Surprise Tree Removals for McLaren Park Native Plant Garden

San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s Natural Resources Division (NRD), in conjunction with Fran Martin’s Visitacion Valley Greenway group, have been planning to construct a native plant garden just south of the McLaren Park community garden along Visitacion Avenue. This seemed like a good idea until signs appeared on most of the trees in the area in late July 2020 notifying the public they were going to be cut down.

Some 14 trees were posted for cutting sometime after 20 August, 2020. There are two more trees in the middle of the area that are not posted, but are the same species as other trees slated for removal. Those will probably be removed as well. Numerous smaller saplings will also be removed, but not included in the count. Huge trees with trunks up to 4 feet in diameter will be destroyed. See the picture below.

The posting sign claims only 10 trees will be removed, but it looks like it will actually be 16 trees and numerous saplings.

Note the skillfully crafted language about the 20 replacement trees. At first glance you would think those trees would be planted in this same area, but the actual commitment is only that “trees” will be planted in this area. That is a minimum of 2. The other 18 trees could be planted in any other park at some time in the future. Given what they are cutting, they should be planting at least 32 trees.

Only one of the posted trees has an arborist’s tag, probably from the 2014 Visitacion Trail Project. During that project 100 trees were removed and no new trees were planted. It does not appear the posted trees have been surveyed (no tags) and all of the cutting is for “anticipated construction impact” and has nothing to do with “hazard rating” as suggested by the signs.

The posting was first noticed by a volunteer at the adjacent community garden. In response to his initial inquiry, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) responded:

“Please know that the mature trees in the area of the Visitacion Native Plants Garden project are not being removed without thorough consideration. The project has been included in our McLaren Trail Improvement Priorities project planning since the end of 2019, and there was unanimous community support for native plant garden development at both our Visitacion Avenue trail walk in November 2019 and our virtual community meeting in May 2020.

“Fran and I have walked the area with Rec and Park’s Head Forester, and the trees marked for removal are either hazardous at present or would be so impacted by the project construction that they would become in danger of failure.

“Ending the lives of these trees was not a light decision. It was a decision made with community input and according to Rec and Park best practices.”

Some things to point out here:

  • The claim the tree cutting decision was “made with community input” is a lie. SFRPD never disclosed the tree removals to the general public. The notes for the meetings SFRPD cites show no mention that trees would need to be removed in order to create this native plant garden. There is lots of open space already and more could be created by removing the large number of dead standing trees, fallen trees and doing some limited tree trimming. Who would have thought they needed to remove basically every non-native tree in the area?
  • What sort of “construction” is required to install a garden that would turn healthy trees into dangerous ones?
  • The NRD is claiming that basically all of the non-native trees in the area are hazardous, or would soon become hazardous due to construction impacts. Somehow, the few “native” trees would have no problem surviving the construction.
  • Apparently SFRPD’s decision was indeed “light”. The only tree evaluation was a walk through by an SFRPD capital planner, an outside proponent for the tree removals and SFRPD’s head forester. No formal evaluation of the trees was made and recorded.

The garden volunteer did not give up trying to save the trees and on August 13, 2020 SFRPD announced that it would put the tree removals on hold and that “We plan to host another community meeting where more design details and the results of a 3rd party tree assessment will be shared. We will likely schedule this meeting in the coming weeks, and I’ll let you know as soon as the date is set.”

So far there has been no further news. SFRPD will probably have their go-to arborist HortScience perform the evaluations. HortScience knows “which side their bread is buttered on”, so the evaluation may not be unbiased, but it is better than nothing.


In related history, SFRPD received an Urban Greening Grant to fund the 2014 Visitacion Trail Project. This produced the sandy trail that runs along Visitacion Avenue through the future native plant garden.

One of the main purposes of this grant program was to increase tree cover in needy locations. In the grant application, RPD promised to plant twenty 15-gallon sized trees within ¼ mile of new multi-use path. (10) Coast Live Oaks, 5 Buckeyes and 5 Garrya elliptica (Coast Silk Tassel). In their grant application, they did not disclose they were going to cut down 99 trees using the grant money. The 20 trees were never planted anywhere nearby.

These impending tree removals and dubious replacement plantings is part of a larger pattern. SFRPD is removing living trees all over the City and promising 2:1 replantings.

It is clear from freedom of information requests to RPD that:

  • Plantings are not keeping pace with removals.
  • Large scale tree removals are concentrated in areas managed by the NRD like Glen Canyon, Lake Merced and McLaren Park.
  • Meanwhile replantings are concentrated in Golden Gate Park. In SFRPD’s 2019 fiscal year, 62% of trees planted went to Golden Gate Park. SFRPD’s Fiscal Year 2019 planting records also reveal that 38% of the planted “trees” are actually shrubs that will only grow to a small fraction of the biomass of the removed trees.
This entry was posted in "Natural" Areas Program, Fells Trees and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.