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]

 

Sutro Forest DEIR Announced

UCSF has released a humongous 1087-page Draft Environmental Impact Report on the Plan to cut down thousands of trees in Sutro Forest. The deadline for public comment has been extended in response to our request, to Sept 22, 2017. This two-week extension from Sept 8th is a lot less than the 60 days we asked for, but it’s better than nothing.

Here’s an excerpt from UCSF’s letter:

“In response to your request, UCSF is extending the public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the proposed UCSF Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Vegetation Management Plan.  The comment period will be extended by two weeks for total of 60 days: public comments on the DEIR are now due on Friday, September 22.  All comments must be received by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, September 22, 2017.  CEQA guidelines have established that the public review period for a DEIR should not be longer than 60 days (Section 15105).

“Send written comments to the attention of Ms. Diane Wong, UCSF Campus Planning, Box 0286, San Francisco, CA 94143 or email to EIR@planning.UCSF.edu

It’s interesting that they invoke the 60-day maximum under CEQA guidelines, but ignore the guideline that says the DEIR text should be 150 pages or at a maximum, 300 pages….

UCSF’S PUBLIC MEETING ON SUTRO FOREST DEIR – AUG 24, 2017

UCSF will hold a public meeting on August 24, 2017

“There will be a public hearing to receive oral comments on the DEIR on August 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Millberry Union, 500 Parnassus Avenue, on UCSF’s Parnassus campus.

You can Read Draft of EIR Comment Responses Here

Children in a tree, Glen Canyon

Children in a tree, Glen Canyon

As readers of this website will know, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan (SNRAMP – “Sin-ramp”) is still in process. The Planning Department received hundreds of comments, and the EIR can only be finalized when the responses to those comments are published. The responses, together with the Draft EIR, will constitute the Final EIR.

San Francisco resident Tom Borden obtained the Draft of those responses under the Sunshine Act and provided them to us. They are stamped: THIS DRAFT HAS BEEN PROVIDED IN RESPONSE TO A PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST (SUBMITTED 4/27/16 AND 4/29/16) FROM TOM BORDEN.

We attach them here for anyone who would like to read them. If you made a comment, you may be interested in how they intend to respond. (They carry the warning: PRELIMINARY/ADMINISTRATIVE DRAFT – SUBJECT TO CHANGE. REVIEW HAS NOT YET BEEN COMPLETED TO VERIFY ACCURACY OF CONTENT.)

Natural Areas Program fixed sign

Natural Areas Plan: SFFA comments on the DEIR (Pt 6: Flawed Process)

Whatever one thinks of the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Program (SNRAMP, Sin-ramp) – and this website has documented what we do think about it –  it’s important that the public is kept informed. They should be able to know about it, understand it, and be free to comment on it.

Unfortunately, the city hasn’t been doing a really good job about letting the public know. They have done the bare minimum: Posting a notice (like the one in the picture) in the SF Examiner and at McLaren Lodge, and mailing those who were already on their mailing list.

People have to go looking for the Sin-ramp and the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). And then – things keep changing, and only those who are really alert are aware of the changes.

On top of that, there’s a big fat glaring error right at the start of the DEIR.

Read on for details. (Please note we’ll be uploading attachments later on.)

The public review and comment process for the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Significant Natural Areas Resources Management Plant (SNRAMP) was severely compromised by:

  • A major mistake in the identification of the “Environmentally Superior Alternative” and the refusal to correct that mistake during the public process
  • The last minute rescheduling of the public hearing by the Planning Commission which prevented many concerned citizens from commenting at that hearing
  • The refusal to inform the public of the extension of the deadline to October 31, 2011
  • The refusal to inform the public of the reopening of the public comment period to June 11, 2012

These errors and policy decisions will materially prejudice the public comment and therefore expose the DEIR to a legal challenge that will require that the process be repeated.

