Report: First UCSF TAC Meeting, 14 Jan 2016

As we reported earlier, UCSF held a meeting on 14th Jan 2016 at which it announced it was restarting the planning process. UCSF has hired two people to write the plan: Jim Clark, of Hort Science; and Matt Greene, a consulting forester. (We’ll provide more information about them and all the players in a forthcoming post, “Who’s Who.”) This seems to be a new Plan that will replace the November 2013 Plan that was never fleshed out or studied. [Notes in square brackets are our commentary.]

Disturbingly, they did not call it “Sutro Forest” anywhere in their introductory presentation. They insisted on calling it the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. However, they did use the word forest in the context of management. (You can see the whole presentation here: UCSF Presentation for Jan 14 2016 )  [Sutro Forest has been called a forest for over 100 years. it would be sad if it was no longer a forest in name or fact.]

Mount Sutro forest viewed from southeast (Twin Peaks)The meeting was moderated by outside moderator Daniel Iacafano, who has been handling the Mount Sutro Forest meetings at least since 2010. He’s a reasonable moderator, but their methodology – notes on butcher paper – feels dated. UCSF should record these meetings and publish audio recordings on their website, as the city does with its public meetings.


ucsf presentation excerpt 2

From UCSF Presentation about the Plan for Sutro (forest)

At the meeting, UCSF laid out the timeline. Most of the planning will be completed in 2016 and early 2017, with the goal of “starting work” in the Fall of 2017. (We described that timeline here: UCSF Restarts Sutro Forest Plans in 2016)

ucsf 2016 timelineThey also outlined the Plan Goals that were open for discussion:

ucsf presentation excerpt 1

UCSF’s Broad Goals for Sutro Forest

UCSF outlined its policies for Mount Sutro, and we think they are laudable. Most people are particularly happy to see UCSF reiterate its commitment not to use herbicides, especially in view of growing opposition to herbicide use in the city.

ucsf presentation excerpt 3

UCSF Policies for the “Reserve” i.e. Sutro Forest

We were less impressed by the “Current Conditions” and “Assumptions”


ucsf presentation excerpt 4

UCSF’s Mistaken Assumptions about Sutro Forest

UCSF asserted that tree health is declining – the same argument that Craig Dawson, Executive Director of the Sutro Stewards, pushed in June 2014. At the time, the argument was funguses and beetles.  In fact, they’ve been saying it’s declining  almost continuously since the year 2000, when they claimed that eucalyptus has a 100-year life (though in fact it is actually 400-500 years).  Now the “reason” is the drought, despite the fact that eucalyptus is one of the best drought-adapted trees.

The main reason for any decline in that time has been the removal of understory and trees from the forest, which increases windspeeds, dries out the forest, and damages the networked root structure of the trees

UCSF’s presentation showed slides of hollow trees and of insects in the forest. When over 1500 trees have been cut down, a few will be hollow. Many others will not.

jan 2016 sutro forest logsThe majority of the trees that were felled were not actually hazardous.

Where the forest is left alone, it is healthy.

In fact, the TAC did question these assumptions and assertions. A walk in the forest is planned for February or March, before the next TAC meeting. We hope this will provide UCSF with better information. (Further correspondence with UCSF suggests they will have more than one walk, as needed.)

After the UCSF presentation, there was a discussion, initiated by the TAC members. Some of the themes that were discussed at the meeting. [Our comments are in square brackets and italics.]


Some TAC members who have visited the forest questioned the assumptions in the presentation. Is the forest actually declining?  What is a healthy forest? The pictures of hollow logs and some insects were unconvincing. A relative absence of pests is good, but the presence of some insects is normal and ecologically important. You don’t want an absence of insects, it’s a question of the population level. What’s a normal level of insects for a biologically active forest? Similarly, a certain amount of tree death is normal. What is the normal amount of tree death and ‘self-thinning’? Why would an increase in spacing improve forest health?

Since there was a discussion of hazardous trees, TAC members wanted to know how “hazardous” was determined. What is the process for rating “hazardous” trees? Do they use the 9-level model adopted by the city?  Jim Clark replied, no, they don’t, there are too many trees. They just eyeball them. They don’t give individual ratings.

A TAC member said they must separate the hazard reduction and sustainable ecosystem targets. They may conflict. We need to define “Biodiversity”, “Ecosystem Health”, Forest Experience,” Habitat reduction,” and “Defensible space.”


There was a long discussion around ecosystem health. Some questions and comments:

  • How do you and the community define and quantify ecosystem health? It’s meaningless without a definition.
  • We need to consider ecosystem services – for example, stormwater management, carbon sequestration, etc.
  • Why do we want to replace the eucalyptus? The forest is sustainable now.

Julie Sutton of UCSF said the trees are not resprouting – they resprout and then die within two weeks.  [We have not seen this phenomenon, except when the sprouts are deliberately killed. There are new sprouts throughout the forest. We were struck by the coincidence that the Sutro Stewards work in the forest every two weeks….

