Report: UCSF Sutro Forest meeting, June

This meeting, held at small Faculty center, was large and contentious. The Native Plant supporters were well-represented. There were some irate opponents, and some interested neighbors/forest-users who have not been continuously involved in the process.

The most important issue discussed was fundamental: Is UCSF acting in good faith? Or are its actions independent of these discussions? Some speakers also felt that the meetings appear to be managed so as to appear to provide community input, but actually do not.

I personally got into a detailed discussion with Vice-Chancellor Barbara French: Who makes decisions regarding the forest? She clarified that she does, together with Maric Munn (Director of Facilities Management) and Lori Yamauchi (Assistant Vice Chancellor, Campus Planning). While we talked, some of the audience got impatient and suggested we take it offline. I felt it was important, but Barbara had not earlier been open to meeting separately, thus forcing me to use this forum. (Afterward, though it was growing very late, she was kind enough to talk for a while.)

The general themes discussed:

  • UCSF and Community input: Is the process broken?
  • Demonstration areas: Four of them, up from one or two; 7.5 acres, up from around 2 acres. Done deal?
  • Herbicides, tarpaulin and goats to prevent regrowth: Cheap, easy, and lethal vs. non-toxic
  • Environmental review and budgets: Who certifies the review? What’s the budget for this whole thing?
  • Natives vs “Exotics”: How much bias toward Natives?
  • Health, Safety and Aesthetics: Leaf-spot disease, trees vs. forest, hazardous trees, and definitions of beauty.


Two recent events made some neighbors question whether UCSF actually responded to community input:

  • The chain-link fence affair, where UCSF had agreed to return Pad 4 in the Aldea Housing  area to the forest, but instead has put a chain-link fence around a concrete slab and called it Open Space;

(Barbara French said mistakes were made, and she was hitting a Pause button.  She did not know whether the fence would be removed.)

  • The mowing down of broad swathes of the understory along the trails, (discussed here and here). One specific topic at the prior agenda-planning meeting was what changes are permissible ahead of the base-line evaluation for the Environmental Review? Understory removal was specifically discussed. We’d thought mowing down large areas of understory would count as changing the forest’s ecology; but it’s been considered “maintenance” and gone forward.

There was not much discussion on opening up the forest, or the dangers thereof.

Several speakers came to UCSF’s defence.  One said “It’s their land, we’re their guests.” Others responded with “No, it’s public land” and “They’re a state institution.” One member of the Community Action Group (a group of neighbors who give feedback to UCSF on various issues) said UCSF is much more responsive that it was in the past, and actually seeks community input. Others veterans of earlier UCSF battles (Third Avenue, Laurel Heights) said that only through strong action from the neighbors had UCSF become more responsive.  Views needed to be vigorously expressed and defended.

We spoke about a key concern: With the perception that the process is broken and UCSF will do what it pleases, people have reduced involvement as a waste of time.

Some speakers objected that the whole community meeting process appeared to be managed; most of the time was allocated to presentations by Ray Moritz, UCSF’s hired arborist. The Demonstration Areas were presented as a foregone conclusion, with statements like “Trees will be cut and 90-100% of the undergrowth mowed” (though there was a passing mention of Environmental Review.) Moderator Daniel Iacafano responded flexibly by allowing discussions all through the meeting.  We found this much more valuable than the detailed presentations regarding the demonstration plots.


Ray Moritz made a presentation about plans for four demonstration areas, as mentioned at the Agenda-planning meeting. We had understood that the idea was to choose one of them; but it appeared that they were now talking of doing all four demonstration plots : 3 acres on South Ridge; 2 acres at Edgewood; 2 acres along and above the seasonal creek; and 0.5 acres at the Nutka Grass area. This would total 7.5 acres, three times the originally envisaged amount, with the greatest impacts at South Ridge, (where over 85% of the trees would be removed together with the entire understory) and at the Creek. The Edgewood area would focus mainly on hazardous trees, understory removal, and vine removal. The plan for the three larger areas is to space the trees 30-60 feet apart, and remove 90-100% of the understory.

What they were seeking to demonstrate is primarily how it looks, and how to prevent re-sprouting. There was some talk of ecosystem impacts and wildlife; some speakers were extremely concerned with habitat. That discussion was not carried further, mainly because no one seemed to know very much about it, or how to evaluate it. It did not seem to be a significant issue for the presenters. (Click here for a more detailed article about the demonstration projects.)


There was also considerable discussion about preventing re-sprouting, preferably without herbicides. Though many spoke strongly against pesticide use, an effort to develop a consensus around this one item failed. One speaker, who had owned a farm said “Let me tell you, herbicides aren’t so bad. Roundup works and it loses its effectiveness as soon as it gets wet.”  The main argument in favor of pesticides was that they were cheap, easy, and lethal, but then again, chemically-killed eucalyptus sprouts around a dead trunk would look bad. There was no discussion about the downsides of adding toxic chemicals to the mountain, but most people seemed to agree it was better avoided if possible.

