Signs of Annoyance – Natural Areas Program

Recently, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) spent an estimated half-million dollars on signage, most of which listed various Don’ts (though ironically, they start with “San Francisco Recreation & Parks Welcomes You”). All our parks and open spaces are peppered with them. Many park users, who earlier had no idea that the Natural Areas Program (NAP) was designed to restrict access and usage, are upset. They’ve started “fixing” the signs. Someone sent us these pictures:

Natural Areas Program fixed sign

The sign has been “edited” to warn people of toxic pesticide use and wryly note that most of the park is off-limits except to staff and supervised volunteers.

Of course, we have been talking about toxic pesticides, but here’s a recent picture. Roundup (glyphosate) has been identified as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization.

Natural Areas Program pesticide notice

Here, it’s been used to destroy (non-native)  fennel, the pleasant-smelling feathery-leaved plant that is, incidentally, the host plant to the Anise Swallowtail, a beautiful butterfly that happens to be native.

Anise swallowtail butterfly breeds on fennel

In fact, as the altered sign below points out, nearly all the plants you see in San Francisco – including the grasslands NAP is ostensibly seeking to protect with its use of herbicides – are non-native. They still add to the beauty of the landscape, the greenery of our parks, and provide habitat for wildlife from insects to birds to mammals. The herbicides do nothing but poison these plants, leaving space for the next most aggressive plant to move in – most likely also non-native.

Fixed sign - whats wrong with Natural Areas Program

Excluded Bike Riders Volunteered Thousands of Hours

mclaren park sign 2015Tom Borden, a bike rider who has been active with various recreational bicycle organizations in San Francisco contacted us some weeks ago. A rash of new restrictive signage has gone up all over the parks of San Francisco, particularly Natural Areas – and they all say, among a host of other restrictions, No Bicycles. (We wrote about those restrictions here: Restricting Access to San Francisco’s Parks.)

The bike riders feel particularly betrayed as they have provided a great deal of volunteer labor in building and maintaining trails. They were also encouraged to shift usage from Golden Gate Park to McLaren Park – which also now has the same signs and prohibitions.

Speaking before the SF Recreation & Parks Commission, Borden asked for the issue to be resolved in a transparent public process. Here is his speech and his letter. (We have made minor style edits and added emphasis.)


I would like to speak in the context of my favorite park, JohnMcLaren. The same issues concern other people and other parks city wide. The Natural Areas Program has posted signs prohibiting people from bringing bicycles into half of McLaren Park.

  • They did this with no public input, no public discussion, no warning.
  • They did this after inviting cyclists to volunteer thousands of hours to help them build multiuse trails on the lands they are now closing to those same volunteers.
  • They did this in spite of the fact the surrounding communities have the highest concentration of children in the City who need expanded recreational opportunities, not less usable parkland.
  • They did this without approval of the Environmental Impact Report for their management plan. The most recent draft of the EIR states the best thing for the environment would be a scaled back NAP under which recreational use of park land would be maintained or expanded.
  • In support of the new NAP restriction, RPD has issued a statement there are “long standing regulations” that “bikes are not allowed on earthen trails” in our parks. This is a false claim.”

[Here is the information from Tom Borden’s letter to the Commission. You can see the whole letter here as a PDF: Bicycle Riders Letter to SF Parks and Recreation Commission ]


mclaren park 2 sign 2015In February 2015 RPD began installing new signs in our parks. There are two types, one for regular park areas and one for areas managed by the Natural Areas Program (NAP). The NAP signs flatly state, “No Bicycles.” The NAP signs appear on both paved and earthen trails. The signs for regular park areas make no mention of bicycles. Needless to say, San Franciscans who cycle are extremely unhappy about the signs that now prohibit bike riding on large portions of Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson and McLaren Park.

Letters were sent to RPD and to the Recreation and Park Commission noting cyclists objections and asking for an explanation. A formal response was returned by Phil Ginsberg on March 3. See [below]  for the full email exchange. To paraphrase the RPD email:

  • mclaren park sign 3a 2015The signs on the Interior Greenbelt were installed by accident. Cycling is still allowed there.
  • Cycling is still allowed on the designated portion of the GGP Oak Woodlands trail.
  • In all other parklands, bikes are not allowed on earthen trails.
  • Cycling is not allowed on certain NAP controlled lands.“The signs posted in McLaren Park are correct and are consistent with long-standing regulations. Many of the trails in McLaren are too narrow, run through sensitive natural habitat and are not constructed to support mountain biking.”
  • RPD will continue to partner with cyclists on the McLaren Bike Park project and invites cyclists to work with RPD to explore the possibility of implementing mountain bike trails in some parks.