1.    THE REFUSAL TO CORRECT THE MISTAKE IN THE DEIR ABOUT THE “ENVIRONMENTALLY SUPERIOR ALTERNATIVE”

The Summary of the DEIR at the beginning of the document says that the “Maximum Restoration Alternative” is the “Environmentally Superior Alternative” (page 2).  This is a mistake.  The “Maximum Restoration Alternative” is NOT the “Environmentally Superior Alternative.”   The “Environmentally Superior Alternative” is the “Maintenance Alternative.”  The correct statement does not appear in the DEIR until the very end of the document:

The Maximum Recreation and Maintenance Alternatives are the environmentally superior alternatives because they have fewer unmitigated significant impacts than either the proposed project or the Maximum Restoration Alternative. Between the Maximum Recreation Alternative and the Maintenance Alternative, the Maintenance Alternative would be the environmentally superior alternative for two reasons. While the two alternatives have the same number of significant and unavoidable impacts under CEQA, the Maintenance Alternative has fewer potential environmental effects than the Maximum Recreation Alternative. First, the Maintenance Alternative would not create new trails, the construction of which could result in impacts to sensitive habitats and other biological resources. Second, over time the Maximum Recreation Alternative would result in Natural Areas with less native plant and animal habitat and a greater amount of nonnative urban forest coverage. The Maintenance Alternative, on the other hand, would preserve the existing distribution and extent of biological resources, including sensitive habitats. For these reasons, the Maintenance Alternative is the environmentally superior alternative.” (DEIR, page 525-526) (emphasis added)

Attached is the email correspondence with Jessica Range, the staff member in the Planning Department responsible for the environmental review process, about this error.  Ms. Range acknowledges the error, confirms that the “Environmentally Superior Alternative” is the “Maintenance Alternative,” but refuses to correct the error until the public comment period is over. (See Attachment VI-A) [We will be uploading all attachments later on.]

Few readers will read a document that is over 500 pages long.  This mistake will therefore mislead the public into supporting the “Maximum Restoration Alternative” which expands the destructive and restrictive aspects of the Natural Areas Program.  Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, this expansion is NOT legal because it violates the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires that the “Environmentally Superior Alternative” has the least negative impact on the environment of all proposed alternatives:

“§21002.  APPROVAL OF PROJECTS; FEASIBLE ALTERNATIVE OR MITIGATION MEASURES
The Legislature finds and declares that it is the policy of the state that public agencies should not approve projects as proposed if there are feasible alternatives or feasible mitigation measures available which would substantially lessen the significant environmental effects of such projects, and that the procedures required by this division are intended to assist public agencies in systematically identifying both the significant effects of proposed projects and the feasible alternatives or feasible mitigation measures which will avoid or substantially lessen such significant effects.”  CEQA Guidelines, page 2 (emphasis added)

This mistake will profoundly prejudice the public review and comment period.  The mistake was exacerbated by the refusal to correct the mistake before the public process was complete.

Although the mistake was verbally acknowledged by the staff of the Planning Department at the beginning of the public hearing on October 6th, it was characterized as a “typographical error.”  The dictionary definition of “typographical error” is:  “an error in printed or typewritten material resulting from a mistake in typing or from mechanical failure or the like.”   [Ref: Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Random House, 1991] It is an insult to the public’s intelligence to characterize the substitution of an entire phrase (“Maximum Restoration Alternative”) for another (“Maintenance Alternative”) as a typographical error.   Trivializing this error further misleads the public by failing to acknowledge the substantive differences between these alternatives.  The “Maintenance Alternative” is at the opposite extreme from the “Maximum Restoration Alternative” in the range of alternatives.

The “Maximum Restoration Alternative” proposes an expansion of the active restoration efforts of the Natural Areas Program to 100% of all acreage designated as “natural areas.”  This represents a 73% increase in the acres subjected to tree removals, herbicide applications, recreational access restrictions, and the planting of endangered plants and animals that could potentially require further access restrictions.

In addition to the inaccurate and misleading identification of the environmentally superior alternative, the public notice of the DEIR was inadequate.  No mention was made in the original public notice of the locations of the natural areas that would be impacted by the implementation of SNRAMP.  No mention was made of the significant impacts on the environment such as the removal of thousands of trees or the loss of recreational access.  The public notice did not enable the public to understand that the implementation of SNRAMP would have a significant impact on their parks or their neighborhoods.

2.    THE PUBLIC HEARING FOR THE DEIR LIMITED PUBLIC COMMENT

The public review and comment process was further compromised by the last minute decision to hold the public hearing by the Planning Commission earlier than originally announced.  The public hearing was originally announced to begin at 1:30 pm on October 6th.  Shortly before the hearing, the starting time was moved up to noon.

