An epilogue to the saga of the San Francisco Natural Areas Program

On December 15, 2016, the San Francisco Planning Commission approved the Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Program and the Recreation and Parks Commission approved the management plan for the Natural Areas Program.  The public hearing was over 6 hours long and is available for viewing HERE.  Although we watched the hearing, we won’t try to summarize it here because readers can watch it if they wish.  Rather we will comment on a few conspicuous observations about the hearing.

The most noteworthy feature of the hearing was that virtually all of the supporters of the EIR and the Natural Areas Program were allowed to speak first.  Critics of the program were called on last.  If you have spoken at such a hearing, you know that speakers submit a speaker’s card on which they indicate their support or opposition for the agenda item when they arrive.  Typically, speakers are called in the order in which they arrive at the hearing.  This usual procedure was apparently not followed in this case.

The main disadvantage of not being called upon in the order in which speakers arrive is that when a hearing is 6 hours long, many people with other responsibilities—such as work or family obligations—are forced to leave before their names are called.  In the case of this hearing, I heard a number of names called of people whom I knew to be critics of NAP, who did not speak, presumably because they waited their turn but weren’t called in the order of their arrival.

Another conspicuous feature of this hearing was that the vast majority of speakers in favor of the EIR and the management plan either work directly for the program or are affiliated with it.  Many supporting speakers were representatives of non-profits that conduct similar projects or they bring children into the parks to “educate” them about native plants.  Their presence at the hearing was therefore a work responsibility which enabled them to spend an unlimited amount of time at the hearing.

This is an illustration of the biggest obstacle to the realization that nativism is a destructive agenda based on outdated scientific hypotheses for which there is no empirical evidence.  In a word, “restoration” ecology is now a multi-million dollar industry in which many people are employed.  Therefore, there is vested economic interest in continuing such efforts whether or not they are successful or beneficial.

Criticisms of the Natural Areas Program and its EIR

The speakers who opposed the approval of the management plan and its EIR were members of the general public who are neighbors of the so-called “natural areas.”  They mentioned the destruction of trees (and the subsequent loss of sequestered carbon) and the use of herbicides as their primary objection to the plans.  Another important issue was the restrictions on recreational access such as the closure of 10 miles of trails and the requirement that all access be confined to the trails that remain.  These are issues with which our readers are familiar, so we won’t elaborate.

Comments based on personal experience with specific “natural areas” seemed most effective.  One fellow said he had participated as a volunteer in several big plantings of native plants in a natural area.  The plants died each time and presently few plants have survived several attempts to “restore” this so-called natural area.  This experience had led this speaker to conclude that attempts to “restore” this park to native plants were futile.

A neighbor of Glen Canyon Park showed pictures of the impact on her neighborhood of the destruction of trees in the park several years ago.  Her neighborhood has lost its windbreak and therefore dust from the bare ground is blowing into their homes.  Their beautiful view of the trees has been replaced by bare ground.

The Natural Areas Program began 20 years ago and has been fully staffed and funded since its inception.  Therefore, it should be judged by what it has accomplished.  It has closed trails, destroyed trees, and built fences.  It has repeatedly destroyed vegetation with herbicides and planted those areas with native plants.  The native plants have died, in some cases several times in 20 years.  In other words, it has little useful to show for 20 years of investment of effort and money.  Since it has not been successful after 20 years, it seems insane to invest another 20 years of money and effort.  Remember that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Support for the Natural Areas Program

We hesitate to use the word “lie” to describe the justifications for the Natural Areas Program, but after listening to hours of testimony by its supporters, we will use that word to describe a few of their claims:

