Mount Sutro Forest: Why UCSF’s Protests Aren’t Convincing

UCSF has been messaging their mailing list, claiming they have no plans to fell 30,000 trees. They only intend to fell trees on 7.5 acres, the four “Demonstration Projects.” After that, they’ll get community input to figure out how many more trees to cut down.

In their own words: “Before a management plan is designed for the entire Reserve, four demonstration projects totaling less than 7.5 acres were chosen–with substantial community involvement–to evaluate different land management techniques, such as appropriate tree spacing, undergrowth removal, and native plant restoration.” And from the FAQ that accompanied the memo: “While a large percentage of underbrush, including blackberry, ivy and poison oak, will be removed in the demonstration areas, the removal of trees, especially those larger than saplings, will be far more limited and selective, based primarily on their health, potential for long-term survival, and if they pose any falling or other hazard.”

[That FAQ is available here: UCSF Sutro FAQ 2013 0220]

4 forest feb 2013So why aren’t we reassured?


UCSF claims the forest is unhealthy and a fire hazard. Neither claim is accurate, and they must be aware of challenges to that assessment. (We posted about that HERE.) But if they really do believe – however unrealistically – that there is such a hazard, and that felling trees will mitigate it, why is it reasonable for them to stop at the Demonstration Areas?

Unless we know why UCSF is so committed to this lengthy, expensive, and controversial process, the only parameter we can work with is what’s set down in the DEIR. And that comes out to over 30,000 trees.


The description of the demonstration projects makes it sound as though they are experiments to “evaluate different land management techniques, such as appropriate tree spacing, undergrowth removal, and native plant restoration.” This is not true.

hand-drawn map not to scale

The “appropriate tree-spacing” has already been determined, as has the end-point. The DEIR does not say “limited and selective.” It says: “Removal of dead and unhealthy trees; Tree thinning of remaining trees to average spacing of about 30 feet between trunks.” (In Area #4, it’s 60 feet between trunks.)


We estimate that the 7.5 acres of “Demonstration Areas” have around 3600 trees. The demonstration project will retain perhaps 170 of them, given the spacing described. They will be removing over 3,500 trees just for the Demonstration Projects.

If what’s left doesn’t sound like a forest, it’s not meant to. In earlier meetings, it was described as a “park-like setting.” Later, they changed the terminology to “Forest with open understory” – but they didn’t change the actual actions, which included the 30-foot spacing and the removal of understory habitat and vines. At the agenda-planning meeting in July 2010, the objectives for these areas was laid out. This is from our contemporaneous notes and our post made the same night:

UCSF added new information about expected outcomes of the projects. For South Ridge and Edgewood (Projects #1 and #2), they seek a park-like setting, with an open understorey, and trees spaced, like street trees, an average of 30 feet apart. After the demonstration, they will seek community input, and then extend the same spacing to 40 acres of forest. This would imply that 47.5 acres of the 61 acres would be thinned, leaving very little forest as such.

“Project #3 (the small area near the summit) would be a grassy area with a view of the city. Afterward, more view corridors would be considered in other areas.

“Project #4 (the “redwood bowl”) would have trees spaced 60 feet apart, and a sunny meadow (or presumably, a foggy one).”

The only evaluative portion would be regarding pesticide use to prevent regrowth. In area #1, three methods will be used: Tarping of stumps; poisoning with pesticide; and manual removal. They expect to demonstrate that pesticides will be needed. Preventing regrowth is already accepted as an end-point.

We would also point out that “native plant restoration” has nothing to do with either safety or forest health – and also that the Demonstration Projects are not designed to show either increased forest health, or reduced fire hazard, the key project justifications.


UCSF has been excellent at listening to community input; they have been very selective in accepting it.  We have been active participants in meetings documented here from 2009 onward; some of us have been active since the year 2000. UCSF has held a large number of meetings, and we attended and reported on most of them:  (19 Oct 2009), (Feb 2010), (May 2010), (26 May 2010), (8 June 2010), (June 2010), (13 July 2010), (July 2010), (Nov 2010),  and EIR Scoping meeting Jan 2011.)

The only inputs that have actually been accepted have a strong bias to proponents of the plan – those who supported the “parklike environment” with native plants. UCSF essentially ignored opponents who want a dense forest with a lush understory and habitat, and a continuation of UCSF’s no-pesticide policy. We called it “The Opposites Game”; click HERE to see why.

The only “concession” UCSF made to those who want to conserve the Sutro Forest as a dense, lush, functional cloud forest was to add a “hands-off area” (#5) parallel to Demonstration Project #1. This is meaningless for several reasons:

  • The whole forest – except for the four Demonstration Areas – is theoretically a “hands off” area during that time, according to UCSF’s own statements;
  • It’s only for one year;
  • Between the time the area was identified and the DEIR was published, a new trail had been driven through the “hands off” area.


