Help Save Mount Sutro Trails

San Francisco Urban Riders, (SFUR) a group of bicycle riders, has a good post on saving Mount Sutro Trails. The article was intended to encourage cyclists to come to the meeting that UCSF held yesterday (and to the walk planned for Saturday October 24th). We say it’s a good post, because even though they come down on the other side of our effort to save Mt Sutro, there’s a lot there we agree with. [ETA: We particularly liked that they mentioned we think the forest is “a marvel.” Yes.] And one point we don’t.

First, what we agree with is that the trail-building on Mt Sutro is really good work, and we appreciate it. We’ve encountered mountain bikers up there, and they are unfailingly courteous and pleasant. We like having this wild area open to this activity. (See the posts on Museum-ification.) Some of us ride, too. And for those who volunteer to keep the trails open for everyone to use, thank you.

So, where do we disagree?

The main point is the “long dry spells.” If you’ve been riding your bikes up there, you know there aren’t any. Mount Sutro is in the fog belt. After a short spring comes the summer fog, and we’re lucky to get 3-4 fogless days at a stretch before the fog rolls in again. And when it’s foggy, the tall eucs grab the moisture, and it practically rains inside the forest. The duff holds in the moisture like a sponge; the blackberry and and ivy protect it from evaporation.

UCSF spoke about a high-risk period from September to November, when the fog disappears and we get hot dry winds. So we are keeping a Fog Log. Check it out.

We also disagree with Jake Sigg’s analysis of eucalyptus. But we’ll get to that separately.

Back to the topic at hand. We appreciate that SFUR and Mt Sutro Stewards have been doing marvelous work in keeping the trails open. What we don’t see is why this connects to the dangerous plan to gut nearly a quarter of the forest. The only reason seems to be some strange kind of a reciprocity – we keep the trails open, so help us get FEMA funding for a project we want. The fire danger in the two selected areas is minimal – so it has to be about something else. When the leaders talk longingly of lost wildflower meadows (like Twin Peaks?) it would seem that might just be native plants.

The support of the neighbors who live with mountain and the forest is also important to encouraging UCSF to keep the trails open to communities like bikers. We share a lot of common ground (no pun intended).

The planned 14-acre tree-felling project though, has nothing to recommend it, and a lot of downsides for the surrounding communities:

  • An increase in fire hazard;
  • An artificial re-rating of the area from moderate fire risk to very high fire risk, driving up insurance and reducing home values;
  • Gallons of toxic herbicides being spread on steep slopes above our neighborhoods;
  • The risk of landslides once the trees are gone; the loss of a windbreak;
  • and a loss of the sight, the scent, the sounds of the forest.
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9 Responses to Help Save Mount Sutro Trails

  1. NatureLover says:

    I’ve seen this “reciprocity” argument used repeatedly in the parks of San Francisco over many years. The volunteers become the de facto “owners” of the park. The official owners of the parks (such as the Rec & Park Dept or in this case UCSF) turn a blind eye because it works for them. Anything accomplished by the volunteers is work the employees don’t have to do. The REAL owners of the parks–the taxpayers–are often outraged by the unauthorized actions of the volunteers, particularly when other forms of recreation are restricted by fences, etc.

    This is not a new scenario. The volunteers should not be surprised or outraged that the owners of public land will sometimes object to their unilateral, unauthorized actions in the parks.

    All this conflict can be avoided if the official owners of the land–in this case UCSF–will create an oversight organization that represents ALL interests. In this case, the interests of the neighbors are not presently well represented amongst the folks who call themselves “stewards.” And UCSF is a passive partner with the stewards. They need to be more actively engaged in supervising the actions of the stewards.

  2. Dirk says:

    Am I the only person who finds the trails a mixed blessing? I got along fine before them.

    • savesutro says:

      They can be a mixed blessing. This is a Cloud Forest, and opening it up tends to dry it out, which has already happened in some spots.

      But overall, when people can come into the forest, it’s more people to love the forest and support it. It’s the same as for National Parks – they would be most natural unvisited, but who then would speak for them when it’s needed?

      Most of us who visit the forest use these very trails.

  3. Steven says:

    I know virtually nothing about fire management in urban forests, wildlands or otherwise.
    I’m wondering how you know that your conjectures about the fire risk worsening are true?
    On the surface it seems logical that opening up more space would cause less fog drip, more winds and more sunlight which could make conditions drier. But how do you know?
    Have you consulted with fire experts or done experiments testing moisture levels in the “duff”?
    What is duff anyways, is it different from dirt?
    How do you know that duff holds in water “like a sponge”?
    How much fog drip is required to maintain enough moisture in the soil?
    Is there a point where more fog drip doesn’t just oversaturate the duff and run off the hill or get soaked into the ground under the duff (i.e. overly muddy conditions)?
    Why wouldn’t other plants besides blackberry and ivy also hold the moisture if planted under eucs?
    Does blackberry and ivy have special water holding properties?
    Are there perhaps other plants that would hold moisture better than blackberry and ivy?
    Also, if a fire started how would having moist duff on the ground stop the burning that’s happening in the tree foilage?
    The fireman who spoke at the meeting seemed to think that there was fire risk even under moist, humid conditions. Does a fireman trained in the subject know less than you do about it?
    Are you saying he’s wrong and you have special fire risk analysis expertise?
    I’m not saying you’re wrong but I think that you’ve made a lot of assumptions and conclusions that seem logical but may have no factual basis and we are to trust some guys living near the forest just because you’re confident you’re right. Have you consulted with any experts in this field and can you provide a report of increased fire risk?
    Ultimately the burden of proof does not fall on you, rather UCSF, but just saying fire risk will go up doesn’t make it true. What if you’re wrong and leaving things as-is will increase fire risk?
    That would be a mistake I think especially because the opportunity exists to get money to mitigate a potential risk. Yes, that’s a lot of questions but we need the answers to them. You seem like intelligent people but no one knows everything about all topics; you can’t possibly be an expert in fire mitigation, eucalyptus, duff, water, landslides, chemicals, etc, etc all at once.

