UCSF Destroying Forest on Mount Sutro?

Recently, we wrote about the downed trees and stumps along all the trails in Sutro Forest. It turns out this is just the beginning. UCSF recently sent out an email with more details. Under the guise of “safety”, UCSF is conducting a 4-6 week effort through December 2015 and January 2016 to remove more trees and understory in the forest, starting almost immediately. We’re very concerned.

sutro forest logs

  • First, we think these measures will actually make the forest less safe.  It risks destabilizing the slopes that are being held by the living geotextile of the the intergrafted roots. It also increases the fire hazard by drying it out, increasing flammability and windspeeds.
  • Second, we think this is the thin edge of the wedge, transforming the forest within a few years into an open space full of scrub, dotted with a few trees.
  • Third, we are losing ecosystem services provided by the forest: Carbon sequestration; pollution reduction; a wind break in one of the windiest areas of the city; habitat for wildlife including bees and butterflies; water runoff regulation; and the physiological benefits of “forest bathing.” Eucalyptus trees, especially with acacia understories, are excellent at storing carbon; destroying these trees is anti-environmental.
  • One positive we see is that UCSF remains committed to not using pesticides. Goats will be used instead.


  • Removing hundreds of trees. In particular, nearly all the trees on the forest edge  along Johnstone Drive between Medical Center Way and Behr have been marked for removal. They claim that the forest’s trees have been weakened by the drought. This ignores the fact that eucalyptus is exceptionally drought-tolerant, and these trees are already recovering. And as is clear from the picture below, many of the marked trees look to be green and healthy.

Sutro Forest grove of pink dot trees

  • Planting the denuded areas with with (native) species such as ceanothus, madrone, elderberry, coffeeberry, buckeye and toyon.
  • Bringing in goats to eat understory vegetation in the so-called “defensible space” which UCSF created in August 2013 under the pretext of “fire hazard.” It obtained a letter for the SFFD – but we understand UCSF provided the draft. They do mention no further trees will be removed here. (Over 1000 trees were removed in August 2013.)

UCSF wrote: “UCSF and the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) have separately determined that there is an urgent need to revisit the defensible space work that we performed in 2013 around buildings, roads and neighboring homes (see attached SFFD letter). This work will include removing all flammable vegetation and trimming tree branches up to 10 feet off the ground within 30 feet of structures.  The remaining 70 feet, up to 100 feet of clearance, will include the removal of ladder fuels, which can carry a fire from the ground up to the tree canopy (mostly ivy).”

In fact, though Fire Chief Hayes-White praised the UCSF effort, the SFFD’s actual presentations made it clear that there was no such urgent need. San Francisco’s forests are not a serious fire hazard because of the fog, and shrubs and grass were much more flammable. (See SF Fire Department Busts Some Myths.) The presentations also clarified that there wasn’t any legal requirement, (as was suggested in 2013) because Sutro Forest does not qualify as a “wildland-urban interface.” We are inclined to consider the letter a professional courtesy extended to UCSF, especially since we have correspondence indicating that UCSF drafted the August 2013 letter for the SFFD to issue.


  • Drying out the forest will weaken it. Despite the drought conditions, the forests of San Francisco have actually been doing quite well. The main reason is the fog. Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson especially lie with the fog belt, and harvest moisture from the fog. Here’s how it works:

cloud forest diagramHere’s what  Mount Davidson looked like in September 2015. And it’s what Sutro Forest – which shares the same fog conditions – should look like too. But it doesn’t.

Mt Davidson 2 - fuschia flourishing despite drought, watered by the trees catching the fogRemoving trees and understory compromises the forest’s ability to hold moisture and dries it out. In drought conditions especially, UCSF and the Sutro Stewards should be working to preserve the density and greenery of the forest.

Instead, in Sutro Forest, there’s been extensive removal of understory plants from 2010 onward. More recently, they have been felling “hazardous” trees, many of which were not actually hazardous.  Even trees that are not perfectly healthy precipitate moisture from the fog and delay evaporation by increasing forest density.  The result of the cutting looks like this.

