San Francisco’s long-term plan for natural habitats rankles critics

Residents demanded in 1997 that The City do more to protect its natural landscape. But now more than a decade later, the release of the Natural Areas Management Plan has been met with skepticism.

Critics are claiming the Recreation and Park Department has gone too far with plans to eliminate thousands of feet of trails, nearly 20 acres of dog parks and thousands of non-native trees — saying it would be better to do nothing at all.

Click on the photo at right to see some of the affected areas.

The plan, which is intended as a “road map” to help manage habitat and create biodiversity among acres of land, is being criticized as removing recreation areas, which many residents have fought hard to obtain.

The department says its goal is to simply preserve nature.

“This is a comprehensive approach to managing these types of lands,” said Sarah Ballard, spokeswoman for Rec and Park. “It will help us focus on planting native plants that are drought tolerant, not use pesticides and focus on where we deploy our volunteer hours.”

But critics of the way natural habitat will be preserved say the changes take the recreation out of San Francisco.
“We need recreation here,” said Jacquie Proctor, a member of the Miraloma Park Improvement Club. “We live in the second-densest city in the country — you don’t find [trees] in New York. It’s a real treasure; people don’t realize it’s not a natural thing to have.”

The natural areas include roughly one-quarter of all parkland in The City, plus a portion of Sharp Park in Pacifica. Natural areas have been determined to be remnants of the original San Francisco, void of athletic fields and recreation facilities. Portions of roughly 30 parks are included in the management plan.

The management plan breaks each park into three levels of sensitivity, ranging from ultrasensitive plants and endangered species to few sensitive plants and numerous recreation opportunities.

Ballard said tree removal will not happen overnight, despite some concerns. It will take place over 20 years. Trails will be rerouted or relocated, and dog park spaces will be downsized to address use or boundaries.

Invasive trees

More than 3,400 trees in San Francisco are proposed to be removed, plus another 18,000 in Sharp Park. New trees would be planted to replace these.

The largest hit in city limits will be at Mount Davidson, where the plan calls for 1,600 out of 11,000 trees to be removed.

Miraloma Park Improvement Club is one of the groups organizing to prevent trees from being taken down.

“It sounds like a really good idea at first, but when you find out what they’re really doing its shocking,” said Jacquie Proctor of the Miraloma group. “People thought we would save natural plant areas so we could have the opportunity to experience nature. Now nature is being developed in a different way.”

Removing trees from Mount Davidson would increase wind and decrease the natural setting, Proctor said.

McLaren Park also would lose trees, 809 of its 19,500, and 511 of Bayview Park’s 6,000 trees would be gone. Sharp Park would have 15,000 of its 54,000 trees removed.

Rec and Park spokeswoman Sarah Ballard said these trees are expendable because they are largely non-native eucalyptus that create fire hazards and toxicity in the soil.

Proctor, though, said removal would lead to poison oak growing and spreading in cleared areas.

Dog parks

If 19.3 acres of dog parks are closed, Sally Stephens, president of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group, said she’s concerned owners won’t have a legal place to take their pooches, and the sense of community these owners have will disappear.

“We’re dog owners; we just want to walk our dogs,” Stephens said.

Under the plan, McLaren Park would lose 8.3 of its 61.7 acres of off-leash area, Bernal Hill would lose 6 acres and all 5 acres in Lake Merced would disappear.

Stephens said she fears the closure of roughly 15 percent of existing dog parks would set a trend for the future.
Sarah Ballard, spokeswoman for Rec and Park, said some proposed removal areas came at the request of neighbors or are to avoid “sensitive natural habitats.” She said at least five new dog parks are planned in Rincon Hill, Heron’s Head and Park Merced.

“There’s a portion of the Bernal Hill park that is just too steep and it’s not used anyway,” Ballard said.

But Stephens said if Rec and Park claims impact on the natural areas plan, it can close dog parks.

“I don’t know any scientific evidence where dogs cause significant impacts on wildlife or protected species,” Stephens said. “The claims are anecdotal.”


Popular hiking trails could be removed or relocated.

The plan proposes 53,758 feet of trails to be affected, including 15,681 feet in McLaren Park, 12,381 feet in Golden Gate Heights Park Oak Woodlands and 4,544 feet in the popular Bernal Hill.

Rupa Bose of Save Sutro Forest said the trail closures go too far.

“Taking away 10 miles of trail takes away the point of recreation,” she said.

But according to Sarah Ballard, Rec and Park spokeswoman, a majority of trails are being relocated, not removed.
“There are a lot of social trails, not formal trails, that would be reworked,” Ballard said.

Though some 4,000 feet of trails also would be created, Bose worries that work could remove habitat for small animals and birds.

“A lot of work goes into building a trail, including removing blackberries, which destroys these habitats for birds hiding from hawks,” Bose said.

Another problem with trail removal is that benches are being taken out too, Bose said. In essence, she said, the plan to remove both trails and benches is making parks unwelcoming.

“They’re making plant museums,” Bose said. “With fewer walking trails and fewer dog parks, they’re limiting access where you can’t take dogs or children to play at all.”

What’s next

The plan, which was approved in 2006 and is currently undergoing an environmental impact review, is expected to undergo a public hearing for the final EIR in spring, according to Rec and Park. Once the document is approved, the department can begin project planning, which could take months or even years.

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