Relentless war on eucalyptus

A new front has opened in the relentless war on eucalyptus in California.  The drought has given native plant advocates an opportunity to develop a new narrative to justify their demands for eradication of eucalyptus.  The opening gambit in this new strategy is an item in Jake Sigg’s “Nature News” of May 16, 2014:

“The prolonged drought of the last 2-3 years seems to be taking its toll.  The Tasmanian blue gums in Glen Canyon along O’Shaughnessy Boulevard strongly show drought stress.  The stress is more evident from the high cliffs above O’Shaughnessy than it is at ground level.  Thinning crowns and discolored foliage was striking.  And that was before the recent heat wave.

Barring substantial rains–unlikely, but not impossible–the trees are in serious trouble.  The City could have an emergency situation and no money to address it.”

 Recap of the war on eucalyptus

When public land managers began the war on eucalyptus in the 1980s it did not occur to them that the public would object.  So deep was their prejudice against eucalyptus, that they assumed the public shared their opinion.  The first two massive projects in the 1980s on National Park Service and State Park properties were greeted with angry public protests.  Land managers quickly learned that it was not going to be as easy to eradicate eucalyptus as they had thought.  They developed a series of story-lines to justify their projects, which were designed to convince the public that the eradication of eucalyptus is both necessary and beneficial.  This is a summary of some of their cover stories with links to articles that debunk them:

Based on our experience, we were immediately suspicious of the new claim that San Francisco’s eucalyptus forest is dying of drought.  We know that our predominant species of eucalyptus—Tasmanian blue gum—grows successfully throughout California, all the way to the Mexican border in climates that are much hotter and drier than the Bay Area.  We also know that the central and north coast of California is foggy during the dry summer months, which doubles the amount of annual precipitation in the eucalyptus forest.  All reliable sources of horticultural information describe blue gum eucalyptus as drought tolerant.  Frankly, we couldn’t see how our eucalyptus could be dying of drought.

What is wrong with our eucalyptus forest in Glen Canyon?

 The picture became clearer when Jake Sigg posted the following on his “Nature News” on June 12, 2014:

“The June 10 newsletter [see below*] included an editorial on an evolving catastrophe, mostly involving our numerous plantations of Tasmanian blue gums.  The editorial focused primarily on the plantations on O’Shaughnessy Blvd in Glen Canyon and on Mt Sutro, and included a photo of a grove of Mt Sutro dying trees.  Here is a photo of the Glen Canyon plantation, taken from above the high cliffs on O’Shaughnessy.  The damage is most visible from high, looking down.

The discoloration of leaves was very dramatic, but the foliage color and condition is not fully conveyed in the photograph.  Some trees defoliated entirely in the prolonged winter dry spell.  Look very closely at the juvenile blue leaves of the coppice shoots; anything that appears faintly bluish are new coppice shoots which grew in response to the late rains we had in February and March.  Once you see coppice shoots on old trees you know the trees are in trouble.  These trees are in double jeopardy, as they invested energy in new shoots, but were betrayed by another dry spell which, under normal circumstances, will last until autumn.  Note that you can now see the grassland through the trees; that slope was not previously visible.  Even a casual inspection of these groves reveals dead, dying, and stressed trees, and under normal circumstances we will have four or five months of dry.  The fire situation is serious right now and is likely to become worse.”

View of west side of Glen Canyon Park from Marietta Drive, June 2014
View of west side of Glen Canyon Park from Marietta Drive, June 2014

With more specific information in hand about what Jake Sigg is looking at, we went to see for ourselves.  We could see what he was describing from a vantage point on Marietta Drive, west of Glen Canyon Park.  We could see lighter colored leaves, but they were more localized than Jake Sigg’s description implied.  We didn’t feel qualified to speculate about why the leaves were lighter colored so we recruited an arborist to help us figure out what is happening there.  We were fortunate to enlist the help of a certified arborist who has been responsible for urban forests on public lands in the Bay Area for several decades.  This is what we learned.

Epicormic Sprouts

Looking through binoculars from our vantage point on Marietta Drive, the arborist said immediately, “Those are epicormic sprouts.”  The leaves of epicormic sprouts are distinctively lighter colored than the darker green of mature eucalyptus leaves.  They are also a more rounded shape than the long, pointed mature leaves of eucalyptus.  This is how Wikipedia describes epicormic sprouts:

“Epicormic buds lie dormant beneath the bark, their growth suppressed by hormones from active shoots higher up the plant.  Under certain conditions, they develop into active shoots, such as when damage occurs to higher parts of the plant. Or light levels are increased following removal of nearby plants.”

