The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department could close more than half of McLaren Park to the public, with access limited to department staff and occasional organized volunteer work parties. (Courtesy Adam Chandler/via Flickr)

Rec and Park’s bait-and-switch at McLaren Park

Last Wednesday, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission had the chance to stand up against departmental bait-and-switch when it comes to how bond money is spent. But the commissioners chose not to.

The Commission’s Capital Committee debated whether to approve spending $8.9 million from the 2012 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond for projects in McLaren Park. Most of the projects are not controversial and are desperately needed, but Rec and Park staff wanted to use $3.5 million of that money for habitat restoration projects and trail closures that were not authorized by the wording of the Bond Ordinance.

When people voted for the bond, they thought they were voting for $10 million to “improve a variety of activities” in McLaren. People assumed this meant “activities” like fixing picnic areas and resurfacing long-neglected courts.

The bond also included an additional $2 million to “repair and reconstruct” McLaren’s paths and trails. People assumed that meant projects like filling in potholes on dirt trails, repaving asphalt paths and shoring up steps.

There was nothing in the bond ordinance language in the voter information pamphlet, mailed to all eligible voters, about using any of these two pots of money for habitat restoration.

But in a classic bait-and-switch, Rec and Park also published a bond report that prioritized using this money for habitat restoration, not fixing trails or the other projects people wanted. This aligned with early draft versions of the language in the bond ordinance itself. But the ordinance language — what people see in the voter information pamphlet and what they vote for — was changed before the election in response to community concerns about habitat restoration. The bond report, however, was never changed to reflect the new ordinance language. Few voters knew this report even existed. Now, Rec and Park is using the report’s language to justify going against what people thought they had voted for.

Throughout this process, Rec and Park has not been honest about its plans for trails. During recent public meetings, for example, department staff never showed the public which trails they plan to close.

The few trails that remain will come with signs that say: “Stay on designated trails.” Fences will be added to enforce the prohibition. Exploring, chasing butterflies and climbing rocks will be prohibited in most of McLaren Park.

Ironically, John McLaren, the park’s namesake, famously told city officials when he took over as superintendent of Golden Gate Park, “There will be no ‘Keep Off the Grass’ signs.”

He must be turning over in his grave.

Time and time again, the public has made it clear that they want more access to city parks and more trails, not less. Recreation assessment surveys, prepared for Rec and Park in 2004 and 2012, showed that San Franciscans view walking and biking trails as the most important features of city parks.

Yet, Rec and Park is now saying that more than half of McLaren Park will be closed to the public, with access limited to department staff and occasional organized volunteer work parties. Is this the future for our city parks?

Rec and Park’s Natural Areas Program is driving the trail closures and access restrictions in McLaren. It controls one-quarter of city parkland with a stated goal of tearing out existing habitat and replacing it with native plants that lived here more than 300 years ago, before white colonization.

The Natural Areas vision for our city parks is that of a nature preserve — where people cannot go, where trails are closed, where tens of thousands of healthy trees are cut down because they’re not native and where toxic herbicides are routinely sprayed to keep non-native plants from re-sprouting.

McLaren is just the start. The Natural Areas vision will be coming to a park near you.

If the full commission approves the habitat restoration funding from the 2012 bond on Nov. 16, it could make it hard to get any new park bond passed by voters. We’ll remember this bait-and-switch. If we cannot trust that the spending priorities outlined in bond ordinance language in the voter information pamphlet will be followed, we’ll have no choice but to vote “no” for any new park bond.

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

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