Trees Matter: Mc Laren Park and Environmental Justice

This is one of our park visitor posts, written by a neighbor of McLaren Park. The Natural Areas Program targets over 800 trees in McLaren Park for destruction.


My San Francisco neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by freeways. Interstates 101 and 280 are busy spewing exhaust all day and most of the night. Breezes and fog from the ocean help dissipate some of the smog, but on windless days the air hangs heavy and dense. The only thing saving our air quality is the trees.

The Excelsior is not your typical rich San Francisco neighborhood. It is mostly families and working class folks. The tech buses have not found their way down our streets and our main retail corridor is filled with nail salons, dollar stores, pot clubs, and boarded up storefronts. Despite having nearly 40,000 residents, sometimes it feels like we are a forgotten neighborhood. Tourist maps often omit the entire south end of San Francisco and visitors have been known to ask whether they are still in The City.

The wealthier a neighborhood, the more trees it has. Rich people have trees, poor people get cement. This is especially true in the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, and the Portola, where the single-family homes are modest and many front yards are paved over and littered with old cars. Our sidewalks are “tree poor” compared to wealthy Noe Valley and posh Pacific Heights. But the working class neighborhoods on the southeast side of San Francisco have one thing going for them : McLaren Park.

McLaren Park San Francisco copyright Ren Volpe

McLaren Park is the second biggest park in San Francisco, after Golden Gate Park. It is as wild and isolated as Golden Gate Park is manicured and visited. It is possible to hike miles of trails without seeing another person. I have seen foxes, coyotes, red-tail hawks, and great horned owls on my daily walks. In many parts of the park birdsong drowns out the constant drone of the freeways and the tree canopy blocks the cityscape. McLaren is our little piece of paradise in this urban corner of the City.

McLaren Park sunrise copyright Ren Volpe in San FranciscoRecently I found out that San Francisco’s Rec and Park Department has big plans for this urban oasis: the Natural Areas Program. The plan calls for cutting down many hundreds of healthy trees in an attempt to recreate the native scrubland that existed in the 1700’s. The trees slated for removal are not only eucalyptus, but mature and healthy Monterey Pine and Cypress, among others. Millions of our tax dollars have already been spent on this boondoggle, while maintenance in our park is practically nonexistent.

The “Natural Areas Plan” claims about ⅓ of San Francisco’s city parks, but Rec and Park’s biggest conquest yet may be McLaren Park. Could it be because the southeast corner of the city is the least rich, the least white, and the least likely to oppose this butchering? Almost 50% of the population in adjacent neighborhoods are foreign-born and speak english as a second language. People on this side of town don’t have the same political clout and connections as those living in wealthier neighborhoods. Even chopping down dying trees in other parts of the city creates a community uproar. When it comes to environmental justice, our hood is just not rich enough and not white enough.

Trees clean the air, absorb traffic noise, and provide respite from our hectic city lives. As the Bay Area becomes more populated, we all need more access to public green space. John McLaren created the park in 1927 in order to save the area from development. Now we have to save it from clearcutting.

McLaren was originally mostly coastal shrubland. Three-quarters of lush Golden Gate Park was originally sand dunes. Sutro Forest was desolate, sandy and wind whipped. Whether you agree with “native plant restoration”, the bigger question here is, should a beautiful yet neglected city park surrounded by freeways and adjacent to tree-poor neighborhoods be slated for such a project?

san francisco sand dunes

Sand dunes in Golden Gate Park – source:

SF Rec and Park maintain that they just don’t have enough money to pay for proper garbage cans and trash pick ups, trail and tree maintenance, repairing crumbling playgrounds, and other upgrades that McLaren desperately needs. But the department apparently has enough money for spraying cancer-causing herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup), cutting down healthy trees, and fencing off large parts of our park to visitors. The Natural Areas Program may have a different budget category within the Rec and Park department, but it all comes from our tax money.