  • The most effective lie is that all the trees they destroy will be replaced with native trees. In fact, no such commitment is made in the management plan, which says explicitly that the natural areas will be converted to grassland and dune scrub.  This “replacement” fiction is mentioned in the EIR.  However, the EIR makes no commitment to planting the replacement trees in the areas or even the same parks where the trees are destroyed.  This important caveat to the commitment to replace the trees was not mentioned by any of the speakers in support of the plans, including NAP’s leadership.  In the case of the 15,000 trees that will be destroyed at Sharp Park, calling those removals anything other than a clear-cut is a lie.
  • Inaccurate descriptions of NAP’s use of herbicides also qualify as lies. The executive director claimed during the hearing that only 2.67 quarts of “active ingredient” were used in the natural areas in 2016. In fact, public records requests inform us that NAP used 1 gallon (4 quarts) of active ingredient from January 2016 to October 2016.  The “active ingredient” is only a fraction of the amount of the formulated product.  The “inert” ingredients in the formulated product are often considered hazardous.  In other words, reporting only the volume of active ingredient underestimates the amount of herbicide being applied.  The number of pesticide applications done by NAP is another way to evaluate the magnitude of pesticides used by NAP.  From January 2016 to October 2016, pesticides were applied in the natural areas 111 times, which is 85% of all pesticide applications in park areas other than Harding Park (which is a golf course maintained to professional competition standards with contractual obligations regarding turf maintenance).  A full report of NAP’s pesticide use is available HERE.

    Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance
    Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance
  • Claims that the forest in the natural areas will be “managed” for forest health are false. The management plan says explicitly that the trees will be removed for the purpose of expanding native plant gardens that require full sun.  These areas will not be “thinned” as supporters claim.  Rather they will be removed along the leading edge of the forest in order to create more unshaded ground for planting native plants.  The health of the trees is not the criterion for their removal.  These tree removals will not benefit the forest.

However, most of the statements made by supporters are not lies.  Rather they are faithful repetitions of an ideology that most of them probably believe.  Here are a few examples:

  • Nativists believe that native animals require native plants. There is no empirical evidence to support that belief.  All empirical studies find equal numbers of insects, birds, amphibians, etc., using non-native plants.
  • Nativists claim that native pollinators require specific native plants. With few exceptions this belief is mistaken.  The monarch butterfly, for example, is as willing and able to use one of the many non-native species of milkweed as it is a native species.  Some butterflies require a specific genus of plant as its host, but a genus is typically composed of hundreds of species of which many are not native.
  • Nativists believe that the immutable relationship between specific animals and specific plants has evolved over “thousands of years.” They are mistaken.  Animals adapt much more quickly to changes in the environment.  Many changes in plants and animals have been observed over a period of years, rather than a period of centuries, let alone millennia.

Many of the supporters of the NAP plans mentioned that native plants would somehow mitigate climate change.  This is a mysterious notion that I cannot explain.  If we are destroying tens of thousands of trees that store tons of carbon, how can we claim this will reduce climate change?  The grassland that is the goal of these “restoration” projects will store a small fraction of the amount of carbon stored by the trees.  Is this absurd claim a reflection of ignorance about carbon storage?  Or is it a strategy intended to confuse the public?  Whatever the motivation, the claim that native plants mitigate climate change is NOT true.

The nativists apparently do not understand that the ranges of native plants and animals have changed in response to changes in the climate and they will continue to change.  They aren’t stopping climate change by planting native plants.  In fact, climate change requires that the concept of “native” be redefined.  That’s why their projects are unrealistic and futile because they are based on a climate that no longer exists.

The epilogue

The San Francisco Forest Alliance has announced its intention to appeal the certification of the Environmental Impact Report to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  This appeal will be heard sometime in 2017.  You will be notified of the hearing if you will subscribe to the Forest Alliance website:  http//

Meanwhile, the Forest Alliance will ask the City of San Francisco to prohibit the use of the most toxic herbicides in the city’s parks.  There will be two public hearings regarding the city’s pesticide policies and practices:

  • Monday, December 19, 2016, 5 pm. This is a public hearing by San Francisco’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program.  Details about that hearing are available HERE.
  • Tuesday, January 24, 2017. The Commission on the Environment will consider the recommendations of the IPM Program at this hearing.  The Forest Alliance will publish the details of that hearing when they are available.

Best Wishes for a BETTER 2017

The certification of the EIR and the approval of the NAP management plan is not the holiday gift that we were hoping for.  In fact, the entire year of 2016 wasn’t much of a gift to those who believe government has an important and valuable job to do.  We look forward to a better year in 2017 and we wish our readers all the best for the New Year.


