Pesticide Use in San Francisco Natural Areas Creeping Up Again – Oct 2017

We’ve received the pesticide usage reports for the first ten months of 2017, and we’re concerned. After reducing herbicide usage in the last four years, it’s creeping up again in the natural areas. The Natural Areas (now called the Natural Resources Department) has already used more herbicides (measured by active ingredient) than in all of 2016. It hasn’t reached 2015 levels, but park users hoped for further reduction, not an expansion in herbicide use.

San Francisco’s Department of the Environment runs the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for city-owned properties in San Francisco. It publishes an annual list of permissible pesticides, and classifies them into Tier III (Least Hazardous), Tier II (More Hazardous) and Tier I (Most Hazardous.)

The unnaturally-named Natural Resources division (NRD) of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) used more Tier I  herbicides than the rest of SFRPD put together (excluding Harding Golf course, which is managed under a separate PGA contract – but including all the other city-owned golf courses). In fact, in the first ten months of 2017,  NRD used 69% of the Roundup and 100% of the Garlon used by SFRPD.

The parks mainly targeted thus far were:

  • Twin Peaks (sprayed 32 times);
  • Glen Canyon (sprayed 27 times);
  • McLaren Park (25 times);
  • Bayview Hill (14 times); and
  • Laguna Honda (PUC property – 13 times).

Other parks that got sprayed over five times in ten months were Mt Davidson (8 times); Marietta (a PUC property – 8 times); and Lake Merced, also 8 times.


We especially noted that its usage of glyphosate (Roundup/ Aquamaster) has nearly doubled from 2016 (i.e., in ten months, NRD used nearly twice as much glyphosate as in the whole of 2016).

This is particularly worrisome since Roundup probably causes cancer. We wrote about that in these articles: World Health Organization: Roundup “Probably Carcinogenic” and in this report from an EPA scientist before she died reported on problems with pesticide assessments: “It is Essentially Certain that Glyphosate Causes Cancer”

This is the first time since the report came out we’ve seen an increase in its use.


The other major Tier I pesticide being used is Garlon 4 Ultra (triclopyr). NRD is the only section of SFRPD that uses this chemical, which has been considered Most Hazardous and HIGH PRIORITY TO FIND ALTERNATIVE at least since 2009. It’s twenty times as harmful to women as to men. (Here’s our quick presentation on the subject: Garlon v. Oxalis in Ten Easy Slides.)

NRD uses this on oxalis, an early spring-flowering plant beloved of children, pollinators, and wildlife – and the general public, who enjoy its bright blooms as a sign of spring. It’s the only use of Garlon by NRD, and if they abandoned the vendetta against these Bermuda buttercups, they would not need to use this awful pesticide.


Meanwhile, there’s a new city-wide war on a naturalized species: against arctotheca, or Cape Marigold. It’s another yellow-flowering plant that grows all over our city’s parks, and it’s on the list of 40 species (and counting) that the NRD wants to poison.  Here’s a picture from McLaren Park (together with Great Blue Heron that’s probably hunting gophers).

Cape Marigold occurs in both a fertile and an infertile form; both are considered only Moderately invasive by the California Invasive Plant Council – as is oxalis.

Unless NRD changes its approach and objectives to naturalized species of plants – and recognizes the need for inclusiveness in natural areas – there is little likelihood of eliminating pesticides from our parks. Aggressive management will inexorably result in increased herbicide use.


By contrast, the rest of SFRPD (excluding Harding Golf Course) seems to be on track to reduce usage again from 2016. For which kudos!

[Edited to Add: The graph below was corrected to indicate the last column shows usage only through Oct 2017, not the full year.]

The only department besides Natural Resources to regularly use pesticides is the Golden Gate Nursery. They wish to make sure the nursery stock they supply is pest-free before propagating it. This is less of a concern than NRD for several reasons: It’s not a public space, usage is confined in a small area and not on parks and hillsides where chemicals could spread to other areas.

We are concerned, though, that they are experimenting with several herbicides that were not earlier on SF Environment’s list: Axxe, Suppress, Clearcast and Finale. They are all considered Tier II, according to Dr Chris Geiger of SF Environment’s IPM.

Of these Axxe and Suppress seem to be less harmful. Suppress is considered acceptable for organic farming.

Clearcast is more concerning, as is Finale. You can see the Clearcast Label here: clearcast_Label.pdf 2016

Here’s the Finale Label: finale_msds

Both these pesticides have cautions regarding potential harm from immediate exposure. We will further research them, but more than the specifics, we’re concerned at the direction. Rather than working to eliminate herbicides from our parks, SFRPD seems to be looking for substitutes for Roundup. Thus far, these two chemicals have been used only in Nursery areas – the GGP Nursery, and the nursery at the Botanic Gardens.

SFRPD now has five Integrated Pest Management Specialists (compared to one before). This is good news to the extent that they will be working on mosquito abatement and alternatives to rat poisons. It’s bad news if it encourages SFRPD to open new battle fronts (like the war on Cape Marigold), or increase use of herbicides in the water, rather than changing its approach to eliminate pesticides in our parks. Here’s the note about their activities from an October meeting of SF Environment’s Policy Committee:  102317_attachment_c_-_agency_ipm_updates_for_2017

SF Forest Alliance reiterates our commitment to working toward No Toxic Pesticides in our parks. We recognize that it will be an uphill battle, as all current interests are in continuing pesticide use. Nevertheless, we believe that it is possible and is a worthwhile and environmentally-friendly goal for San Francisco.




Register for Town Hall Meeting about Montara’s Chainsawed Trees

We posted a few days ago about the planned meeting regarding the chainsawed trees of Rancho Corral de Tierra at Montara. Here are the details of the public notice, and a link to RSVP.


“Rancho Corral de Tierra Public Meeting | November 12, 2017

“Please join National Park Service staff and Congresswoman Jackie Speier for a public meeting to discuss Rancho Corral de Tierra. Park staff will discuss grassland restoration efforts, current management, and future park planning efforts. Grassland restoration efforts include removing invasive vegetation, such as grasses and trees, and revegetating with native plant communities.

Meeting Details
Sunday, November 12, 2017
2:00 pm – 3:30 pm
Farallone View Elementary School,
1100 Le Conte Ave., Montara, CA
RSVP requested: Please register HERE.