I would like to address these statements.

Oak Woodlands trail

Many cyclists worked with the NAP on the project to restore the trail. Much of the multi-use portion is composed of very loose sand. We were told by NAP that they were going to add a compound to the sand to consolidate it into firm surface. However, they have declined to follow through on this. The trail is difficult to walk on and almost impossible to ride on. For all practical purposes, it is closed to cycling.

In all other parklands, bikes are not allowed on earthen trails.

What!!! This is a dramatic change in policy. I’ve been riding on dirt trails in the parks since 1976. My three children learned to ride their bikes on trails in Golden Gate Park. I’ve spent countless hours with family and friends riding around town and through one park or another. Now, just like that, it’s over?

What about the ongoing RPD children’s mountain biking program? (It always makes me smile when I meet a group of kids with their instructors on the trails in McLaren.) Why would you buy bikes and hire instructors to take kids on dirt trails if it is against your own regulations?

Multiple people have searched the SF Park Code. There are no rules forbidding cyclists from riding on dirt trails in any of our parks. I would challenge SFRPD to produce these ”long-standing regulations” nobody can find. See Appendix B for a list of all bicycle regulations that do appear in the Park Code. Bicycles are only prohibited from park areas if signs are posted to that effect. Legally, cyclists should obey those signs based on Park Code Section 3.02. See Appendix C for a list of the codes cited in the “fine print” at the bottom of the signs.

[Appendices can be found here as a PDF: appendices – Borden letter to Parks Commission ]

Cycling is not allowed on certain NAP controlled lands.

Putting aside the issue of dirt trails for a moment, why is cycling on asphalt paths forbidden on NAP lands?

Many of the trails in McLaren are too narrow

I ride all of the tails in the park (excluding the motorcycle hill climbs) and none of them are too narrow. In fact, most riders find narrow trails to be more fun and challenging. On narrow trails cycling speeds are lower, making it easier for cyclists and other trail users to avoid conflict. When we encounter other users, we just pull off to the side and let them pass.

Many of the trails in McLaren are not constructed to support mountain biking.

I have been riding in the park since the early 1980’s. Many of the same trails are still in place and look about the same now as they did then. The narrow social trails, some of which have been annexed into the official trail system, have been handling bike traffic for decades without problems. Some of the newer trails built under the Urban Trails program have problem areas, but not exclusively due to bicycle traffic. In any case, trail wear issues could be easily be addressed by allowing cyclists to play a stewardship role in the park.

Many of the trails in McLaren run through sensitive natural habitat

I would not argue that some trails run through sensitive natural habitat. Why is it ok to walk on those trails, but not to ride a bike?

Summary of Current Regulations

Based on the RPD signage and the Park Code, but ignoring unfounded assertions, cycling is permitted on paved and earthen trails in all of our parks unless signs are posted prohibiting it. Due to the NAP signage, bicycles may not be ridden on earthen or paved trails in signed NAP lands, and in fact, not even carried into these areas.


There are a lot of things wrong with NAP’s decision to post these new signs to prevent people from riding bicycles in large portions of our parks. These are enumerated below.

  • Lack of Advance Notice and Community Input. This cycling ban was implemented with no public notice, no outreach by RPD, no public discussion. The signs were just suddenly there. How can a decision that affects so many park users be made behind closed doors?
  • RPD Commitments and Representations. Over the past 5 years, NAP invited cyclists to volunteer thousands of hours to build trails in Golden Gate Park Oak Woodlands, Interior Greenbelt and McLaren Park. All of this was with the understanding the trails being built were multi-use. Now it’s clear the Natural Areas Program used cyclists to get its trail work done and is now prohibiting those same people from using the trails. There are a lot of colorful adjectives to describe this. Let’s just say it’s wrong.
  • Drastic Unexpected Policy Change. On September 25, 2012 SF Urban Riders met with Phil Ginsberg, Denny Kern, Eric Anderson, Jim Wheeler, Dana Ketcham and Alex Randolph to discuss off-road cycling in the parks. We were asked to help steer cyclists away from Golden Gate Park and toward McLaren Park where trail conditions are sustainable and bicycles would be welcome. How does the policy change so drastically with no public process?
  • The will of the people. In 2004 RPD surveyed the public and compiled the 2004 Recreation Assessment Report. The greatest need identified by the public was for increased “walking and biking trails”. The surveyors did not ask about walking and biking separately so we cannot tell what percentage specifically wanted bike trails.

