Sutro Stewards: The Good, The Bad, and the… ???

In recent months, many people have asked us about the Sutro Stewards, and we’d like to explain our position. We’re not affiliated with them.

The Sutro Stewards are a volunteer group that works primarily on Mount Sutro. Craig Dawson is the Executive Director. The group originated under the umbrella of Nature in the City, an organization promoting native species of plants and insects in San Francisco. Currently, it’s a partner of The Parks Alliance.

It’s a group we wish very much we could supportbut we don’t. This is why.


First, credit where credit is due.

sutro forest path

  • The Sutro Stewards have, since 2005, kept the trails clear. Sutro Forest is a temperate cloud forest, or fog forest; it captures most of its summer moisture from the fog. In common with cloud forests everywhere, its understory grows dense. Without maintenance, the trails get overgrown.
  • They built the “Historic” Trail on the upper part of the mountain with the loss, according to Craig Dawson, of only one tree.
  • Native Plant replanted meadowThey also maintain the native garden at the summit. Contrary to the popular belief that native gardens need no work because they’re perfectly adapted to the place, it actually takes many labor-hours of maintenance. It also requires persistence. They have been trying to restore one small section of meadow as a section for Native pollinators for over two years now; it still has more orange flags than flowers.
  • Especially laudable: They do so without using any pesticides.
  • The Sutro Stewards regularly organize two or more volunteer days every month with (UCSF-provided) pizza and (donated) beer on offer. The SF Urban Riders (bicycle-riders who ride the trails) often provide much of the physical labor – which other forest-visitors may not know.


But here’s where we part company. Their vision for the forest is — not a forest. It’s an “Open Space” with native species of shrubs and grasses and plants, and a few oaks and redwoods. It’s trees spaced even further apart than the 30-60 feet provided in the UCSF Plan.

In our opinion, this forest is a unique treasure for San Francisco — a de facto cloud forest at near sea level, made possible because it lies within the fog belt. Destroying this ecosystem would be a tragedy.

Copyright Paul Hudson

Copyright Paul Hudson

where the understory has been gutted - Mount Sutro ForestMuch of the work the Sutro Stewards do destroys habitat and has a negative impact on the forest’s ecosystem. Separately from keeping the trails open, the Sutro Stewards also remove or mow down large sections of the understory, even when it is not directly on the trail.

Executive Director Craig Dawson has made a public comment on UCSF’s Draft Environmental Impact Report on Mount Sutro Forest. UCSF has published the compilation of the comments (189 of them, opposing the plan by a ratio of 8:1), and it’s available here: MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters

Mr Dawson’s comment is on page 327 of the document. It’s quite detailed. We’ll try to summarize his points here (and readers are welcome to read the document for themselves). In brief: He considers the forest a danger, and unhealthy. He supports the UCSF Plan, though with some exceptions:

  • He believes even more trees should be felled. The tree-spacing (at 30-60 feet) is too close. He also wants all eucalyptus along the creek to be removed. If this were implemented, our tree removal estimates would be conservative.
  • Sutro DEIR pesticidesPesticides should be used on a wider range of plants than those specified in the plan. Presumably, this would mean more pesticide use than the already huge amounts described in the Plan.
  • Demonstration Area #3 (where eucalyptus shading the reed grass is to be removed) should not be done. The reed grass needs the moisture the trees provide. (We actually agree with this. The Pacific reed grass is a forest species, and often associated with eucalyptus. There’s a similar issue on Mount Davidson, where the Natural Areas Program asks for tree-felling to benefit reed grass  – but will probably kill it.)
  • He wants more native vegetation to be grown on Mount Sutro. (We actually do not have a problem with native plants, only with the destruction of the ecosystem and habitat that already exists there.)

Of course, we disagree completely with his characterization of the forest (which we consider healthy, based on the assessment of two certified arborists and an ecologist) and safe (based on the assessment of CalFire). We also completely disagree with his recommendations.