The public was further confused about the timing of their opportunity to speak to the Commission about the DEIR by the placement of the item on the agenda.  The DEIR for the SNRAMP was item number 13 on an agenda with 19 items.  The public had no way of knowing when the 13th item would be heard.  Many naturally assumed that it would not be at the beginning of the hearing.  They were wrong.

The public comment period on the DEIR for the SNRAMP was completed by 2 pm.  Many people came to the hearing, hoping to speak, only to find that they had missed the opportunity to do so.

A few people arrived in time to speak, but didn’t arrive in time to hear the staff of the Planning Department acknowledge the mistake about the “Environmentally Superior Alternative.”  Therefore, they wasted their public comment by focusing on an error that the Planning Department had made a commitment to correct.  No one showed them the courtesy of telling them during the hearing that the error would be corrected.

There are many neighbors of the so-called “natural areas” who have been following this issue for 15 years.  They were deeply committed to speaking and they were deprived of the opportunity to do so by the change in the time of the hearing.

3.   THE PUBLIC WAS NOT ADEQUATELY INFORMED OF THE EXTENSION OF THE DEADLINE FOR COMMENT

The President of the Planning Commission requested at the public hearing on October 6th that the deadline for written public comments be extended to October 31st.  No effort was made to inform the public of this extension of the deadline.  The Planning Department was asked (in writing) to inform any member of the public that had been informed of the original deadline of October 17th of this extension.  That request was refused.

Such refusal to provide the public with notification of the extension of the deadline will further compromise the public review process.

4.  THE PUBLIC WAS NOT ADRQUATELY INFORMED OF THE RE-OPENING OF THE PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD

The San Francisco Forest Alliance learned (from a neighborhood association) that the public comment on the DEIR was reopened on April 27, 2012 about one week after the notice was mailed.    SFFA immediately requested that this public notice be distributed more widely to the neighbors of the natural areas and posted in the natural areas.  This request was refused.

According to the mailing list that was used to distribute the notice of the reopening of the public comment period, the same neighborhood associations that were notified of the first public comment period were notified again.  The second public comment period was not more widely distributed than the first.  The organizations that had an opportunity to comment in October 2011 were essentially given a second opportunity to comment.   This is preferential treatment that will further jeopardize the fairness of the public process.

The reopening of the public comment period was another opportunity for the DEIR to be corrected.  The incorrect statement on page 2 of the DEIR stating that the Maximum Restoration Alternative is the Environmentally Superior Alternative was not corrected when the public comment period was reopened.  That incorrect statement was simply redistributed and reposted to the Planning Department website.  Once again, the refusal to correct this statement will prejudice the public comment.

Conclusion

The public review and comment process was severely compromised by a serious mistake and by several actions of the Planning Department staff.  The appropriate legal remedies for these mistakes are:

  • Correct the DEIR by accurately identifying the “Environmentally Superior Alternative”
  • Distribute the corrected DEIR in the same manner as the original was distributed
  • Announce another public hearing along with the corrected DEIR
  • Announce another deadline for written public comments that is at least as long as the original period
  • Distribute the public notice regarding the new public comment period to the neighbors of the natural areas and post the public notice in the natural areas.

The public review and comment period for the DEIR for the SNRAMP has been a stunning display of unfair dealing with the taxpayers who are paying for this project.  It is experiences such as this that turn taxpayers into protesters.

Natural Areas Plan: SFFA comments on the DEIR (Pt 4: Restricting Recreation)

One of the failings of the SNRAMP is that it blocks recreational access to the Natural Areas.

Visitors are required to stay on the trails, and just about the only thing you can do is walk along the prescribed trails. No wandering off to look at a flower or bird or butterfly or to perch on a rock in the sun.  In some cases, actual fences are being installed to keep people on the trail. Many miles of “social trails” – the trails that exist only because people use them – are being closed or “relocated.” This increases potential conflict among park users; kids, joggers, walkers, naturalists, dogs, are all squished into the same 5-15 foot path while the acres of “Natural Area” remain unusable.

At the same time, they’re closing off-leash dog-play areas, denying access to popular park features like climbing rocks,  and removing benches because people actually sit on them. The bench beside the Murdered Tree on Mt Davidson  was removed because it was “an attractive nuisance” – it had a great view so people liked to go there.

