The Recreation and Park Department’s Natural Areas Program plans to tear out the existing trees and plants on one-quarter of San Francisco’s parkland and recreate the pre-Spanish landscape. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)

Stopping San Francisco’s biggest land grab

When the first Spanish explorers came to San Francisco, they weren’t impressed. They described it as “the very worst place for settlement in all of California” with “nothing but sand, brambles, and raging winds.” The landscape was dune scrub and grassland. There were no trees.

Amazingly, some people consider that brown, treeless, scraggly landscape to be “better” than today’s lush, green, forested parks. They have the ear of the Recreation and Park Department through its Natural Areas Program. NAP plans to tear out the existing trees and plants on one-quarter of The City’s parkland and recreate the pre-Spanish landscape.

Two meetings at City Hall on Dec. 15 may be your last chance to stop this destructive, expensive and hugely unpopular program.

NAP grew out of a fad in academic biology in the 1980s and 1990s that “native” plants — arbitrarily defined as those that were here before the Spanish came — are somehow “better” and have more reason to be here than those that arrived later. This idea has since lost favor, as more research has shown the ecological benefits of “non-native” plants, especially when dealing with the consequences of climate change.

But NAP advocates had heard the pro-native, anti-immigrant call and ran with it. A small 12-page report describing ways to preserve the few existing remnants of the pre-Spanish landscape morphed into a more than 700-page document calling for wholesale destruction of existing non-native habitat on more than 1,000 acres in 31 different city parks.

There were no public meetings to decide which parks would have NAP-managed “natural areas.” No park neighbors or park users were consulted. In a huge land grab, NAP just took what it wanted.

The program’s plans are the antithesis of what most people want in their neighborhood parks. San Franciscans love trees. Yet NAP plans to cut down 18,500 healthy trees in areas they control. These trees are not hazardous, sick or dying. They’re simply not native.

People don’t want toxic herbicides sprayed repeatedly where seniors, children and pets — not to mention wildlife — walk. But NAP uses more poisonous herbicides — including Garlon, which carries the “most hazardous” rating — than any other department in Rec and Park (except for the Harding Park golf course) to kill non-native trees and plants and keep them from resprouting.

People want access to their neighborhood parks to walk, picnic and play. NAP plans to close one-quarter of all trails in its “natural” areas. Fences will keep people on whatever trails remain, closing off access to nearly the entire park.

NAP says its plans will protect and promote biodiversity. Greater biodiversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem and can help protect it from environmental changes. But NAP advocates define the word to mean “native-only” biodiversity. Scientists are not so biased. They define biodiversity as referring to all plants, regardless of their point or time of origin. With few native plants lost and many, many non-natives added, San Francisco is far more biodiverse now than it was in the 1700s.

The fundamental goal of NAP — to freeze the landscape at one particular point in time and recreate that point on a large scale — is absurd and expensive. Ecology is all about change and evolution. NAP denies both. Plants that survived here 250 years ago may not do well in today’s environment, significantly altered since then by pollution, not to mention climate change.

On Dec. 15, the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Park Commission will meet to discuss whether to fully implement NAP’s management plans.

If those plans make no sense to you, please write both commissions and the mayor and tell them you don’t support NAP. Tell them you want all forests in “natural” areas transferred away from NAP management. You want NAP to stop using poisonous herbicides. You don’t want the NAP Management Plan implemented. And you prefer instead what’s known as the “Maintenance Alternative” that would allow NAP to continue to manage those areas they’ve already replanted, but prohibit them from doing any new destruction of non-native habitats.

People don’t want their neighborhood parks to be “nothing but sand, brambles, and raging winds.” They want them lush, green and forested, and they don’t really care if they’re native or not.

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

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