In an article about East Africa, conservationists WA Rodgers and ND Burgess spell out some of the difficulties faced in preserving coastal forests: the attitudes of the people. “At best the local inhabitants see their forest as a resource to be utilized. At worst, they see the forests as a stock of unclaimed farm land, or a wild area harboring animals that damage crops.”
There’s a parallel with Sutro Forest. Those who own and control it —
UCSF and the Mount Sutro Stewards — do not perceive it as a unique environmental treasure, an urban Cloud Forest with tourist and visitor potential. At best, they seem to consider it a resource to be utilized by converting the wild naturalized forest to a park-like setting. At worst, it may be considered idle land awaiting a change in policies or guidelines, and meanwhile a liability filled with invasive non-native weeds. [ETA2: We are striking out the phrase because it may be misinterpreted to mean that the Sutro Stewards have legal control of the forest. They don’t.]
UCSF has announced a January 10th scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for their plans for Mount Sutro Forest — or, as they call it, the Sutro Open Space Reserve. These plans would convert this unique wild urban cloud forest into a “park-like” environment, with widely-spaced trees, more trails, a thin or nonexistent understory, and the introduction of “native plants.” UCSF has issued an Initial Study in which it lays out what it plans to do, and what environmental impacts it intends to study. (UCSF is doing its own EIR. The link opens to a PDF file of the Initial Study.)
(ETA3: The map that was here showed the demonstration areas, the “hands-off” area, and the planned new trails. It was modified from two maps sourced from a UCSF report. We received an objection to its use in a letter from lawyers for The San Francisco Parks Trust and Sutro Stewards. According to the letter, it was “prepared by the Sutro Stewards for UCSF.” The report did not mention this, nor did it have copyright information, and we considered it fair use for readers to see the map as a basis for this discussion. It was also similar to a trail map published earlier that was copyright to the UC Regents. Nevertheless, we have removed it. We hope to replace it later with a different map providing the same information.)
Initially, four demonstration areas, totaling 7.5 acres, will have thousands of trees felled so the remaining trees are spaced an average of 30 feet apart. (For reference, that is the kind of spacing you find with street trees.) In these areas, the understory will be mowed down, and vines removed from the trees to a height of 10 feet, leaving the dying vines above that attached to the trees. Herbicides will be used on one acre; on the others, they will use other techniques such as tying black tarpaulin over the stumps to prevent regrowth. This work would start in September 2011.
(The newly added 2-acre “hands off area”, supposedly a concession to neighbors’ objections to destruction of the forest, is essentially meaningless. It was never part of the demonstration area, and so would have been left alone anyway… except that it lies in the way of one of the planned new trails,
shown in orange on the map above, and so wouldn’t be hands-off anyhow. ETA: At the meeting, UCSF clarified that the new trails would not be built here until after the demonstration period of one year.)
Afterwards, according to the plan,
Large‐scale tree thinning and understory control would be phased, likely over the course of many years as funding becomes available. It is anticipated that no more than about one‐quarter of the Reserve would receive large‐scale tree‐thinning and understory control treatment at any given time, likely separated by several years before another section of the Reserve is to receive such treatment. Steep slopes of the Reserve that are inaccessible by heavy equipment (about 15 acres of the 61‐acre forest) would not receive tree thinning treatment, though some understory control may be implemented if accessible by foot and if use of hand‐tools would be effective.
Our question remains, why? The report claims that the objective is to improve the safety, health, usability and aesthetics of the forest. In fact, it is converting it from a natural cloud forest, a unique ecosystem, into what will be essentially an urban park. What are some of the downsides?
1. Destruction of a unique forest. Owing to San Francisco’s particular climate and the location of this forest, we have something very special: a Cloud Forest inside a big city, at only a few hundred feet above sea level. Cloud forests are characterized by dense vegetation, year-round dampness, and rich wildlife. Thinned out and dried out, this forest will no longer be a functional cloud forest.
2. Habitat destruction. By removing brushes and small trees, dead trees (which are valuable habitat for many bird species), and thinning the trees down to 30 feet apart, these actions will be detrimental to almost every kind of wildlife. We will look at this in more detail another time. [ETA: We did.]
3. Conversion to a high-maintenance park. The forest currently requires almost no maintenance aside from trail-grooming and the removal of occasional hazardous trees near the forest edges. All these actions will commit UCSF to continuing maintenance at a much higher level than before, making it ever more reliant on the volunteers from the Mount Sutro Stewards, who in our opinion appear to have de facto control of the mountain.
4. Herbicide use. Though the project purports to use limited amounts of herbicide, in fact a fairly large quantity will be required to prevent regrowth of all the felled trees and mown-down bushes. Twin Peaks is sprayed with Garlon and glyphosate (Roundup or Aquamaster) many times a year. Mount Sutro is at a high point in the city, and the chemicals will inevitably flow into the watershed.
5. Aesthetics. Though the project purports to improve the aesthetics of this forest, it will destroy the mystical beauty and sense of isolation it provides. On a foggy day, this may be the most beautiful place in all of San Francisco. Once the trees are thinned, making the city visible from the forest and the trails of the forest visible from surrounding streets, it will lose this unique character. At best, it will be just another pretty park.
But it’s a matter of perception: As the forests of East Africa are locally valued mainly as a source of wood, bush-meat and farmland, it may be that the Mount Sutro Stewards value this glorious forest mainly as acreage where they can implement a native plant introduction [ETA: while we value it as a unique Cloud Forest.]