Epicormic sprouts on trees in Glen Canyon Park, June 2014
Epicormic sprouts on trees in Glen Canyon Park, June 2014

The remaining question was why some of the eucalypts, were producing these epicormic sprouts, when most were not.  We went down to O’Shaughnessy Blvd to get a closer look, hoping to answer that question.  This is what we learned:

  •  The understory of non-native shrubs between O’Shaughnessy Boulevard and the trees with epicormic sprouts has been cleared in the past year.  We could see the dead brush piled up next to the trees.  We had to wonder how people who claim to be concerned about fire hazard could think such huge piles of dead brush were nothing to be concerned about.
Remains of dead non-native brush destroyed along O'Shaughnessy Boulevard, June 2014
Remains of dead non-native brush destroyed along O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, June 2014
  • We could see the stumps of some of the dead brush and we wondered if the stumps had been sprayed with herbicides after they were cut.  Pesticide use reports for Glen Canyon indicate that O’Shaughnessy was sprayed several times in the past year, twice with products containing imazapyrImazapyr is known to be harmful to trees if sprayed in proximity to their roots.  The trees with epicormic sprouts were downhill from the understory shrubs that were destroyed, in the probable direction of water and herbicide flow.
  • We found several trees that had been girdled in the past and are now dead.
Girdled tree in Glen Canyon Park, now dead, June 2014
Girdled tree in Glen Canyon Park, now dead, June 2014

The trees in Glen Canyon Park

Then we walked into Glen Canyon Park from its southern end.  It’s not a pretty sight.  Many huge, old eucalypts have been destroyed.  When they were destroyed, their stumps were immediately sprayed with herbicide to prevent them from resprouting.  The stumps are simultaneously painted with dye so that workers can tell which trees have been sprayed.  The dye is no longer visible, but regular visitors took photos of the painted stumps before the dye faded.  The spraying of the stumps do not appear on the pesticide use reports of the Recreation and Park Department.  We assume that’s because the spraying was done by the sub-contractors who destroyed the trees.

Poisoned and dyed eucalyptus stump, Glen Canyon Park, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance
Poisoned and dyed eucalyptus stump, Glen Canyon Park, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

The arborist who walked in the forest with us said, “The painting of stumps with RoundUp or Garlon in proximity to trees that are being preserved can kill the neighboring preserved tree. Stumps near living, residual (preserved) trees should not be painted with RoundUp or Garlon if the stumps are within 40’ of mature, blue gums that are slated for preservation.”  If the remaining trees are damaged by herbicides, their mature leaves fall and epicormic sprouts will then emerge as the tree recovers.

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

While the trees were being destroyed in 2013, the Natural Areas Program was eradicating non-native vegetation in the Canyon.  They sprayed ivy, blackberry, and valerian with Milestone, which is another herbicide that is known to damage trees if sprayed near their roots.  In addition to these official applications of herbicide in this park, there is a long history of unauthorized, illegal herbicide applications by “volunteers,” more appropriately called vandals.

We saw a lot of epicormic growth in the Canyon, sprouting from stumps that must be cut back and resprayed with herbicides.  It usually takes several retreatments to successfully kill the roots of eucalypts that are destroyed.  We also saw epicormic growth from eucalypts that had been severely pruned and were also exposed to a great deal more light because they had lost the shelter of their neighboring trees.

Epicormic growht, Glen Canyon Park, June 2014
Epicormic growth, Glen Canyon Park, June 2014

Wrapping up

The trees in Glen Canyon are reacting to the traumas to which they have been subjected:  the loss of their neighbors that were either girdled or cut down thereby exposing them to more light and wind, the loss of the shelter of their understory, the application of herbicides known to be harmful to trees.

The good news is that there are still plenty of trees in Glen Canyon that have not yet been destroyed and they are in great shape.  Here is the view of the tree canopy in Glen Canyon taken from the east side of the park near Turquoise Way.  The first picture was taken in December 2012 (before the current round of tree destruction in Glen Canyon Park) and the second picture was taken in May 2014.

Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction began. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance
Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction began. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance
Same perspective of Glen Canyon tree canopy, taken May 2014. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance.
Same perspective of Glen Canyon tree canopy, taken May 2014. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance.

These trees are doing just fine because the Natural Areas Program has not yet gone that deeply into the park.  But NAP intends to destroy many more trees in Glen Canyon (and elsewhere) when the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for their management plan (SNRAMP) is finally approved.  Then we will see more consequences of the destructive practices of the Natural Areas Program and we will probably hear more bogus explanations for that damage.

We expect the EIR to finally be considered for approval at the end of 2014.  [Update:  now predicted for fall 2015] We will do whatever we can to convince San Francisco’s policy makers that they should approve the “Maintenance Alternative” which would enable NAP to continue to care for the native plant gardens they have created in the past 15 years, but prevent them from expanding further.   We hope that our readers will help to accomplish this important task.

*Jake Sigg’s Nature News of June 10, 2014, introduced the theories of Craig Dawson about the health of the Sutro Forest.  Mr. Dawson’s speculations are different from Mr. Sigg’s and we will not address them in this post.  You can find an analysis of Mr. Dawson’s theories on Save Sutro Forest HERE.

Bats in Glen Canyon Park are being evicted NOW!

We are reprinting with permission an article about bats in San Francisco’s parks from the San Francisco Forest Alliance.  The article reports observations of bats as well as a study of bat populations in San Francisco’s parks.  The study found that both the number of bats as well as the number of species of bats was related to the amount of forest edge in each park and the availability of water.  The study reports that the forest edge contains more insects which are the primary food of the bats. 

We are posting this story today because hundreds of trees in Glen Canyon Park in which bats and many other creatures live are being destroyed as we speak.  Here is a video of the destruction which started yesterday and continues today, along with a narrative of how and why this needless destruction is happening.  Please watch this moving video to understand why we are so committed to opposing the pointless destruction of our trees by extremist agendas that are damaging the environment and harming the animals that live in our open spaces.   (Edited to Add:  And here is a video showing the second day of the demolition project.)

The study did not find any relationship between the number of bats nor the number of species of bats with the percent of native plant coverage.  We speculate—although the study does not—that the absence of correlation between bat populations and native plant populations suggests that there are not more insects in native plants than at the forest edge.  Although native plant advocates claim that more insects are found in native plants, this is yet more evidence that this claim is not true. 


Bat in Glen Canyon Park Bats are insect-eating machines. According to the USGS, “Bats normally eat about half their weight in flying insects each night.” So even for those who don’t find these night-flying mammals charming, it’s good to know there are bats among us.

San Francisco has at least four species of bats, all of which eat insects. According to research by Jennifer Krauel, which involved recording bat sounds to determine which species they were, Mexican Free-tailed bats are the most common. Parks with water – like Glen Canyon – also have Yuma Myotis bats. The other two species she found (more rarely) were Western Red Bats, and Little Brown Bats, and she found them in just a couple of places.

2012-04-07 at 19-41-44 batHer research indicated that “amount of forest edge and distance to water were the factors best explaining species richness and foraging activity.” It also showed that bats in San Francisco remain active through the winter and don’t hibernate or move elsewhere.

If you’re interested in reading her paper, it’s here as a PDF: Jennifer Krauel thesis on bats in SF


Glen Canyon’s bats are often visible at dusk. They’re most evident in the Fall, though they’ve been seen at other times of the year. (The pictures above are from February and April, those below from October.)

Here’s a note on bat-viewing from one visitor to Glen Canyon.

“It was late in the afternoon, and late in October. We were standing around the entrance to the park on Alms Rd. As dusk fell, bats emerged from the tall eucalyptus trees. Quite suddenly they were in the air right above us. I pulled out my camera, which is not really good in poor light but I tried to take some pictures anyway. Here’s one:

bats 1

“They’re difficult to spot in the picture, but all those black smudges are bats that were moving too fast for my pocket-camera. Here’s the same picture, cropped, with the bats circled in yellow:

bats 1a

“They dispersed over the canyon. Here’s another picture from a few minutes later (and the one below it shows where the bats are).

bats 2

bats 2a

“It was fantastic. I haven’t seen this many bats anywhere in San Francisco.”


We did a little research, and found a Stanford report that emphasized the importance of large trees to a particular species of bats, Yuma Myotis… bats that Krauel’s research had actually found in Glen Canyon Park.

