Where Did The “Natural Areas Program” Come From?

The Natural Areas Program – now renamed the Natural Resources Areas Program – has been controversial almost from its initial stages. It’s been opposed on scientific and community grounds since then. But critics have generally been ignored.

Many of our supporters have only recently joined the fight to save our parks from the tree-felling, toxic herbicides, and access restrictions that the Natural Resources Division brings. For them – as well as those who would like to know more about this program – we republish (with permission and a few edits and updates) a detailed article from the sfdog website, first published in 2011.



The Natural Areas Program (NAP) of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) was originally intended to preserve the few remnants of San Francisco’s natural heritage that still existed in city parks. The plan has morphed, however, into an empire that controls one-quarter of all the parkland in San Francisco (one-third of all parkland managed by RPD if you include Sharp Park in Pacifica). Its management plans have become quite controversial, with proposals to cut down healthy trees, drench hillsides in herbicides, close trails and off-leash areas, relocate or kill feral cats, and restrict access for all people to large sections of our parks.

For nearly two decades, NAP has operated with no real oversight and little input from the public about its plans. Its modus operandi is akin to “I know better than you, so go away.” Despite years of attempts to get even small amounts of accountability from NAP, the program continues to do pretty much whatever it wants in our city parks. Because, in many cases, NAP claims control of entire neighborhood parks, San Franciscans are losing access to their common “backyards”, and most have no idea it’s happening until it’s done.


In 1991, Policy 13 was added to the Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE), a document that gives general policy directions for open space in San Francisco. Policy 13 (actually Policy 2.13) sets forth a general policy goal to “preserve and protect significant natural resource areas.” Policy 13 sets the following criteria to determine what is a natural area:

1) The site is undeveloped and relatively undisturbed, and is a remnant of the original natural landscape and either supports a significant and diverse or unusual indigenous plant or wildlife habitat or contains rare geological formations or riparian zones.

2) The site contains rare, threatened, or endangered species, as identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or California Department of Fish and Game, or contains habitat that has recently supported and is likely again to support rare, threatened, or endangered species.

3) The site is adjacent to another protected natural resource area and, if protected from development, the two areas together would support a larger or more diverse natural habitat.

The policy also says: “Native plant habitats should be preserved and efforts undertaken to remove exotic plant species from these areas.”

Policy 13 has been used by NAP advocates to imply a city mandate to preserve natural areas, a mandate that justifies all the restrictions, herbicides, closures, etc. However, the ROSE is actually an advisory document that sets out guidelines, not mandates. It does not have the force of law.

On January 19, 1995, the SF Recreation and Park Commission approved the first management plan for natural areas. This plan identified “candidate” natural areas, and established guidelines for management programs in the areas. The plan called for a consultant to develop the specifics of the implementation of the plan. It also made a commitment to include the public and community organizations in discussions as the plan evolved. The Natural Areas Program, however, did not honor this commitment.

In 1997, the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) signed a contract with EIP Associates as the consultant to develop the ways to implement the plan. According to the contract, EIP was to form a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) that would meet two to three times per year for a period of three years. SAB members would be paid an honorarium for each meeting; the cost of the honorariums was included in the RPD budget. A 2001 draft of the consultant’s report stated: “A scientific advisory board, made up of experts in related fields, provided direction and advice during the project’s planning and preparation.”


In fact, Dr. Ed Connor, a member of the SAB, told the SF Board of Supervisors in August 2002, “… the members of the SAB had never seen or been asked to comment on a draft of such a plan in any state of its preparation.” They were not paid any honoraria. Drafts of the management plan developed by EIP Associates were supposed to be circulated to a citizen’s task force and local community groups. Instead, the first draft was seen only by NAP staff, who then returned it to EIP for revision without seeking any public input on it. NAP was steaming full speed ahead without any real community oversight or input.

In the parks, NAP and its supporters cut down and girdled hundreds of trees (in which the bark is cut completely around the tree, interrupting the flow of sap and nutrients and eventually killing the tree). Fences were erected, blocking access to large sections of parks. NAP staff did not bother to consult with (or even tell) park neighbors and users what they were doing in the natural areas. NAP operated in a secret and arrogant manner.

At the same time, the consultant’s draft management plan was finally made available to the public at only one location (the main library). For the first time, people saw the extent of NAP’s plans – removing and killing non-native animals, including feral cats; closing trails; putting up fences; and prohibiting fishing and boating where it had traditionally been allowed. The draft management plan made clear that NAP staff and advocates had intentionally planted species of endangered and threatened plants and animals in natural areas. Because of the special status of these species, federal law requires severe restrictions on access wherever they occur. NAP essentially presented the public with a fait accompliof access restrictions before people knew what was happening.