Read on for more details.

The Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan (SNRAMP), which is evaluated by the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), announces these restrictions on recreational access in the natural areas:

  • SNRAMP “…calls for closing 54,411 feet (10.31 miles) of social trails and creating 5,897 feet (1.1 miles) of new trails, resulting in a new decrease of 48,514 feet (9.2 miles) or 23% of trails in natural areas.”  (DEIR, page 256)
  • SNRAMP restricts all public use in the natural areas to the trails that will remain:  “Public use in all Natural Areas, unless otherwise specified should encourage on-trail use…interpretative and park signs should be installed …to ‘Please Stay on the Trail.’  If off-trail use continues…permanent fencing shall be considered…”  (SNRAMP, page 5-14).   This policy is not mentioned in the DEIR.
  • The DEIR also announces plans to close 19.3 acres (20.3%) of the legal off-leash space in the natural areas, i.e. 16.4% of all legal off-leash space available in all city parkland.  (DEIR, page 257)

Despite these plans to severely restrict all forms of recreation in the natural areas, which are 25% of all city managed parkland in San Francisco, the DEIR concludes that the impact on recreation will be “less than significant.”  The DEIR’s analysis of impacts on recreation was inadequate for the following reasons:

  1. The DEIR did not adequately consider the impacts on recreation and visitor experience caused by the closure of 10.31 miles of trails, including many social trails.
  2. The DEIR did not consider negative impacts on recreation and visitor experience from the Natural Areas Program’s extensive use of fences to force people to stay on trails, nor did it consider impacts from the removal of benches in natural areas.
  3. The DEIR did not consider the negative impact on recreation for park neighbors and users because NAP controls over 50% of the park in 27 out of 31 parks with natural areas (only four parks with natural areas have less than 50% of their total area controlled by NAP).
  4. The DEIR did not adequately consider the negative impact on recreation from the intentional planting of threatened or endangered plant species and reintroduction of legally protected animal species in natural areas where they do not currently exist.
  5. The DEIR did not adequately address the impact on recreation of the closure of off-leash Dog Play Areas, especially the potential closures of up to 80% of all legal off-leash areas on city parkland which the DEIR informs us could be the result of “monitoring” of the remaining off-leash areas.
  6. The DEIR did not adequately address the impact on recreation, aesthetics, and visitor experience of poor maintenance in natural areas.

1. TRAIL CLOSURES

As acknowledged in the DEIR, a 2004 Recreation Assessment conducted for the Recreation and Park Department reported that the number one recreational facility need was more trails. Of the residents surveyed, 67% reported participating in walking or running, the highest percentage for any of the 26 activities listed in the Assessment. People want more trails, not less.

According to RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg, the majority of trails in San Francisco city parks are located in the natural areas controlled by NAP (private conversation, June 1, 2012; he said this when asked to explain why the “trail restoration” part of the 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond was restricted to trails in natural areas). Thus, the SNRAMP’s proposed closure of 23% of the total length of trails in natural areas marks a significant decrease in the length of trails available to the public systemwide, not just in the natural areas. There is simply not enough trail mileage in non-NAP parks to adequately replace the mileage lost in the natural areas. Thus the trail closures will have a more significant negative impact on the majority of San Franciscans who want more trails on which to walk or run.  This aspect of the trail closures was not mentioned in the DEIR.

By closing off the areas currently accessed by the trails that will be closed, the SNRAMP will reduce the variety of experiences park users can have (fewer different areas to see). With less mileage available to walk, the closures will also discourage people from taking longer walks. Neither of these impacts was considered in the DEIR.

Many, if not most, of the trails scheduled for closure are “social trails,” trails created by park users, not by park staff. There is usually a reason people create social trails; they prefer to take a more direct, faster, or more scenic path from Point A to Point B than the path RPD staff have told them they should take.  Frequent visitors are the ones who create social trails by walking off an official trail time and time again. People new to a park will likely stay on official trails; they don’t know where else to go. The closure of social trails will therefore have a greater impact on people who walk frequently in the parks, degrading their experience of the park by forcing them to walk in places they clearly would rather not.