His support for tree-felling comes as no surprise, (though we were startled that he asks for even more than the Plan says).  At every meeting we attended, the Stewards and their allies supported this plan.  Peter Brastow of  Nature In the City, originally the parent organization of Sutro Stewards, referred to eucalyptus as a “weed” during one of UCSF’s meetings. And in the process of opening the new trail that connects Stanyan with Medical Center Way, a lot of trees were felled  in the City-owned portion of the forest — as noted on this website earlier.

Neither does the support for pesticide use surprise us.  Speaking at the UCSF scoping meetings, the Sutro Stewards also supported that. At present, UCSF uses no pesticides at all on its portion of the forest.  The Plan potentially permits the use of pesticides such as glyphosate (Aquamaster or Roundup) and Garlon. We strongly oppose this  — particularly since the forest is on high ground above residential neighborhoods and the Bay.

We believe the Sutro Stewards play an important role in UCSF’s potential actions. Executive Director Dawson has been a member of UCSF’s Community Advisory Group (CAG) for decades, and also of the Parnassus Community Advisory Team (PCAT). In his comment, he mentions being “directly involved since 1997.” In our opinion, he and his allies have been an important factor in developing this Plan. We surmise that UCSF would be unlikely to proceed without the backing of the Sutro Stewards, who currently do most of the work on Mount Sutro.


As this website indicates, we’re in favor of debate and discussion on these issues. We get the impression that the Sutro Stewards and some of their supporters prefer to block dissent. Some examples:

  • The Legal Letter: Readers of this website may recall the strongly-worded legal letter in behalf of Sutro Stewards from a prominent law firm, saying we were defaming the Sutro Stewards by alleging they were felling trees and applying herbicides. Of course they weren’t – they were supporting tree-felling and pesticide use rather than performing them. (We weren’t allowed to publish the letter, but we have related its contents in our response. ) This letter also stopped us from using certain maps illustrating the UCSF plan for discussion and criticism. They were taken from a UCSF publication outlining the plan. The publication contained no indication that the maps were copyright to anyone beside UCSF, and indeed, it resembled a map that UCSF had earlier published under its own copyright. Even though we disagree on forest-related issues, UCSF so far has never objected to the use of their illustrations for the purpose of discussion on this website. (Yes, UCSF does know about this website.)
  • A Facebook Freeze: Even before that, when we posted a comment responding to something they wrote on the Sutro Stewards Facebook group, our response was promptly deleted. That Facebook presence is managed by the Sutro Stewards Executive Director, Craig Dawson, and several associates.  More recently, similar responses have been reported by others, including someone who wrote to us.


We believe debate and discussion are important. We’ve hosted opposing views on this site, and made every attempt to respond to them. (With some exceptions:  our comment policy is HERE).  We sympathize with the saying (misattributed to Voltaire according to Wikiquotes, it was actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of Stephen G Tallentyre): I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But we do disapprove. We completely disagree with felling of thousands of trees, use of pesticides in one of the few wild areas that have been free of them for years, and the mowing down of most of the understory habitat. We are saddened that the group has stewardship of a forest whose very components they despise as non-native and invasive: eucalyptus, blackberry, acacia, ivy. It’s a forest in the hands of its enemies.

sunlit woods

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8 Responses to Sutro Stewards: The Good, The Bad, and the… ???

  1. Tony Holiday says:

    Thanks for this excellent explanatory post even though it’s totally ruined my day. It’s just so shocking and unbelievable that people who have worked so many years to keep the forests’ trails clear now wants to destroy it like this. I always thought they wanted to preserve and protect it and because I’ve loved it for such a long time, all this really hits me hard because I want to preserve and protect it myself. These people just have no common sense whatsoever. This is not the 1950s, people. This is a time of global warming and when so many others are thinking hard about the wisdom of using pesticides and deforestation tactics and instead planting more trees instead of wantonly destroying them. Use of pesticides and the harming of healthy trees should be illegal and punishable by fines and jail time — certainly not condoned by people who are supposed to protect our parks and the humans and animals that use them. Heartfelt thanks to you, Save Mount Sutro Forest, for existing to try to keep this malicious destruction from becoming a reality

  2. milliontrees says:

    Volunteering in our parks seems like a good thing and usually it is. But in the past 15 years, we have witnessed an unfortunate tendency amongst volunteers to develop a sense of ownership that can be both destructive and undemocratic. Volunteers girdled most of the 1,200 trees that were killed in San Francisco’s parks before they were caught. Volunteers have also been caught red-handed spraying herbicides in our parks in violation of San Francisco’s policies. They were using herbicides that aren’t supposed to be used in San Francisco [on city land], they weren’t authorized to use them, and they didn’t post the required notices in advance so that park visitors could avoid them if they wished.