Lessons From the Terrible North Bay Wildfires of 2017

This careful analysis of the terrible wildfires in the San Francisco Bay Area is republished with permission from MillionTrees, a website that fights to prevent unnecessary tree removal in the Bay Area.


Lessons learned from fires in the North Bay

Recent wildfires in the North Bay were devastating.  At least 42 people were killed by the fires and over 8,000 structures were destroyed, including homes and businesses.  We don’t want to portray that fire as anything other than a tragedy.  However, for those with a sincere interest in fire safety, there are many lessons to be learned from that fire.  If people will open their eyes and their minds to the reality of those fires, there are opportunities to reduce fire hazards revealed by those fires.

What burned?

Watching videos of the fires is the best way to answer the question, “What burned?”  Here are two videos of the fires that we found on the internet by doing a search for “videos of wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties.”

If you weren’t watching the news during the fires, you might start by looking at these videos.  There are many more videos on the internet of those fires.

Here’s what we can see in these videos:

  • The fire front moved rapidly through native conifers and oaks as well as through grassland and chaparral. After watching hours of these videos, we did not see any eucalyptus trees on fire.
  • Many homes burned without igniting the trees and vegetation around them. If the photo was taken while the home was still burning, the vegetation is rarely engaged in the fires.  If the photo was taken after the home burned, much of the vegetation is burned as well.  In other words, the burning homes ignited the vegetation, not vice versa.
  • In videos of actively burning homes, the air is filled with burning embers. The source of those embers cannot be determined from the videos.

Nothing in these videos suggests that native vegetation is less flammable than non-native vegetation.  Nothing in these videos suggests that the vegetation is more flammable than the structures that burned. 

CalFire has identified the specific locations where four of the fires originated.  Two are in groves of oak trees and two are in grassland and chaparral.  Photos of those specific locations are available HERE.

What role did the weather play in the fire?

All sources of information about the fire reported that strong winds were the biggest factor in the rapid advance of the fire.  The wind was associated with very high temperatures and it came from the east.  This type of wind is called a Diablo Wind in Northern California.  In Southern California it is called Santa Ana Winds.  In the Mediterranean, it is called Mistral Winds.

In coastal Mediterranean climates such as California and the Mediterranean regions of France and Spain, the wind ordinarily comes off of the ocean.  Because the ocean is cooler than the land, the wind is usually a source of moisture and cooler temperatures.  During periods of high summer temperatures, the wind sometimes shifts direction and starts to blow off the hot interior, drying the vegetation and increasing temperatures.

Such winds were also the main cause of the wildfire in the Oakland/Berkeley hills in 1991Jan Null was the lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in the Bay Area in 1991.  He recently said of the 1991 fire:  “At the time a fire starts, the really relevant conditions are the wind speeds, the temperature and the humidity. Again, the humidity goes to the dryness of the fuel. The temperatures also go to the dryness of the fuels and the wind speeds go to what the spread of the fire is. If we’d had that same Oakland Hills fire without any wind, we wouldn’t be talking about it now.”

Most wildfires in California are caused by strong, dry, hot winds.  Everything burns in a wind-driven fire.  Both native and non-native vegetation burns in a wind-driven fire.  Homes in the path of a wind-driven fire are more likely to burn than the vegetation that surrounds the homes because the vegetation contains more moisture.

Why are wildfires becoming more frequent and more intense?

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense all over the world because of climate change.  Temperatures are higher, drought is more frequent, strong winds are more frequent.

Wildfires in the west have become more severe because of increased temperatures and lower humidity at night.  When it doesn’t cool off at night, the trees don’t have an opportunity to regain the moisture they have lost during the high daytime temperatures.  In the past, firefighters could count on wildfires to die down at night.  Now they can’t count on colder nights to make the fires less severe. (2)  Since the fires in the North Bay started in the middle of the night and did the most damage that first night, this observation about warmer nights is particularly relevant to those fires.

Deforestation is the second greatest source of the greenhouse gases causing climate change Every healthy tree we destroy releases its stored carbon as it decomposes.  Every tree that dies of drought releases its carbon as it decomposes.  Every tree that burns in a wildfire releases its carbon as it burns.

What role did power lines play in the fire?

The investigation of the recent wildfires in the North Bay is not complete, but early indications suggest that power lines probably ignited some of the fires.  Some power poles fell over in the strong winds, causing the power lines to break and spark ignitions.  Some trees were blown into the power lines, causing them to break or spark.

California State law requires that trees be pruned at least 4 feet from the power lines.  Although PG&E says they are inspecting thousands of miles of power lines to identify potential interference with trees, these inspections are apparently not adequate.  After the fires started, PG&E claimed they had removed 236,000 “dead and dying” trees and “destroyed or pruned” 1.2 million healthy trees in 2016.  These destroyed trees contribute to climate change.

California State law also requires that power poles are capable of withstanding winds of a certain velocity.  However, power poles fell over during the recent fires when wind speeds were below that standard set by State law.

Apparently PG&E’s efforts to inspect and maintain power lines were inadequate and State laws intended to ensure the safety of power lines are not being enforced.

Did Sudden Oak Death contribute to the fire?

Sudden Oak Death (SOD) killed 5 million oak trees in California from 1994 to 2016, when that number was reported by a study.  The study also said that the SOD epidemic could not be stopped and would eventually kill all oaks in California.  More recent estimates are that 5 to 10 million oaks have been killed by SOD. (2)

SOD is caused by a pathogen that is spread by rain and wind.  We had a great deal of rain in 2016 and 2017, which has greatly increased the spread of SOD.  In the past, SOD has been mostly confined to wildlands.  Now it is found in many urban areas, including San Francisco and the East Bay.  In the most recent SOD survey done in spring 2017, new infections were found on the UC Berkeley campus, the UC arboretum, and the San Francisco Presidio. (2)

The scientist at UC Berkeley who conducts the annual survey of SOD infections reports that “A dramatic increase this year in the number of oaks, manzanita and native plants infected by the tree-killing disease known as sudden oak death likely helped spread the massive fires that raged through the North Bay…” (3)

Dead trees are more flammable than living trees because living trees contain more moisture.  In addition to more than 5 million dead oak trees in California, 102 million native conifer trees in the Sierra Nevada foothills were killed by drought, warming temperatures and native beetle infestations during the drought years. All of these trees are native to California.  This is another indication that native trees are not less flammable than living non-native trees.