What San Francisco Wants in Its Parks

  • In 2010 SFRPD ran a needs assessment for McLaren Park. This involved a series of three meetings and two online surveys. The bike park and bicycle trails were the two most desired improvements to the park. Below is the raw statistical data presented as a pie chart. Why is SFPRD doing exactly the opposite of what people asked for?

Mclaren Needs Assessment

Cycling as Transportation

The impact of this NAP bicycle ban goes beyond preventing kids from biking in our parks. It also prevents people from cycling to our parks. What are you supposed to do with your bike after you ride to the perimeter of the park? Even if there were bike racks, you would lose your bike, or major portions of it, after leaving it on the edge of the park a few times. Before the ban, you would’ve just ridden in, found a nice spot and had your picnic with your bike nearby.

The ban also represents a denial of transportation cycling routes. Trails through NAP land are also practical bicycle transportation routes. For example, there is a fire road that runs above the golf course fence in McLaren Park. It goes all the way across the park east/west from Persia to Visitacion Avenue at Visitacion Valley Middle School. This is the nicest and safest bicycle route between the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley. The “No Bicycles” signs welcome you at either end.

This measure deals a significant blow to our city’s Transit First policies like Green Connections and runs counter to the philosophies put forth in the ROSE.


The entire plan [Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan – SNRAMP] for the NAP is currently under environmental review. Normally, projects do not proceed until the [Environmental Impact Report] or EIR is finalized and impacts are satisfactorily addressed. The NAP has been given leeway to operate in a maintenance mode pending completion of the EIR process. This action to bar cyclists from areas controlled by NAP goes far beyond maintenance. It is a new aggressive step to restrict public access to our parks. How can this be allowed?

Further, the intent of NAP to prevent people from riding bicycles on trails in natural areas was never discussed in the SNRAMP. See Appendix D for a review of all mentions of bicycles in the SNRAMP. This policy clearly reduces neighborhood connectivity, reduces access to recreation that promotes public health and discourages the use of bicycles for transportation. These impacts are just the sort the EIR process should be weighing.

If NAP intended this policy, it should have been explicitly stated in the SNRAMP and it should have been evaluated in the EIR process. The EIR needs to be redrafted to include this.

Why? RPD has not articulated why bicycles need to be excluded from NAP lands. How is the impact of a cyclist passing by on a trail any different from that of a pedestrian? If both stay on the trail, how is the adjacent natural area affected? The idea that bikes are inherently destructive is decades old dogma put forward by one entrenched user group that does not want to share our natural areas.

Just like pedestrians, irresponsible and uninformed cyclists can damage trails and the surrounding terrain by short cutting corners and switchbacks, using trails that are unsustainable, or bushwhacking across terrain with no trails. The best way to deal with these people is to bring them into the fold, not to create unreasonable rules that fuel an outlaw culture.


The NAP signage is ill conceived, unwarranted and oversteps the EIR process. The “No Bicycles” text should be removed from the signs. The statement that bikes are not allowed on earthen trails should be retracted. It is not backed up by regulations.

Trail cycling is a growing form of healthy recreation, enjoyed by people from all walks of life. As suggested by Phil Ginsberg, cyclists should work together with RPD to ensure the trail systems in our parks are sustainable and welcoming to all user groups. This might lead to a mix of multiuse, pedestrian and bike specific trails. Cyclists have already demonstrated they are a responsible user group, eager to steward the resources of our parks. I hope you will allow them to continue this.

If SFRPD still wishes to carry on with these new anti-cycling policies, it should be done through a transparent public process that insures the policies align with what San Franciscans actually want.


