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Tree Activists Are Still Not Letting Their Eucalyptus Fight Die

After a decades-long battle, the city has given the green light to start cutting down eucalyptus trees in natural areas. But the trees’ defenders are standing tall.


Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

On a steep
residential street near one of the entrances to the park on Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco, a stand of about 40 blue gum eucalyptus trees has just been chainsawed. Their shiny white stumps have been daubed with pesticide, and the sharp, medicinal tang of tree oil hangs in the air. Workers load branches into a screaming wood chipper; pieces too fat for the machine are strewn about to create new wildlife habitat. In the distance, thousands more ivy-clad eucalypti tower over undergrowth dense with brambles and poison oak. Many of them, too, will soon be razed. 

These particular trees are being cut for safety reasons. Many of them are dead or dying. One of the blue gums along this roadway—where neighbors walk their dogs and park their cars—would fall within days. But there are thousands of other eucalyptus trees that the city plans to remove simply because they’re eucalyptus—non-native imports from Australia. Despite San Francisco’s sanctuary status, these particular immigrants are not welcome here.

For the members of the San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA), the city’s decades-long campaign to remove some eucalyptus trees in the name of restoring native habitats is an outrage. In fact, they’d like to feed the whole plan into the chipper.

The origins of this bitter dispute go back to 1995, when the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department began developing a plan to steward more than 1,100 acres in 31 “natural areas” across the city (plus Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica). Natural areas are defined as places where remnants of the unique flora and fauna of San Francisco’s historic, pre-European landscape still exist; they include Bayview Park, Hawk Hill, Kite Hill, Billy Goat Hill, Glen Canyon Park, and Mount Davidson. In 1997, the city’s Natural Areas Program (NAP), which is responsible for these areas, began staffing up to execute the Natural Resource Area Management Plan (NRAMP), whose objective is to protect natural resources, restore habitats, and maintain trails, all while preserving recreational uses.

The problem is that habitat restoration requires the removal of non-native and/or invasive species—including eucalyptus trees. NRAMP’s 20-plus-year implementation period calls for the removal of 18,000 trees in 15 of the 31 natural areas. Here on Mount Davidson, the plan’s overall intent is to “slowly convert these areas to native scrub, and grassland habitats or oak woodlands.” Specific goals include sustaining monarch butterflies, western fence lizards, and the slender wild oat; to achieve these aims, NRAMP proposes cutting down 1,600 of the estimated 11,000 trees in the mountain’s 30-acre eucalyptus plantation.

For the Forest Alliance, which regards trees as sacrosanct, this plan is nothing short of mass murder. Its members don’t buy the city’s arguments for why the eucalyptus should be removed and don’t much care about the stated goal of rolling back the city’s ecological clock. So they set out to throw every roadblock they could in Rec and Park’s path. Using the California Environmental Quality Act to fight NRAMP’s implementation, the SFFA members began attending public hearings and lobbying supervisors at every opportunity. They helped tie the plan up for 22 years. But on February 28, the Board of Supervisors voted 9–1 to let the plan proceed.

A week after their Waterloo at City Hall, six SFFA members give me a tour of Mount Davidson. Our group includes a professional jazz pianist, a former member of the Weather Underground, two authors, and an international business consultant. Many live nearby and have become autodidacts on issues relating to forestry, land management, and non-native species. Jacquie Proctor, a retired public administrator from Miraloma Park and author of San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks, tells me, “Here we are in the second-densest city in the U.S., and we can walk up into this forest and be totally surrounded by greenery which blocks the noise of the city blocks and the view of city structures. They’re going to cut out the heart of the forest so we’ll be able to see Mount Tam.”

Proctor hands me a sheaf of papers that includes a presentation about the dangers of using herbicides, photos of birds and insects making use of San Francisco’s non-native plants, and a 2013 letter from Joe McBride, a UC Berkeley professor of urban forestry. McBride makes a thorough case that the NRAMP plan to remove and thin trees from the eucalyptus plantation is not justified. Among other things, he argues that the eucalyptus is not invasive, that the goal of restoring understory plants will be difficult to achieve, and that cutting trees will result in the remaining trees being more exposed to the wind and more dangerous to hikers.

A commonly held belief among Forest Alliance members is that the city’s ostensible goal of restoring native species is really a stalking horse for a covert agenda to replace urban forests with something closer to the city’s primordial terrain: grassy, windswept hills dotted with scrub. A “plant museum,” says interim SFFA president Dee Seligman.

Sarah Madland, Rec and Park’s director of policy and public affairs, dismisses this as “a little bit foolhardy.” She says the city’s goal isn’t to eradicate eucalyptus trees but to find a happy medium between preserving existing forests and restoring historic ones. “What we’re always trying to do is balance conservation, recreation, and access,” she says. She also notes that an independent arborist pegged 80 percent of the trees in the natural areas as being in poor, or at best fair, condition. “The natural extension of that is that some of them are going to fail on their own.”

