UCSF’s Mount Sutro forest grows controversySutro Forrest

Westside residents are concerned the University of California - San Francisco will be cutting down 30,000 trees in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. While the university says this is fallacy, Save Mount Sutro Forest (SMSF) says it is a fact.

“Tree-felling could start as early as Fall 2013,” SMSF’s website says.

…a petition, which now has more than 2,000 signatures, to stop the plan to kill more than 30,000 trees in the open space. But the university says the plan is not to kill the trees, but to manage the space. Managing the open space, the university says, will improve the forest’s health…”

Activists with SMSF have started a petition, which now has more than 2,000 signatures, to stop the plan to kill more than 30,000 trees in the open space. But the university says the plan is not to kill the trees, but to manage the space. Managing the open space, the university says, will improve the forest’s health; maintain a safe environment for neighbors, visitors, and the campus community; and protect neighboring homes and other buildings from a potential wildfire.

However, activists say the fire hazard is low. Activists say the work to manage the forest could increase the fire danger. By thinning the forest, the forest will become drier and windier, activists say. And the eucalyptus trees that grow in the forest are more fire resistant than anything else that will grow there.

UCSF though, says that the forest is “comparatively dry due to the characteristics of the eucalyptus trees,” which pull water from the soil and tie up moisture in their roots. “The forest in the Reserve is at risk of catching fire for just this reason,” a UCSF fact sheet says, “and our history tells us that the fog zone of the San Francisco Bay region is not immune to catastrophic wildfires.”

The 61-acre reserve is on the south side of the University of California San Francisco Parnassus Heights campus, and northeast of the Forest Hill neighborhood. The university owns the property, but the property is available for use by residents and visitors to San Francisco.

The university has published a draft environmental impact report, and the report’s public comment period is open until March 19. UCSF says that the idea the university is cutting down 30,000 trees is a misinterpretation of the draft EIR. By law the EIR draft has “to examine what the maximum impact of the most aggressive management practice contemplated would be in its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Reserve,” UCSF says in a frequently asked questions sheet, “so someone may be confusing the report with a final forest management plan.”

It appears SMSF and the university disagree about the potential for a wildfire in the reserve. SMSF says the idea that the eucalyptus trees in the reserve are flammable and are involved in most California wildfires is a partial myth. They say that eucalyptus trees are fire-resistant, and may act as a windbreak during a wildfire. The site points to a story in the Contra Costa Times saying the 1991 Oakland Hills fire was not primarily due to burning eucalyptus.

That story, written by David Maloney, a member of the Task Force investigating the Oakland Hills fire, says that the fire spread due to radiant heat from burning houses. Maloney said that the blue gum eucalyptus trees, one of two species that make up most of the eucalyptus in the Hills, has a thick bark and branches starting at 25 feet off the ground, making it resistant to ground fires. But a forester in a university-sponsored video pointed to vines that travel from the ground into the canopy of Mount Sutro eucalyptus trees that could spread a fire. It’s unclear if the eucalyptus trees in the Oakland Hills are the same kind as on Mount Sutro.

Before the plan is implemented, four separate study areas will be examined to determine the best way to manage the forest. In all, the study areas will total less than 7.5 acres of land, according to UCSF and neighbors will have a chance to evaluate the four forest management options using criteria developed in a 2009-2010 community process.

Herbicide use is another controversial issue for activists with SMSF. UCSF says it does not use herbicides now to manage the forest, and herbicide use will be limited to no more than three acres as the university determines what forest management plan to use. The university “will clearly mark where herbicides are applied. Results of herbicides on this single acre and other re-growth control methods used in the remainder of the demonstration project areas will be compared and evaluated before developing a policy for the remainder of the Reserve,” a university source said.

But SMSF says “this will introduce toxic chemicals where there are none.” The activists say that thousands of applications will be needed because the herbicide or herbicides will be used on thousands of stumps, vines, and stems. Also, the herbicide use will occur over many years because the trees will sprout again, according to SMSF.

UCSF says it is committed to preserving Mount Sutro as a place for San Francisco residents and visitors. The university says the reserve was designated permanent open space by the UC Board of Regents in 1976, but rules to manage the property were not developed then. The open space attracts hundreds of visitors each year, and many of the hiking trails in the reserve have been rediscovered or reopened recently, bringing more visitors.

