when it has a nesting area just a few miles down the road at the Cesar Chavez Park?  Burrowing owls can be seen nesting at Cesar Chavez Park every year from October to April.  There are post-and-rope fences that designate their nesting area, but those fences are not impenetrable as is the chain link fence on the Albany Plateau.  People (often with their dogs on leash) walk on trails within 20 feet of the owls.  The owls don’t seem disturbed by this activity and apparently prefer the busy Cesar Chavez Park to the fenced Albany Plateau.

Burrowing owl, Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley

Are animals being used as tools to restrict recreational access?

We wish the animals could speak for themselves.  Do they require the enclosures that environmentalists demand for them?  We think the answer to that question is sometimes “NO!”  And when environmentalists make these claims repeatedly, do they lose their credibility when the evidence indicates that such restrictions are in fact not needed?  In other words, are environmentalists crying wolf?  Or do they accomplish their true goals by successfully fencing people out of our parks?  Is their goal an example of Fortress Conservation or a sincere effort to protect animals from harm?  Do park managers prefer parks without people?

(1) Wild Equity Institute, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity

(2) “Evaluating Wildlife Response to Coastal Dune Habitat Restoration in San Francisco, California” by Will Russell, Jennifer Shulzitski and Asha Setty, Ecological Restoration, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2009

(3) City of Albany City Council Agenda Staff Report