“Yuma bats that forage in the preserve travel several miles to roost in large trees in Portola Valley and Woodside, suburban communities on the San Francisco Peninsula. The average diameter of the bats’ chosen trees is about a yard across — more than three times wider than the average tree in those areas.”

(The link to the abstract of the actual Stanford research paper is HERE.)

That’s the size of the big eucalyptus trees in Glen Canyon Park – including those that SFRPD wants to chop down.


Bats are an important part of an eco-system, and fill a role few other creatures do: They hunt night-flying insects like mosquitoes that birds don’t catch because they’re sleeping. This is especially important now as West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, has been spreading.

Having bats in a landscape contributes to its bio-diversity. All species of bats are protected in California.

(Some people are concerned that bats carry rabies – and it’s true no one should handle bats, especially grounded bats that may be sick, with their bare hands. But according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, less than 1% of bats are infected. [Click HERE to see their note.] The risk of getting rabies from a bat is less than the risk of being struck by lightning.)


We’re concerned about the impact of the planned tree removals on Glen Canyon’s bats.

  • All species of bats are protected, and removing the trees will impact their habitat by reducing the number of safe roosting spots, especially for Yuma Myotis bats that need both large trees and nearness to water.
  • The contractor will be chopping down the trees in the daytime. Bats roosting there are likely to be killed – if not in the process of the tree-felling, by being forced to fly blinded and confused in the daytime and fall prey to hawks, crows and ravens.

How is SF RPD going to ensure the protection of these bats?

And in what ways will felling large trees near the stream alter the ecology of the canyon?

Our urban forest is under siege

The urban forest on Mt. Davidson is slated for destruction.

According to California Trees (1) the US Forest Service has determined that tree cover in the country’s urban areas is decreasing by 4 million trees a year.  Although no research has been done on tree loss throughout California, the US Forest Service reported a one-percent decline in trees and shrubs in Los Angeles despite a big campaign to plant one million trees there.

You might think that the loss of trees in urban areas is the result of increasing development and you would probably be at least partially correct.  But many trees are lost for more trivial reasons that we think could be easily prevented.  Here are some local examples of trees in the Bay Area that were needlessly destroyed or soon will be.

  • The City of Oakland has a “view ordinance” which guarantees homeowners the preservation of their view at the time they purchased their home.  This view ordinance was invoked by a resident in the Oakland hills who demanded that her neighbor and the City of Oakland destroy trees obstructing her view.  Her neighbor purchased her house because of its forested view.  Yet, the desire for a forested view was trumped by her neighbor’s desire for a treeless view.  The law required that 25 trees be destroyed on private property and 21 trees on city property in order to restore the view of a 95-year old property owner who no longer lives in her home.  When trees are destroyed for such trivial reasons, we should not be surprised by the following compendium of absurd excuses to destroy trees.  (The story is here.)
  • The people of San Francisco are trying to prevent the destruction of their urban forest which is almost entirely non-native.  The City of San Francisco is systematically destroying non-native trees in order to return the landscape to its historical origins as grassland and dune scrub.  The latest battle in this long war is a particular park, Glen Canyon, in which the City proposes to destroy about 160 trees in the short -run and 300 trees in the long-run.  A handful of the trees are hazardous and aren’t disputed, but most have been evaluated as “poor suitability” which is the latest euphemism used by native plant advocates to describe non-native trees.  They propose to replace most of the trees with native shrubs and a few tall trees that are native to California, but not to San Francisco, such as Douglas Fir and Cottonwoods.  It remains to be seen if either of these species will survive in San Francisco.  Douglas Fir requires more rainfall than San Francisco receives and Cottonwoods are hot-climate trees which don’t tolerate mild temperatures without seasonal fluctuations.  We suspect that is the strategy, i.e., to plant trees for the sole purpose of placating the public without any intention that the trees will survive.  (The story is here.)
  • The space shuttle Endeavor was recently retired from service.  Its permanent home is now a museum in Los Angeles, where 400 street trees were destroyed to accommodate the delivery of the space shuttle from the airport to the museum.  The neighbors were not pleased, as you might imagine.  They unfortunately live in a blighted part of Los Angeles, so they didn’t have the clout needed to save their trees.  Do you think these trees would have been destroyed in Beverly Hills?  We doubt it.  (The story is here.)
  • The neighbors of Dimond Park in Oakland are trying to save the trees in their park from being destroyed by a “restoration.”  We often marvel at the use of the word “restoration” to describe projects which are more accurately described as “destruction.”  This is yet another native plant project, which is hell bent to remake nature to its liking.  In this case 42 trees would be destroyed, of which 27 are native, including 17 redwood trees.  Please help the neighbors save their trees by signing their petition which is available here.
  • Finally, we share the story of a property owner on 65th St in Oakland who with a great deal of courage and tenacity was able to save most of the street trees on her block from being destroyed by the City of Oakland.  The trees weren’t posted as required by Oakland’s ordinance.  The crew who came to cut them down couldn’t tell her why they were being cut down, nor could they tell her who owned the trees.  We encourage you to read her story because it will give you a brief lesson on the difficulty of advocating against the needless destruction of trees.