When the University of California at Santa Cruz opened in the 1960s, administrators paved few paths between the colleges. They chose to wait to see what paths the students “naturally” created on their own to get from one place to another, and then paved the social trails that resulted. The social trails became the official trails. NAP has taken the opposite approach, deciding where people will be allowed to walk with little, if any, public input.  And when the public has expressed a desire for something different than what NAP wants (by voting with their feet and creating a social trail), the response is to destroy the social trail. NAP is working at cross-purposes to the majority of San Franciscans who want more trails, and who try to show NAP where they want those trails to be when they create social trails.

Social trails also spring up when people want to enter or leave a park at a location where there is no “official” trail that will allow them do so. For example, over the years, people created a social trail at the northwestern corner of Grandview Park. The only “official” park access comes from trails on the eastern and southern sides of the park. To get to the official trails, people living on the north and western sides of the park are forced to walk in the street that surrounds the park, an option they clearly didn’t like since they created a trail to the top of Grandview that began in the park’s northwest corner. The recent closure of the social trail at Grandview by NAP has made it harder for the people who live north and west of the park to access it. The DEIR did not address the loss of accessibility to parks by the closures of some social trails.

Erosion can be a problem with social trails, but the response should be to mitigate erosion where it occurs, not to close the trail. The DEIR did not consider mitigations to these erosion problems other than closure.

2. MORE FENCES AND FEWER BENCHES

“Stay on Designated Trail” Billy Goat Hill

The DEIR does not address the impacts on recreation and visitor experience of being restricted to the trails in the natural areas.  Being restricted to trails prevents many different types of recreation.  Visitors can’t spread a blanket on the ground and have a picnic or sunbathe while reading a book.  Families can’t play ball or Frisbee, fly a kite or a model airplane on a trail.  Being confined to a trail essentially prohibits many other forms of recreation.  Signs have been erected in the natural areas to inform the public that they are confined to the trails.  The DEIR makes no mention of this policy or the restrictions it imposes on the recreational preferences of park visitors.

Fences have been erected by NAP alongside trails to enforce this restriction.  With fences in place on either side of a trail, a child is physically prevented from exploring plants and bugs on the ground just off of the trail, or following a butterfly or moving to see the bird she can hear calling.  Fences, no matter how attractive they are, create a “look, Don’t Touch” museum-like feel to the park.  That is not what most people want in their neighborhood parks.

Where trails have recently been “restored” in natural areas, NAP has erected fences on both sides of the trail, to force people to stay on the trails.  These recently completed projects are a preview of the fences that the public can expect to be installed in all the natural areas as SNRAMP is implemented over its 20-year lifespan.

Grandview, May 2012

Corona Heights, May 2012

These are not temporary fences. They will remain in place to keep people from straying off the trail for years to come. Putting a fence on both sides of a trail creates a “cattle chute” feeling that many people find unappealing. Their park experience is seriously degraded by the presence of these fences. The DEIR does not address the issue of impacts of permanent or semi-permanent fences on recreation, nor does it address the impact on visitor experience of creating “cattle chute” trails in neighborhood parks.

When all recreational users are confirmed to a trail, it creates unnecessary conflicts between different user groups.  When joggers, dogs being walked on 6’ leashes (as allowed by law), bicycles, birders seeking quiet, are all confirmed to the small space of a fenced trail, conflicts are inevitable.  These conflicts are mitigated, if not avoided altogether, by giving people the option of stepping off the trail to accommodate other park visitors.  Of all the negative impacts of the Natural Areas Program, perhaps the most devastating has been the increased conflicts it has caused in our parks.  Park visitors who have co-existed in peace for generations are now pointing fingers at one another, blaming one another for the loss of their recreational liberty.

NAP has a history of removing benches from areas under its control. For example, a bench on an overlook at Mt. Davidson, one of only two benches in the park, was recently removed by NAP. There was nothing wrong with this bench.  It was apparently removed because it was perceived by NAP staff to be detrimental to the native plants that grow in that area.  There is now no place to sit (except on the ground) to either rest or reflect while looking at the view. This is a particular hardship for seniors and others with more limited mobility, who now have no place to sit after a strenuous uphill hike.  Despite park neighbors’ and users’ pleas to replace the bench, NAP has so far refused to do so. The lack of benches or places for people to rest without having to sit on the ground impacts all recreational users of the parks, even those who only want to walk on trails.