Here’s what UCSF says:  “Contrary to rumors being circulated, there is no plan to cut down 30,000 trees in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, and it is unfortunate that this misinformation continues to spread.” In the FAQ, they explain: “So where did the number 30,000 come from? The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires UCSF to examine what the maximum impact of the most aggressive management practice contemplated would be in its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Reserve, so someone may be confusing the report with a final forest management plan. Once the demonstration projects have been implemented and evaluated, a final forest management plan will be developed based on the effectiveness of the practices in the demonstration areas.

However, in all the meetings, UCSF stated that the objective of the Plan is to extend the 30-foot spacing to the entire reserve, except for the areas too steep to access with machinery. Why does CEQA require an evaluation of the “worst-case” scenario? Perhaps because too often, the so-called worst case represents what will really be implemented.

In this case, the 30-foot spacing on 3/4ths of the reserve (which would require removing about 90% of the trees in that area) represents a maximum, the ceiling. UCSF has suggested that the actual plan may well be different, depending on “community input” – with the implication that the actual number would be much smaller.

The question is, why? If UCSF actually believes – however improbably – that the forest is an unhealthy fire-hazard and that felling trees to achieve a 30-foot spacing would remedy this problem, then we can assume they would indeed extend it to all the accessible areas of the forest. Would they look at the denuded “Demonstration Projects” and realize that 30 feet was too much? Or would they decide to go for a 60-foot spacing, as they are planning for one of the Demonstration Areas? Could UCSF change its mind?

It’s happened before.

  • At the time the Open Space Reserve was created, UCSF also instituted a “space ceiling” that determined restricted the built space in the Parnassus campus to 3.55 million square feet. But UCSF exceeded the space ceiling years ago, and there’s no prospect of return.
  • In January 2000, UCSF committed that it would demolish two old dormitories in the Aldea campus, and replant the pad to blend in with the forest. But when one dorm was demolished, it wasn’t planted to blend in. Instead, it was enclosed with a chain-link fence and the Sutro Stewards installed a Native Plant Nursery there. That story is HERE.
  • In February 2010, when UCSF withdrew its funding applications to FEMA, here’s how it described the next steps: In keeping with the 2001 Plan, UCSF will work closely with neighbors to plan, implement, and evaluate a small (approximately 2 acres) demonstration area that would embrace best practices to ensure public safety (through fire mitigation) and improve the health of the forest while maintaining scenic quality.  But the “small” demonstration area has more than tripled in size, to 4 areas totaling 7.5 acres.

For these reasons, we are concerned when UCSF says that it’s only felling trees (over 3,000 of them) on 7.5 acres, and it doesn’t really plan to extend it to 30,000 trees no matter what the DEIR says. Once the EIR is certified, and the project itself approved, what would stop UCSF from proceeding to the remaining area? If it’s “community input” – we would expect they could get whatever input they want.


Though UCSF suggests that opponents of the plan are spreading misinformation, we’d like to point out two items of misinformation in their  FAQ.

  • It’s referred to as “an aging eucalyptus forest.”  This is often used to justify tree-felling. Here’s an example of a news item in the Chronicle about Sutro Forest. But it’s a myth. Eucalyptus in the tropical and arid areas of Northern Australia tend to get killed by termites and fire before they’re 200 years old. In temperate, rainy Southern Australia they live 400-500 years. San Francisco’s Sutro Forest is much closer to Southern Australia in climate, since it lacks wildfires and cyclones and receives rain as well as summer fog drip. [Reference: “Eucalypt ecology” by Jann Elizabeth Williams, John Woinarski (Cambridge University Press, 1997)]
  • forest 6The forest is referred to as “comparatively dry” owing to eucalyptus draining the moisture. As anyone who has visited the forest regularly will know, it’s only “comparatively dry” if you compare it to the Bay. The only time the forest could dry out is in the Fall – and even then, rain and fog keep it damp.

However, in areas where the canopy has been opened up and the understory removed – the very conditions that the Plan seeks to create – the forest can indeed become dry. It’s not because of the eucalyptus, which create wet conditions by harvesting moisture from the clouds and fog. It’s because the duff, the understory, the subcanopy, and the canopy all help to prevent evaporation. This is one reason why the plan will raise the fire hazard, not reduce it.

[Click HERE to read how this forest functions as a Cloud Forest – and why opening it up decreases the moisture levels.]