    It seems that the Sutro Stewards have fallen into this trap of confusing volunteerism with ownership. I’ve read the Stewards’ public comment about UCSF’s project on Mount Sutro and I was flabbergasted by its tone. It had seemed that the entire project was accommodating the objectives of the Stewards. I was mistaken. The Stewards are actually disappointed that the project doesn’t go further by destroying even more trees and using even more herbicides.

    I should not have been shocked, because I also attended the public hearing for this project. I was equally shocked by the testimony of the Stewards. The Executive Director seemed outraged that the work of the Stewards was not more appreciated by the critics of the project. He seemed to imply that since the Stewards had volunteered their time, they were owed this project.

    Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to encouraging volunteers in our public parks. They should have strict guidelines about what they can and cannot do. They should not be encouraged to believe that volunteering confers ownership status on them. Public parks are owned by everyone and everyone has a right to participate in determining their future. Whether or not you volunteer, your tax dollars are supporting the parks and you have an equal right to use the park and determine its fate.

  3. "You're starting to look crazy..." says:

    What I find to be most distasteful about this post is your clear attempt to put Craig’s name out in the public realm when you hide behind a “webmaster” moniker. Cowardly act indeed and your psychosis is becoming more evident to those with common sense.

    [Webmaster: Hello, You’re starting to look crazy. Thanks for the arm’s-length online diagnosis. We won’t delve under the moniker you hide behind.

    We debated whether this comment violated our comment policy, but after some discussions, we’ve decided to post it for two reasons. (1) This comment is apparently from a computer at Parnassus, suggesting a person who works or studies there. (2) We think it includes a question deserving a response.

    In response to your substantive point: Craig Dawson put his own name in the public realm. He is the Executive Director of the Sutro Stewards; his name and image are on the Sutro Stewards home page; he has given media interviews about Sutro Forest, including the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote a detailed DEIR comment on his own letterhead, identifying as the Executive Director of the Sutro Stewards; these comments are also in the public realm. He sits on UCSF’s Community Advisory Group. As such, he is a public figure. His views on Sutro Forest are important because we believe them to be influential. We emphasize that we’re critical of the views and not the person.

    As for your webmaster – this website is not centered on individuals. It’s about the forest, and we prefer to keep the focus on that.]

    • milliontrees says:

      This comment might be funny if it weren’t so outrageous. This person calls the Save Sutro webmaster a coward because his/her name isn’t prominently featured on the website. Yet, he/she posts with a pseudonym and attempts to hide the fact that his/her comment was sent from a UCSF email address.

      Since he/she is diagnosing psychosis, let’s do the same. This is an extreme case of projecting one’s motives onto others, more commonly known as “pot-calls-kettle-black.”

      As the article explains, the Sutro Stewards threatened to sue the Save Sutro webmaster. If there is an injured party here, it is surely the Save Sutro webmaster. Is it any wonder that critics of destructive native plant projects attempt to protect themselves from intimidation by reducing our visibility as much as possible?

      [Webmaster: We will confess to some amusement… but not to intimidation. We do find that using names leads to ad hominem attacks rather than discussions of actual issues or data.]

  4. Mount Sutro Stewards sounds like a pretty cool group, that’s doing active work to make Mount Sutro a better place for wildlife. Do you have information for how someone could volunteer with them?

    [Webmaster: They have volunteer notices posted at two kiosks on the mountain. As far as we know, anyone can volunteer by responding to their twice-monthly volunteer calls and showing up.]

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