Saving our Urban Forest: A small step forward

 The San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) has announced (see below) the successful conclusion of a year-long process of developing a policy for the management of San Francisco’s urban forest by the city’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC).  If you have not been closely following the development of this policy it may be difficult to appreciate the importance of this accomplishment. Native plant advocates made every effort to prevent the UFC from adopting a policy that would make a commitment to the preservation of the urban forest.  As our readers know, native plant advocates want the entire urban forest to be destroyed because it is non-native, so they can attempt to recreate native grassland and scrub that existed at the end of the 18th century, prior to the arrival of Europeans. Native plant advocates tried several different strategies to make the case to the UFC for the destruction of the forest.  This is the sequence of the many bogus narratives they attempted to sell to the UFC:

  • They started with the claim that the forest is diseased and dying and must be destroyed.  With the help of arborists and our usual independent research, we were able to disprove this particular story line.
  • Then they claimed that forest health would be improved by radical thinning of the forest.  Again, our research was able to prove that mature forests do not benefit from thinning because mature trees are unable to respond positively to increased light and wind.  The trees that remain are actually more vulnerable to windthrow because they are not adapted to increased wind.
  • Then they claimed that the forest is dying of drought and must be destroyed to prevent the dead trees from becoming a fire hazard.  Again, our research was able to prove that our eucalyptus forest is drought-tolerant and is actually more likely to survive the drought than the native plants which will not precipitate as much fog drip as tall trees.  However, the final document contains an erroneous claim that the drought has “serious negative effects to mature trees.”  In fact, young trees require more water than mature trees.

In December 2014, after listening to six months of these horror stories, it seemed that the UFC was headed in the wrong direction.  Their questions and comments, as well as the meetings we were able to arrange, seemed to indicate they were prepared to endorse the destruction of our urban forest.  In January 2015, the first draft of the UFC policy confirmed our worst fears.  They endorsed “land conversion” from forest to native grassland and scrub and the use of herbicides to prevent the resprouting of the forest.

Having done everything we could to prevent this outcome, we despaired.  And then the UFC produced a revised draft in April 2015 which was a 180-degree turn from the first draft.  We will never know what turned the UFC around, but we surely had a hand in it.  Even if there was some unseen influence operating in the background, our viewpoint was confirmed and vindicated by the final outcome.

The UFC then postponed approval of their document, saying they were waiting for public comments from one of the stakeholders.  I presume this delay was requested by the Recreation and Park Department, because the final revision of the document accommodated its so-called Natural Areas Program by stating that “management priorities and decisions for some of the mature and historic tree stands [within the “natural areas”] may be different from management practices for other areas of the urban forest.”  However, written comments from the Recreation and Park Department were not visible to us.

We are taking the time to tell you about this accomplishment because we hope you will be encouraged by it.  Sometimes the odds seem overwhelmingly against our efforts to save our urban forest.  But with tenacity and commitment, it is possible to prevent bad things from happening.  We are deeply grateful to those who participated in this successful effort to prevent the development of an official city policy that could have endorsed the destruction of our urban forest.

Much remains to be done.  Do not give up hope that we can save our urban forest.  Please renew your commitment to our efforts

SFFA UFC policy

Greetings to SFFA Supporters and Members

This week the Urban Forestry Council of the Dept. of Environment accepted a document now called “Guidelines for Managing Mature and Historic Tree Stands,” which had originally been called “Best Management Practices for Urban Forests.” It was written largely by John Leffingwell of HORT Science who sits on the Council, with assistance from Mei Ling Hui, staff member from Dept. of Environment; John Flanagan, Chair of the Council; and Igor Lacan, who also sits on the Council and works for the San Mateo-San Francisco Cooperative Extension service.

The document went through several iterations, starting back with its first draft in January 2015, which followed six months of meetings and presentations in 2014. By April 2015 it had been completely revised and had moved away from its earlier endorsement of restoration ecology and the native plant agenda of destroying blue gum eucalyptus forests. Unfortunately, it was passed including one section called “Competing Land Use Priorities” that provides a disclaimer for the Natural Areas Program to treat its trees differently than other urban forests in the name of “protecting San Francisco’s ‘remnant fragments’ of its original landscape.” That section could, at some later date, be used by Rec and Park as endorsement of their destructive plans in the Natural Areas.