The ranges of native plants and animals are changing because of climate change.  They must move to find the climate conditions to which they are adapted.  Native plant “restorations” that attempt to reintroduce plants where they existed 250 years ago, prior to the arrival of Europeans, do not take into consideration that the plants may no longer be adapted to those locations.  That’s why many “restorations” are not successful.

If you haven’t seen the Sutro Forest, you should do so soon. The plans are to destroy about 50% of the trees and most of the understory.

Native plant advocates have their heads in the sand about Sudden Oak Death.  The recently published Environmental Impact Report for San Francisco’s Sutro Forest announced UCSF’s intention to destroy about 50% of the non-native trees on Mount Sutro and replace some of them with native trees, including oaks and bays.  Bays are the vector of the pathogen causing SOD.  The EIR said NOTHING about Sudden Oak Death, nor did it acknowledge the existence of the disease in Golden Gate Park and the arboretum, less than a mile away from Mount Sutro.  What’s the point of destroying healthy trees and replacing them with trees that are likely to die in the near future?

Where to go from here?

We are not powerless against bad decisions of public utilities and the forces of nature.  There are things we can do to address these causes of wildfires in California:

  • We must address the causes of climate change. We must stop destroying healthy trees and we must plant more trees.  We must choose species of trees that have a future in the changed climate.  The trees must be adapted to current and anticipated climate conditions.  We must quit destroying trees simply because they are not native.  Non-native trees are not more flammable than native trees and many are better adapted to current climate conditions.
  • We must regulate our public utilities and demand that regulations be enforced. The Public Utilities Commission initiated an effort to improve the safety of power lines in 2007, after destructive wildfires. The utility companies have been actively dragging their feet to prevent new regulations because they would increase costs, despite the fact that they would improve safety.
  • Improved regulation of utilities should minimize the need to destroy healthy trees, by undergrounding power lines in the most high-risk areas, improving insulation of the wires, replacing wooden power poles with metal and/or concrete poles, installing sensors that identify breaks in the power lines, etc.

Demonizing non-native trees is preventing us from addressing the causes of climate change and the closely related issue of increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires.  Let’s open our eyes and our minds to the reality of wildfires in California and develop the policies that will reduce fire hazards.

(1) The Detwiler Fire is active at night, and a scientist says that’s relatively new,” Fresno Bee, July 22, 2017

(2) “Disease killing oaks spreads,” East Bay Times, October 24, 2017

(3) “Disease in trees pointed at in fires,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2017

Pesticides in our Parks – Bernal Hill

The Natural Areas program (now called the Natural Resources Department) regularly uses herbicides in many of our parks. We’ve published pictures before of Glen Canyon and Mt Davidson.

This time, it’s Bernal Hill.

This hill apparently needs herbicides.

So they’re putting Polaris – that’s imazapyr – on the blackberry and cotoneaster.

It takes a five-person team.

[Edited to Add this section about the famous Bernal Hill Blackberry Patch.]


Hope they don’t take out the famous Bernal blackberry patch that’s brought so much joy to families.

It’s a thing, and has been for years. Here’s a 2008 article called Bernal Hill Blackberry Bonanza.  And here’s a quote from a 2009 article in the SF Chronicle, indentifying hidden treasures in San Francisco: ‘Bernal Hill Blackberry Patch. “The locals might hate us for sharing this, but there is a huge wild blackberry patch on the north side of Bernal Hill where we forage pounds and pounds of berries every summer for jam-making. So delicious.”‘ And the Bernalwood blog hailed the start of the blackberry season in 2012 in It’s Official: Blackberry Season Under Way in Bernal Heights

SFRPD – people love blackberries, and Bernal has the best crop in the city!

San Francisco Forest Alliance stands for no pesticides in our parks. We also hope that SFRPD will respect public resources that people love.

National Park Service Trees Meet Chainsaws in Montara

The National Park Service is cutting down trees in Montara, south of San Francisco. San Francisco Forest Alliance opposes this action. We’re disappointed. In this era of global warming, every tree counts. Instead of destroying trees, they should be planting them. Instead, they appear to have succumbed to the same “native” vs “non-native” xenophobic approach to plants that we’re battling in the Bay Area.

This article, with the accompanying pictures is from one of our supporters, and is used with permission.


by D. Emanuel

Here we go again. This time it’s the National Park Service destroying trees in the Bay Area. They just cut down perfectly healthy Monterey cypress and pines – some 100 years old — at Rancho Corral de Tierra, which is located at the tip of Half Moon Bay. If you’ve ever hiked or ridden a horse or bike at Rancho you know there are few trees that provide shady resting spots along popular trails.

These trail-side trees are isolated and one in particular, on the Farallone trail, has been an iconic stop, where hikers take a break to enjoy scenery, grab a drink of water, and shoot the breeze. It’s been a favorite among residents of Montara, many of whom walk outdoors just steps from home as part of their daily routine. No more. Park Service chainsaw crews leveled the tree last week.

By the end of next week the Park Service will be on track to kill 40 trees because they categorize them as non-native. It doesn’t seem to matter that their birthplace is only 100 miles down the road in Monterey. Apparently that’s not local enough.


The Park Service gave no warning and did not engage the community for input at Rancho. They are so strident in carrying out a preferred landscape ideology that a handful of favorite trees could not remain.

Rancho is the newest land added to the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Park Service acquired it in 2011. You may remember that just one month after taking over as land manager a Park Service ranger used her taser gun to shoot a 50-year-old man in the back after he gave a false name. The ranger had stopped him for walking one of his two small terriers off-leash. He won a $50,000 judgment against the Park Service for unreasonable use of force.

Now the Park Service is now using unreasonable force against trees under the guise of biodiversity. They claim it will save a rare flower, Hickman’s potentilla, against an invading force  even though the trees have remained far apart for years, showing no sign of taking over the landscape.