The final EIR must acknowledge the SNRAMP policy to confine all recreational access in the natural areas to fenced trails.  This restriction has a significant impact on recreation in the parks of San Francisco and it should be recognized as such by the final EIR.

3. NAP CONTROLS ENTIRE PARKS

In over half of the parks with natural areas (17 of 31 listed in Table 5 of the DEIR), NAP controls the entire park. Entire parks have become essentially single-use parks – natural areas only. In an additional 10 parks, NAP controls over 50% of the park. In only four parks does NAP control less than half of the park.

For those parks in which NAP controls the entire park, there are no recreational uses allowed in the entire park other than walking on a trail (Bernal Hill is the one exception, with off-leash dog walking allowed in the nearly half of the park that is designated as MA-3). Parents hoping to play catch with their child must find another park in which to do so. People wanting to sit on a blanket in the sun must go somewhere else. When you add in the parks with more than half of their land controlled by NAP, 87.5% of parks with natural areas in them will have significant restrictions on access and recreation. The final EIR must consider this impact on recreation and access.

Within all the natural areas, more than half of the land (57%) is designated as MA-1 or MA-2. These are the management zones with the most severe restrictions on recreation. In 7 parks, all of the land in the natural area is designated as MA-1 or MA-2. These parks will see even more significant impacts on access and recreation than parks with at least some of their land designated as MA-3. Recreation restrictions from different management zones, and how much of a park is made up of each zone, must be considered in the final EIR.

In some cases, the parks completely controlled by NAP do not have non-NAP parks close by. Thus people who want a non-NAP park experience (for example, to play catch with their children, friends or pets) will be forced to go to another park outside of their neighborhood. This will force many into their cars to drive to a non-NAP park. This increase in automobile usage and its attendant increases in pollution and global warming effects are not addressed in the DEIR.

4. PLANTING AND/OR REINTRODUCING THREATENED OR ENDANGERED SPECIES

In the SNRAMP, NAP expresses its intent to plant threatened or endangered species throughout the natural areas, including many places where they are not currently found. The mere presence of these species triggers a number of additional protections and access restrictions required by the federal Endangered Species Act and similar state and local laws  The intentional planting of legally protected species where they are not currently found makes restrictions on recreational access (indeed all access) a fait accompli. Once the plant is in the ground or the animal is known to exist, it MUST be protected and recreational access MUST be restricted.

We have two specific examples of the consequences of reintroducing endangered species to our parks.  In the case of Sharp Park, two endangered species of animal are known to exist.  To our knowledge, these animals were not reintroduced by humans.  The DEIR proposes to reconfigure the golf course to accommodate those legally protected species.  The scale of that project is described in detail by the DEIR.  We can’t imagine how much this project will cost to implement.  However, despite the scale of this monumental effort, San Francisco is being sued by organizations which do not believe that the proposed accommodations are adequate and therefore violate the Endangered Species Act.  These organizations demand that the golf course be closed entirely and that all recreational access be confined to “viewing zones” behind fences.  Essentially, they want the entire 411 acre park turned over to the two endangered species.

The effort of the Natural Areas Program to reintroduce the endangered Mission Blue butterfly to Twin Peaks is a more clear-cut example of the potential for the implementation of SNRAMP to eliminate recreational use of San Francisco’s parks, because the butterfly did not exist there prior to the efforts of the Natural Areas Program to reintroduce it.  In other words, the reintroduction was a discretionary act.  The Natural Areas Program is willfully subjecting Twin Peaks to the potential to be closed to the public.  The federal recovery plan for the Mission Blue previews these restrictions:

“Recreational impacts pose a substantial threat to mission blue butterfly habitat…One of the contributing factors to the apparent extirpation of this butterfly on Twin Peaks is heavy recreational use by off-trail hikers, and motor-bike activity all of which are prohibited.”

SNRAMP informs us that the Natural Areas Program intends to reintroduce the endangered Mission Blue butterfly in McLaren Park and Bayview Hill.  It is, however, silent about what recreational access restrictions may be required to support the population of a legally protected species.

In its section on Recreation (p. 252), the DEIR says that the Notice of Preparation Scoping process identified several concerns about recreation, including: “Effects of the introduction of endangered/threatened species on recreational opportunities, public access, and the administration of local public lands.” Despite this acknowledgment, there is no discussion of impacts on recreation caused by intentional planting of sensitive species where they are not currently found.

