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Protecting wildlife is hard, compromise makes it easier

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The Natural Areas Program would authorize the Recreation and Parks Department to remove 1,600 Blue Gum eucalyptus trees on Mount Davidson. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)

Over the last 40 years, habitat loss, overconsumption, pollution, invasive species and disease have destroyed 60 percent of global wildlife. The United States has struggled under both Democrats and Republicans to protect the growing list of threatened and endangered species and their habitats. It’s hard, resource-intensive, very unpopular work.

The City must acknowledge this reality when it considers approving the Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program next Thursday. Through NAP, San Francisco would protect fragile native habitats by limiting off-leash dog areas, establishing clear trails and removing invasive species, like Blue Gum eucalyptus trees. These endeavors will give sensitive species necessary space to thrive without harassment or competition.

But implementation won’t be easy. The program faces the same challenges that have plagued federal protection efforts. The City could improve its chances for success simply by compromising with members of the public who oppose Mount Davidson tree removal.

The program gives Rec and Park the authority to remove 1,600 Blue Gums out of the approximately 11,000 trees on Mount Davidson. According to Columbia University, Blue Gums have a “great capacity for taking over a wide variety of habitats” and “create virtual monocultures.” Peter Ehrlich, forestry manager of the Presidio Trust, wrote in 2003 that “Blue Gums are high-maintenance trees” with a “tendency to invade nearby areas.”

“When you’re trying to preserve species diversity, you have to preserve the base of the food chain,” Lisa Wayne, the Natural Areas Program manager, told me. “It can’t all go Eucalyptus forests because then you lose habitat for bees, butterflies and insects that provide food for birds and invertebrates. It’s an entire ecosystem approach.”

To protect ecosystems, The City must have authority to remove healthy trees without replacing them. It’s not a “huge land grab” as my fellow columnist, Sally Stephens, claimed on Sunday, and it won’t “destroy” Mount Davidson, as a Change.org petition states. It’s proper land management. Forests need thinning.

But the NAP goes beyond thinning on one 3.5-acre section of Mount Davidson.

There, Rec and Park will have the authority to remove 82 percent (or 1,000) of the trees and reintroduce native plants over 20 years.

This undertaking could disrupt the forest ecosystem and require major resources. It will necessitate pesticide use. It will remove a carbon sequestration source in a time of climate change. Most importantly, there’s no guarantee restoration will work. San Franciscans may be faced with increased toxics and reduced wildlife and forests.

It’s understandable NAP opponents dread these changes. During a hike on Mount Davidson, members of the San Francisco Forest Alliance shared with me memories of watching their kids play among the trees and family walks after Thanksgiving dinner. They don’t want to lose this history.

“This is an amazing place,” Jacqueline Proctor, a member of the alliance who wrote a book about Mount Davidson and leads tours, told me. “We can come here and be in a sort of solitude. We’re worried that once they take down the trees it will be gone forever.”

Although members of the public will have a chance to weigh in on NAP activities during the Annual Capital Planning Fair, some San Franciscans don’t feel Rec and Park will listen to their concerns. But the department has expressed its desire to engage with NAP supporters and opponents.

“It’s our job as Americans to be vigilant government watchdogs,” Sarah Madland, the department’s director of policy and public affairs, told me. She acknowledged members of San Francisco Forest Alliance have assumed that role. She continued, “everyone has an obligation to use facts.”

The department should throw these watchdogs a bone by reducing the number of trees slated for removal on this 3.5-acre tract. The compromise will still allow it to thin forests and create space for native wildlife. But the department won’t be burdened with restoring an ecosystem with limited resources and vocal opposition. It might make the difficult task ahead more achievable.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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