Public access to the Peninsula Watershed is restricted to help protect water quality in the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which is part of San Francisco’s extensive water system. (Shutterstock)

Report: Proposed trail through Peninsula Watershed threatens wildlife

SFPUC project part of plans to connect 550 miles of Bay Area Ridge Trail

San Francisco’s plan to open up access to the Peninsula Watershed could come with significant impacts on endangered wildlife long protected from outsiders, according to Planning Department staff.

Public access to the San Mateo County watershed, which is owned by San Francisco and managed by its Public Utilities Commission, is currently tightly restricted to protect water quality in the Crystal Springs Reservoir.

Hiking and biking enthusiasts have long urged The City to open it up to more visitors. But doing so could come at the detriment of endangered wildlife species, a draft environmental impact report (EIR) reviewed by the Planning Commission Thursday found.

The PUC’s proposed trail extension along Interstate 280 near Hillsborough would add six miles of trail and combine the Fifield-Cahill Ridge trail with the Golden Gate Recreation Area’s Phlegher Estate in the south. Doing so would fill a gap needed to complete the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a 550-mile continuous trail along the region’s ridgelines.

One group, Open the SF Watershed, is urging a permit system for unsupervised public access to the Bay Area Ridge Trail at the Crystal Springs Reservoir through the watershed. The group has pushed back on the idea some places should remain off-limits to humans and argued the need for outdoor spaces exposed by coronavirus.

“Please support opening Crystal Springs trail access for low impact outdoor recreation and appreciation of our local natural resources,” the petition reads. “This will directly benefit hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians and indirectly benefit all citizens of surrounding communities.”

But the draft environmental report found that implementing the project “could result in significant unavoidable impacts” to biological resources in an area that has the Bay Area’s highest concentration of rare and endangered species insulated from public access.

At least six federally endangered wildlife species reside in the watershed, including the California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake. Several plant species like the endangered San Mateo wooly sunflower have a special status, according to Bay Nature.

The Sierra Club and other Bay Area environmental groups are urging an alternative plan that protects habitats with their own petition. Alternative B, deemed environmentally superior in the report, would leave a 1.5-mile gap between State Route 92 and the relocated trailhead of the southern skyline ridge trail, keeping a volunteer-led docent program that provides supervision of sensitive areas.

“The Watershed features diverse habitats ranging from pristine stands of old growth Douglas Fir to oak woodlands to serpentine grasslands,” reads the petition launched in July. “We are pleased that the EIR has also determined that this is the Environmentally Superior Alternative.”

But the alternative favored by environmental groups would not fall in line with the Bay Area Ridge Trail option, its program director told commissioners Thursday.

“We do not support any of the project alternatives as they do not achieve the project’s stated goals of continual trails for all users,” said Liz Westbrook, program director for Bay Area Ridge Trail. “We do not support the draft EIR’s finding that it should be an significant unavoidable impact related to transportation and circulation.”

The Planning Commission reviewed the report but did not comment on the environmental impacts. Commissioner Deland Chan did urge the planners to examine socioeconomic data of who uses the volunteer program and examine how to better connect others to the reservoir trails.

The draft report was released earlier this summer and comments will be accepted until Aug. 10.

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