Other options presented included covering the tree-stump with tarpaulin and weed-cloth, blocking the sprouts from growing; and hand-removal of sprouts. Finally, they talked of  goats, more for understory management than eucalyptus sprout management (they don’t like euc sprouts). One person mentioned that fencing in goats also fences in the wildlife, which cannot then find water or cover;  goat use must be carefully managed.


Someone asked who would certify the Environmental Review under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Kevin Beauchamp, Director of Physical Planning, said it would be certified by the UC Regents, who could delegate that authority to the President or the Chancellor of UCSF.

Some speakers asked who would supply the funding, since the FEMA application had been withdrawn. The answer was, UCSF. We asked for estimated expenditure on demonstration areas. No one had any numbers; apparently, estimates varied so much that even a range was impossible to define. Barbara French said that UCSF had a budget of around $150 thousand available as money that would have been used in the FEMA project.

Maric Munn answered a question raised at an earlier meeting regarding UCSF’s legal responsibility to maintain the forest. UCSF’s legal department told her that there is no specific responsibility of maintenance, but they do have a responsibility to maintain a reasonable standard of safety for communities abutting the forest, and for visitors.


Some discussion centered on Native Plants, following Ray Moritz characterizing blackberry as an “Exotic Invasive.” We objected that the entire forest was non-native, so that was hardly the point.

Another speaker asked for a clarification that no eucalyptus is native to California, because she thought she heard someone say it was. Ray Moritz responded that some referred to the trees as “naturalized” because they do well in California. There was laughter from the Native Plant supporters (We’d guess that most of them would, by that same definition, be naturalized…)

The Demonstration area presentation kept returning to the theme of Native Plants, where the understory would be mowed down (excluding Natives).


Ray Moritz claimed that the forest was in poor health, and thinning the trees would improve it. He mentioned a lab had found evidence of Mycosphaeralla infections. We are researching this further, but our first impression is that this fungal leaf disease is a problem mainly for young trees, under 6 years old. Natural eucalyptus forests, particularly in damp conditions, naturally have a number of leaf fungi and also pests.

In plantations, where the health of each tree is important for the crop, fungicides may be sprayed. (We do not advocate this.) One source noted: Leaf spots typically do not warrant control on ornamental or forest trees because they are of minor consequence to tree health. However, organic fungicides are sometimes used to control severe outbreaks. (Leininger, T.D; Solomon, J.D.; Wilson, A. Dan; Schiff, N.M. 1999) Tree thinning has not been offered as a remedy in any of the literature we looked at.

We also found some confusion between the health of a forest and the health of individual trees. In a forest, as opposed to a plantation, some trees will naturally be deformed or smaller or weaker or diseased and dying. It’s part of the ecosystem, especially in old-growth forests. It’s the health of the whole forest that needs to be considered. In a garden or a plantation, only healthy plants are allowed; unhealthy ones are treated or removed. We think that Ray Moritz approaches this as a plantation that needs managing, rather than as a natural forest where natural selection and adaptation will determine outcomes.

Finally, there was some discussion of safety, particularly pruning or removal of hazardous trees that threatened homes. We advocated dealing with these as necessary to protect homes and neighbors rather than incorporating them in demonstration plots.  Along the trails, however, there is little need; accidents with falling trees are very rare. (A UK study cited a 1 in 20 million chance of being hit by a falling tree. You’re 40 times more likely to be struck by lightning: 1 in 500,000 according to the National Weather Service.)

Aesthetics are more subjective. Some speakers preferred the look of the open forest; others the mysterious sense of seclusion. This is a difficult standard to measure except at the extremes.

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10 Responses to Report: UCSF Sutro Forest meeting, June

  1. Sutro Resident says:

    Their attitude and apparent inability to see this environment as the successful ecosystem that it is is disturbing to say the least. To add insult to injury the changes they propose really seem to increase the risk of fire danger (reducing moisture, increased wind and flammable native shrubs, etc) while also damaging the ecology. UCSF is clearly just pushing through their own agenda regardless of the impact and any EIR is merely an empty gesture after the fact since their actions will already have effected the balance of the ecosystems and wildlife. This should not be permitted especially in a supposedly environmentally responsible city like San Francisco. Someone needs to make a film about this and spread the word.

  2. Dirk says:

    I would like to comment on Maric Munn’s presentation.
    When the forest was relatively undeveloped seven years ago, the fact that the University has the normal responsibility to ensure safety required much less action on its part than today. Today the hill is criss-crossed by a dense network of trails, and almost every month we see new “improvements” designed to permit greater access to the hill. So avoiding liability is now a large concern to the University. But it wouldn’t have been if it had left the hill alone. Whether it realizes it or not, the University has pre-ordained increased development on the hill. None of us can argue against actions designed to avoid liability. And several years ago, we wouldn’t have had to.
    This points to a very fundamental difference in approach: the University, the Stewards, and to a great extent the arborists as well see the forest as requiring management to survive. Others including myself would rather see natural processes follow their course. If in areas of the forest trees are crowded (like on the South Ridge) natural consequences will eventually be brought to play: the trees won’t grow. This is no tragedy- natural areas manage themselves the world over.