Our city and our neighborhoods need more trees, not less. San Francisco has the smallest tree canopy of any major U.S. city. Poor children and children who live near freeways have higher rates of asthma, and studies show that a dense urban tree canopy can decrease these high rates of childhood asthma. Children in the southeastern part of San Francisco have the highest asthma rates in the city, and all the residents this side of town on experience high rates of air pollution.

Graph showing urban tree canopy cover in major US cities

San Francisco Has the Least Canopy Cover of any Major US City (data source:

Tree-filled parks don’t just beautify our neighborhoods, they also improve our psychological well-being. Green urban neighborhoods with plenty of trees actually improve our health, according to several recent studies. Our 49 square-mile city is the second densest in the country, right behind New York. Attempting to return large swaths of our urban parks into the treeless landscape that they once were doesn’t make sense in present day San Francisco. Urban trees do more than just improve air quality; they improve our quality of life. Living in a city can be stressful, hectic, and cramped. We all need access to open, public, forested green space.

McLaren Park's Flowered Grassland and Forest

McLaren Park’s Flowered Grassland and Forest

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7 Responses to Trees Matter: Mc Laren Park and Environmental Justice

  1. tstar says:

    We need all of our trees – especially those in the City parks. Our ability to breathe clean air depends on it.

  2. zangsf says:

    SF Rec & Park cries poor… always asking voters for Park Bond approvals. Yet SF park spending is the 5th highest in the nation, according to the Trust for Public Land City Facts Report 2015. Until Phil Ginsburg, the mismanager of our beautiful parks is fired, no more money should be approved. Hiring public relations people to privatize our parks, while firing park directors and gardeners is his rule. Our kids and the environment have suffered long enough under his rule.
    See Page 20 at

  3. pilar woodman says:

    you really need to include suggestions for ways people can get involved and email addresses and phone numbers people can write to and call to protest if you really want to be effective in rallying support to save mclaren park’s trees

    [SFForest: Thanks for the reminder. Please write to the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the SF Recreation and Parks Commission, and also sign our petition? Here’s the link to our ‘political action’ page: ]

  4. emily p says:

    I back you up completely as an Excelsior resident who walks in McLaren Park all the time and appreciates all the trees every waking moment. What about creating a petition through

    [SFForest: We do have a petition about trees, habitat, pesticides and access in Natural Areas, here:
    But if you or anyone else would like to start one specifically for McLaren Park, we’d be happy to publicize it.]

  5. tonyboySF says:

    Where there may have originally been no trees, the idea of removing non native species of trees ignores reality, and the real benefits of just leaving them alone! Too many MBAs and PhDs require something to do to justify their overly generous S.F. Rec & Park salaries?

  6. Mike Olinger says:

    There’s already a great community group in place, the McLaren Park Collaborative, that folks can get involved with. It’s a group of residents from the communities that surround the park, and it has been in place for several years. Look for the mclarenparkcollaborative google group.

  7. kensanfran says:

    The 800 trees that might be cut according to the McLaren Park SNRAMP amount to about one out of 20 trees in the park, which is about as far from “clear-cutting” as you can get.

    [SFForest: Ken, Thanks for your thoughtful comment and sorry it fell between the cracks until now. Our responses are in square brackets. If the 800 trees are in concentrated areas, that *would* be clear cutting. Otherwise, you could define away clear-cutting by describing it as, say, a percentage of trees in a state or country or planet.]

    Take the park back to the 1700’s? No, from my estimation after studying aerial photos and other historical data on the park, at most our tree cover might be taken back to about 1985, and that’s over a period of the 20-year plan. The McLaren Park natural areas plan clearly and plainly calls for maintaining a healthy mix of different types of habitat, including maintaining practically all the existing “exotic mixed forest” in MA2 and MA3 areas. Where the plan calls for cutting any trees at all, it’s pretty much where they have been slowly but surely creeping into the park’s last remaining MA1 grasslands.

    [Actually, there’s no evidence that the trees are spreading. They’re growing where they are planted. The SNRAMP does call for cutting down over 800 trees.]

    THIS is what we should all be concerned about, and what the plan is largely concerned with. NOT “recreating a landscape that once existed”, but on saving the very last little scraps of original California grasslands and mixed scrub that we have left in this most dense urban area. Yes, San Francisco is woefully behind many other cities in urban tree cover, but the natural areas plan for McLaren Park affects that total number by a vanishingly small percentage. The real opportunity is for loads more street trees of many different kinds all over the City (which is the real environmental justice angle), for which I often commend FUF’s activities.

    [These are not original California grasslands – those are long gone. Most of these grasses are non-native. According to the SNRAMP, 84 acres out of 90 acres of grassland is non-native grass, so it can hardly be considered a ‘remnant.’ (ETA: Trying to convert to non-native grasses to native grasses has been very unsuccessful, as reported here: ) We applaud FUF too, but planting 50 street trees while removing 800 park trees is barely the point.]

    No, the real screamer headline is that McLaren contains basically the very last open grasslands in the City’s parks department, that can only be recreated with great difficulty once overtaken by forest. And these last remaining grasslands and meadows are slowly but surely getting overtaken by a number of threats, of which aggressive tree growth in some spots is only one.

    [Grasslands don’t get overtaken by forest initially. There’s no “aggressive tree growth” – only efforts to destroy the trees. Grasslands typically get overtaken by scrub – including native scrub – in natural succession. What the SNRAMP is trying to do is halt natural succession. The grasslands of old were preserved by Native Americans who extensively managed the land, using fire to stop natural succession where it suited their needs. They didn’t manage it for biodiversity, they managed it as a resource, promoting the growth of species that were useful to them.]

    Yes these grasslands would be defined as “highly disturbed” compared to more pristine national park type territories, they’ve been ranched and farmed in some spots, and heavily trodden by humans overall, but they still contain a rich diverse habitat for wildlife, loads of native wildflowers and other grassland-only plants (even some invasive ones!) that support, overall, more diverse and healthier wildlife population in the park.

    [No one suggests planting trees in the meadows of naturalized grasses. Our problem is with cutting down hundreds of trees and using toxic herbicides to create “remnant grasslands.” Forests have their own biodiversity and trees provide habitat for hundreds of species.]

    As for air pollution, urban tree cover in New York City, where it is twice what it is here, is estimated by researchers to reduce pollution at best by a one percent effect.

    [Other researchers estimate trees save 8 lives each year in New York.]

    We would do much much better to focus on the sources of pollution. One gallon of gas burned puts more than 20 pounds of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. An average car spews 4.7 metric tons of CO2 equivalents each year. Go to, fill out the CO2 emissions estimator form honestly, and you will find that your individual fossil fuel consumption alone would require dozens if not hundreds of new trees to offset every year.

    [We completely agree that reduction of carbon and other pollutants is important. We’re all trying to reduce our carbon footprints. But that doesn’t mean we should be irresponsible about trees. The people cutting down rain forests in Asia and the Amazon can argue that the few trees they cut down don’t make a difference compared with the amount of carbon burned in th developed world. Every tree counts.]

    In other words, the 800 trees that might get cut in McLaren over 20 years will probably sequester less carbon and filter less pollution than that produced by a single San Francisco family. The math is brutal but unavoidable, and as often happens in these sorts of debates, points the finger right back at our personal behavior, not some out-of-control habitat restoration plan.

    [First, it’s unlikely to happen over 20 years. It’ll happen quickly once the funds are available. We’ve seen hundreds of trees cut down in 2013 near McLaren and in Glen Canyon because trail funds and renovation funds were available. It makes no financial sense to phase it – you hire a contractor and get it done. And saying it’s okay is essentially saying that because you can’t solve the problem, you should do nothing. While many people – including many of our supporters – are working to reduce emissions by fighting for clean energy and less automobile usage, trees are an important line of defense. They not only sequester carbon, they fight particulate pollution. Cutting down the trees will actually release the carbon they have sequestered.]

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