Today the reserve is an aging eucalyptus forest that has residents concerned about the health of the forest and their safety, including the possibility of a wildfire, according to a university source.

The university says thinning and managing the forest will make it healthier and reduce the potential for a wildfire.

Keith Burbank is a freelance SF reporter.

March 2013

Trouble on the Mountain

Fight Brews Over Future of Mt. Davidson’s Forest

Mt Davidson Forest

Mt. Davidson is the subject of a heated debate once again due to potentially large proposed changes to the forest that could affect the recreation of park visitors. While it has yet to gain attention from a larger population, close observers of Mt. Davidson are warning that the park as we know it will be changed for the worse when at least 1,600 trees are cut down and more than half a mile of trails are closed as a long term plan goes into effect.

Many people know Mt. Davidson and the roughly forty acre park for its historic cross, annual Easter Sunrise service, hiking trails, sweeping views, active wildlife, location as an urban refuge, or for many other recreation-related reasons. Fewer people are aware that the park is considered to be one of San Francisco’s “Natural Areas,” therefore under the ambit of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program. The Natural Areas Program has designed a plan to manage the natural areas of San Francisco in accordance with their objectives.

Many environmental groups support the changes to Mt. Davidson and other areas as necessary to preserve San Francisco’s natural historic areas. They promote urban ecological restoration as necessary to restore an ecological balance in the city. Trees such as the Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress are non-native, and considered invasive by these groups. Not all neighbors of Mt. Davidson agree.


For those watching at home, that means the maintenance and alterations of Mt. Davidson (as well as Twin Peaks, Mt. Sutro, Golden Gate Heights, and other natural areas of SF) will be geared towards appeasing objectives that focus on:

• Loss of special status or unusual native species or habitats;

• Loss of diversity and components of a healthy ecosystem;

• Effect of nonnative invasive species on the local native flora and fauna;

• Erosion of Natural Areas from inappropriately located or constructed trails and access roads;

• Effect of human uses (recreation, poor trail location or too many trails, and a general increase in use) that conflict with conservation values; and

• Effects of feral animals and domestic pets on native flora and fauna.

With this focus, specific changes to Mt. Davidson include 1,600 trees to be cut down in concentrated areas that may be replaced in other areas of the city rather than Mt. Davidson. However, the unaccounted for tree losses make the total number of felled trees likely to be much greater than 1,600. Trees that might be cut down not included in the 1,600 count are any trees that are under 15 feet tall (which are not considered mature trees), trees that might be damaged when their wind barriers are altered, or trees that are within 50-100 feet of trails and might be cut down due to trail management. Sections of the forest are going to be remade as prairies, with some scattered large trees remaining.

As well as changing the natural landscape, recreation will also be altered. Changes include closing 2,867 feet of trails out of 15,456, while creating zero feet of new trails. It is unknown how these trail closures will affect some of the historic steps leading to Mt. Davidson. Some of those steps are in areas deemed to require high priority attention, and those areas are to be significantly altered to foster native plant growth. A viewing bench has already been removed from its prime viewing location near the cross.

The current appearance of Mt. Davidson is a byproduct of the century old border between Adolph Sutro and Leland Stanford. In promoting Arbor Days, Sutro had many Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees planted, in the process creating a non-native forest as well as an urban oasis. Stanford’s side remained unchanged, leaving a large piece of pre-European San Francisco native plants in place. By the time the city had purchased all of the land for the park in 1950, the two sides were clearly delineated, and the dualistic character of the park remains to this day.

Of course, no discussion of Mt. Davidson would be complete without considering the effect on the cross. No plans have been made to make the cross more visible. The trees will be felled with the intention of fostering native plants, not allowing any better views of the cross or from the mountain. Presumably nothing will be changed at the sliver of land at the top (as it is not owned by the city). The only change would be potentially reduced access to the cross due to reduced trails and wind impediments.