By 2002, people had noticed major changes in some natural areas that they did not like, and they began complaining. In response, RPD formed a Green Ribbon Panel to advise RPD and EIP about the NAP management plans under development. Critics were not happy with the composition of the Green Ribbon Panel, which they viewed as composed primarily of native plant advocates. The Park and Recreation Open Space Committee’s (PROSAC) representative to the Green Ribbon Panel, Dr. Joan Roughgarden, confirmed the Panel’s bias. In a report to PROSAC, Dr. Roughgarden wrote, “The Green Ribbon Panel was selected on the basis of political advocacy, not on technical credentials, so that discussion of the technical merits of the plan is immediately interpreted in an advocacy framework.” Roughgarden continued,

“The management plan advances a highly interventionist view of resource management that is not viable ecologically, economically, or culturally.”

In response, PROSAC passed a resolution calling for a scientific review of the management plan. The Recreation and Park Commission did not respond to the request.


NAP critics complained to the SF Board of Supervisors that the way the management plan was being implemented had not been properly vetted, and that NAP was not considering the public’s input, as promised by the Recreation and Park Commission in 1995. The Board held three hearings on NAP, beginning in July 2002, and, in response, on September 24, 2002, the Board created a Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Natural Areas Program (NAPCAC). The Board of Supervisors gave NAPCAC a year to develop a management plan for natural areas and provide a summary report of its findings. NAPCAC would meet under Sunshine Ordinance rules, so the public would be able to see exactly what it was doing. The Board’s resolution disbanded the Green Ribbon Panel and replaced it with NAPCAC. The resolution allowed NAP staff to continue to maintain natural areas as long as their actions did not include: “the removal of healthy trees that pose no safety hazards; trail closures, or restrictions on access and recreation; trapping and removal of wild or feral animals currently inhabiting parks and lakes; and expansion of activities into areas that no longer support predominantly native flora and fauna.”

NAPCAC had 12 members, four who were knowledgeable in issues related to natural areas (e.g., restoration, ecology, environmental advocacy), four who were interested in access to and use of parks and open space (e.g., recreational users, neighborhood activists, youth and tree advocates), two at-large members recommended by the Board of Supervisors, and two at-large members recommended by RPD. The Board of Supervisors approved the twelve appointments to NAPCAC on December 18, 2002.

The Board’s resolution creating NAPCAC directed RPD to assist NAPCAC, including giving notice of meetings, providing meeting space and publishing minutes. However, RPD repeatedly denied NAPCAC members’ requests for meeting space. Finally, NAPCAC members took it upon themselves to find meeting space. NAPCAC met for the first time on February 13, 2003 in the Mission Police Station Community Room. Later meetings were held in a classroom at City College.

At its first meeting, NAPCAC vote unanimously to ask RPD for staff support to provide minutes and to copy and distribute materials to the Committee and member of the public. RPD declined to provide staff to take minutes, but offered to copy materials as long as they were submitted two weeks in advance. Since NAPCAC met every two weeks, this “offer” was largely meaningless.

NAPCAC members complained to the Board of Supervisors about the lack of RPD support. At a City Services Committee hearing on May 15, 2003, speakers showed pictures of fences in three different natural areas that had been built since the Board’s NAPCAC resolution had been passed, in direct violation of the resolution’s ban on controversial management actions while NAPCAC was meeting. At the hearing, RPD General Manager Elizabeth Goldstein claimed a verbal agreement with Supervisor Matt Gonzalez that RPD would not be required to provide any support to NAPCAC. After the hearing, an aide to Supervisor Gonzalez told the Chair of NAPCAC that the Supervisor had made no such agreement.

NAPCAC continued to meet. A member of the NAP staff attended every meeting, and their message to NAPCAC, given at the end of every meeting (during general public comment) was fairly consistent – you’re wasting your time and we will ignore you and your findings. For example, on May 8, 2003, Lisa Wayne, the head of NAP, told the Committee, “The Committee has misinformation and misperceptions. The Committee is spinning its wheels, creating controversy where there isn’t any. There is fear being perpetuated in this room. I’m the person that knows these parks better than anyone else in the City.” NAP supporters in the audience at meetings verbally attacked NAPCAC members, and disrupted the meetings by talking loudly among themselves during panel discussions.

