“Functional, Beautiful Ecosystems Should Be Left Alone”

We received this letter from one of our readers, “R.R.”. It’s republished here with permission.

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forest at sunset

To Whom it May Concern:

I am appalled at the planned destruction of thousands of trees by UCSF and the SFNAP [San Francisco Natural Areas Program]. I consider myself a practical-minded person. I understand the regret some people feel at the loss of what was San Francisco ‘s “native ecosystems.” But the overwhelmingly obvious fact that should guide the use and management of our public and private lands is this: our ecosystem now, at this moment, is what we have. The “restoration” of an idealized past by reintroducing “native” plants and destroying trees deemed “invasive” is an exercise in futility as well as an unwanted course of action by the majority of San Francisco residents.

Tree-felling in Glen Canyon, San Francisco

Tree-felling in Glen Canyon, San Francisco

The attempt to reintroduce certain species of plants is just as artificial as the original introduction of non-native species was. Where no “native” species still exist, the functional, beautiful ecosystems in place should be left alone. It is a MASSIVE act of hubris and environmental destruction to try to engineer a new ecosystem. RESTORATION is not the same as PROTECTION. Restoration is an act of ecological engineering. Protection is an attempt to save what is still in existence. Historically “native” plants are no more “native” than the current flora which have become dominant over the course of hundreds of years.

It all depends on the timeframe being referenced. Why idealize a certain set of plants which were dominant for only a minuscule amount of time on a geological scale. Why not go back further and remove ALL vegetation in favor of cyanobacteria and Archaea? It is foolishness and misplaced idealism.

Most importantly, we, as SF residents, have the great fortune to live in a city of great natural beauty. Aside from geological formations, most of this beauty is man made. People have chosen, rightly, a more diverse and pleasing ecosystem, that now has become home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Just because it does not fit a few extremists’ definition of “natural” doesn’t mean it is less beautiful or valuable. What is “natural,” anyway? Do NAP members actually believe that before European settlement, the Native People never molded the land to their vision and need? That is ignorant and condescending.

As to the suitability of Eucalypts, this is a pointless discussion. People ignorant of arboriculture have too much influence. There are hundreds of species of Eucalypts, many of which most people don’t even recognize as being Eucalypts. An amazingly diverse group with amazingly diverse habit, form and ecological influence, Eucalypts are very well adapted for our climate and have been here much, much longer than any of their ill-informed critics.

I do not want to see San Francisco devoid of trees and covered in “dunes and scrub.” It wouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t happen. Like it or not, this is an urban area, not a nature preserve.

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2 Responses to “Functional, Beautiful Ecosystems Should Be Left Alone”

  1. David Templeman says:

    The spirit in which this letter is drafted is to be admired. The intention is clearly comunity minded. But I am afraid the author misrepresents the reality of the situation. The restoration of Sutro Forest and the minds behind it represent a much deeper understand of the situation than the author of this letter. Backed by science rather than sentimentality, the restoration of Mount Sutro promises relief for endangered spiecies, and increase of biodiversity, and bring the habitat back into balence. Frankly, however altruistic the motivations of the author appear, this person appears to me as an outsider; someone who hasn’t gone through the painstaking work of understanding the local ecology, and speaks from the heart rather than the mind.

    [Webmaster: Thanks for your comment. We cannot speak to the depth of this writer’s knowledge of local ecology, but many of the assumptions underlying the planned project are in fact erroneous. As UCSF presents it, it has nothing to do with endangered species. There is no evidence that the habitat is out of “balance” – this forest has existed for over a century, adapted the the terrain and climate in which it grows. Left to itself, it has a dense, lush understory, which further increases its habitat value. We invite you to consider such articles as: Protecting Mount Sutro Helps Biodiversity, or Mount Sutro Forest Ecosystem and Wildlife Habitat or Sutro Cloud Forest’s Micro-Climate. The main objection to this forest appears to be its “non-native” origins.]

  2. R. R. says:

    I am the author of the letter. I regret I came across Mr. Templeman’s reply so long after it was posted, but I want to reply anyway, since I think his type of rhetoric is common in discussions such as this one, and should be answered.

    Mr. Templeman’s reply is simple distraction. He avoids the central point of my letter while shifting focus to me: my personal knowledge, background and motivation. My biographical details should have no bearing on the discussion. Only the factuality and relevance of my argument.

    The main point of my letter (which was not addressed by Mr. Templeman) is scientifically accurate, and should be fundamental to the debate. Let me try to restate it:

    1) None of the arguments for an attempted “restoration” of Mt. Sutro are based on experimentally validated science. (“Biodiversity” is not a hard science term. It is vague, subjective, and not site-dependent.) It is false to assert that an arbitrarily selected, minuscule portion of Mt. Sutro’s millennia-long existence somehow represents the true “native” state of its ecology.

    2) The ecosystem there has been in constant change for hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of years. The species being pushed for reintroduction are—viewed objectively—NO MORE IMPORTANT than any other PRIOR or CURRENT inhabitants.

    So… WHY is destroying and then re-engineering Mt. Sutro even a goal? Can Mr. Templeman provide a non-circular, dispassionate, scientific reason for this massive disruption? What concrete, physical benefits would accrue from these actions? And which, if any, of these purported benefits could not be realized by other means?

    If there were indeed an endangered species whose ONLY hope of “relief” was the destruction of Mt. Sutro’s current ecosystem, it would still be scientifically accurate to say there is no objective imperative for that species to be relieved.

    Which means that, on this issue, the science is neutral. Subjectivity and personal preference will largely decide the outcome. And, if the recent history of local public discourse is any indication, the loudest voices will prevail.

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