“Natural Areas Program” Restricts Access

When people hear “Natural Areas” they often have visions of wild areas where trails wind their way through rampant plants, and you can bushwhack your way into interesting nooks and discoveries. Maybe there are wild berries or flowers to be plucked, maybe a tree or a rock formation a kid can climb,  a clearing where a fallen tree makes a balance-beam or a rope can be tied to a branch for a swing. When people hear about “Trail restoration” they think maybe some fallen trees will be moved aside, some bushes trimmed back, eroded areas filled in and stabilized.

That’s not the plan laid out by SF Recreation and Parks Department’s Natural Areas Program.  Instead, they plan to restrict access in a number of ways.


The plan calls for removing or “relocating” ten miles of trails, and adding only one mile of new trail – not necessarily in the same park where trails are closed. (The table at the bottom of this post has the list by park.) The trails being closed are “social trails” – the ones that exist because people use them.

Trail restrictions are also being used to deny access to park features people love, like rocks they climb on. For example, from the Plan for Glen Canyon calls for:

“…closing social trails to the northwestern rock outcrop in Glen Canyon Park, discontinuing rock climbing, and closing social trails in O’Shaughnessy Hollow.”


For most adults who are jogging or walking through a park, it seems like a reasonable request: Stay on the trails. For a child, it’s meaningless. A trail offers no real chance of exploration or engaging with the environment. (And it’s not just kids. When we presented this to a group of people, several said, Wait, I like to wander off the trail sometimes…)

So what happens when a natural area becomes a “Natural Area” ?

A whole bunch of rules, starting with “Stay on Designated Trails.”

On Mount Davidson, someone told us, there used to be a big sign saying “Welcome to Mount Davidson Park.” It made you feel that it was an area for recreation, that belonged to everyone. That sign is gone, victim to time and vandals. “When the Natural Areas Program came in and put up a sign,” she said, “I thought maybe they’d put up the Welcome sign again. Instead, there’s this strict list of rules.”

By restricting access only to trails, a 10-acre park can be reduced effectively to a 0.25-acre park – the narrow area of the actual trail.


Perhaps the most frequent users of natural areas are people with dogs. After all, a dog needs to get out of the house at least a couple of times a day, and their people go with them. Ideally, they need some time off their leashes, when they can play and explore.

But once these areas aren’t natural but instead “Natural” – they start to close dog-play areas. The Plan calls for removing 20% of the areas immediately, and putting another 60% on a watch-list for possible closure (that’s the column of “Maybe’d” areas in the table below).

Of course this is important to dog-owners, and particularly to people who feel more secure walking along if they have a dog with them – older people, for instance, or a mom with small children.

But this doesn’t affect only dog-owners. For other users of parks, especially those who use them on weekdays and during the daytime, it’s important to know that the park won’t be deserted when you get there. Having other people around adds to the feeling of safety in the park. Typically, especially at off-peak times, the people who are out there are walking their dogs. The dog-walkers are also the people who are most familiar with the parks, who can see if there’s something unusual happening.  Dogs in our parks means eyes in our parks.


[Edited to Add (15 Mar 2012): The table above has been corrected to remove a typo.]

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6 Responses to “Natural Areas Program” Restricts Access

  1. Karen says:

    We should have a campaign to contact our Board of Supervisors Rep and complain about this. Maybe pick a certain day. Arbor Day is April 27th this year, if we want to wait that long. Earth Day is April 22nd. Certainly that week we should be raising the issue prominently with our elected officials.
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  2. william pattengill says:

    NAP sounds like ivory-tower science out of touch with the realities of urban life. Parks are for people and pets, not for re-creations of pre-civilization landscapes only of interest to botanists.

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