The fact that the flower has peacefully co-existed with the trees for decades doesn’t matter to the Park Service. The project is part of a multi-million dollar grasslands restoration and replanting program bankrolled by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The Park Service did not conduct an environmental assessment to justify the dramatic changes being made to the landscape and it’s refusing to disclose how much glyphosate is being sprayed.  Glyphosate, better known by the Monsanto trade name Roundup, has been declared a probable human carcinogen. California, which in July declared glyphosate to be a carcinogen, is considering requiring cancer warnings on Roundup brand labels.

The community is shocked and angry. You should be too. California lost 100 million trees due to the recent four-year drought. We can’t afford to be killing trees. Yet that’s exactly what the Park Service is doing at Rancho Corral de Tierra.


Here’s a statement from GGNRA received today:

“NPS is pausing tree removal work at Rancho and is planning to offer an additional public hike in the coming weeks to discuss our planning process and the overall recovery plan for the Rancho grasslands and Hickman’s potentilla. We plan to send out an announcement to our Rancho mailing list once this date is set.”

This is a pause – not a promise to stop the cutting. We will stay in touch with you all as we move through this process to keep our voices heard.

Please enjoy the moment – your voices and help from Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s office were very important to get this temporary pause – thank you!

SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part II

On September 22, 2017,  the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, on behalf of its client, San Francisco Forest Alliance, submitted the following comments and questions to the University of California, San Francisco (“UCSF”) regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) for the UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Vegetation Management Plan (“Plan”).

[We are publishing it in two parts, owing to its length. This is Part II.
For Part I, Click HERE: SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part I
The pictures in these articles are illustrative only, and were not submitted to UCSF. Most legal references and citations in the original have been removed for easier reading.]

D. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess or Mitigate Erosion Impacts.

The DEIR fails to include meaningful analysis or mitigation measures for erosion controls. Again, to some extent, this deficiency flows from the fact that neither existing conditions nor the exact scope of the project is defined. Nevertheless, numerous members of the public have submitted comments based on scientific review and personal experience highlighting that widespread tree removal in the forest will expose soils and degrade soil integrity in an area with steep slopes and high moisture accumulation. Many of these effects may not be immediately evident—for example, only years after a tree is removed may the root structure left behind totally rot—yet the DEIR describes and attempts to mitigate only impacts short-term impact such as access road construction and landing area. (DEIR 2-22 to 2-24.) Thus, the DEIR fails to completely analyze the project’s significant adverse impacts, and fails to support its conclusions with substantial evidence.

Blue tarp following a landslide in Forest Knolls San Francisco

E. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The DEIR fails to disclose fundamental information for an accurate greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions analysis. The DEIR acknowledges that tree removal will cause GHG emissions, but fails to meaningfully analyze the numbers and types of trees to be removed and replaced. For example, the summary on page 3-27 does not sum up how many trees will actually be removed. Table 3.5-2, column 6 provides the net reduction or increase in trees, but this does not indicate how many living trees will be removed. That is because the numbers presented are net removals, i.e., living trees removed, plus dead trees removed, minus new trees planted.

The DEIR’s treatment of old trees as equivalent to new saplings is also incorrect. Based on best current scientific information, large, old trees do not act simply as aging carbon reservoirs but rather continuously fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees. (N.L. Stephenson et al., Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size (2014) 507 Nature 90.) This study determined that the oldest trees gained the most mass each year and subsequently, accumulating more carbon, capitalizing on their additional leaves. (Id. at 91-92.) The DEIR fails to account for this information when it claims that “[y]oung, healthy forests absorb carbon more rapidly than older, dense forests (Wayburn 2010).” (DEIR at 4.6-18.)

It is also false to assume that carbon sequestration in a forest ceases at a certain point. The DEIR presumes “the Reserve’s mature eucalyptus are well past peak growth, and are no longer sequestering much if any additional carbon.” (DEIR at 4.6-19.) Per the Stephenson paper, supra, and Peter Ehrlich’s updated forest assessment of eucalyptus trees in San Francisco post-drought described below, this is incorrect, insufficient, and inadequate. Additionally, these assumptions result in an inadequate baseline. Given the end of the drought, a significant number of trees deeming “dying” by the DEIR have likely recovered their canopies and are sequestering more carbon than in April 2016. Conversely and without evidence, the DEIR assumes 100% survival rates for new saplings planted, incorrectly ignoring the mortality rate for these new trees, especially given the lack of irrigation. When removing mature trees, the U.S. Forest Service recommends a 3:1 replanting ratio to account for the loss of carbon sequestration and expected sapling death.

The DEIR also lacks calculations regarding the projected biomass and CO2 of the replacement trees in future years. To fully understand the impacts of the Plan, information about carbon sequestration at incremental years, such as 2020, 2030 and 2050, would more fully disclose the Plan’s impacts. Executive Order S-3-05 and Executive Order B-30-15, have targets that need to be reached by 2020, 2030 and 2050, but without presenting GHG impacts at these critical years, the public cannot know whether the Plan will conflict with applicable plans, policies, or regulations as required by CEQA. (Guidelines, § 15064.4, subd. (b)(3) [“A lead agency should consider . . . [t]he extent to which the project complies with regulations or requirements adopted to implement a statewide, regional, or local plan for the reduction or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.”].)

The DEIR is lacking information on other critical GHG measurements. The DEIR does not provide estimates for changes in soil carbon, though the changes to the surface throughout the Reserve will disturb the soil. (DEIR at 4.6-15.) This is especially true because the plan for understory removal is to dig out the understory plants by the roots. Additionally, the DEIR fails to provide estimates have for carbon contained in the woody shrubs and understory that will be extensively removed and destroyed. (Id.)

Finally, the DEIR fails to account for the Plan’s cumulative impacts on climate change, stating that “a single project is very unlikely to measurably contribute to a noticeable incremental change in the global average temperature, or to the global, local, or microclimate.” (DEIR at 4.7-16.) When making this determination, however, an EIR may not conclude that a cumulative impact is insignificant solely because the project’s contribution to an unacceptable existing environmental condition is relatively small.  “[T]he impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is precisely the kind of cumulative impacts analysis” that agencies must conduct. (Center for Biological Diversity v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin (2008) .) One project may not appear to have a significant effect on climate change, but the combined impacts of many sources can damage California’s climate as a whole.

