The Failed Experiment at Tank Hill

Tank Hill

Someone emailed us to ask why UCSF were  bothering with demonstration projects, when there was the obvious example of Tank Hill. “Trees were cut down, natives planted and died,”  said the email. What did they achieve?

So we looked into it.


In 2002, it was neighbors vs the NAP (“Natural Areas Program”) on Tank Hill. The NAP – and Native Plant volunteers associated with them – were cutting down mature eucalyptus trees growing around the old tank pad to improve the environment for native plants. The neighbors, who loved the trees and the little park with the big views, battled to save the trees. Community groups and political leaders were involved.

Eventually, the Management Plan recommendations were to (1) Get rid of the French broom and replace it with Native scrub and Native trees to create a habitat for small birds, especially passerines (2) Remove no more eucalyptus until “until the newly planted native trees have reached an adequate size to provide replacement habitat.” (3) Replace the logs that demarcated the trails “with with a system of rustic fencing.”

The upshot was that many trees (26, according to one source) were felled, but others were saved.  Native plants were put in, including oak saplings planned to eventually replace the eucalyptus. Three existing species of native plants were slated for protection: Clarkia Rubicundia, California yellow violets and broadleaf stonecrop. These, they said, were host plants for endangered butterflies.


May 2002, immediately post-implementation

So here we are in 2010 eight years later. What’s changed?

Not much. A few Coyote brush bushes have grown a bit larger. The grass is dry and yellow. Many of the rustic fences are gone.

graffiti and cigarette butts

Someone (Recs and Parks?) has tried to remove the graffiti from the rocks (which is hard because the surface is rough), and only a few cigarette butts and pieces of broken glass remain.

July 2010 - Tank Hill now

We spotted three types of butterflies: the West Coast Lady, the Red Admiral, and the Cabbage White. (All three figure are among the city’s top ten most common butterflies.)  The only birds we saw were two white-crowned sparrows, which flew in from trees on the adjacent private property.

There are no oak trees or other native trees.  (And the remaining eucalyptus has not invaded the area, either.)

Tank Hill is an amazing view-platform. It gets a broad panorama, with the greenness and motion of the Sutro Forest on one side, Cole Valley below, and Golden Gate Park and the sea beyond; on the other side, there’s the city.

As an area of “Significant Natural Resources”? Not so much. The Clarkia still blooms on the Western slope, as it did even before the “restoration.” And it has a few coyote brush bushes. And a scattering of golden poppies. Lots of bare ground and dead grass. And two dozen dead trees still green in neighbors’ memories.

A view from Tank Hill

This entry was posted in Environment, eucalyptus, nativism, Neighborhood impact and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Failed Experiment at Tank Hill

  1. Susan Krzywicki says:

    What do you think would have been a more successful strategy? Did it die off because there was no follow-through? What could be done going forward?

    • webmaster says:

      Those are good questions. Perhaps the whole idea was misconceived. Many natives need years of watering to get established. Native plant “restoration” creates gardens, which need continuing ongoing maintenance, so follow-through may have been an issue. Some people have said that oaks can’t survive on Tank Hill because it’s too windy.

      A truly natural area has plants that are naturalized to that location, and can safely be ignored, but any gardener knows how much work even a small garden is.

      If Tank Hill could be replayed, I’d have suggested: (1) Find out what the neighbors want before it becomes a huge battle. Killing the trees bought the NAP nothing, but antagonized many people. (2) Factor in the labor-hours required to establish and maintain the resulting garden; and decide if the payoff is worth it. (3) If improved access for the community is one of the payoffs, factor in more trash-and-graffiti removal, and set up a regular schedule of inspection. (4) Really understand needs of animals if the objective is to improve habitat. A lot of assumptions – for instance, that birds and insects don’t use eucalyptus – turn out to be false with even a little observation and research. Don’t destroy habitat because it’s “non-native.”

      • Charlie says:

        Poorly done native plant restoration can create ‘gardens’ but well done restoration does not. It is understandable that after seeing a project with no follow-up you might feel this way but there are lots of successful projects too. It seems that there just wasn’t enough community involvement with this one, or something. Most restoration projects that fail do so due to the wrong plants being chosen, no work being done on early watering and weeding, or plants being installed in late spring/summer.

        Also this is going to be a harder sale here but why does everyone think every part of California needs to be full of trees? Trees are beautiful but they are not meant to grow everywhere. If you want to live in dense forest, why not try anywhere in the US east of the 100th meridian. You say you don’t like the weather there? Well, this is not a coincidence- trees LIKE places with lots of rain and moderate amounts of snow. Sure, it is possible to get Australian tree groves to survive in parts of California where trees don’t naturally occur, but I don’t really see the appeal. I *love* shrubland and honestly I do prefer that over eucs. but that is getting into matters of aesthetics.

        • webmaster says:

          Trees provide all kinds of benefit, from reducing the heat island effect to sequestering carbon and providing habitat.
          California used to have lots more trees – some of them are now our houses and fences. The landscape we live in has changed. It has fewer trees, more cars. We’re not objecting to preserving shrubland. But “restoration” that doesn’t account for changed environments only impoverishes them.

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  3. milliontrees says:

    Tank Hill should be a cautionary tale for UCSF, as they plan for the destruction of the forest on Mt. Sutro. Their plans are dependent upon a small band of volunteers. Likewise the trees on Tank Hill were destroyed to satisfy the demands of a nativist volunteer who was living in the neighborhood at the time.

    He wasn’t employed, so he spent much of his time on Tank Hill, planting, weeding, watering, even picking up individual eucalyptus leaves. And because he was doing the work that would otherwise be done by paid employees of the Rec & Park Dept, they were beholden to him. When he demanded that trees be cut down, they did that for him. When he demanded fences, he got fences. When he demanded signs (KEEP OUT!!), he got signs.

    And then he moved away. I assume he’s doing something like he did on Tank Hill in another neighborhood. I pity the poor visitors to his new park. They will be harassed constantly by this militant member of the “nature police,” as they were dubbed by an article in the Chronicle Magazine about Glen Park where another squad of the nature police intimidates park visitors.

    So, Tank Hill has reverted to its more natural origins, but the trees are gone for good. And that is the lesson for UCSF. Your plans are dependent upon the continued commitment of volunteers over whom you apparently have little control. When they tire of their project, you will be left with a mess, but a mess without trees.

  4. Charlie says:

    It’s a really good point that relying on volunteers is a risky strategy. So my question is, why do we HAVE to? Why are natural resources and urban forestry projects not funded properly? That is of course a side issue, though. Volunteers are great for one time work – trail maintenance, pulling weeds, etc… but it’s really hard to find volunteers willing to and able to make long-term committments. It does work sometimes. Pittsburgh has a lot of neat volunteer programs involving ‘urban eco-stewards’ and also people who volunteer to care for street trees.

  5. Jonathan says:

    [Webmaster: Edited. We respect opposing viewpoints and publish them here, but prefer a respectful tone on both sides.]

    I’m not seeing how a minor project on an exposed 2-acre hill that apparently had limited follow-through is an “experiment” that would say anything about Mt. Sutro.

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