The final EIR must acknowledge that the Natural Areas Program intends to reintroduce legally protected species of plants and animals to the Natural Areas.  It must inform the public of what recreational access restrictions will be required to accommodate those species.  When the loss of recreational access is anticipated, the final EIR must mitigate for those impacts by providing commensurate recreational opportunities in San Francisco.

5. DOG PLAY AREA (DPA) CLOSURES

The DEIR does not adequately consider impacts on off-leash recreation from the SNRAMP. The DEIR addresses only the impacts on remaining DPAs, and on recreation, of the immediate closure of 16.4% of the total legal off-leash space in city parks once the SNRAMP goes into effect.  However, the DEIR concludes that impacts of these closures on remaining DPAs, recreation, people driving to other DPAs, etc., will be minimal.

The SNRAMP makes clear that NAP will monitor DPAs in four parks – McLaren, Buena Vista, Bernal Hill, and the Golden Gate Park Oak Woodlands – where DPAs are located either within or adjacent to natural areas. These DPAs, combined with the one scheduled for closure at Lake Merced, constitute roughly 80% of the legal off-leash space in all city parks. SNRAMP also makes clear that if NAP claims the monitoring shows impacts on theses natural areas from the dogs, the DPAs will be closed.

In other words, initial closures of dog play areas will be 16.4% of all dog play areas in San Francisco, but SNRAMP announces the potential for 80% of all dog play areas to be closed in the future.  Since no evidence is provided by the DEIR that any damage has been done by dogs in the dog play areas that are being closed immediately, no evidence is likely to be provided to close most of the dog play area that would remain after the immediate closures.

In fact, in the one dog play area which will be closed entirely and immediately, both SNRAMP and the DEIR say that use of this area by visitors with dogs is minimal:  “…the DPA at Lake Merced is not heavily used…” (DEIR, page 258)  One wonders what the justification is for closing this DPA if it is not heavily used and no evidence is available that damage has been done by dogs.

The DEIR states that it cannot analyze the impacts of possible GGNRA closures because they have yet to be finalized. However, we know the amount of off-leash areas in the GGNRA proposed for closure in January 2011:  90% of existing off-leash space on GGNRA lands have been proposed for closure. The final EIR should analyze the cumulative impacts of the maximum amount of closure proposed by both SNRAMP and the GGNRA. We saw on “Tsunami Friday” what those impacts could be. The GGNRA closed both Fort Funston and Ocean Beach to all visitors on the morning of Friday, March 11, 2011 because of concerns that a tsunami triggered by a major earthquake in Japan would strike the coast. On Tsunami Friday, a Recreation and Park Department staff member counted over 200 dogs at once in the Pine Lake DPA at 10 am, ten times more dogs than on a normal weekday (usually about 20 dogs at any one time), and more than three times the maximum number of dogs normally seen on busy weekends (about 60 dogs). This example graphically illustrates the potential impact on remaining DPAs of significant closures of off-leash space. Forcing so many more dogs into remaining DPAs day after day will undoubtedly lead to serious degradation of those remaining DPAs thereby creating the conditions that would justify closure in the future.

Without providing any analysis, the DEIR concludes the cumulative impacts of closure of off-leash areas by the GGNRA and those proposed by SNRAMP are “significant and unavoidable.”  So, in this rare instance in which the DEIR acknowledges significant impact on the environment and on recreational opportunities in San Francisco, it gives itself a free pass:  “It’s unavoidable.”  We beg to differ.  The final EIR has options that must be considered.  The obvious and responsible thing to do is to NOT close any dog play area if there is no evidence that dogs are harming those areas.

The DEIR repeatedly justifies the exclusion of off-leash recreation because it says dogs have a significant negative impact on plants and wildlife. Yet it offers no evidence to support the claims of impacts. The DEIR repeatedly says dogs MAY be impacting protected plant species or wildlife (ppgs, 298, 305, 306, 472, 502, 517), yet offers no evidence these impacts are actually occurring or ever have occurred. After each of these claims, the DEIR goes on to say: Dogs MAY continue to impact plants or wildlife. If there is no proof of an impact, then that impact cannot “continue.” EIRs must be based on observed, documented impacts, not speculation about things that “may” happen at some point in the future. The final EIR must alter its analysis to address this and base any restrictions on recreation involving dogs on actual observed impacts.