We recognize this forest as unique, and a particularly San Francisco treasure. It’s a novel ecology, yet naturalized. In the heart of a world-class city, it’s a functional temperate cloud forest, only a thousand feet above sea level. We call on those who have stewardship of it to protect it, not destroy it.

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5 Responses to Mount Sutro Forest: Why UCSF’s Protests Aren’t Convincing

  1. Richard Crooks says:

    The forest took care of itself many many years. And now we want to come in and screw it up. Keep your hands off what are your real long term plans anyway. Fess up.

  2. Million Trees says:

    Some of us have been engaged in this war against the destruction of our urban forest for over 15 years. We recognize some of the strategies being used by UCSF to fool the public into accepting this destructive project.

    One of the games used to fool the public is to scare them to death, e.g, “The trees are going to kill you” or “The trees are going to destroy your property in a wildfire.” They provide no experiential or scientific evidence to support these claims, but they get away with it because the public is busy and doesn’t have time to read the huge body of scientific evidence that proves them wrong.

    Another game is the “boil-the-frog” method of slow death of the forest. If you plunge a frog into boiling water, it will quickly leap out and save itself. But if you put the frog in cold water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog doesn’t get the clues he needs to save himself. In this case, the native plant movement is slowly destroying our urban forests on all of our public lands all over the San Francisco Bay Area. They have been getting away with it because although the public reacts to each project, since the projects are isolated in different communities, they rarely coalesce sufficiently to make the noise needed to stop the project.

    That’s what’s happening at UCSF. They want you to believe that they are only doing a “demonstration project” and that they haven’t made commitments to destroy 90% of the trees on ¾ of the acres of the Reserve. But, think about it? If that were true, why would they be paying big bucks to outside consultants to produce a 1,000-page Environmental Impact Report which describes in detail the destruction of most of the forest? Does that make sense? Once that EIR is approved, they are good to go. What/who can stop them?

    Then, there are the word games, such as describing a forest floor covered with wood chips, with nothing growing on it because it has been poisoned or mowed annually for at least 5 years as “an open understory.” It’s not an understory at all. It is “open” because nothing is growing on it.

    Since these projects have been happening for over 15 years, has the public finally observed enough to see through these dishonest games? We will find out tonight at the public meeting. I predict a huge, noisy crowd. I think large numbers of San Franciscans have finally figured out what is happening to their urban forest and they don’t like it.

  3. Pingback: Report: UCSF’s Public Hearing Strongly Favors Preserving Sutro Forest | Save Mount Sutro Forest

  4. M Scott says:

    I was at the community meeting on Monday night. It was interesting to me that there was no mention of the neighbors adjacent to the the forest that stated that a tree had fallen four feet from her home or that her neighbor was hosing down her back porch because an area of the forest had caught on fire at one point in time.

    [Webmaster: Welcome back to the website, Scott. Did you mean we didn’t mention in this website? No, we didn’t mention all the individual comments, because most people don’t want to wade through 50 or so statements. But a court reporter was recording the whole thing, and when UCSF posts its transcript online, we’ll provide a link. As for our reaction to it…

    This neighbor’s home lies next to the Interior Green Belt, which is city-owned. For years, neighbors have wanted them to remediate hazardous trees, but they say they don’t have the money. When we heard that trees had been removed when building the new trail through the Interior Green Belt, we thought that’s what it was about (finally!). But it wasn’t. So it’s possible some hazardous trees exist on the forest edges and we strongly support remediating those. (UCSF has been pretty decent about that, by the way. They’ve been prompt to respond to neighbors’ concerns about individual trees.)

    As for the fire, we understand it was an undergrowth fires, small and readily extinguished – probably because the forest is green and damp. The plan to open up the forest and make it drier is likely to make it more flammable, not less so. In any case, we can’t see how the UCSF Plan would address any of this neighbor’s concerns.]

    But alas, it is probably a moot point for me to post here on this board … [Edited to remove personal comment.]

    [Webmaster: The rest of the comment pertained to permitting opposing comments on this website. This is an advocacy website, so – unsurprisingly – we do have a strong viewpoint. We try to post comments both supportive and not, and to respond to them if needed. We do have a Comment Policy. We prefer not to get personal; we may oppose a viewpoint or action, but we’re not into opposing individuals. We don’t do flame-wars.]

  5. why is the us wanting to save deforestation here in Thailand…to develop evidence-based tools for reducing deforestation, associated carbon emissions, and risk of disease emergence…see link for more info:

    …and yet seems to also want to allow deforestation of existing forests here in san francisco…

    …this is a $2M grant for whose impact?

    15 april 2013 (for the unrelated/related file & fyi only file)

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