S.F. residents battling plant lovers
Little-known group chopping down trees
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco -- It doesn't take much for things in San Francisco to get out of balance, given that the city has been off-center for about 150 years.
But when you throw extremists into the mix, things get rocky pretty quickly, especially when you're talking about a conflict between shrub saviors and tree lovers. In some cities that might result in friction. Here in Ecotopia it means war.
This will help explain why a heretofore little-known city group that toils under the name of the Natural Areas Program now has a bull's-eye on its back. In the past few months it has stirred up the most controversy at the Recreation and Park Department since the mayor and a certain columnist butted heads over homeless encampments in Golden Gate Park.
The Natural Areas Program is a division of the Rec and Park Department that is charged with preserving native plants and other unique vegetation within the sprawling confines of the city's green spaces. It was created five years ago with the primary goal of restoring native habitats, but has veered off into all sorts of misadventures since then -- including, in some cases, the destruction of groves of trees that it took to be interfering with the precious native plants the program has vowed to protect.
Even more alarming, according to environmental groups, is that the program has carried out its mission with almost no input from the public, even though a citizens advisory group was supposed to have been attached to the program when it was formed in 1997. It probably won't surprise you to learn that the program's most active staffers and volunteers are zealous native plant enthusiasts who see eucalyptus, Monterey pines and cypress trees as evil invaders that should be uprooted to make way for sand dunes, grasslands and other plant habitats that they prefer.
Sound familiar? That's because the same type of myopia is inspiring the federal government's plan to remove nearly 4,000 "non-native" trees along the western edge of the Presidio to make more room for the tiny lessingia plant, which carries the more descriptive common name of vinegarweed.
In that case, at least, the proposal has received lots of attention. But the Natural Areas Program came on the radar screen only after it decided to cut down close to 1,000 trees and saplings on Bayview Hill near Candlestick Park last year as part of a habitat restoration project. Then it was discovered that the program has hopes of including 1,000 to 1,500 acres of city's parkland in its projects -- nearly one-third of all the green space in San Francisco.
"The program is a small special-interest group that has been affecting city policy and misinforming the public by using words like preservation and restoration when they're actually removing acres of trees," said Carolyn Blair,
director of the San Francisco Tree Council. "If more people knew about some of the work they've carried out, they'd be outraged."
The uproar over the program began about six months ago when it was discovered that a number of gardeners and volunteers in the program were actually girdling scores of trees -- cutting them with axes and chain saws in such a way that they would ultimately die. This came to light only after gardeners in the Natural Areas Program were forced to admit that they had girdled a number of mature trees near Lake Merced. In the past few years, forested areas from Tank Hill near the University of California at San Francisco to McLaren Park and Mount Davidson have suffered similar damage, though in those cases it's unclear who was responsible.
On Tank Hill, residents rallied to stop any more eucalyptus trees from being removed by the Natural Areas Program -- going so far as to form a neighborhood association to monitor the park.
Complaints from other neighborhoods have brought the first changes to the Natural Areas Program since it started -- this week, the first letters inviting public participation and review will be sent out to various organizations, said Elizabeth Goldstein, the Recreation and Park Department's general manager.
"The Natural Areas Program is just one of many things that we do," Goldstein said. "We're trying to maintain balance and modulation for all kinds of park use and this is an important part of it.
"This is an extraordinary ecological environment that we live in, and to throw out protection of this unique environment would be to throw the baby out with the bath water," Goldstein said. "It is right and fair for the citizens of San Francisco to protect the natural environment, and that's what we're doing here."
A citizens advisory panel is certainly a step in the right direction, though time will tell how much influence it will have on a program that until now has decided on its own what's best for many of the forested areas around San Francisco. It certainly hasn't helped that at least one of the program's most active volunteers has been cited by police for illegally cutting down trees in the past, or that one of its consultants testified at meetings in support of the Natural Areas Program without announcing that he was working for it.
That's not the kind of balance that's needed in dealing with the city's parks -- especially in a town desperate for more active recreation areas. There's plenty of space available to do a number of small-scale restoration projects and to maintain important habitats like native oak woodlands. But 1, 000-plus acres worth? That's an ideal that needs to be felled like a dead eucalyptus.
That's the problem with true (botanical) believers -- only when they're shivering in the wind after they've returned their world back to sand dunes will they realize why someone planted all those trees.
You can reach Ken Garcia at (415) 777-7152 or e-mail him at [email protected].