"Tree killers" identified!
Recreation and Park Department gardeners found to be the guilty parties
By Tiffany Maleshefski
November 27, 2001
The Recreation and Park Department thought it might have a serial tree killer on its hands.
But as it turns out, according to a statement released by the department Friday, the destruction of several trees in the city is the result of an authorized inside job — one that officials say is environmentally justified. Approximately 10 trees — some of them 60 to 70 years old — have been destroyed in a heavily vegetated area near Lake Merced.
In a press statement, Recreation and Park Department general manager Elizabeth Goldstein said the department was working to improve communication among representatives of its Integrated Pest Management, Urban Forestry, and Natural Areas Program divisions to avoid miscommunication and conflict over tree removals.
But Kelly Cornell, tree crew and reforestation supervisor for the Recreation and Park Department, and Amber Rosenberg, communications director for the Neighborhood Parks Council, say that this is not the first time that they had been notified of planned tree removals only after the fact.
Some cases, they say, remain a mystery in terms of whether the trees were destroyed with authorization or were victims of vandalism.
Cornell said that on October 18 he found several trees that had been hacked with a chain saw around the circumference of their trunk — a practice known as "girdling," which cuts off the life source of the tree. A handful of other trees, according to Cornell, appeared to have been fatally drenched with pesticides, apparently the result of a sloppy administration of the department’s Integrated Pest Management policy.
"This has been going on for far too long," said Cornell, who has dealt with tree vandalism in the city for about a decade.
In the past, the department pointed fingers at vigilant native-plant activists, whose goal is to restore San Francisco’s vegetation to its original state, which is believed to have consisted of shrubs and low bushes such as those found in the Marin Headlands.
Cornell said the way in which the trees were girdled and the fact that they were found in areas not traversed by regular parkgoers — in a densely vegetated area near Lake Merced, known as the Mesa — showed that the tree killers knew what they were doing.
That belief has proven correct. The department’s Natural Areas Program is authorized to use such measures to remove trees, even though critics such as Rosenberg call it “violent.” "They are killing healthy trees — we don’t have [enough] healthy trees in the city," Rosenberg said.
Maintaining a balance
Debate exists, however, as to whether the killing of some species of trees is an act of wrongful death or the means to a desired end — that of achieving ecological balance in the city's vegetation landscape. Cornell and Rosenberg say that native-plant preservationists and tree preservationists are often on opposite sides in this debate.
Even within the Department of Recreation and Parks, Cornell suggested, there may be conflict between the Urban Forestry Division and the Natural Areas Program. Lisa Wayne, director of the Natural Areas Program, said that in the past her division had authorized the removal of trees described as not having "natural checks to their population" and having an "unfair advantage" over plants native to the area.
Trees previously authorized for removal by the program include Monterey cypresses, Monterey pines, and eucalyptuses, which are not native to San Francisco and are considered among the most invasive plant species in the city. Those are the same types of trees that have been victims of the ongoing vandalism, say Cornell and Rosenberg.
Prior to the release of Friday’s statement, Wayne said that the Natural Areas Program had recently conducted "experimentation on trees" related to the Recreation and Park Department's Integrated Pest Management policy. In regard to the recent tree-killing incidents, she said last week that she couldn’t confirm whether the tree removals had been authorized.
The kind of girdling discovered by Cornell, according to Wayne, has been a policy employed by her division to remove trees that have taken over an area of San Francisco greenery. The mission of the Natural Areas Program is to promote the restoration of San Francisco plant species that have not been able to thrive because of invasive trees such as Monterey pines and cypresses, which "take over landscapes," according to Wayne. Wayne said the program had removed trees that "provide no value for wildlife" and hamper the ability of thousands of native plants and animals to flourish. She said that a promotional campaign was needed to educate the public in terms of perception versus reality in regard to what a natural area truly is.
"There is a lot of admiration for big trees and big plants," said Wayne. "But San Francisco was a treeless place. It used to look like the Marin Headlands — scrub grasslands —and it’s really beautiful."
Neighborhoods want trees
Regardless of what San Francisco may have looked like in the past, Carolyn Blair, executive director of the San Francisco Tree Council, says that native-plant and tree groups must work together to preserve San Francisco’s ecology and that trees are part of that picture.
"The Tree Council is working with the [Natural Areas Program] where they don’t go and cut down healthy mature trees," said Blair. Blair believes that some San Francisco residents cherish the trees that have been introduced to the city and do not wish their neighborhoods to look the way they did more than a century ago. "In 1870 there were only six types of plant species," said Blair.
Additionally, Blair said she believed that the tree killings had occurred more frequently than the public realized.
Wayne, however, says that the Natural Areas Program’s policy is to post notices of impending tree removals before the trees are destroyed.
"If we are stripped of the green canopy that we need," said Blair, "we are ... left [with] a windy desolate area that is inhospitable."
Anyone who sees suspicious behavior relating to the destruction of trees is encouraged to report it to the Recreation and Park Department. To do so, call Elizabeth Goldstein, general manager, at 831-2701; call Dan McKenna, superintendent, at 831-2745; fax comments to 221-8034; or send letters to McLaren Lodge, Golden Gate Park, 501 Stanyan Street, San Francisco CA 94117. Residents may also contact Gordon Chin, president of the Recreation and Park Commission, at 831-2750; or the Mayor’s Office at 554-6141.