Tree Wars by Joel Engardio

Joel P. Engardio lives West of Twin Peaks and serves on the Board of Directors of Plan C and the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. You can follow his blog at or find him on Facebook.

The article below was first published in a shortened version in the San Francisco Chronicle, and then at full length in the Bay Times. We have reprinted it below from the Bay Times version (with added subheads and pictures).


joel engardioTree Wars by Joel P. Engardio
Published: March 7, 2013

In San Francisco, there seems to be a correlation between well-intended bans, unintended consequences and jokes on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (we banned toys in Happy Meals, but kids are still getting fat).

Now there are plans to cut down large numbers of trees and replace them with native plants because ancient San Francisco was naturally treeless. Can we agree that attempting to turn back the botanical clock is a nerve-racking feat in a city that’s still trying to get the buses to run on time?

The issue is ripe for parody because the call for tree destruction is coming from environmental activists who favor native plants. Meanwhile, many longtime residents and retired homeowners concerned with loss of windbreak and property value play the role of unlikely tree-huggers.

The resulting Tree Wars are being fought on Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro, where Adolph Sutro planted a dense forest of Australian eucalyptus trees in the 1880s when San Francisco was mostly sand dunes. Today, Sutro is both cursed and praised for his choice of tree.

Great horned owlets in eucalyptus. San Francisco. Janet KesslerSome view the Westside peaks as lush and gorgeous “cloud forests” where fog gathers and hangs in the eucalyptus. Others see ugly and invasive “trees-as-weeds” that choke the land of natural life. When an arborist declares the forest is dying, another comes forward to say it will thrive for decades. When people claim that eucalyptus trees can’t support wildlife, photographers post pictures of baby owls nesting. And on it goes.


What’s missing in the eucalyptus debate is the fact that there aren’t many trees of any kind in San Francisco. Our overall tree canopy is just 12 percent, compared to 36 percent in Atlanta and 29 percent in Boston. New York’s concrete jungle has double the trees we have. Even the parking lot known as Los Angeles beats us in tree cover (18 percent).

How can San Francisco — a self-proclaimed “green” city – have so few trees? Why aren’t we planting more trees that can clean the air, absorb traffic noise and help prevent landslides? sutro tower with UCSF and  forest seen from botanic gardensWe have environmentalists who say returning to native grass is better because that’s what was here before humans came and messed up San Francisco’s unique ecosystem. But what about all the non-native houses, office buildings, roads and people that make up the nation’s 14th largest city – not to mention the iconic cross and giant TV tower that sit on top of Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro, where the native plant movement is most focused?

While I think trees are good and we need more of them, I have yet to hug one. If there’s a eucalyptus (or any tree) in danger of burning or falling, cut it down. If a tree stands in the way of a needed development, cut it down. Common sense says life and property come before trees.

But I question if we should spend scarce tax dollars to replace healthy trees with native plants when the city had to borrow $200 million last year to fix dilapidated playgrounds. Parks in a crowded city should put the recreation needs of people and pets first. That’s why native plant programs – which restrict access for the sake of the plants – seem better suited for places like Yosemite over urban areas.

The city’s Natural Areas Program oversees the reintroduction of native plants and it isn’t cheap. Much has already been spent on trying to create fields of native grass. Some failed after multiple plantings and others sacrificed tall trees for what’s been described as “scraggly scrub brush.”

Beauty is subjective, but how can the city justify funding native plant programs when it says it can’t afford to maintain street trees?

Homeowners resent that they’re now required to pay for pruning city trees in front of their property. Rather than fall into the money pit of native plant programs, the city should put resources into planting and maintaining more trees along streets and in parks.


For me, the most compelling argument I’ve heard against the eucalyptus is the claim they are more flammable than other trees — how the oil in the wood can flare under intense heat. It’s scary to read about firestorms in hot, dry climates (like the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire).

the forest in fogBut didn’t grass, wooden structures and trees of all types fuel that fire in addition to eucalyptus? And how often is it hot and dry on Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro, where there is a perpetual wet fog? A eucalyptus in the Australian outback is not a eucalyptus in San Francisco.

I have to wonder if creating a sense of fear around the eucalyptus helps some environmentalists justify cutting down lots of trees to make way for the native grass fields they prefer.

Consider what’s happening at UCSF, which wants to reduce eucalyptus trees on the 60 acres of forest it controls on Mt. Sutro. Replacing trees with native grass is expensive, so UCSF applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to help pay for it. The “emergency” in the UCSF application was the eucalyptus fire hazard. But FEMA responded by saying “UCSF inaccurately interprets a [wildfire hazard] map, provides inadequate details regarding the history of wildfires in the Sutro Forest, and provides a simplistic and ineffective comparison of the wildfire hazard in the Sutro Forest to the hazard in other areas that have burned in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

FEMA was also curious if replacing dense trees with open fields of grass might change wind patterns and create more danger by drying out the area. FEMA asked UCSF to “provide a citable and logical defense regarding how the proposed projects…would not result in an increase in the wildfire hazard in the Sutro Forest.”

UCSF withdrew its application and announced it would do the tree removal without a FEMA grant. California taxpayers will pay the bill, which means that every UCSF student facing a tuition increase and scientist looking for research funding has a stake in San Francisco’s tree wars.


UCSF says it has no plans to expand into the forest, which the UC Board of Regents designated as permanent open space in 1976. UCSF also says it won’t replace every tree with native grass. But the blogs still question the push for native plants. While UCSF would face many obstacles to develop the land, getting rid of the trees eliminates one big hurdle: It’s much easier to build on grass. Now is a good time to get informed. Public comment on the UCSF plan ends March 19 and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will consider non-native tree removal on city-owned land later this year.

When the Daily Show spoofs our tree wars, it’s hard to say which side will get the most laughs. Both sides have extremists to skewer.

Hopefully there’s a middle majority who believes that more trees of all varieties are good for San Francisco – a majority who’s tired of our city giving Jon Stewart easy material.

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1 Response to Tree Wars by Joel Engardio

  1. dolaneargle says:

    Hi:  I wrote a reply to  this  and tried to send it, but WordPress keeps losing my password.  Annoying to say the least. -dolan eargle


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