Therefore, CEQA requires that an agency consider both direct and indirect impacts of a project and fully disclose those impacts to adequately inform the public and decisionmakers. (Guidelines, § 15064.) The DEIR, because “[c]arbon sequestration in the forest would exceed GHG emissions generated from equipment and loss of carbon stock/uptake from tree removal,” concludes the Plan’s impacts will be less than cumulatively considerable. (DEIR at 4.7-17.) This failure to consider the Plan’s impacts in conjunction with other plans and projects flouts CEQA’s mandate.

Ultimately, the DEIR’s Greenhouse Gas analysis is deficient. UCSF’s conclusion that the Plan will not have a significant impact on the environment is unsupported without a full disclosure and analysis of the Plan’s greenhouse gas impacts. CEQA “requires full environmental disclosure.” (Communities for a Better Environment, supra, 184 Cal.App.4th at 88; see also Guidelines, § 15121, subd. (a).) Although “technical perfection” is not required, an EIR must be “adequa[te], complete[], and a good-faith effort at full disclosure.” Because the DEIR fails to include and consider recent scientific information, fully describe the Plan, analyze compliance with relevant regulations and policies, account for significant sources of carbon, and analyze cumulative impacts, it fails as an informational document and does not present an accurate picture of the Plan’s impacts to the public or decisionmakers. UCSF must correct these areas and recirculate the EIR.

F. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess and Mitigate Wind and Local Climate Effects.
Commenters have pointed out that Sutro Forest was originally created in part to help calm winds from the Pacific Ocean into the City. The effect has considerable influence on the microclimate of the immediate vicinity, as well as nearby areas, such as Noe Valley, Dolores Heights, Castro, Bernal Heights, or the Mission, allowing more fog and wind to pass through the forest into nearby areas. Commenters have noted that Sutro Forest has the highest moisture content of any location in the City, and massive vegetation removal may logically have the effect of changing this moisture collecting condition and changing weather patterns in the City. San Francisco is well-known for its micro-climates, and this project effect cannot be simply ignored. Without collection and evaluation of micro-climate data in the City, the DEIR fails to assess this project effect.  A revised and recirculated DEIR should include detailed observation about the microclimate and forest conditions.

G. The DEIR Fails to Adequately Assess and Mitigate Impacts to Biological Resources.

First, the DEIR fails to provide a meaningful assessment of impacts to avian species and their habitat. Principally, the removal of thousands of standing dying trees deprives protected bird species of next, perch, and boring spaces. (See: Eucalyptus tree hosts a flicker family)

A loss of understory also impairs habitat and foraging opportunity. (See: Mount Sutro Forest Ecosystem and Wildlife Habitat)  These project effects must be analyzed.

Second, the DEIR fails to adequately mitigate impacts to Monarch Butterflies. BIO-PH-1 is inadequate because it enables UCSF still to cut down the trees on which the monarchs were found after the butterflies have left. This is destroying essential monarch butterfly habitat and the exact trees that the butterflies are likely to try to return to the following year. Aggregation on trees themselves are hard to spot. Monarch butterflies are often seen flying around San Francisco’s eucalyptus forests, but where are their home trees? How will the biologist determine whether the aggregation has dispersed or not, and what is the time frame? This is unclear in the DEIR. A 200-foot buffer is inadequate for species protection given the significant disturbance that the Plan’s deforestation will create around the aggregation trees including heavy equipment, the construction of landing areas, and clear cuts of 1 acre or more.

The DEIR concedes that “Implementation of forest treatments including eucalyptus removal could cause a significant impact on monarch butterfly by removing trees that monarch butterfly may use as roosts during winter months” and “Impacts would remain significant.” (DEIR 4.3-22) Given recent studies’ finding the species to be severely imperiled throughout the West, the lead agency may be unable to justify a statement of overriding considerations to approve this project, and the No Project Alternative should be selected, and/or the project denied.

Commenters have noted that Eucalyptus oils act as natural deterrents to pests such as mosquitos and fleas, while the area is known as a frequent destination for dog walkers. The DEIR should assess project effects to reduce this natural defense. In addition, because the Eucalyptus blooms in winter, it is an off-season food source for bees, which have also suffered alarming population declines. The DEIR should investigate and analyze this effect.
Again, the DEIR fails to completely analyze the project’s significant adverse impacts, and fails to support its conclusions with substantial evidence.

E. Conclusion

For each of the foregoing reasons, we urge that the project be denied, that the No Project Alternative be adopted, or that the DEIR be substantially revised and recirculated for public and agency review and comment.

SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part I

On September 22, 2017,  the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, on behalf of its client, San Francisco Forest Alliance, submitted the following comments and questions to the University of California, San Francisco (“UCSF”) regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) for the UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Vegetation Management Plan (“Plan”).

[We are publishing it in two parts, owing to its length. This is Part I.
For Part II, Click HERE: SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part II
The pictures in these articles are illustrative only, and were not submitted to UCSF. Most legal references and citations in the original have been removed for easier reading.]

Members of the public have commented with deep and justified concerns that the possible benefits of this project are unclear or unlikely, while the effects are significant. What is now a peaceful, historical refuge from City life threatens to become a multi-decadal vegetation removal project that would drastically alter the biological landscape of the forest, its quietness, degrade its air quality, increase greenhouse gas emissions, construction traffic and congested city parking . . . the list goes on. Yet the basic purpose and actual scope of the proposed project are not clearly conveyed, and are not compelling at all. The forest has survived countless drought cycles on its own, without this type of intrusive intervention. As a result, the lead agency may be unable to support a statement of overriding considerations to approve the project. The proposed project should be denied, and the No Project Alternative accepted.

Sutro Forest

A. CEQA Overview

An EIR is an “informational document” meant to “provide public agencies and the public in general with detailed information about the effect which a proposed project is likely to have on the environment” and “demonstrate to an apprehensive citizenry that the agency has, in fact, analyzed and considered” the environmental impacts of a project. As an informational document, CEQA “requires full environmental disclosure.”  Although “technical perfection” is not required, an EIR must be “adequa[te], complete[], and a good-faith effort at full disclosure,” with “informed and balanced” decisionmaking. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15003, subds. (i)-(j).) “[A]n agency must use its best effects to find out and disclose all that it reasonably can.”

