Refuting Allegations – and a Candidate who “Gets It.”

One of the organizations that support the Natural Areas Program is called, ironically, “Nature in the City” (NIC). In a recent newsletter, they accused opponents of the NAP  “a handful of people” who were “still propagating misinformation.” Before we could respond, we saw this excellent riposte in “Death of a Million Trees.”  It’s reprinted below by permission, with minor changes.

Certainly, we’re finding a groundswell of opinion against NAP‘s so-called “ecological restoration”, which has actually meant a loss of trees and habitat, a growing use of the strongest pesticides San Francisco permits on city-owned land, and restrictions on public access and useat a cost of millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours that could have better been used elsewhere.  This is the “celebrated” program NIC refers to.

One candidate for supervisor, Joel Engardio, considers this an important enough issue that he’s running on it: See his video here:

If you’re interested in NIC’s allegations and the reality – read on!

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Response to “Nature in the City”

from Death of a Million Trees

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 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[i] 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 3 to 1.  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[ii] 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 steward@natureinthecity.org 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?

[i] Save Sutro Forest, Urban Wildness, San Francisco Forest Alliance, Death of a Million Trees

[ii] “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.

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