It seems unlikely at this point that the sides will come to an agreement on this—or anything else. An exchange at the February 28 Board of Supervisors meeting was typical. NRAMP supporter Glen Roger, a landscape architect and member of the California Native Plant Society, said, “It’s not that eucalyptus trees are foreigners we want to decimate, and it’s not that we hate them. It is because these trees are killers. With 85 percent of the eucalyptus trees considered in poor health, walking on trails under these trees is—” At this point a eucalyptus advocate broke in, asking, “Are you a Republican?”

Conflating a pro-native-landscape position with reactionary politics is standard practice for eucalyptus defenders. On the Huffington Post, local tree advocate Nathan Winograd labeled efforts to reduce blue gum eucalyptus populations “environmental xenophobia.” SFFA member Matthew Steen, the former Weather Underground member, called those who would reestablish precolonial landscapes “eco-nihilists” carrying out “a pogrom on trees.” Commenters on a 2013 petition to prevent UCSF from culling eucalypti on Mount Sutro included one person who wrote, “Enough with this tree genocide,” and another who called the plan “the ecological equivalent of ethnic cleansing.” Hyperbole, clearly, is not a foreign concept to tree advocates.

San Francisco’s acres
of urban forests are largely the creation of Adolph Sutro, a philanthropist who set out to beautify his city by creating eucalyptus plantations in locales like Sutro Forest and the west side of Mount Davidson. From that peak’s vista point, the distinction between the native landscape and the one Sutro created stands out in sharp relief. The east side is covered in windswept reed grass. Ancient chert crops up along the pathways, and coastal shrubs are clumped about. This is the natural area. On the west side, Sutro’s eucalyptus plantation is a dense mass of foliage.

The introduced forest forms a wind buffer, lowers daytime temperatures, and renders nights less chilly. But the eucalyptus also changes the ecosystem around it in more problematic ways. Blue gum trees exude compounds that inhibit native undergrowth, creating optimal conditions for ivy, Himalayan blackberry, and other invasive intruders. Beyond the paths, this understory is downright impenetrable. Inside the urban forest there’s scarcely a breeze, and the scent of the trees’ volatile oil hangs in the air.

SFFA members counter that the city’s goal of restoring native landscapes will require the use of pesticides and countless hours of volunteer work to make even modest gains. One particularly sore spot for the eucalyptus’s defenders is the fact that some unknown party or parties has “girdled” some of the trees, removing a wide ring of bark from their bases. Deprived of nutrients, such trees slowly starve. SFFA members pin the blame on shadowy native plant vigilantes. The lone eucalyptus on the east side of Mount Davidson was purportedly girdled several years ago and fell after a windstorm in April 2013. Bleached white, its broken trunk and branches remain where they landed, just feet away from the vista point’s only bench. Like a medieval head on a pike, it feels like a tacit warning to the other trees: Stay on your side of the mountain.

Exactly how the natural areas plan will affect Mount Davidson isn’t clear yet. Each tree that’s cut will be replaced, but “it’s important to note that doesn’t mean one-for-one in the exact same place,” Rec and Park’s Madland says. “It’s throughout the system.” NRAMP’s plan claims it will “not change significantly the overall look of the park,” although a draft proposal calls for removing 2,867 feet of trail along with the 1,600 trees. Rec and Park says it won’t clear-cut trees but reserves the right to conduct “group selection.” This hardly reassures the SFFA.

After two hours of touring the mountain, the Forest Alliance members and I emerge not far from where the crew is still feeding hunks of eucalyptus into the wood chipper. The surrounding woods are intact, but there’s a new clearing peppered with green stumps. The plan calls this “selection silviculture”—the practice of harvesting trees to preserve an unevenly aged forest. Group members stand among the stumps for a few minutes to register anger and frustration that’s tempered with grim acceptance. As we say goodbye over the whine of the wood chipper, Proctor seems especially frustrated. “Why are you even writing this article now?” she asks. “It’s over.” SFFA director Rupa Bose disagrees. “The controversy’s not over, and it’s not going away,” she says. “And we’re not going away.”

At least for now, neither are the blue gums. Madland says there’s no timeline for culling the eucalyptus trees, though the department will continue to perform routine maintenance. Before the chain saws are fully unleashed, the agency must create a capital plan, followed by consensus-building community meetings. “After 20 years in the making, we’re taking a collective deep breath at this point,” she says. Even without the SFFA acting as sand in the agency’s gears, there’s still no easy way to cut down a tree—or to silence a tree supporter—in San Francisco.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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