Deforestation causes climate change

We have been accumulating these stories in the past few months, but are finally inspired to share them with our readers because of the recent storm on the East Coast, Sandy, which caused over $50 billion in damage and the lives of over 100 people.  What’s the connection?  The connection is that Sandy has finally forced people to take the threats of climate change more seriously. 

When will this new interest in climate change translate to an interest in saving our trees?   Probably not soon, because few people understand that globally, deforestation contributes 20% of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.  The public and its elected representatives are focused primarily on transportation as the source of climate change.  Transportation contributes only 10% of greenhouse gases globally. 

Here in California, we are gearing up to put our climate change law (AB 32) into action by creating a cap and trade auction which will enable emitters of greenhouse gases to purchase carbon offsets.  Ironically, one of the things that carbon emitters can do to offset their contribution to greenhouse gases is to plant trees.  Yet, those who destroy trees are not being required to purchase carbon offsets.  Until the people who destroy trees are required to pay for the damage they do to the environment, we are unlikely to see a change in the cavalier attitude that governments seem to have about destroying trees.   


(1)    California Trees, Winter 2012, Vol 20, no 2

Regretting the use of pesticides

Spraying Milestone in Glen Canyon Park, June 2012

Recently visitors to Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco spotted a Pesticide Application Notice in their park, which states that Milestone herbicide was used on “sweet pea.”  Sweet pea is not classified as an invasive plant by the California Invasive Plant Council.  Milestone herbicide is classified as Tier I “Most Hazardous” pesticide by San Francisco’s IPM program because it persists in the ground for a long time.  The City’s IPM policy states that it is approved for use on “invasive species.”  Since sweet pea is not an invasive plant, we assume this pesticide application violated San Francisco’s IPM policy.

The federally mandated Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Milestone advises users to, “Prevent [Milestone] from entering into soil, ditches, sewers, waterways and/or groundwater.”  The MSDS also says that Milestone “is not readily biodegradable according to OECD/EEC guidelines.”

For these reasons, the manufacturer of Milestone herbicide withdrew its application to sell Milestone in the State of New York, after the State of New York determined, “The [New York State] Department [of Environmental Conservation] could not ensure that the labeled use of aminopyralid [the active ingredient in Milestone] would not negatively impact groundwater resources in sensitive areas of New York State.”  In other words, the sale of Milestone herbicide is banned in the State of New York.

Kid playing in Glen Canyon Park. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

Since Glen Canyon is a watershed to Islais Creek, we believe it is irresponsible to use Milestone in that park.  And clearly there is no justification for using this persistent herbicide on a plant as benign as sweet peas.  Since Glen Canyon park is the home of a year-round day care center as well as a summer camp which leads children throughout the park, it is outrageous that these pointless risks were taken there.

We have learned nothing….

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, there is renewed media interest in this issue.  We welcome this reminder that Rachel Carson informed the public in 1962 that DDT was having a devastating impact on wildlife.  DDT had been used for about 20 years, but it took that long for us to notice that some species of birds had been poisoned nearly to extinction.  And it took another 10 years for DDT to finally be banned in 1972.

Rachel Carson was vilified for her revelations, just as critics of the so-called Natural Areas Program are being vilified by supporters of that program.  We have been called “chemophobes” and “anti-chemical crazies.” 