    • webmaster says:

      Steven, just for you, I posted a picture on the October Fog Log where I tried to show the duff. The trail was dry, because the duff is cleared off them. But next to it, the duff was wet. (I stuck my finger in to see.) It shows up on the photograph as a darker layer. (Scroll down, it’s near the bottom.)

  4. webmaster says:

    No, we can’t all be experts on everything, and none of us claim to be. But we can research things, draw on experience of others, observe stuff, and ask experts. As webmaster, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.

    So: to your dozen or so questions. (And thanks for asking them!)

    Duff is the dead and decaying organic matter – dead leaves and twigs that builds up under the trees. It’s spongy (gives a little when you step on it) and holds water better than the thin soil and rock that surfaces the mountain. Eventually it decays into soil, but it takes time, and in a forest, there’s a lot of it. On this mountain, it actually can act like topsoil – plants can root in it.

    How much fog drip does it take? I don’t know what the minima are, but this forest gets much more than that. You’re right, there is a point at which it oversaturates and runs off. If we have 2-3 consecutive cloudy days, we get to that point.

    Blackberry and ivy don’t have special water-holding properties that I know of. The reason they help is that they grow fast and thick and are green year-round. So they cover the duff in a dense green layer, which naturally holds in the moisture. Other plants with those properties would work just as well, but that isn’t what is intended. What’s intended is more like the Native Plant garden, which doesn’t hold moisture well.

    Fires have to start somewhere. They typically start on the ground – which is much less likely if its moist and humid; or by lightening strikes – which also don’t spread in humid conditions. That’s why they post fire-danger warnings in forests when conditions are dry, but not when they’re wet.

    As for the forest being dryer where it’s opened – it is intuitive, but it’s also evident. There’s an easy place to check it out: The Native Garden, which is open, and surrounded by trees. Go see for yourself. I did, several times. Frequently it will be dry in the garden and wet only steps away, under the trees. Take a look at this Fog Log – scroll down for pictures of puddles in the forest and dryness in the Garden.

    I’ll address some of your other questions in a separate comment.

  5. NatureLover says:

    Steven’s question about the existing understory, that is, if it has special water-retention properties, deserves a little more explication.

    The advantage of the existing understory is that it tolerates shade. It is therefore a symbiotic relationship between the canopy that catches the fog, and the understory that needs the fog drip to survive and thrives in the shade.

    In contrast, the understory that is prescribed by the FEMA grant application is exclusively native plants. Because there were few trees in “native” San Francisco, the plants that are native to the San Francisco do not tolerate shade. They are adapted to full sun. That’s why they are thriving on the summit, sans shade. That’s also why the nativists are keen to destroy most of the eucalyptus, so that they can plant their preferred plants and the plants are more likely to survive if they have more sun.

    Also, because many native plants are dormant during the dry summer months–which is also the fire season–they are not a suitable substitute for the existing understory which is green year around, IF YOU ACCEPT the premise that the primary reason for this entire project is to reduce fire hazard.

    All these statements can be verified by existing literature. Let me know if footnotes are required.

  6. webmaster says:

    Steven, I just saw the previous comment from Nature Lover. It’s very insightful, IMO.

    If you don’t already have more information than you bargained for, I’ll also continue:

    I heard what the fireman was saying – that fires can happen unpredictably. But the plan here wouldn’t help with that – the only thing that would, would be felling the whole forest, not gutting 14 acres of it.

    And even if the forest were gone – you could still get fires. Consider Angel Island. In the fifty years it was covered with eucalyptus, there was one fire – in a building. In the years since the eucs were removed, there have been two, including one it October 2008. San Bruno mountain had a grass fire. This very area had a grass fire over a hundred years ago, when there were far fewer trees.

    I agree the burden of proof is on UCSF. But there’s been no substantiation of the fire-risk in this forest, which may be the wettest place in San Francisco. CalFire shows the whole mountain as having “moderate” risk, which is their lowest risk rating. The maps that UCSF used in the FEMA application showed a high fire risk on a hillside in the Forest Knolls neighborhood. The updated version of that shows two areas of risk in the forest – neither of them the project areas.

    The burden of proof isn’t just to show that opening the forest would not increase the fire risk. Before spending $0.45 m of taxpayers money meant for emergencies and student fees, UCSF needs to establish that (a) There is a Very High Fire Hazard and (b) the Plan would actually reduce it – hopefully by more than the 10-15% the FEMA application says it will.

    What’s planned is drastic, and will have all kinds of neighborhood impacts – both from the implementation of it, and from the reclassification of fire hazard from “Moderate” to “Very Severe.” Especially since it’s obviously untrue.

    My personal opinion (not speaking as webmaster) is that the FEMA application reads like something written in a hurry by someone who isn’t familiar with the neighborhood, the fog-belt, or the forest.

    This is not a well-thought-out project.

  7. Pingback: Dialogue with Sutro Biker « Save Mount Sutro Forest

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