Tom Borden


Tom’s letter to San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s General Manager Phil Ginsburg is reproduced here, with permission, as is Mr Ginsburg’s response (which is public information). Tom also made a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC), which is linked here: Bike ban


(Email from Tom Borden to Phil Ginsburg)

SFRPD has recently installed signs banning bicycles from areas of our parks managed by the Natural Areas Program. I take issue with this and would like to second the recent email from Dan Schneider of SF Urban Riders requesting that a discussion of this be added to the agenda for the next Recreation and Park Commission meeting. Please see the attached document that lays out the issues surrounding the ban. To get the ball rolling, concerned cyclists will be attending the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee meeting tonight. Thank you, Tom Borden


(Email from Phil Ginsburg to Tom Borden)

Dear Tom,

I spoke with Dan Schneider earlier today, but am also reaching out to you and others copied on your email. We recognize your concerns and take all public input about our parks quite seriously. The Recreation and Park Department manages over 4,000 acres of land and over 30 miles of urban trails. Our goal is to provide opportunities for safe, fun spaces that welcome all types of uses including mountain biking. Currently mountain biking is allowed on earthen trails in the Interior Greenbelt and in portions of the Oak Woodlands in Golden Gate Park. In all other parklands, bikes are not allowed on earthen trails.

Recently, newly designed parks signs went up in a variety of park locations and admittedly have created some confusion. Incorrect signs were posted in the Interior Greenbelt; mountain biking is permitted on the Interior Greenbelt trails. We are in the process of fixing those and expect to have that work completed in the next two weeks.

The signs posted in McLaren Park are correct and are consistent with long-standing regulations. Many of the trails in McLaren are too narrow, run through sensitive natural habitat and are not constructed to support mountain biking. However, as we have discussed, the department is working to expand opportunities for mountain biking in McLaren. First, as you know, we are partnering with the San Francisco Urban Riders to build a bike park in McLaren. Second, the Department would like to work with SFUR and other interested mountain bikers by engaging in a park-wide circulation study that will help us identify opportunities and constraints for expanding mountain biking trails in McLaren and, perhaps, elsewhere. We recognize that mountain biking is a healthy recreational opportunity and pledge to continue to work with SFUR to expand opportunities for mountain biking throughout the city.


Philip A. Ginsburg

General Manager, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

Glen Canyon with Stairs and Coyote

This is one of our “park visitor” series – first person accounts of our parks, published with permission.


Source: Wikipedia (fair use)

It was dusk when I climbed down into Glen Canyon from the Christopher Playground. It’s been some months since I visited it last, and I was saddened by the changes stemming from SF Recreation and Parks “trails” project.

All the hillside trails have been made into staircases.  It reminded me of a drawing by Escher: they’re nearly as as difficult to walk. The risers of the box steps are high and the pitch not suited to everyone. Tiring and hard on the knees, and so it will effectively restrict access to many people.


But then a coyote came out of the bushes. I was delighted, though not surprised.  Coyotes inhabit most of the city now, and the park has coyote-spotting signs up at the Christopher playground. But what followed was a surprise (to me, anyway!)

The park is surrounded by urban areas, and an emergency vehicle was racing by on the street above, siren wailing. “Watch,” said my companion. “He’s going to howl with the siren.” And sure enough – the little coyote raised his muzzle to the sky, gave a few barks, and then howled along with the siren.

I managed to get a blurry photograph. coyote howlingA few dogs from nearby homes responded with a woof or two, but they weren’t serious. The siren-coyote duet continued until the vehicle raced away and the sound faded. The coyote sat down, convinced, I thought, that it had told off the intruder into its territory and announced who really occupied this space.

The dusk deepened, and this magical moment was broken by  flights of mosquitoes. I’ve been to Glen Canyon many times over many years, and these are a new thing for me. Wonder if it’s anything to do with the Islais Creek – and the felling of the bat trees.

Restricting Access to San Francisco’s Parks

snramp sign STAY ON THE TRAILAccess to our parks and especially our Natural Areas is one of our key concerns with the Natural Areas Program – and the values that underlie it, now being spread to all open lands. (Click here for our article on Natural Areas Program restricts access.)

Sadly, despite a deluge of phone-calls and emails from all of you, the Supervisors did pass the ROSE Policy 4.2 which will extend the same thinking to all open areas. The Biodiversity Plan is intended to document all the areas in the city where native vegetation could grow – and hopes to extend the Plan to all those areas.