In addition to active landscaping, recreation may also be affected by other side effects. As most visitors are aware, conditions can be windy at the top of San Francisco’s highest point. While the tree-less side of the Eastern side can be very blustery, often visitors will retreat towards the forested portion for protection from the wind. Any reduction of trees would be a natural cause for an increase in windy conditions on the mountain. This can affect both hapless hikers and unprotected trees. Windthrow is the condition that occurred when previously wind-toughened trees are removed from a stand, leaving unprotected trees vulnerable to high and hazardous wind. The report examining the potential changes discounted the potential for increased wind on Mt. Davidson, despite a vast majority of trees being felled in a 3.8 acre section on the Western side, where the highest winds usually occur.

The finding of less than significant wind impact has raised concerns from neighbors, who say that the City’s reasoning is faulty. The reasoning behind a prediction of little wind changes includes an assertion that because the trees will be cut down near the center of the park over a several year period, and trees that are cut would be small and medium, the wind increase will be less than significant. Critics note that because Mt. Davidson is 938 feet tall, and sharply sloping in many areas, holes in the windbreak will be exploited easily by the wind. They also note that the felled trees examined by the report only include planned cut trees, and the cumulative effect of a loss of that many trees and the western locations could make for high wind conditions throughout the park.

Many environmental groups support the changes to Mt. Davidson and other areas as necessary to preserve San Francisco’s natural historic areas. They promote urban ecological restoration as necessary to restore an ecological balance in the city. Trees such as the Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress are non-native, and considered invasive by these groups. Not all neighbors of Mt. Davidson agree.

Jacquie Proctor, a neighbor of Mt. Davidson, co-founder of the Mt. Davidson Conservancy, noted historian and publisher of a book on the Mt. Davidson area, is considered one of the most knowledgeable people regarding Mt. Davidson and is troubled by the potential changes. “The high number of Monterey Cypress in the forest was greatly underestimated in the Natural Areas Plan. The clearing of these trees has fostered the growth of poison oak. New native plant seedlings require the ongoing application of toxic herbicides to maintain,” she said.

Avrum Shepard, a neighbor of Mt. Davidson, believes biodiversity is important, and that the current environment provides more biodiversity than native plants historically provided on Mt. Davidson. “Professor Arthur Shapiro’s research shows that attempting to restore the mountain to what it was in 1776, would provide less biodiversity and actually damage the balance that exists now. Eliminating the non-natives would harm the environment, not enhance it, and stress the existing mix of plants, animals, and air quality. To eliminate the number of trees planned would decimate the forest and reduce its carbon absorbing benefits. The NAP plan is not environmentally sound. It is a disaster that would do irreparable harm,” he said.

Don Enochson, a long time West of Twin Peaks resident, and neighbor of Mt. Davidson, is concerned with both the cost and purpose of the change. “I have not seen a specific plan with architectural landscape drawings so it is difficult to see what they plan to do. But cutting down healthy trees does not seem justified. The value of restoring Mt. Davidson to some past natural state is questionable. The eucalyptus forest does provide a meditative environment. Removing trees would be like destroying a cathedral. I also find the concept of restoration to be questionable. Fighting nature to restore nature is a fool’s errand,” he said.

At the very local level, this fight is about the future of Mt. Davidson. On a citywide level, people are concerned about the purpose of the Natural Area Program itself. For a department that is continually said to be broke by its director, some wonder why money would be spent to cut down trees while recreation clubhouses remain closed. Others argue that people deserve to see San Francisco in its natural state as much as possible, and point to Twin Peaks as an example of a natural area enjoyed by many.

Recently, neighborhood activists from the West of Twin Peaks area and other areas of the city have joined together to form the SF Forest Alliance. The stated purpose and goals are “halt destruction of city park trees and wildlife habitat, reverse plans that deny public access to trails and natural areas, eliminate unwarranted toxic hazards to children and wildlife, [and] stop abuse of tax revenue and funding within city natural areas.”

No matter one’s views, trees will be felled and trails will be closed if the current plans go through. The plans are still under review, and need to be approved by the Planning Commission, and then possibly appealed to the Board of Supervisors. If you are in support of, or are concerned about the changes, contacting Planning Commissioners or Supervisors would be the most effective way to make your opinion known.

Further information:

SF Natural Areas Program (Supporting the Changes) – www.sfnap.org

SF Forest Alliance (Opposing the Changes) - www.sfforest.net

SF Planning Department (For a full copy of the Citywide Plans) – www.sfplanning.org

March 2012