Frank Graham, editor of Audubon Magazine, recently wrote an article for Yale University’s “environment 360” blog about the abuse that Rachel Carson endured after the publication of Silent Spring.  He recounts several anecdotes about the attacks on her character.  For example, “An official with the federal Pest Control Review Board drew laughter from his audience when he remarked, ‘I thought she was a spinster.  What’s she so worried about genetics for?’”

Forty years after DDT was banned in the United States we have a local example of the persistence of this dangerous chemical in our environment.  From 1947 to 1966, several companies on the harbor in Richmond, California formulated, packaged, and shipped pesticides, including DDT.  The site was designated a State Superfund site in 1982, and in 1990 the EPA placed the site on a national priorities list for clean up.  “Remedial actions took place on the site from 1990 to 1999.”  Twelve years later, the EPA tells us, “Although actions were taken to reduce the risk from the pesticides found on site…sediments and the water [in that location] are still contaminated with pesticides, primarily DDT and dieldrin.”

In other words, we fouled our water with dangerous pesticides; we then spent many years and probably a lot of money trying to clean up after ourselves, and 40 years later we are still living with the consequences of our foolishness.

What have we learned from that experience?  Now we are using a very persistent chemical (Milestone) on a benign plant (sweet pea) in our public parks.  We have learned nothing.  And those who have some economic gain from poisoning our parks—or are clueless about the risks they are taking—are defending the use of pesticides and trying to shut us up, just as they tried to shut Rachel Carson up 50 years ago.  We are proud to be in her company and we are inspired by her leadership.

Some people have learned

Peaches at “Organic U-Pick” Courtesy Arnita Bowman

We prefer to end our stories on a positive note when we can, so we turn to a book we read recently about a fruit farmer in California’s Central Valley.  David Mas Masumoto wrote Epitaph for a Peach to tell us about his transition from the traditional farming methods used by his father to organic methods.  He has abandoned rigorous weed and pest control and he is learning to live in harmony with his orchards rather than fighting against nature.  He tells us about the difficult decision to quit using pesticides:

“I am reminded that in some valley wells they have found traces of a chemical called DBCP in ground water aquifers.  DBCP was linked to sterility in males and is now banned in the United States.  My dad used some DBCP years ago…No one knew it would contaminate drinking water.  Neighboring city folks are angry with farmers for damaging their water supply.  ‘How could you farmers poison the water?’ they ask.  My dad didn’t choose to pollute the water table.  He did nothing illegal.  He simply trusted the chemical company and the governmental regulatory agencies.

Mr. Masumoto has learned from bitter experience.  What we know about pesticides today is not necessarily what we will learn about them tomorrow.  We often look back on our use of pesticides with regret.  So, shouldn’t we at least avoid using them when we don’t need to—such as on flowers just because they aren’t native—or in places where the risks are great—such as public parks occupied by children?

Let’s turn that rhetorical question into the affirmative statement that it deserves to be:  We should not be using pesticides in our public parks or on plants that aren’t doing any harm.  We will live to regret it when we do.  And let’s express our gratitude to Rachel Carson for inspiring us to keep informing the public of the needless risks that are being taken in their parks. 

The Natural Areas Program harms wildlife by violating its Streambed Alteration Permit

It’s spring.  Have you noticed that the birds are singing?  This is the time of year when they are most vocal.  They are staking out their nesting sites and attracting their mates with their songs.  They are quieter when they have laid their eggs as they try to avoid detection.  Migratory birds are also passing through, on their way to their breeding homes.  The food they find along the way is important to their survival on their long and physically challenging journeys from their winter to their summer homes.

Subscribers to Wildcare recently received an email newsletter reminding them that pruning trees and shrubs at this time of year is dangerous for the birds that are hiding their nests in them.  Wildcare is a local organization which treats sick or injured animals and educates the public about “how to live peacefully with wildlife.” 

Hummingbird nest in Pittosporum, March 2012

We were recently reminded of the vulnerability of birds at this time of year in our own yard when a hummingbird selected our flowering, non-native Victorian Box tree (Pittosporum undulatum) to build her nest.  Her nest was completely invisible to us, but we spotted her darting in and out of it as she built her nest.  We were able to take this picture of her sitting on her nest by crawling into the understory of the tree.

Hummingbird nest is not much bigger than a quarter!