Sutro Forest more logs

The tragedy of  Oso in Washington, where a landslide destroyed a community, was caused by tree-felling on the slopes above the community – tree-felling that was legal and had been approved, but destroyed the community and many lives anyway. Oftentimes, hired experts produce the answers the client seeks. We expect this tree-removal will destabilize the slopes and increase the potential for landslides. We hope very much that we’re wrong here. Researchers say the risk remains for many years – and in this situation will likely worsen as the tree roots decay and weaken.

UCSF plans to plant native shrubs where it’s removing these trees. Shrubs do not stabilize the slope in the same way as trees. Rockslides all around Twin Peaks provide evidence of that.

  • Worsening the fire hazard. Removing vegetation will dry out the forest and make for higher wind speeds. That will have a further drying effect. The two pictures below show the “before” and “after” pictures following the so-called Urgent Fire Safety work in August 2013. The second picture clearly shows more dead and dry vegetation.
forest before

Forest before “fire safety” work

forest after

Same area after the “fire safety” work.

(Coincidentally, this is where the new Clarendon connector trail is being built.)

Should any dry area ignite – and native plants that UCSF plans to introduce are dry for much of the year – the fire will be less likely to die down in windier conditions.

  • Lots more trees will be targeted. A new trail has been roughed out from Clarendon parallel to Christopher – in one of the main areas where the so-called “urgent fire safety work” took place in August 2013.  More trails mean fewer trees; the next step is to clear vegetation on either side of the trail, including any quirky trees that slant or twist, or aren’t in perfect condition.

Also, with all the tree removal going on, we can expect other trees to be weakened by increased wind speeds and gaps in the intergrafted root system. We expect hundreds or even thousands of trees will be removed each year, depending on the budget available.


UCSF’s actions seem to be the opposite of the measures that would best preserve the forest and the healthy eco-system. So we’re forced to consider a separate agenda. In fact, it appears that UCSF is proceeding with its original plans to convert the forest from the magical dense woodland that people loved into a native shrub area dotted with a few trees.

But instead of introducing a new Environmental Impact Report that would openly state its plans and the consequences for public comment, it is merely chipping away at the forest year by year under the guise of “safety.”

Trees have been cut down every year in recent years – nearly 2,000 by now.  There are huge open areas that used to be dense forest only 3 years ago. The sense of seclusion, of stepping into a magical other world,  is being steadily lost, with the sights and sounds of the city becoming more apparent and those of the forest gradually being destroyed and silenced.

Within a very few years, the transformation would be complete, with thousands of trees removed for one reason or another.

blackberry habitat

From 2009: Another dense area of Sutro Forest that’s now denuded


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4 Responses to UCSF Destroying Forest on Mount Sutro?

  1. Keep up your good work, Save Sutro Forest. What you are doing is important. Thank you.

  2. Wally McSorley says:

    So what are you folks doing about it? Ever think of taking an add even in our feeble paper, or spreading the word to the students at UCSF?

    [Webmaster: We do have a petition, with around 4200 signatures on MoveOn. The UCSF student paper wouldn’t approve an ad about Sutro Forest. Forest lovers have attended every public meeting UCSF has held, and commented on the EIR for the previous version of the project. In the end, it depends on UCSF being responsive and responsible.]

  3. apglk@comcast.net says:

    Are you going to ask supporters to write to UCSF (I have deleted the UCSF contact list)? If so, are you going to provide a sample letter?

    [Webmaster: We hope people will write in to protest. We aren’t providing a sample letter – we’d like people to write about what matters to them. Here’s the link to the page on What You Can Do. And here are the UCSF people to write to or email.]

  4. milliontrees says:

    So disturbing. All this is being done without an Environmental Impact Report. They are doing exactly what they said they would do several years ago after backing off their EIR. It is entirely illegal. So dishonest. So pointless. I will never understand why they are doing this.

    May their empire be buried beneath a river of mud. May they be blown away by the winds of the ocean from which they will no longer be protected. May the displaced birds and animals plague their dreams. A pox on your house.

    [Webmaster: That’s a creative invocation! We have not understood how anyone could have looked at that magical forest and seen “bad green” – as a supporter of the tree-felling plan once said – and invasive species instead of a beautiful naturalized ecosystem. We’re disturbed about this latest action, but still hopeful that better sense will prevail. UCSF is a great hospital and should be above xenophobia in all its forms – even botanic.]

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