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A shady story in San Francisco

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Mount Davidson, one of the few forested areas in The City, will lose 1,600 trees under the Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)


Did you know San Francisco originally didn’t have hardly any trees? The first Spanish explorers described the area as “nothing but sand, brambles, and raging winds.” Even in the 1860s, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described San Francisco as “perfectly bare of trees or shrubs — and almost awfully bleak …”

As a wave of tree-planting swept the country in the years after the Civil War, Adolph Sutro planted trees on land he owned on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson. He planted eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, trees that could best withstand The City’s harsh climate — foggy summers with little rain and strong, cold winds roaring in from the ocean.

People loved the “new” forests then, as they do today. Windbreaks, provided by the trees, make walking and playing in the parks more pleasant. Trees muffle the sounds of the surrounding city, provide wildlife habitat, help clean pollution out of the air, increase property values and take huge amounts of carbon out of the environment.

But in recent years, San Francisco has been “invaded” by people who claim that native plants are somehow “better” than non-natives. These extreme nativists want to rip out existing habitat if it contains plants that weren’t here before the Spanish arrived — a completely arbitrary date that they chose — and replace them with plants that were here then. That means getting rid of San Francisco’s trees.

The Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program pushes a native plant agenda and has claimed control of one-third of all Rec and Park-managed parkland, including Mount Davidson and Sharp Park in Pacifica. NAP’s management plan calls for the removal of more than 18,000 trees, not because they’re diseased or dying, but simply because they were not here before the Spanish arrived.

Mount Davidson, one of the few forested areas in The City, will lose 1,600 trees. The middle third of its forest will be substantially cleared of trees — even healthy ones — so the area can be converted to grass and scrub.

With fewer trees to block it, the wind blowing through Mount Davidson’s forest will increase significantly after the removals, making it more likely that limbs — or entire trees — could be blown down. This significant safety issue should concern Rec and Park.

Of course, forests need to be managed, with diseased and dying trees treated, pruned or, if necessary, cut down. However, noted UC Berkeley arborist Joe McBride visited Mount Davidson three years ago and reported that its trees were largely healthy and did not require thinning.

Indeed, the few dead trees he saw had been “girdled,” intentional vandalism in which someone cuts a strip of bark from around the entire circumference of the tree, killing it. Sadly, extreme nativists have girdled hundreds of trees in San Francisco parks over the years, killing the trees they view as nothing but invasive pests.

The Natural Areas Program says it will replace trees cut down, but it will only plant scrubby, bush-like trees like the few scraggly oaks that grew here before the Spanish came, not the majestic eucalypts and cypress people want.

It just doesn’t make sense for native plant advocates, who don’t think San Francisco’s forests belong here, to manage them.

In this time of climate change, when most cities are planting more trees to mediate the effects of global warming, San Francisco, unbelievably, plans to cut down thousands of trees. In recent years, California has lost 70 million trees to drought, disease and bugs. San Francisco’s tree canopy is already among the lowest in the country. We cannot, in good conscience, cut down thousands of trees in San Francisco because of a nativist gardening preference.

But there’s still time to stop it.

On Sept. 29, the Planning Commission and the Rec and Park Commission will hold a joint hearing to certify NAP’s EIR that approves this destruction.

Both commissions, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors need to hear from the public. Doesn’t it make more sense to take control of forested areas — including Mount Davidson — away from NAP and give it to arborists who want to protect and manage the trees, not destroy them? Let’s not go back to that cold, windswept, “awfully bleak” landscape.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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