Two weeks ago, I visited the forest surrounding the Meiji shrine, in Tokyo, Japan. As with the Sutro Cloud Forest, I was struck by the wonderful old trees growing in the heart of a city, and wanted to find out more. I found this article, which starts:
“There’s a deep, lush forest close to the center of Tokyo. The trees grow on the grounds of Meiji Shrine, and as soon as you’re under them you’re in a world of tranquility, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
Exchange “Tokyo” for “San Francisco,” and “Meiji Shrine” for “UCSF,” and you could be talking about our own Sutro Cloud Forest.
The forest at the Meiji shrine was also planted, about 80 years ago, on 178 acres of formerly open land. [ETA: Here’s the Google map, together with one of Sutro Forest. (As a deciduous forest, the Meiji shrine forest may change depending on which season the map was updated.)]
It’s about twice the size of Sutro Cloud Forest (80 acres including the Green Belt), but only two-thirds as old.
Honda Seiroku planted the forest in Tokyo with 100,000 trees of 365 species, a density of 560 trees per acre. Today, there are 170,000 trees in that forest, a density of 955 trees per acre.
According to the FEMA application Sutro Forest has 740 trees per acre.
The management plan for the Meiji Shrine Forest is clearly laid down: “The idea was to let Nature take its course once the planting was done… the trees were allowed to grow and reproduce without human intervention.”
In the 80 years since that forest was planted, it’s lost a third of the original species. Has the loss in biodiversity prompted a change in plan? Not really, because it is natural for the trees best suited to the environment thrive at the expense of the others.
The article describes the philosophy behind managing the woodland: ” ‘All we do is keep watch over the trees growing on their own, and help them remain in a natural state,‘ says Okizawa Koji, a horticulturist administering the shrine forest. If a tree falls over it is allowed to rot where it is and return to the earth. All leaves falling on pathways are gathered and dropped on the forest floor. Nothing is taken out of the forest, nothing is brought in. Everything is left to nature…”
What is evident from the article, and from a visit to the forest itself, is the deep reverence in which this forest is held. It is considered a treasure.
Is this true of Mt Sutro’s Cloud Forest?
Not so much. The Mount Sutro Stewards – who have de facto management of the forest – support the destruction of thousands of its trees. They look to reduce its density to a few trees per acre, more suited to a plantation than a forest. Indeed, they consider it a “plantation” – here’s a quote from an article by Jake Sigg, one of the Stewards (posted on the SF Urban Riders website):
” All “forests” (in this case, not a forest but a plantation) must be managed, whether by nature or by man. “
He goes on to say, “Adolf Sutro’s plantation is no longer robust, in part because decades of prodigious self-sowing means that there are too many trees competing for too little space and other resources, something that wouldn’t happen in a natural forest.”
He talks of “prodigious self-sowing” as though it’s a bad thing. Uh, no. In fact, that is the natural way. Plants self-sow; the successful survive, the others don’t. It is precisely what does happen in a natural forest. It’s only in a garden or a plantation that people artificially intervene. What holds good for Seiroku-sama’s forest is also true of Sutro’s forest.
Mr Sigg’s article refers regretfully to the original planting: “Mt Sutro was one of those inappropriate areas—putting a tree plantation on top of a priceless wildflower/ grassland...” His regret, though, may be misplaced. As early as 200 years ago, non-native grasses already dominated the grasslands of California, especially in ranches and farms. They grew faster, adapted better and were better fodder. Since dairy cattle grazed where Cole Valley is now, grasslands on Mount Sutro were likely already of these varieties. In any case, the nearby Twin Peaks, never afforested, requires effort and herbicides to achieve even what little it does in terms of “native” plants.
BLACKBERRY IN THE ECOSYSTEM
He goes on to say, “ Further, the now-changed Sutro environment creates conditions for the invasion and proliferation of Himalayan blackberry, and English, Algerian, and Cape ivies. They form smothering blankets and impenetrable thickets that deprive access to both humans and animals…”
It’s true the thorny blackberry thickets (whether Himalayan Blackberry or California Blackberry, both of which grow there) deny access to people . Animals and birds, though, get into them just fine. In fact, owing to that impenetrability, they provide important cover and safe nesting and denning sites.
Or at least they did, until the Stewards started ripping out the forest’s understory of “invasive blackberry” – a plant that not only provides protective cover for the birds and animals, but in the berrying season is a major food source for fauna, and year round helps conserve the moisture of the Cloud Forest.
Jake Sigg’s article continues: “The blackberry and ivies, incidentally, also prevent the trees from regenerating, as seeds can’t germinate in the ivy/blackberry thickets. It is ironical that the blue gums carry the seeds of their own destruction, and only humans can assure their continuance here.” These were the trees that were self-sowing prodigiously? The same trees that for 100 years before the Stewards intervention thrived and grew and multiplied on the mountain?
The only excuse for this destructive maintenance is an aversion to non-natives. The article stresses that the trees are Tasmanian; the blackberry Himalayan; and the ivies, English, Algerian and from the Cape. (There’s also poison oak in the forest, but that’s native and warrants no mention.)
The Mt Sutro Stewards’ efforts to keep the Mountain’s trails open are laudable, despite the trade-off in the drying out of the forest and the disturbance of habitat. Their destructive intervention in the remaining forest is not.