However, there is much in the document that would mitigate against that destruction, including a section called “Protect and sustain iconic forest stands.” This section argues that our mature and historic tree stands “are character defining features of the city that provide unique experiences to those who enjoy them” and should be “protected and managed for their cultural and social benefits to residents and visitors.” Their importance is “evidenced by community groups formed around the protection and management of these sites” [Note: that would probably mean the SF Forest Alliance and Concerned Citizens for the Maintenance Alternative.] Although this document may not sound important, it is. It will be used as a guideline by the Urban Forestry Council whenever issues or plans related to the urban forests are brought before them. Potentially, the Board of Supervisors might refer to it as well when there is an appeal of the EIR for the Natural Areas Program’s management plan.

It took a year’s worth of volunteer hours from SF Forest Alliance leaders who attended meetings, made comments and presentations. Additionally, others, including Dr. Joe R. McBride and members of the Hills Conservation Network made presentations before the Council supporting our point of view. We see it as a small step in the right direction. 

Thanks for your continued support!

San Francisco Forest Alliance


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“Five Reasons it’s Okay to Love Oxalis – and Stop Poisoning It”

The San Francisco Forest Alliance has published an excellent article about the pointless and harmful attempt to eradicate oxalis in San Francisco’s so-called “natural areas.”  We are grateful to SFFA for their outstanding research and permission to republish the article. 

The oxalis season is over, and the perky yellow flowers have vanished for another year. These Bermuda buttercups will be back next year to herald the spring, bringing joy to those who love them, irritation to those who hate them, and Tier I herbicides targeted at them in San Francisco’s so-called “Natural” Areas.

oxalis 1


These flowers are so visible in spring that Bay Nature magazine did an article about them in March 2015: A Natural History of the Little Yellow Flower that’s Everywhere Right Now. It quoted Jake Sigg, the retired SF Recreation and Parks gardener who is considered the doyen of San Francisco’s native plant movement. He hates oxalis pes caprae, which he considers extremely invasive. The article quotes him as saying that, without intervention, “in X many years Twin Peaks would just be one solid mass of yellow, and there wouldn’t be any other plants there…” The article suggested that an oxalis-dominated  landscape “drives away coyotes, hawks and owls that feed on grassland foragers, and the situation is especially dire for endangered Mission blue butterflies, which depend heavily on native wildflowers.” Most of those ‘facts’ about oxalis are mistaken as we’ll explain below.

Mr Sigg’s theories align with those of the Natural Areas Program (NAP) of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD), which uses the herbicide, Garlon (triclopyr) to battle oxalis despite its dubious efficacy for the purpose.  San Francisco’s Department of the Environment classifies Garlon 4 Ultra as Tier I: Most Hazardous. It’s listed as HIGH PRIORITY TO FIND AN ALTERNATIVE (their caps). Since oxalis is the main reason NAP uses Garlonthe alternative we propose is – don’t use Garlon or anything else on oxalis.

An article on, based on a detailed study by the Marin Municipal Water Department, describes some of the issues with Garlon:

  • Garlon “causes severe birth defects in rats at relatively low levels of exposure.” Baby rats were born with brains outside their skulls, or no eyelids. Exposed adult female rats also had more failed pregnancies.
  • Rat and dog studies showed damage to the kidneys, the liver, and the blood.
  • About 1-2% of Garlon falling on human skin is absorbed within a day. For rodents, it is absorbed twelve times as fast. It’s unclear what happens to predators such as hawks that eat the affected rodents.
  • Dogs  may be particularly vulnerable; their kidneys may not be able to handle Garlon as well as rats or humans.  Dow Chemical objected when the Environmental Protection Agency noted decreased red-dye excretion as an adverse effect, so now it’s just listed as an “effect.”
  • It very probably alters soil biology. “Garlon 4 can inhibit growth in the mycorrhizal fungi…” (soil funguses that help plant nutrition)
  • It’s particularly dangerous to aquatic creatures: fish (particularly salmon); invertebrates; and aquatic plants.
  • Garlon can persist in dead vegetation for up to two years.
Natural Areas Program uses Garlon on oxalis
Natural Areas Program uses Garlon on oxalis

First, a little about the actual natural history of oxalis. This plant doesn’t set seed in California, and spreads entirely by sending out roots and forming little bulbils (like tiny potatoes) underground. It’s usually found where the soil has been disturbed by activities such as road-building, gardening, or trail-building. In some cases, the disturbance comes from landslides or something similar. It can’t stand frost. If we do nothing, it would tend to die down rather than spreading uncontrollably.