For each of the reasons discussed, below, the DEIR falls short of CEQA’s informational and substantive requirements, and should be revised and recirculated. In the alternative, the proposed project should be denied, as the No Project Alternative would meet the project goals while reducing or avoiding significant and unavoidable effects of the proposed project.

B. The DEIR Conflates the Proposed Project with its Attempt to Describe Existing Conditions – and so Fails to Provide Either a Legally-Sufficient Project Description or Baseline.

An accurate project description and a baseline are two legally crucial elements of the CEQA process. Furthermore, an agency can accurately describe a project’s impacts only if it accurately describes the existing environmental baseline, measuring the project’s impacts against “real conditions on the ground.”

1. The DEIR’s Stated Project Objectives are Unclear and Inadequate.

A proposed project’s statement of objectives must include the underlying purpose of the project, and be clearly written to guide the selection of mitigation measures and alternatives to be evaluated in the EIR.

Alternatives that cannot achieve the project’s underlying purpose need not be considered; “a lead agency may not give a project’s purpose an artificially narrow definition, a lead agency may structure its EIR alternatives analysis around a reasonable definition of underlying purpose and need not study alternatives that cannot achieve that basic goal.”

The DEIR summarizes the four plan objectives as follows:

1. Protect the safety of Reserve users and adjacent campus and residential properties
2. Improve and enhance the health and stability of the ecosystem
3. Enhance the visual design and aesthetic experience in the Reserve
4. Maintain and ensure public access to the Reserve

(DEIR at 1-2 [pg. 20].) Regarding the first objective, the DEIR explains that aim is to reduce “the risk of tree failure and fire through vegetation management.” (DEIR at 3-13 [pg. 77].)

However, the DEIR fails to provide meaningful information by which to understand these goals. For example, are existing forest conditions unsafe? By what measure? Similarly, are public access limitations currently a problem? The DEIR is not specific, and fails to consider whether years of significant “vegetative management” in the Forest would impede public access more so than not pursuing this project at all. Only through better-articulated project goals can the DEIR and the public meaningfully assess whether alternatives to the project would also meet project goals with fewer significant environmental impacts.

The DEIR also acknowledges that UCSF is already doing work to mitigate these risks – and will continue to do so whether or not the project is approved. The DEIR states that under the proposed project, “UCSF would continue to manage the risk of trees that may fall and injure Reserve users or damage property, and vegetation management would be focused in areas where people and buildings may be affected.” (DEIR at 2-12 [pg. 36], emphasis added.) The DEIR adds that the forest is already “actively managed” for safety. (DEIR at 4.5-1.) And crucially, it explains that:

If the proposed plan is not approved by the Regents, it is reasonable to assume that UCSF would continue to conduct ongoing maintenance in the Reserve to reduce fire hazards and hazards to people and structures from falling trees. Ongoing maintenance would include, but would not necessarily be limited to, pruning trees and bushes, removing hazardous trees, removing debris, and maintaining trails.

(DEIR at 2-14 [pg. 38]; see also DEIR 5-6 [pg 406] (under the No Project alternative, UCSF would “continue to conduct ongoing maintenance in the Reserve”).) So how can the first and foremost objective of the proposed project be to reduce “the risk of tree failure and fire through vegetation management” if the DEIR asserts that such management will happen whether or not the plan is approved? In light of the fact that the proposed project would result in significant and unavoidable impacts, and since the No Project Alternative satisfies the first and foremost objective of the proposed project, the No Project Alternative should be selected.

Unfortunately, the DEIR barely describes this pre-existing / active management program.  At one point, the DEIR describes safety assessment of trees up to 25 feet on either side of trails (DEIR 3-18 [pg. 82]), but does not describe to what extent trees have been removed based on the assessments. In those few places where the pre-existing program is described, it tends to mirror the proposed project precisely. For example, under the proposed plan, vegetation would be trimmed “within 5 to 10 feet of trails” to “allow trail users to see further into the forest.” (DEIR at 4.1-23.) But the DEIR indicates that UCSF already trims “vegetation within 5 to 10 feet on either side of trails to maintain sight lines through the forest.” (DEIR at 4.6-11.) As a result, because the DEIR barely describes the existing program of active forest management, it has failed to establish an adequate baseline.  And because core elements of the proposed project (the vegetation and tree management plan) will continue under this existing program of forest management, whether or not the proposed project approved by the Regents, the DEIR has also failed to establish an accurate project description.

2. The DEIR Fails to Provide an Accurate Stable Description of the Number of Trees Existing or to be Removed.

The DEIR’s description of the baseline conditions that are integral to the proposed project activities are inaccurate and unstable, giving rise to an inaccurate and unstable project description. A description of important environmental resources that will be adversely affected by the project is critical to a legally adequate discussion of the environmental setting. And specific information about particular characteristics of the environmental setting are be required when necessary to determine the significance of an impact.

First, a huge discrepancy exists between estimated tree numbers from previous years and the current estimates. In 2013, UCSF “estimated that there are approximately 45,000 or more trees in the Reserve.” (UCSF Mount Sutro Management DEIR (Jan. 2013) at 3-5.) The DEIR estimates there are approximately 12, 135 trees in the Reserve. (DEIR at 3-9, tbl. 3.4-1.) The DEIR fails to realistically account for this vast difference in its own calculations, whether consultants’ prior calculations were wildly inaccurate, or there were an inordinate number of trees between 1 and 2 DBH at that time. The DEIR gives short shrift to these implausible explanations, and the discrepancy casts significant doubt on the accuracy of the DEIR’s estimations and the public’s ability to rely on its description.

Second, the DEIR proposes to remove “approximately 6,000 trees predominately dead and/or dying trees” during Phase I. (DEIR at 3-24.) Yet the DEIR fails to even estimate how many “dying” trees exist in the Plan area. Unsurprisingly, the DEIR lacks a clear definition of the words “dead” and “dying” when describing trees. It merely characterizes trees with a live crown ratio of 25% or less as “dying” without recognizing that crown die-back is a normal adaptation to drought for eucalypts and many of the trees have a good chance of recovery.