Recently, it seems that San Francisco Recreation and Parks found money to pay for a whole host of new restrictive signs. They’re even worse than the old ones.

We’ve heard the most complaints from McLaren Park, where besides restricting people to trails, they have prohibited bicycles and tree climbing.

mclaren park 2 sign 2015

mclaren park sign 3a 2015


SFRPD logo1The sign starts with “San Francisco Recreation and Parks welcomes you” and then goes on to tell you just how unwelcome you are. What you can’t do:

  • Go off the trails. If your kids want to explore or run around, or you want to picnic on the ground –  better not go to a park.
  • Ride your bicycle. There’s a flat prohibition: “No Bicycles.” If you were one of the bike-rider volunteers who thought you were building trails that you and your family could use – nope.
  • Off leash dogs. Doesn’t matter if they’re well-behaved or that dogs need a place to run around. Not here.
  • Climb trees. If your kid wants to clamber up a tree that looks made for climbing – well, we have climbing structures for that.
  • Tie a swing on a tree.Affixing items to trees is prohibited.” The only tree-swing SFRPD is okay with is on their logo.
  • Pick flowers or mushrooms or interesting leaves. “Gathering vegetation is prohibited.”
park with non-native tree and off-trail recreation

Prohibited activity – picnic


muddy kid

Not permitted

We’re sympathetic with the bike-riders who put in all those volunteer hours and now have been evicted from the trails. But we’re even more concerned about the kids (who may also be bike-riders).

Most kids don’t like hiking along a trail and just looking at stuff. If we want them to enjoy the outdoors and care about the parks, they need to explore. How many of us got hooked on nature climbing trees, chasing butterflies, wading in ponds or streams or puddles, picking flowers, throwing rocks into streams, feeding ducks and other birds, building forts, tying swings to trees?

All these activities are prohibited.

Those little screens everyone complains kids are hooked on these days? They have one major advantage over our parks – you can interact with them.

If you have a car and can drive out to actual wild lands – or if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard with a tree the kids can climb, and can put out a bird-feeder at home – you can provide your kids with some of these experiences. If you live in an apartment, these parks are your backyard. And you can’t do any of these things.

Tree 22 with kids

They’re not allowed. And this tree has been cut down.

You can’t say, “Let’s go to Stow Lake and feed the ducks” – that’s prohibited. You can say, “Let’s go to Stow Lake and look at the ducks” but first, that’s a lot less appealing to a child, and second, once feeding stops, all you see are not-very-many birds swimming along at a distance. In some cultures, feeding ducks and fish and turtles has a significance beyond just bonding with animals… but too bad.

There are thousands of kids in our city who are learning that parks are mostly about not being allowed to do anything interesting.

notice satire

Satire that’s dangerously close to the truth


Fighting The NAP Nativist Agenda

Once in a while, we want to affirm the values that San Francisco Forest Alliance stands for. We’re a grass-roots organization of people who love nature and the environment, pay taxes responsibly, and want access to our parks and wild places – with our families.

Citizens care about their city Parks, and want to keep healthy trees and to open access to natural areas. Citizens expect city management to act responsibly and in the public trust, for FAIR allocation of 2008 Clean & Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond funds.

SF Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) and particularly the Natural Areas Program (NAP), obsessed with Native Plants, is cutting down trees, restricting access, using more toxic herbicides than any other section of SFRPD (excluding Harding Park Golf Course), and using financial resources that could better be used for things our city’s residents really want.


Watch our video on Youtube, (where you can also sign up for the SF Forest Alliance Youtube channel):


What we stand for can be summarized in four key areas: Trees, Access, Toxins, Taxes.


Improvements to the Glen Canyon Park Playground?

Last month we reported on the status of the Glen Canyon Park Playground Improvements.
We mentioned the new playground and that it will not be the same as it was:-  a steep staircase to the slide and bushes that were at the top – now gone. The kids loved that slide … they played games of imagination and adventure there. Instead of a quirky playground that used the advantages of the site, there’s a standard-issue place that could have been built anywhere. And the wonderful climbing tree the children loved, which was behind the Rec Center – it is now gone.

In honor of the Glen Canyon Park Playground re-opening on March 15th, we are re-issuing a relevant YouTube video

Help us save the urban forests in our San Francisco Parks