In disturbed landscapes, it can spread fast. For this reason it can be a nuisance in gardens. People don’t want to leave their gardens alone for years to let nature take its course with the oxalis, and not every garden design includes brilliant yellow as the dominant color for a few weeks. The only way to eradicate it in the short term is to dig it out carefully every time you see it, and make sure you get most of the bulbils. Or use strong herbicides, which may not work.

In a natural landscape, though, it’s a different story and here’s why.


Honeybee on oxalis flower
Honeybee on oxalis flower

Oxalis is actually an excellent plant for bees and butterflies.  When blooming, it provides “copious nectar.” In fact, it generously gives away its nectar. Since it doesn’t set seed, it doesn’t benefit from pollinators – but it’s a food source for honey bees, bumblebees and butterflies. (You can read a rather technical description of the plant HERE in a 2-page PDF note from UCLA’s Barry A. Prigge and Arthur C. Gibson.)

Bumblebee on oxalis flower
Bumblebee on oxalis flower

In fact, a recent 2014 study shows that plant communities with exotic plants had more plant species as well as more pollinators, that pollinators didn’t prefer native plants, and that even some specialist pollinators depended on introduced plant species.

It’s true the Mission Blue butterfly needs (native) lupine as its nursery plant. (It doesn’t depend on any other native wildflowers – only three varieties of lupine.  Incidentally, one of the key nectar sources for the Mission Blue butterfly is an invasive non-native Italian thistle: Carduus pycnocephalus).

Butterfly on oxalis flower
Butterfly on oxalis flower

Lupine has been planted on Twin Peaks as NAP attempts to reintroduce the Mission Blue butterfly there. But lupine is also a plant of disturbed areas, which means that NAP must maintain it or it will die out as the area stabilizes. They have to keep planting it, weeding, and trimming the grass around the lupine patches to make it attractive to the butterfly. An SFRPD report on the reintroduction project said “unmanaged habitat deteriorates quickly.” Presumably, they don’t use Garlon near the lupine patches, since it would likely kill that too. Despite what is implied in the Bay Nature article, it’s not oxalis that’s the issue. The real problem is another native plant, the coyote bush which takes over grasslands in a natural succession.


Oxalis bulbils are a food source for wildlife. Gophers and other rodents eat them. In fact, the Bay Nature article says, “Their spread is abetted by pocket gophers and scrub jays, which have been spotted carrying the bulbs and caching them in the ground—effectively planting them in new areas.”

Since gophers are a foundation species in the food web, being dinner for predators from hawks to coyotes to great blue herons, these plants actually provide habitat benefits whether or not they’re flowering, because the bulbils are there all year.

oxalis 6

Where there are gophers, the predators follow. Like the coyotes in these pictures, which clearly haven’t been driven away by a landscape dominated by oxalis.

coyote pouncing in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler
coyote pouncing in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler
coyote in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler
coyote in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler


The article says that oxalis leaves “bare ground during the six months of the year oxalis doesn’t flower.” That’s not true either.

oxalis 9

oxalis 10The spectacular yellow bloom of the oxalis – valuable because the mass of color attracts honey bees and bumblebees – gives the impression that it’s the only plant there.  But though it visually takes over the landscape when it’s in bloom, it naturally grows interspersed with grasses and other plants. Like in the picture above.

In fact, oxalis tends to enrich the soil with phosphorus, which is good for grass.

So when it finishes blooming, as it has by now – you don’t get bare ground. The picture below shows the same area as the first picture in this article – but it’s after the oxalis bloom is over. It’s grassland.

oxalis 11


One argument – related  to the ‘bare ground’ argument – is that oxalis takes over grasslands and destroys them, particularly the native grasses. However, grasslands in most of California including San Francisco are dominated by non-native grasses. The change occurred over 100 years ago, when these grasses were planted for pasture. So the grassland that NAP is defending with herbicides is primarily non-native anyway.

oxalis 12

But anyway, what’s the evidence that oxalis is actually damaging native plants?

It’s true some European studies do suggest that an increase in oxalis is associated with a decrease in native plants diversity –though whether it’s a cause is unclear. It may just be benefiting from human activities that disrupt the landscape. Another study put oxalis head-to-head with a native annual grass, lolium rigidum. The native grass tended to dominate. Their conclusion: “Oxalis is a poor competitor. This is consistent with the preferential distribution of Oxalis in disturbed areas such as ruderal habitats, and might explain its low influence on the cover of native species in invaded sites.