The Live Crown Ratio is the ratio of the crown to the total height of the tree, simply a measure of how high the crown is. For similar reasons, this measure is of questionable value with considering eucalyptus which goes through cycles of extension and dieback. This is especially true when the eucalyptus is growing in a forest environment, where a long trunk and high crown is the natural growth habit of Tasmanian blue gum. A Live Crown Ratio of 33% would be standard, and so 25% seems well within the normal range of variability, especially during a drought. (See, “Forest
Trees of Australia” by Douglas Boland, Maurice William McDonald.)

The DEIR presents two varying estimates of the number of live trees in Forest Type 4. In Table 3.4-1, it estimates there are 50 live trees per acre and 50 dead trees per acre in Forest Type 4, for a total of 100 trees per acre. (Id. at 3-9, tbl. 3.4-1.) But in Table 3.5-2, it estimates there are 128 live trees per acre and a total of 178 trees per acre in Forest Type 4. (Id. at 3-27, tbl. 3.5-2.) The Vegetation Management Plan published in February 2017 provides the 128 live trees per acre figure. (Vegetation Management Plan (Feb. 2017) at 24, tbl. 6.) This is a significant difference. Table 3.4-1 lists 8,665 live trees in total for the entire forest. If applying the 128 live trees per acre number for Forest Type 4, the total number of live trees increases to 10,069. This is an increase of 16% and is significant with respect to the ecosystem value of the forest and impacts from removal. Given that the number of live trees impacts all of the analyses and conclusions, these discrepancies render the DEIR insufficient as an informational document.

Additionally, the “Net Trees Removed or Planted per Acre” thresholds in Table 3.5-3 are significantly higher than needed to achieve the Desired Final Stand Density in Forest Types 1, 3 and 4. If UCSF implements these maximum thresholds, then only 243 original trees would remain by Year 10. Examining Appendix 4.2 shows that at least 12,101 trees (99.8% of the current total) would be removed by Year 11 alone. This near-complete-deforestation is internally contradictory with the Plan’s stated objective to improve the health and stability of the Mt. Sutro open space reserve.

The DEIR proposes to remove over half of the live trees on the Reserve in the first year of the Plan, estimating that there are 8,665 trees in the Reserve (DEIR at 3-9, tbl. 3.4-1), but proposing to cut down a maximum of 4,640 lives trees (DEIR at 3-27, tbls. 3.5-2 & 3.5-3)—a staggering 53.5% of the live trees at the Reserve. This is a significantly high percentage and poses threats to public safety and wildlife, yet the DEIR concludes the impacts will be less than significant with mitigation. The DEIR must be amended to accurately depict the impact of its forest clearing plan.

The DEIR also fails to provide an accurate baseline description of existing tree health, relying on drought year data that ignores the extent to which the wet 2016/2017 winter may have revived trees on Mt. Sutro. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “During times of defoliation, crown dieback may be overestimated. This can be due to the difficulty of distinguishing dead twigs from defoliated ones.” On December 4, 2016, the Chief Forester of the Presidio, Peter Ehrlich, described the eucalyptus forests in San Francisco as follows: “The trees are recovering from a three-year drought. Those trees that were of moderate vigor showed recovering canopies that no longer had evidence of epicormic growth that was produced in a drought-response. This crown retrenchment was a survival strategy for some of the trees in order to cut water loss during drought. The trees are recovering due to the increased rainfall last year and early this year.” Even the DEIR admits that “the drought conditions have ended in 2017” and “future conditions are unknown.” (DEIR 3-11.) Since this is a forest with over 100 years of adaptation through numerous drought cycles, it should be permitted to recover prior to making any new and drastic vegetation management decisions. Eucalyptus in the tropical and arid areas of Northern Australia tend to get killed by termites and fire before they’re 200 years old. In temperate, rainy Southern Australia they live 400-500 years. San Francisco’s Sutro Forest is much closer to Southern Australia in climate, since it lacks wildfires and cyclones and receives rain as well as summer fog drip.

Accordingly, both the existing conditions and the project need and scope are fatally undermined without relying on more accurate data.

Finally, the DEIR wrongly claims that vegetation in the forest is “even-aged.” (DEIR at 4.1-25.) But any visitor to the forest can see—and even the photos in the DEIR show—a wide range of tree sizes and ages. (See, e.g., id. at 4.1-4, 4.1.5, 4.1-12 to 4.1-21.) This occurs in part because eucalyptus globulus can regenerate readily from lignotubers, younger trees will sprout from trees that are cut down or broken off. Over the 125-year life of the forest, it is evident that many of the trees now standing are younger.

These errors, inconsistencies, and failures to disclose important facts result in an inaccurate and confusing Plan description and baseline by which to compare the Plan’s impacts. As a result, the DEIR fails as an informational document the public and decisionmakers can rely on.

C. The No Project Alternative Should be Selected, but the DEIR Skews Decision-making by Failing to Adequately Assess the No Project Alternative.

The CEQA Guidelines require that:

The specific alternative of “no project” shall also be evaluated along with its impact. . . The “no project” analysis shall discuss the existing conditions at the time the notice of preparation is published, as well as what would be reasonably expected to occur in the foreseeable future if the project were not approved, based on current plans and consistent with available infrastructure and community services.

The No Project alternative is distinct from the environmental baseline, from which the impacts of a project are evaluated.  The no-project alternative is a fact-based forecast of the environmental effects of maintaining the status quo.  When a project involves a proposed change to an existing land use plan, regulatory plan, policy, or ongoing operation, a decision to reject the project would leave the existing plan, policy, or operation in place. In such a situation, the no-project alternative should be defined as a continuation of the existing plan, policy, or operation. The EIR’s discussion of the no-project alternative then compares the impacts of the change that would result from approval of the proposed project with the impacts that would occur if the existing plan, policy, or operation remained unchanged.

The Sutro Forest DEIR addresses a No Project alternative in which the proposed plan would not be implemented, but UCSF would “continue to conduct ongoing maintenance in the Reserve.” (DEIR 5-6 [pg 406].) As a result, the DEIR expects that eucalyptus would thin and “either understory vegetation or blackwood acacia [would] colonize areas of eucalyptus dieback.” (DEIR 5-7 [pg 407].)

There are serious problems with the DEIR’s treatment of this alternative. Although it presents a No Project alternative, the DEIR describes that alternative in conclusory and pejorative terms, with little explanation.

