Tree Lovers vs Nativists: Matt Smith in the SF Weekly

Matt Smith’s new column in the SF Weekly clearly indicates the battle lines for Mount Sutro’s forest: The Nativists, who want to “thin” the eucalyptus to plant native plants instead; and Neighbors and friends of the forest, who want to preserve this mysterious wild cloud forest in our midst.

Smith comes down strongly on the side of the nativists, (represented by Craig Dawson and Jake Sigg of the Mount Sutro Stewards). This volunteer group maintains the trails in the forest, and also the Native Garden on its summit. We don’t have a problem with that; Smith is as entitled to his views as we to ours; and we value the Stewards’ trail work.


Here’s where we disagree. He considers the Stewards’ plans:

“They plan to thin branches, bushes, and vines from a few small patches of the forest in hopes of eventually restoring some of the primitive fescue that covered the hill before the tree-loving Sutro began his late-19th-century planting binge.” Elsewhere in the article, he refers to it as “modest tree and brush thinning.”

Not quite. The plan, as it currently stands is as follows:

In the Demonstration Phase:

  • Cut down around 3,000 – 5,000 trees on about 7.5 acres of land, leaving the trees spaced an average of 30 feet apart. That would be around 40-50 trees per acre. (They average 740 trees per acre now, so around 700 trees per acre would be felled.)
  • Mow down the understory in these areas. This understory, consisting of blackberry, acacia and ivy among other plants, is habitat for birds, insects and animals. It also helps the forest to retain moisture so it is always damp.
  • Use the toxic herbicides Roundup/ Garlon to prevent regrowth of eucalyptus and blackberry.

In the Followup Phase:

  • Extend the same 30-foot spacing to another 40 acres of the 61-acre forest. This would mean cutting down another 25-30,000 trees.
  • Mow down the understory of the forest on this area as well, further reducing habitat.
  • Build two new trails, including one from Clarendon Avenue through a screen of trees that is already heavily thinned by a water-pipe project.

The idea is to achieve a “park-like” environment, with a sparse canopy and sunlight reaching the forest floor.  (The word park-like is taken from documents shown at the community meetings. The “sparse canopy” is also a direct quote.)

The felling of thousands of trees, considerable habitat destruction, and the use of herbicides on high ground doesn’t strike us as “modest.”


Smith puts this battle in the context of a broader issue: What he describes as San Francisco’s willingness to support the environment but “fighting measures that have the actual direct effect of restoring or preserving Mother Nature.”

The issue here is clearly one of definition. The nativist philosophy is that “Mother Nature” is represented only by Native flora and fauna. Our philosophy is that Nature includes all things natural – all plants and animals and ecosystems. So yes, as believers in the environment we support preserving the forest as it has naturalized on the mountain. We consider a blackberry thicket growing wild, full of berries and birds,  to be as natural as a carefully-tended patch of gumplant in the Native Garden. We fight to preserve Mother Nature manifest in a naturalized forest.

Smith says: “I, too, am fond of eucalyptus groves at Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson, and the way they’re so thick as to create the illusion of wilderness isolation to hikers within. But I also love the spots in the city still covered in millennia-old fescue ecosystems, where 50 different plant species may reside in an area the size of a backyard.

So are we, and we think there’s room for both. That’s why we think that preserving Mount Sutro’s cloud forest, taken in the context of the whole city, actually increases biodiversity.

The article also discusses landslides, using Jake Sigg’s argument that the trees increase the danger because of their weight. In fact, the root system of these trees, inter-grafted into a solid root mat over the mountain, prevents landslides. Removing trees will increase the landslide risk. There have been landslides in this neighborhood, always in conjunction with tree removal or slope disturbance.


Smith repeats the allegation that the forest is dying and cannot re-seed. This belief is erroneous. Eucalyptus in wet conditions has a life span of 200-400 years.  Also, eucalyptus regenerates from lignotubers. Like redwoods, it can grow by sending out new stems from existing root systems. The forest does not need to re-seed to renew itself.

Left alone, these century-old trees will be around for many lifetimes.

Left alone, San Francisco’s beautiful mountain will continue to provide a unique wild cloud forest experience in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. We hope Smith (and the daughters he mentions in his article) continues to enjoy it as much as we do.

This entry was posted in eucalyptus, Herbicides: Roundup, Garlon, Mt Sutro Cloud Forest, Mt Sutro landslide risk, nativism, Neighborhood impact and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tree Lovers vs Nativists: Matt Smith in the SF Weekly

  1. Sutro Resident says:

    Have you contacted SFWeekly or any other paper to put forth the opposing POV and the real facts around UCSF’s plans?

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