The California Invasive Plant Council rates its invasiveness as “moderate,” considering it as somewhat invasive in sand dunes and less so in coastal bluff areas.

In San Francisco, every place where oxalis grows is already a disturbed environment, a mix of non-native grasses and plants with native plants (some of which have been artificially planted).  Here,  oxalis appears to grow happily with other plants – including, for instance, the native California poppy in the picture above.


Children love oxalis, both for its pretty flower and for the sour taste of its edible stems.

oxalis 13

oxalis 14Even small children love gathering posies of Bermuda buttercups (though picking flowers is technically prohibited in Natural Areas). The flowers are surprisingly hardy for wildflowers, and in a glass of water last quite well as cut-flowers.

The plant is edible, and its tart leaves make a nice addition to salad. People enjoy snacking on its sour stems. Besides Bermuda buttercup, it’s also called ‘sourgrass’ and ‘soursob.’ It does contain oxalic acid (as does spinach, for instance), and so you probably wouldn’t want to make a meal of it. Though in South Africa it’s made into soup.

Adding Garlon to it is probably a bad thing.

Photo credit: Badjonni (Creative Commons – Flickr)
Photo credit: Badjonni (Creative Commons – Flickr)


From our current evidence, there’s no sign that oxalis has a negative impact on wildlife, and plenty of evidence it’s already part of the ecological food web of our city.  The evidence also suggests it’s not having a negative effect on other plants in San Francisco either. Lots of people find this flower attractive; one writer described it as the city smiling with Bermuda buttercups.

In any case, even Doug Johnson of the California Invasive Plant Council doesn’t think it’s worth attacking at a landscape level: the payoff isn’t worth the expense. Removing it from the hundreds of acres in Natural Areas isn’t as simple as eradicating it from a small yard where it’s clashing with the garden design. It requires a lot of work, a lot of powerful herbicides, a multi-year effort – and for what?

The justification for using strong pesticides like Garlon to control it is weak. We call on NAP to stop using Tier I and Tier II herbicides altogether.


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.

The valuable functions performed by our urban forests

We are reprinting, with permission, an article on the website of the San Francisco Forest Alliance about the many ecological functions performed by our urban forests and the plans of the Natural Areas Program to destroy over 18,500 mature, healthy trees.  Please visit the website of the Forest Alliance to read about their efforts to save the urban forest in San Francisco from needless destruction.    


Urban trees are hugely important, not just for their beauty, but for environmental reasons. The [Natural Areas Program’s] NAP’s SNRAMP plans to cut down 18,500 trees (and a whole lot more under 15 feet in height, plus whatever is lost to wind-throw when the wind-break of the other trees is gone).

Source: USDA Report, Assessing Urban Forests Effects and Values, 2007

What are these 18,500++ trees doing for us? Here are nine ways in which urban forests help us.

  • The Nature Conservancy's Carbon equivalence graphic

    Storing Carbon. Trees store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. The bigger the tree, the more it stores. CLICK HERE for a 3-minute video from the Nature Conservancy about the carbon stored by a red oak tree that’s 18 inches in diameter. Eucalyptus may store even more, because it grows taller than a red oak and is more dense (Eucalyptus, around 50 lbs/cu ft; red oak, about 41).