6. POOR MAINTENANCE

The 2012 work plans for the Natural Areas Program (see Attachment IV-A, obtained by public records request) help us to understand why the natural areas are such a mess.  The work plans inform us that NAP and its volunteers and contractors plan to spend a total of 358.5 days taking care of 1,075 acres of natural areas in 2012.  Each acre of natural area will therefore receive one-third of one day of maintenance for the entire year.  Some natural areas have not been scheduled for any maintenance and several as few as one day for the entire year.

There are countless stories of volunteers who spent long hours planting in NAP areas, only to see absolutely no maintenance performed once the plants were in the ground. Not surprisingly, many of these plants die, creating unsightly vistas of dead or dying plants. People are much less likely to want to walk in natural areas that are poorly maintained, a negative impact on recreation that is not addressed in the DEIR.

Poor maintenance is important because NAP is exempt from the Maintenance Standards mandated by Proposition C passed by San Francisco voters in 2003. Prop C required the Recreation and Park Department, with help from the Controller’s Office, park advocates and the general public, to develop maintenance standards for parks.  The standards define the desired conditions of park features such as lawns, trees, and trails, and are used to assess and evaluate conditions in San Francisco parks each year. In the San Francisco Park Maintenance Standards Manual (August 2006), there is a single maintenance standard for open space – cleanliness, defined as: “From a 10 feet distance (i.e., from the nearest path), open space is free of litter and debris.” The manual goes on to say that the standard is met if no more than 15 pieces of litter are visible in a 50’ by 50’ area or along a 200’ line, and that the standard is not met if needles, condoms, broken glass, and/or feces are present.

Certainly people in natural areas, including those walking on trails, have a right to expect the natural areas to meet such a simple cleanliness standard. However, the Manual goes on to say: “Open space-natural areas are not included in this standards manual, and therefore, are not inspected.” The DEIR should consider the impact on aesthetics and recreation of the woeful lack of maintenance in natural areas.

The final EIR should also consider the mitigation of scaling NAP back to a few areas that it can adequately maintain with its existing staff and budget, compared to the current plan to spread maintenance hours so thin because they are trying to cover too many natural areas.   One of many reasons why the Natural Areas Program is controversial is that it is too big.  It has claimed hundreds of acres in which there were no native plants whatsoever.  It has bit off more than it can chew.  Much of what is now on its plate should be taken back and returned to its “natural state,” i.e., without pesticides, without fences, without moonscapes created by eradicating existing vegetation.

Conclusion

The final Environmental Impact Report for the SNRAMP must:

  • Analyze the impacts on recreation of confining all recreation to trails, as well as the closure of trails in natural areas
  • Analyze the impact of restricting all recreational access to trails enforced by fences on recreation and aesthetics, especially erecting fences on both sides of trails, as well as impacts from the removal of benches in natural areas
  • Analyze impacts on recreation and access resulting from the designation of entire parks as natural areas with consequent impacts on recreation and aesthetics.
  • Analyze the impacts on recreation and access resulting from the intentional planting or reintroduction of legally protected species of plants and animals in natural areas where they do not currently exist
  • Analyze the maximum possible closures of all DPAs in natural areas (80%), not just the minimum possible (16.4%), and provide evidence of impacts claimed to be caused by dogs
  • Analyze impacts on aesthetics and recreation of poor maintenance of natural areas.

If this information is provided in the final Environmental Impact Report, it will undoubtedly conclude that the impact of SNRAMP on recreation is significant and requires mitigation.   The obvious mitigation is to decrease the size of the natural areas to a size that can be maintained adequately and which does not restrict recreational opportunities.

West Portal Monthly: Neighbors Mobilize to Save Mt Davidson from the Axe

West Portal Monthly ran Jacquie Proctor’s article about the San Francisco Forest Alliance’s petition on its front page. Headlined “Neighbors Mobilize to Save Mt Davidson from the Axe,” the article explained how the petition drive is planned to end with signatures being submitted to the city on Arbor Day –  April 27th.  Unfortunately, the paper isn’t online, so we can’t link to it. (If you want to see the article below larger, click on it, then click again on the image that comes up.)

If you haven’t signed the petition already, and would like to do so, here’s the button: