Progress! UCSF’s Changed Plans for Mt Sutro Forest (Meeting Report)

Thank you, everyone who came for the UCSF Mt Sutro Forest meeting on 21 November 2013. It was a significant one. UCSF indicated a changed direction from its earlier plan.

Key changes:

  1. Restricted objective: Safety. The main objective will be safety – the safety of structures and people. (Earlier objectives included Native Plant restoration.)
  2. Somewhat reduced area. The area to be “treated” will be reduced to 25 acres, but this may be in addition to some of the 12 acres already treated under the “Emergency Fire Hazard” work done in August 2013. (This area of around 35 acres compares with 46 acres under the earlier Plan.)
  3. Fewer trees felled. Trees 10 inches or less in diameter will be felled, compared with a 12-inch diameter the earlier plan used  as the benchmark. UCSF’s hired forester Kent Julin estimates this will mean about 3,700 trees, in addition to around 1000 trees already cut down in the “Emergency” work. No pre-determined spacing will be used. This total of about 4,700 trees compares with around 27-30,000 trees under the earlier Plan, which sought a spacing of 30-60 feet between trees. [Edited to Add: This section has been updated with corrections that UCSF sent out 5 days after the meeting.]
  4. No pesticides will be used. (This compares with a potential use of bucketloads of herbicides under the earlier plan.)

forest beforeforest afterThis is similar in nature to the “Emergency” work UCSF did on 12 acres in August 2013. (See “Before” and “After” pictures above.)

This revised Plan is clearly a significant improvement over the previous one. It drastically reduces the number of trees under threat. It removes the ideological preference for Native Plants in what is clearly a cosmopolitan and diverse forest. It keeps the forest pesticide-free, as it has been from 2008.

ucsf new mt sutro plan nov 2013

New UCSF Plan. (Map: UCSF)

The current plan preserves a core area of around 25 acres north and east of the summit. However, it guts a huge 17-acre area on the South side above the Forest Knolls neighborhood (the purple area on the map above.)


The Plan stills calls for removing all the understory in the “treated” areas,  trees 10 inches in diameter (nearly 3 feet around!), as well as amputating the vines to kill them. Some of our concerns:forest 6

1. Drying out the Forest. The understory and the vines are key to retaining moisture in the Cloud Forest. It’s the canopy that harvests the fog moisture, but it is the understory that prevents evaporation. We are concerned that this plan will dry out these areas of the forest, raising the fire hazard instead of reducing it. (See How a Cloud Forest Works)

2. Destroying Habitat and Ecosystem. The removal of the understory and vines destroys habitat. The forest is home to a lot of birds and animals. (See “A Forest Full of Birds.”) These measures will be disastrous for the wildlife that use the understory of the forest. It also compromises an ecosystem that’s established itself there over decades.

3.  Increased Landslide risk. Many parts of the Plan area are extremely steep. The South Ridge, in particular, above Forest Knolls, is known to be vulnerable to landslides. (See our post on Landslide Risk.) The networked tree roots, as well as the dense vegetation, all stabilize these slopes. Removing large quantities of shrubs could cause these slopes to become unstable – even as late as 6-8 years afterward.

4. Lost Sense of Seclusion. One of the wonders of this forest is that even though it’s in the heart of the city and surrounded by neighborhoods, once you enter it, you step into another world. The dense shrubbery absorbs the sounds of the city, and blocks the sight of the homes and streets. As the pictures above show, removing trees and understory changes this from a forest to a see-through stand of trees, losing the seclusion.

While we think this plan is an improvement, some remain skeptical. Here’s a note we received from one reader after this meeting:

“Personally, I think it’s just the new way of getting around efforts to save trees.  With the ‘fire safety’ angle, they are attacking the perimeter of the forest and thinning from the outside in, instead of their previous plan to gut it from the inside out. There is a new battle cry, ‘fire’ instead of ‘alien.’  Because,  from the sound of the crowd, no one’s buying that any longer and people are now deeply suspicious of UCSF on the subject.”


UCSF also announced its next steps. Since this is a major change, it will need to issue an Amended Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). It plans to do this in February 2014. This will be open to public comment for 45 days. They plan a public meeting in March 2014, during which they will take oral comments as well. Then they hope to respond to all the comments – the ones on the existing DEIR, as well as the Revised section – and certify the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in May/ June 2014. This would clear the way for them to start the tree-cutting by late August 2014.