  • Providing Oxygen. Trees produce more oxygen than they use. When they’re felled, they decay and use oxygen instead of making it.
  • Trapping and removing air pollution. Tree leaves capture air pollution, and help clean our air. The trapped pollution stays on the leaves or falls to the ground – where we don’t have to breathe it.
Golden Gate Park - in the beginning (abt 1880)
  • A windbreak. In its pre-European state, San Francisco was a place of windblown sand that got into everything from railway tracks to people’s lungs. With a city and a major park atop the former dunes, we don’t have to worry about sand so much, but the wind still sweeps across our city. The eucalyptus forests and other trees act as a windbreak, and improve the micro-climates not only of the forest, but of surrounding areas.
  • Buffering noise. Trees absorb sound, in much the way that fabrics and soft materials do. Once they’re felled, everything becomes noisier. Thinning a forest lets in the sounds of the city and its traffic. When Laguna Honda Hospital felled some 200 trees in conjunction with its new building, neighbors in Forest Knolls and Midtown Terrace noticed increased noise.
  • Slowing runoff. When it rains, the roots of the trees, and the duff made by their shed leaves and the understory beneath them, soaks it up like a sponge. Then it slowly lets it out again, allowing plants and vegetation to use it over time, replenishing ground water, and fighting erosion. (If you want to see the difference – drive by Christopher, below Mount Sutro, during heavy rain – and then drive up Twin Peaks Boulevard. The latter’s like a river when it’s pouring.) [See “Rainfall Interception” data from USDA]
  • Preventing erosion. Many of these trees grow on very steep slopes, and below them are our neighborhoods. Their roots function now like a geo-textile, holding the slopes in place – particularly in forest areas, where the roots are intermeshed and intergrafted. On Twin Peaks, where the vegetation is thinner, landslips occur every season of heavy rain. In Forest Knolls, clearing of slopes below the houses has resulted in landslides requiring months of tarping to stabilize them. This is a particularly insidious problem; it may take 6-8 years for the root system to die and decay, and by then the homeowner may not even know or recall that trees once held the slope together.
  • Provide habitat. Trees provide cover, places to perch and hide, and food by way of nectar and leaves and the insects attracted to the trees. Eucalyptus, in particular, flowers in winter providing nectar for bees, butterflies, and birds – and attracting birds that prey on these insects. It’s a nesting site for owls and hawks and feral bees, and a hunting ground for birds small and large. Our city would have far fewer birds, animals, and bees without these trees.
  • Boost property values. People like trees. Homes near forested areas are valued by owners and potential buyers. Realtors often mention these settings in their listings. Some studies show mature trees nearby can add up to 30% to property values.

Can the native plant ideology be defended with name-calling?

On Monday, March 26, 2012, the San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) gave a presentation to a neighborhood association in San Francisco about the Natural Areas Program.   SFFA expressed its objection to the destruction of healthy non-native trees and vegetation which is useful to wildlife, the use of pesticides, and the closure of trails in the so-called “natural areas” as well as the money being spent on these destructive projects. 

Park Bathroom Paradox. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

Jake Sigg, one of the leading proponents of native plant “restorations” in San Francisco was invited by the neighborhood association to give a rebuttal.  For some reason that remains mysterious, Mr. Sigg chose to speak exclusively about Mt. Sutro which is not owned or managed by the Natural Areas Program.  Therefore, there was a bit of a disconnect in these two presentations, with the common theme being only the destruction of non-native trees for the purpose of restoring native plants.

During his presentation, Mr. Sigg said that SFFA’s presentation was “disinformation” and/or “nonsense.”  However, he provided no specific examples of these misdeeds, so SFFA is unable to respond to these accusations.

The following day, March 27, Mr. Sigg published an exchange about the SFFA presentation with one of his fans on his internet blog, “Nature News from Jake Sigg.”  Mr. Sigg’s fan said he “…was so aghast at this evening’s display of ignorance and mendacity…”  And Mr. Sigg agreed:   “The ignorance and ill will of the Forest Alliance was on full view for anyone caring to look.  The cherry-picking of facts, the distortions and outright lies were transparent.”

The presentation by the Forest Alliance was based on public documents and nothing was said that could not be documented by the public record.  So, naturally SFFA was mystified by these accusations.  SFFA allies wanted to know if the SFFA presentation contained any factual errors, so they asked Mr. Sigg, “What were the ‘outright lies?’”

Mr. Sigg responded to the question, but not with an answer:  “I don’t have any reason for answering this, as I’m time-short…”  In addition to being busy, Mr. Sigg wasn’t really in a position to answer the question because he admitted that he hadn’t listened to the presentation:  “I listened to the presentation for the first five minutes, then decided my time was better spent tightening up my talk outline; there wasn’t enough substance to make listening worthwhile.”

The accusation of lying, and the refusal to be specific about it, is particularly ironic because of Mr. Sigg’s plea during his presentation that “demonizing the other side is not leading to accommodation or understanding.”  On this we can agree.  Calling people liars and refusing to tell them specifically what you think they are lying about, is clearly not leading to “accommodation and understanding.”