NAPCAC met for nine months. At these meetings, NAPCAC members who were critics of NAP actively engaged in negotiations, introducing repeated iterations of plans that tried to address concerns raised by NAP advocates. NAP advocates did not introduce their own plan until the next to the last meeting, instead choosing to react to plans introduced by the “other” side and insisting on compromise from them. For example, NAP advocates insisted that NAPCAC accept all 31 of the natural areas that NAP had claimed for itself, even though many had no native plants in them and had been designated as natural areas without any public input.


Because of the repeated compromises by their side, NAPCAC’s final report was barely acceptable to those members who had opposed the way NAP was being administered. Yet they voted to accept the final report because it created a process of scientific and community oversight of the NAP. Unable to convince a majority of NAPCAC members to acquiesce to further demands, NAP advocates on the Committee refused to support the final report that contained the compromises that they had insisted upon. The NAPCAC final report was passed by a vote of 7-5 on November 14, 2003, meeting the one-year deadline imposed by the Board of Supervisors in the resolution that created NAPCAC.

The NAPCAC Final Report, co-authored by two ecology/conservation biologists on the Committee, Drs. Joan Roughgarden and Ed Connor, set up a Natural Areas Program Review Committee (NAPRC) that would review and consult with NAP about its plans to manage natural areas. NAPRC would be composed of 12 members, including four scientists with research credentials in relevant fields (ecology, botany, zoology, conservation, etc.), four representatives of citywide advocacy groups, and four representatives of local neighborhood and park advocacy groups. Committee meetings would be conducted under all Sunshine Ordinance requirements, to ensure no backroom deals were made.

[Click here to read the NAPCAC Final Report: NAPCAC – final document]

The Final Report called on NAP to develop a system-wide “portfolio” plan that would (section 5.1): “provide an overview of the entire system of Natural Areas, showing how each site contributes to the overall goal of the program. This portfolio plan should outline the overall Natural Areas Program conservation and educational goals, specify the priorities for implementation of conservation plans for individual parks, and outline how the acquisition of additional properties will enhance the ability of the NAP to meet its conservation and educational goals.” The Final Report recognized that every city park has different issues and doesn’t try to enforce a citywide, one-size-fits-all solution to those problems. The Final Report went on to say (section 5.3): “Detailed plans for the conservation measures to be implemented at each site and how public input will be integrated into each site plan will be developed simultaneously and in parallel by the two subcommittees of NAPRC…”

According to the Final Report, the NAPRC would have two subcommittees, a Scientific Subcommittee and a Community Relations Subcommittee, with six members each. The Scientific Subcommittee would review the management plan at each natural areas site to determine (section7.1):

1. Is it scientifically plausible that the proposed management activities will achieve the proposed outcome?
2. Are the proposed monitoring plans adequate to identify any unforeseen consequences that may arise during the implementation of the plan?
3. Have the secondary consequences of management activities been identified?
4. Is the proposed evaluation plan adequate to determine the success of the plan?
5. Are the educational materials scientifically accurate?

The Scientific Subcommittee would provide the scientific oversight of the management plans that the original consultant and later the Green Ribbon Panel were supposed to do but did not.

The Community Relations Subcommittee would review community outreach plans by the NAP to determine (section 9.1):

1. Does the local community favor the proposed management practices for the sites in their district?
2. Has a good faith effort been made to solicit and incorporate public comments on individual site plans?
3. Has the local community been adequately informed of both the potential benefits and secondary consequences of the proposed plan?
4. Have other relevant city Commissions (e.g., Animal Control and Welfare, Urban Forestry Council, etc.) been informed and consulted about any management practices proposed for the Natural Areas?
5. Does the community have any changes they wish to make to the proposed plan?

The Community Relations Subcommittee would ensure that adequate community workshops and meetings were held by NAP, and that professionally designed surveys were conducted to measure public support among park neighbors and users for NAP’s plans at each site.

The NAPCAC Final Report expressed strong support for the NAP, and encouraged increased funding and staff for it, especially to handle the added responsibilities of the NAPRC. With the release of its Final Report, NAPCAC was disbanded.


On January 7, 2004, the Board of Supervisor’s City Services Committee heard testimony on the NAPCAC final report. NAP staff and NAP supporters attacked the NAPCAC final report, producing a “minority report” that called for citywide mediation – not any oversight committee – to resolve NAP conflicts. This minority report was written over a month after NAPCAC had been disbanded, and is entirely different from the final plan NAP advocates had presented at the next-to-last NAPCAC meeting. Unlike the NAPCAC Final Report, neither any of the majority members of NAPCAC nor members of the public had an opportunity to comment on the Minority Report before it was introduced to the City Services Committee. Despite this lack of transparency, NAP advocates demanded that it be given equal weight to the Final Report.