Then disaster struck.  An early spring storm tore a huge branch from the tree and sent her nest tumbling to the ground.  We watched with heavy hearts while the hummingbird made anxious, noisy flights into the fallen branch.  When she gave up, we carefully lifted the fallen branch to find her tiny, empty nest.  As sad as this event was in our lives and hers, at least we knew that the failure of her nest was no fault of ours.   San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program cannot say the same of their destructive project in Glen Canyon Park.

The Natural Areas Program violates their Streambed Alteration Permit

Destroying vegetation with chainsaws in Glen Canyon Park, November 2011

The Natural Areas Program began to destroy the non-native vegetation in Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco in November 2011.  In addition to destroying valuable habitat with chainsaws, they also sprayed herbicides.  The San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) protested this destructive project many times but it has continued unabated to as recently as April 27, 2012, when they pruned trees and sprayed herbicides.

Earlier in April, SFFA learned from a public records request that this project violated a legal commitment to the California Department of Fish & Game.  The Natural Areas Program made the following commitment to mitigate harm to wildlife in Glen Canyon Park in its Streambed Alteration Permit:

It is the policy of RPD’s Natural Areas Program that no new projects will begin during the breeding season (December to May).  Follow up work in previously cleared areas may be done during the breeding season, however, because areas will have been cleared previously. Wildlife will not likely be using these areas for breeding.  This protocol has been effective in reducing impacts to breeding wildlife.”

SFFA brought this violation of its commitment to the attention of the General Manager of the Recreation and Park Department immediately.  The head of the Natural Areas Program said that the violation was necessary because the grant funding for the project was about to expire.  To avoid losing the funding for the project, the birds and animals of Glen Canyon Park were subjected to this destructive project during their breeding and nesting season. 

SFFA has brought this violation to the attention of the California Department of Fish & Game.  Their regulations require them to enforce the terms of the Streambed Alteration Permit, including the mitigation of potential harm to wildlife.  Violations of the terms of the permit are subject to “civil penalties” according to the regulations:  “A person who violates this chapter is subject to a civil penalty of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each violation.” 

One month after SFFA informed California Department of Fish & Game of the violation, nothing seems to be done about it.  In fact, weeks after SFFA sent this information to Fish & Game, another episode of destruction occurred in Glen Canyon Park on April 27, 2012.

The consequences of native plant “restorations” to wildlife

We will never know how many birds and animals were harmed by the destruction in Glen Canyon Park.  The management plan for the Natural Areas Program tells us (Appendix D) there are 18 species of birds that are found in and/or breed in Glen Canyon Park that are considered “Species of Local Concern.”  That is, the Audubon Society considers them rare in San Francisco. 

We also know that migratory birds will find less food in Glen Canyon Park this year than they have found in the past as they pass through San Francisco on their way to their breeding homes.  Many of the flowering and berry producing non-native plants that have thrived in Glen Canyon Park in the past have been destroyed by this destructive project, which is described by the Natural Areas Program in its Streambed Alteration Permit application as “…the ‘Scorched Earth’ method, in which all above-ground vegetation including natives, are removed.”  

Ironically, this project was partially funded by a grant program of the State of California entitled “Habitat Conservation Fund.”  We believe this project was a grotesque misuse of this fund.  The wildlife of Glen Canyon Park did not benefit from this project.  In fact, we believe they have been harmed by it.

A novel definition of “wilderness”

As our readers know, we troll the websites of supporters of the native plant movement, looking for clues about the basis for belief in that ideology.  We hope that our understanding will enable us to provide the scientific information to our readers that will reveal the fallacies of nativism. 

The following comment on the San Francisco Forest Alliance website alerted us to a new theme in this debate:  native plant advocates seem to believe that we can and should return our urban parks to “wilderness.”

“It is interesting that your post shows the trail side covered with English ivy, and possibly a fallen eucalyptus or two. Each of these is a non-native element. Any and all exotic species present in the canyon destroy the wilderness aspect of Glen Canyon Park.

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. Lets get started!”

Chainsaw massacre in Glen Canyon, November 2011

In this particular native plant advocate’s view, wilderness is composed exclusively of native plants.  Everything else must be eradicated.  If chainsaws and pesticides must be used repeatedly in perpetuity, so be it.  All this destruction is justified by the glorious goal of “wilderness.”  This wilderness is apparently not disturbed by chainsaws and pesticides.  Presumably they must be ignored to achieve the glorious goal.

We rarely indulge in sarcasm on Million Trees.  We hope our readers recognize it when they see it.

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.