1. With Nearly No Explanation, the DEIR Concludes That the No Project Alternative Would Lead to Significant Impacts on Visual Quality.

California courts have struck down EIRs that reject project alternatives on aesthetic grounds without providing sufficient explanation of why one alternative is visually less desirable than another. (See Save Round Valley Alliance v. County of Inyo (Ct. App. 4th 2007) 70 Cal. Rptr. 3d 59 (“If the BLM parcel is indeed an unsuitable site for the project due to whatever the County referred to as ‘aesthetic/view issues,’ much more must be said to adequately inform the public and decision makers.”))

Here, the DEIR describes the No Project alternative’s hypothetical transition from eucalyptus to understory vegetation or blackwood acacia as having significant “impacts on visual quality.” (DEIR 5-6 [pg 406].) But the DEIR does not explain anywhere why it views eucalyptus as of higher visual quality than acacia blackwood. (Neither species represents an indigenous California visual landscape; both species are transplants from Australia.1) Are eucalyptus prettier than acacia? The DEIR does not say.

In contrast, some Bay Area residents extol the visual appeal of blackwood acacia. For example, one local science writer and environmental consultant wrote that:

“I first noticed [Blackwood acacia] for its flamboyant seeds. When the pealike seed pods split open later in the year, they will reveal a shiny black seed surrounded by a wild curlicue of orange ribbon. I hate to love an invasive, but I think they are just beautiful.”

Others describe the tree as “beautiful and dependable,” possessing seeds “wrapped in an unmistakable coral-colored ribbon.” It may be the case that eucalyptus is prettier than the blackwood acacia. But it is certainly not self-evident, and the DEIR provides no justification for this conclusion.

The DEIR is also inconsistent about whether gaps in the forest canopy are appealing or not.
When it is describing the proposed project, the DEIR says that “gaps in the canopy that create patterns of sun and shade and offer views of the ocean and Golden Gate Park” are visually appealing. (DEIR at 2-2 [pg. 26].) But when it is talking about the No Project alternative, the DEIR says that “as the canopy becomes patchier” the “visual quality of the Reserve would decline.” (DEIR at 5-6 [pg 406].) It sounds the DEIR has a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose approach to aesthetics – openings in the canopy represent appealing gaps when the DEIR is describing the proposed project, but unappealing patches when it is describing an alternative.

Finally, and bizarrely, the aesthetic analysis of the DEIR’s describes the forest resulting from a No Project alternative as potentially “less alive.” (DEIR 5-6 [pg 406].) (It does not explain what it means by this.) But elsewhere the DEIR admits that “[a]lthough the dominant species in the forest may change, the Reserve would likely continue to be forest land under the No Project Alternative.” (DEIR 5-7 [pg 407].)

2. With Nearly No Explanation, the DEIR Pejoratively Characterizes a Transition from Eucalyptus to Acacia as “Forest Decline”.

Similarly, in terms of Biological Resources, the DEIR pejoratively characterizes “understory vegetation or blackwood acacia” colonizing potential areas of eucalyptus dieback under a No Project alternative as “forest decline.” (DEIR 5-7 [pg 407].)

The DEIR does not explain why a transition from mostly one species to mostly another species constitutes “decline,” but it may be based on a misreading of another section of the DEIR. In Section 3, the DEIR points out that the “condition of the blue gum eucalyptus trees has declined over the past decade” and that “[w]ithout management, it is likely that the existing eucalyptus will continue to decline and die, and other types of trees and vegetation will take over.” (DEIR 3-6 [pg 70].)

Thus, the DEIR appears to have conflated the decline of one species in the forest – eucalyptus – with the health of the overall forest. (More generally, the DEIR repeatedly employs language like this to create the image of a forest that is aged, ill, dying, and infirm. The aim may be to create the idea that the forest is not worthy of the land itself.)

In fact, California arborists praise the blackwood acacia’s role in a forest, calling it “a good choice where a large, fast-growing tree is desired.”5 Elsewhere it is described as a “durable tree for quick growth, screening and erosion control.”6 The acacia’s seed pod is “rich in protein, which makes the seed package rather appealing to ants, which consume the aril and discard the seed, in a fertile rubbish heap, or in the nest.”7

It is particularly misleading for the DEIR to describe the No Project alternative as “forest decline,” because that term is often understood to refer to the removal of trees. It is the DEIR’s proposed project – not the No Project alternative – that involves cutting down lots of Mount Sutro’s trees. (DEIR at 219, 4.1-26, etc.) As a result, if the DEIR wishes to characterize the transition from eucalyptus to acacia as “decline,” it will have to show its work. (See City of Arcadia v. State Board:  “a public agency must explain the reasons for its actions to afford the public and other agencies a meaningful opportunity to participate in the environmental review process.”) As noted, above, a Eucalyptus forest can be expected to live up to 400-500 years without human disturbances such as the proposed project.

3. Without Meaningful Explanation, the DEIR Concludes that Leaving the Forest Alone Would Have Greater Impacts Than Cutting Down Many of Its Trees.

The DEIR concludes that “the No Project Alternative would result in greater environmental impacts than the proposed plan.” (DEIR 5-10 [pg 410].) While this could be true, it is certainly counterintuitive that cutting down many or most of a forest’s trees would have less of an impact than leaving the forest alone.

The only explanation that the DEIR provides for this conclusion is to point to the seven categories in which it assesses the No Project alternative’s impacts to be higher than the proposed project – “aesthetics, biological resources, cultural resources, landslides and topsoil loss, fire hazards, emergency access, and windthrow.” (DEIR 5-10 [pg 410].)

But the DEIR acknowledges that the impacts from a No Project alternative would be comparable or less than the impacts from the proposed project in eight categories – air quality, forestry resources, greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous materials, hydrology and water quality, noise, recreation, transportation and traffic. (DEIR at 5-6 to 5-10.)

For that reason, CEQA requires more explanation regarding the DEIR’s counterintuitive conclusion that the No Project alternative would have greater environmental impacts than the proposed project. (See Guidelines: “The EIR shall include sufficient information about each alternative to allow meaningful evaluation, analysis, and comparison with the proposed project.”)

[For Part II of this article, click HERE: SF Forest Alliance: Problems in the Sutro Forest DEIR – Part II]