NAP critics were concerned. Mediation can work, especially when dealing with a single issue. But NAP issues are many and varied, and affect a multitude of park users and neighbors. In addition, mediation typically takes place in secret, allowing NAP to continue to operate without public oversight. In practice, the people invited to mediation (especially a citywide mediation) represent advocacy groups, not average citizens, further diluting the ability of park users and neighbors to influence what happens in their neighborhood parks.

Ultimately, the City Services Committee took no action on the NAPCAC Final Report. As a result, NAP was allowed to continue on its merry way with little oversight or input from the public.

Later in 2004, an informal working group, with both NAP advocates and NAP critics was established to discuss changes in the way NAP managed the lands under its control. RPD staffer Dan McKenna mediated the negotiations. The idea of three different management zones, from MA-1 for the most sensitive parts of a natural area to MA-3 for the least sensitive, came out of these informal negotiations. The group met for about six months. The informal working group thought they had reached an agreement on what the NAP Management Plan would look like.

But when the NAP Draft Management Plan was released in June 2005, NAP critics who had taken part in the informal working group felt that promises made had been reneged upon, and they fought against its adoption.


In July 2006, the Recreation and Park Commission considered whether to approve the Draft NAP Management Plan or not. The hearing was attended by hundreds of people. So many people wanted to speak that, even though people were given just one minute to speak, the Commission ran out of time. The item was continued to the August 2006 Commission meeting. At both meetings, people expressed concerns about cutting down healthy trees, killing feral cats, closures of trails and off-leash areas, overuse of herbicides, and general concerns about the loss of access for people to large parts of their parks, the same concerns expressed from the beginning of the program.

The Commission unanimously approved the NAP Draft Management Plan, after adding two minor changes to the plan: 1) the least sensitive MA-3 parts of natural areas would be managed by the RPD Urban Forestry staff, and both native and non-native trees could be planted in MA-3 areas; 2) feral cat “relocation” (a nice euphemism for “killing”) would happen only after the Recreation and Park Commission determined that other means of population reduction had failed to adequately reduce the number of feral cats in a natural area. These two changes were the only changes made to the Draft Management Plan by the Commission in response to the torrent of criticism the NAP plan had received.

The Commission then ordered an Environmental Impact Review of the NAP Management Plan that it had approved. The Initial Study for the NAP EIR was published in April 2009. The comments submitted are included as Appendix A of the Draft Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for the NAP Management Plan that was released in August 2011.

Interestingly, many of the concerns about the NAP Management Plan raised in the Initial Study are still problems with the Draft EIR. Those who prepared the Draft EIR do not appear to incorporated very many of the criticisms. Indeed, they don’t seem to have listened to the critics at all.

[Update: The Draft EIR with very few changes was approved in March 2017 by the Board of Supervisors.]

This lack of concern for what people think by NAP has been a problem since its inception. NAP seems to only listen to its most zealous supporters, and ignores the rest of us.

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3 Responses to Where Did The “Natural Areas Program” Come From?

  1. Morley Singer M.D. says:

    Thanks for your rational exposure of the irrational and destructive NAP.
    I would add some comments:
    1: Much of the NAP offensive activities are the result of a “belief system” that native plants are “good” and non-native plants are ‘bad’. Many have advised me not to say this out loud, but these beliefs originated in Nazi Germany in the 30’s, and have a striking similarity to Nazi beliefs about non-Aryan races. Perhaps too ugly to contemplate, but worth thinking about. If you read the literature of dogma published by the early native plant movement you will be less skeptical of this observation.

    2: The program is very clever at manipulating information and misleading rational people into thinking they are a responsible entity, and thus gaining authority and funding.

    3: Politicians I have talked with ‘roll their eyes’ at mention of the NAP and yet nobody in authority seems to have the will to eliminate them. This includes former Mayors and supervisors.
    The NAP should have been eliminated from the City budget several years ago.

    4: Our neighborhood personally witnessed the NAP attempt a few years ago when the NAP tried, without any advance communication to destroy all the eucalyptus trees on Tank Hill (foreign invaders that prevented growth of “native plants”!) A meeting with them resulted in an uncivilized shouting match at the site, revealing of their arrogance.

  2. tstar says:

    I am no longer able to read these articles. I find them too upsetting – I end up angry and/or in tears. I miss the Glen Park trees.

    [SFForest: We so sympathize. Many feel the same way. This is a hard battle. But it’s for us to fight it.]

  3. Robert Finley says:

    The San Francisco way: Cut down Juniper, Monterrey Pine, Eucalyptus, etc. and plant palm trees. I didn’t know that palm tress were native to our area. I guess they must be because I see so many of them in my city.

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