[Edited to Add: At a meeting on Feb 11th, 2014, UCSF announced a slightly change in the timeline. The new DEIR will be issued in March; there will be a public comment period, and a public meeting in April 2014.]

To summarize:

[Edited to Add on 13 Feb 2014: This section has been updated with the new timeline]

  • Revised Environmental Impact Report: March 2014 [Earlier: Feb 2014]
  • Public Comment Period for 45 days from publication of Revised DEIR: March/ April 2014 [Earlier: Feb/ March 2014]
  • UCSF’s Public Meeting about the DEIR: April 2014 [Earlier: March 2014]
  • Response to Comments: May 2014
  • Certifying EIR: May/ June 2014
  • Project Approval (after Certification of EIR): May- July 2014
  • Tree-cutting potentially starts after the Bird Nesting season: August 15th 2014


Thanks to everyone who came for this meeting!  About 26 people spoke. The meeting ran past 9.30 p.m. and some people had to leave before they could speak, or there’d probably have been even more speakers.

Of the 26 speakers, around 20 opposed UCSF’s earlier plan, and many expressed concerns even about the revised plan.

Only some 6-7 individuals – mainly Sutro Stewards, and/or the “Community Action Group” spoke to support UCSF, claiming there was a fire hazard, and that the forest was in decline and needed “management.” One compared it with pruning a tree.

Some of the themes of those concerned about UCSF’s plans:

  • Trust Issues with UCSF: Many speakers were skeptical of UCSF’s motives in doing the project at all.  Even opponents acknowledged UCSF’s awesome work as a premier medical school and research center; but the forest management was a separate issue where UCSF had proved unreliable. One speaker called it a “cockamamie project.”
  • Overstated fire hazard: The Cloud forest has less fire hazard than most places, and there are better ways to mitigate the risk during brief periods of elevated risk –  a few days every few years. The way in which the “Emergency Fire Safety work was handled, and the spin put on it reduced trust in UCSF. Speakers called it a “stunt”, a “red herring”, a “fabrication”, “fear used to circumvent a democratic process” and “choreographing a crisis.” Anyway, drying out the forest will not reduce the risk.
  • Skepticism about the Native Plant agenda: Speakers were concerned about a hidden Native Plant Restoration agenda, and questioned this ideology, calling it things like “botanical chauvinism.” One speaker shared excerpts from this New York Times editorial: “Hey You calling me an Invasive Species?
  • Carbon sequestration and global warming: In an era of global warming, every tree counts. Cutting down trees and destroying understory releases carbon.
  • Ecosystem services: The forest provides eco-system services like clean air, oxygen, slope stabilization, slowing water run-off. This will be compromised.
  • Wild forest is a jewel: Several speakers stressed the uniqueness, beauty, and value of a wild forest in the heart of a city. They spoke of their emotional responses to its beauty -one called it a “sacred forest.”
  • Historic and landmark status: Some speakers addressed the history and age of the forest, calling for it to have the status of a historic landmark and mentioning the history of Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians, who spent his last years here. UCSF’s plans ignore the uniqueness of this forest.
  • Wildlife: Some speakers were concerned about the impact of these measures on the wildlife – birds and animals – that use the forest as a habitat.
  • Cost: how much will this project cost? UCSF has not shared any projected costs after 1995. At a time when UC needs resources for its staff and students, should UCSF be wasting its money? (UCSF responded to say that it will develop estimates, and it should be much less than the $13 million or so earlier estimated.)

(There’s a link to the complete 2 hour 40 minute audio recording HERE.)

[Edited to Add: You can see UCSF’s Powerpoint presentation here: Sutro Cmty Mtg PPT 11-21-13 ]

green trail - Mount Sutro Forest

Most of this greenery will be gone

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11 Responses to Progress! UCSF’s Changed Plans for Mt Sutro Forest (Meeting Report)

  1. Dirk Hoekstra says:

    I’m proud of all the work that led to this moment. I still don’t think UCSF’s current plan is optimal.

  2. milliontrees says:

    Congratulations to Save Sutro and the many people who participated in the effort to save the Sutro Forest. It would not have happened without your effort. Thank you.