  3. milliontrees says:

    The roots of destroyed eucalypts cannot be destroyed with Roundup. Roundup has been used in the past by many managers of public lands without success.

    The significantly more toxic Garlon is now used by managers of public lands to destroy the roots of eucalypts and other non-native plants. We have seen the pesticide application notices of Garlon use in SF’s city-owned “natural areas,” in the East Bay Regional Park District, in National Parks, and on UC Berkeley property.

    You can inform yourself of the toxicity of Garlon on this website as well as on the MillionTrees website.

    All herbicides are not created equal. Inform yourself of WHICH herbicide will be used before giving it a pass.

  4. Sutro Resident says:

    Exactly milliontrees, and clearly UCSF and the ‘stewards’ that want to use herbicides and fungicides really are not concerned about the consequences to the other flora, fauna or to people that could ultimately be impacted by these chemicals leeching into the ground water or running off. Even if they don’t care about that isn’t this stuff bad for dogs too?

    • webmaster says:

      Just to clarify, we’re the only ones who mentioned fungicides. And Garlon’s the stuff that’s bad for dogs. It was one of the herbicides discussed: Roundup and Garlon.

  5. Michael Scott says:

    I find it interesting that in your summary of this meeting you neglected to point that that a key member of the audience was a Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) Coordinator who also identified himself as a retired firefighter. He even mentioned that to the untrained eye this may look like a healthy forest when in fact it is not. Further, he expressed his concern about the possibility of a wildfire in this forest and pointed out that it would be a tremendously difficult task to manage a wildfire if this should occur. Somehow this important testimony from one who has experience battling wildfares was left out of your meeting summary.

    Additionally, I’ve been following this process for the past year and what I have found is that the small group of maybe half a dozen or so individuals who strongly oppose any plans or changes to the forest simply criticize and complain about the process rather than offer any suggestions of their own. I have not heard or witnessed any proposals by those opposed to these plans as to what they would suggest doing in order to maintain a healthy forest. So I find it ironic that many of you would say the process feels “managed” when you haven’t proposed anything other than to leave the forest as it is.

    Lastly, in my mind, it doesn’t matter if the window of opportunity for a wildfire to occur on Mt. Sutro is one week or one day out of the year. I could care less about the chances of being “struck by lightning” being greater than a tree limb falling or a wildfire being started. It only takes that one spark to start a fire and it’s best to be aware and cautious of the conditions that can lead to a hazard than to be completely ignorant of them.

    • webmaster says:

      Michael, thanks for stopping by to comment.

      We didn’t mention fire because we didn’t think it was one of the key points, but since you do, it’s good you commented. Fire has been discussed the whole year, starting with the since-withdrawn FEMA application.

      Though the undisturbed forest hasn’t much fire risk (it’s rate Moderate by Calfire, which is its lowest rating) it’s quite possible for fire risk to be created there, and that’s our concern.

      We’ll follow up on your other two points separately.

    • webmaster says:

      Michael, on the point of the apparent “small group.” There’s a large group that wants the forest to remain undisturbed – more than even I’m aware of until I suddenly get an email or a message from someone I didn’t know before.

      Thing is, once an oppositional situation develops, it takes a substantial commitment of time and energy. Also, some find it too upsetting or infuriating, and they’d rather not be upset or mad. If they suspect bad faith, they get even angrier, and would rather not waste their time talking (which is why I thought this was a key issue). The people who you keep seeing are those who are in the position to make that commitment, take that emotional risk. The others work in less visible ways to support the effort. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

      As for the plan: Here it is, in summary. Disturb the forest as little as possible, allowing natural processes to eliminate the weaker trees. In particular, do not open the forest to dry it out and raise fire-danger. Maintain the trails for public access, but make them as narrow as will allow for use by mountain-bikers/ joggers/ walkers, and build them so the drainage is cross-trail into the duff to preserve the moisture in the forest. Regularly inspect for hazardous trees where they impinge on homes, and prune or fell as required.

    • webmaster says:

      Finally: Probabilities. I agree that it’s sometimes worth planning for highly improbable events. My concern is that the planned action actually raises the risk of fire, as mentioned in my response to your first point.

      On the risk from falling trees or tree branches – the only way to prevent that would be to get rid of all trees. I looked at recent cases where someone got killed or seriously hurt by a falling tree or tree branch; in half of them, no one had any clue there was a problem with the tree. (That included an oak tree that suddenly dropped branches on people in a Napa cycling race.) I think it’s a very high price to pay… and the cost in carbon dioxide, pollution and other urban ills would probably take more lives.

  6. Pingback: The “Demonstration Projects” « Save Mount Sutro Forest

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