    I am hopeful that UCSF’s decision to significantly scale back its destructive project will convince UC Berkeley to do the same for its project which is even worse than the original plan for Sutro. This could easily become an even greater victory against the needless destruction of our urban forest in the Bay Area.

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  7. Jack Dumbacher says:

    Call me a botanical chauvinist if you want, but there is a huge difference between a healthy biodiverse native forest and a planted forest of foreign trees. It is the difference between a symphony and a kid blowing on a kazoo. I like the green space too, but can we not aspire to a having a forest that supports a diversity of birds on a major flyway? Or a museum’s worth of wildflowers that are now being choked by Himalayan blackberry and English ivy? Or vibrant insect diversity? What hope is there for nature if our children grow up thinking that forests like these are healthy, natural, or even helpful?

    Please, before writing a knee-jerk reaction letter to UCSF or the city, please read the Mt Sutro forest management plan. It not an attack on these green spaces, it is an attempt to even the playing field for biodiversity.

    [Webmaster: Jack, we really appreciate your stopping by to comment – even if we disagree with you! Like you, we appreciate healthy forests. However, we love the redwoods, the rainforests of the tropics – and naturalized eucalyptus forests.

    This forest is naturalized to this area. It already supports over 40 species of birds (that we know of, there are likely more). Together with Mt Davidson’s eucalyptus forest, it provides excellent cover and a stop for migrating birds. Until the understory was thinned over the last 2-3 years, every visit to this forest was loud with bird-calls. It provides a host of eco-system services.

    We have of course read the plan. It was terrible, despite its positive objectives.
    * It would destroy tens of thousands of trees;
    * It would destroy nearly all the understory habitat and cover – blackberry is a hugely valuable resource to insects, birds and animals.
    * It would destroy all the vines which provide cover, as well as flowering in fall/ winter and providing food for insect life at the start of the food chain.

    The UCSF original plan was not going to result in a “healthy biodiverse native forest.” It was going to be – no forest, with 90% of the trees removed. The original plan was to add – maybe – around 100 trees for thousands of trees removed. It would have reduced biodiversity. Destruction is easy. Creating is much harder.

    And it would potentially have used up to 7 times the amount of pesticide that all of SF Rec and Park used in 2013 – concentrated in this small area of high ground above residential neighborhoods. (All this is based on UCSF’s own Draft Environmental Impact Report.) To UCSF’s credit, they have decided to eschew pesticides in the forest. Thanks, UCSF!

    If you were fighting to save a redwood forest somewhere, we would support you. If you tried to preserve forests in Papua New Guinea or Tasmania, we would stand with you. So many thousands of people treasure this cosmopolitan, San Francisco forest of Australian eucalyptus, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, Acacia, Cape Ivy, and California poppy and pink-flowering currant, too. It works for wildlife, and it works for people. We don’t ask you to change your views, but please – understand ours as well.]

    • Skeptic says:

      I think Dr. Dumbacher is having a knee-jerk reaction. The people I know who objected to UCSF’s plans for Mt. Sutro have read the forest management plan, carefully. We have also read, carefully, the DEIR written in support of that plan. We wrote many thoughtful comments on both. To dismiss our reaction as knee-jerk (while his is presumably well-informed?) is snide condescension, unsupported by any evidence in his comment.

      Choosing a hypothetical healthy biodiverse native forest over an existing healthy biodiverse forest containing non-native trees, is, in fact, pure botanical chauvinism. And in this case, we choose to keep the healthy biodiverse forest that exists in preference to an imagined future in which supporters of the project don’t even agree among themselves what is the likely or desirable outcome of UCSF’s plans. To compare the existing Sutro Forest to a kid blowing a kazoo is simply an arrogant dismissal of the views of knowledgeable people who love the existing forest.

      Finally, to teach children that non-native plants are not “healthy, natural, [n]or even helpful” is to disable them with pure ideological propaganda. It will thoroughly separate those children from nature. They will think “nature” is what is found in museums and in intensely gardened tracts like the Cal Academy’s roof. They won’t see the rich nature around them that happens to include non-native plants. Pristine wilderness has long existed only in fantasy. Children should be taught to understand and appreciate the real nature around them.

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