What are the soil conditions and what will grow on Mount Sutro? Is there a plan to irrigate the new plantings? Julie Sutton said they have no plan to irrigate. [Though in fact they did irrigate the Native Garden on the summit to get it established.]


The eucalyptus forest is dominant and important to a lot of people. We can keep the look, but modify it. Access now is good with the trail system. Should ADA access be considered [i.e. access for people with disabilities]?

There’s a study showing people are more comfortable in a forest where you can see into the forest. In terms of human comfort, wind reduction plays an important role. People like to walk inside forest because it’s less windy there. Microclimatic effects are important.

Someone raised the issue of parking to provide better access. Julie Sutton said From Monday-Friday  until 5 p.m. there’s no outside parking. [We’re unclear if there is public parking even outside those hours. ] But  the Clarendon connector trail will give access from Clarendon Avenue where there’s street parking. [In fact, there is already access with street parking from Christopher Drive and from Stanyan through the Interior Green Belt, so the trail actually doesn’t provide anything new.]


There was some discussion of a ‘mosaic’ of different areas that would provide the best habitat for birds and other wildlife. “Edge conditions” have the greatest number of species since they support species on both sides of the edge. [However, we think that Sutro Forest is already part of a larger mosaic that includes Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, and Laguna Honda – and a large number of backyards and tree-lined streets.  Removing parts of the forest to create a mosaic would destroy the dense forest ecosystem that doesn’t exist anywhere else – except on Mt Davidson, where its destruction is also planned.]

sutro area map notes more


Sutro Forest is an excellent example of a Novel Ecosystem, meaning one where plants from all over the world adapt to relationships that wouldn’t occur where they originally evolved. Sutro Forest has eucalyptus trees from Australia, English ivy, Cape ivy, Himalayan blackberry, and 93 other species from various places, including California. What is the value of this Novel Ecosystem?

At present, eucalyptus, ivy and blackberry dominate the ecosystem, but hundreds of plants can grow there. Soils may not be a limiting factor for many of them.

How unique is Sutro Forest? There are apparently other coastal eucalyptus forests with similar ecology. [But we don’t think any of them are in the heart of a major city!]  It could have unique species combinations.


There was also a discussion around biodiversity, expected since Peter Brastow a member of the TAC, is the city’s “biodiversity co-ordinator.”

  • “We want biodiversity.” Nature tends toward biodiversity, and biodiversity equates to healthy. [Actually Nature doesn’t tend toward biodiversity except in disturbed environments. There’s increasing biodiversity as a new environment becomes available and other species “discover” it. Then the most successful and competitive plants tend to take over. So biodiversity is an value separate from “healthy.”]
  • Structural diversity may be a value – “Forest architecture.” E.g, Even-age stand with no understory vs a 3-dimensional forest with wildlife habitat. Do we set a diversity target? [We wonder if the TAC member saying this has visited the forest? It has understory, except where it has been removed by the Stewards, and it has wildlife – 40 species of birds, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes, a variety of insects.]


Mount Sutro Forest trails are narrow and multi-use: hikers, dog-walkers, joggers, mountain-bikers. Most mountain-bikers are courteous, but a few are not and could be dangerous.

What solutions? One TAC member pointed out that other parks have successfully implemented separate trails for bike-riders and for pedestrians. Julie Sutton of UCSF said that Mountain bikers through San Francisco Urban Riders provide a lot of the volunteers for the Sutro Stewards and did much of the trailwork in Sutro Forest.  They cannot be excluded from the forest. They want access to all the trails.

Another said, “Where ever we have mountain bikes, we need more medical responders. It’s increased over the last three years.” [He was talking about accidents.]


There was a discussion around fire hazard, including defensible space. UCSF defending its actions in cutting down trees and removing understory in August 2013, and again all along Johnstone Road on the eastern edge of the campus. Again, the so-called fire hazard seems to be the centerpiece of efforts to cut down trees and destroy understory.

There was a disturbing comment from Richard Sampson, the TAC member from CalFire, who has not actually seen or visited the forest and is unfamiliar with it. He said that the forest, which has been there for 150 years, is now showing  increased mortality. Is it realistic to have a forest on this site? He mentioned a coastal eucalyptus fire with 24-foot flames. [After an internet search, we could not find any references to such a fire. We’re asking for further information.]  Another TAC member asked about moisture studies; in the Presidio, moisture never fell below 12%. Julie Sutton said in Sutro Forest it was generally above 12 %, but there was one reading on one day that was 8%. There were questions about the fire history of the forest. Julie Sutton said that in recent decades there have been three small fires caused by homeless campers, and they were all readily extinguished.


There’s the question of what should be UCSF’s long-term management strategy for the forest?  There should be dedicated funding for the purpose.

[This is a rough summary of the themes. We will try to provide a detailed transcript in another article.]

Cloud forest - September 2010

Cloud forest – September 2010


Since most people didn’t realize that this meeting was going to kick off a new planning process, attendance was thin.

Several people in attendance were associated with Sutro Stewards. They generally expressed support for a new plan, and for introducing native plants instead of the current understory of the forest. One, who was also associated with SF Urban Riders, a mountain-biking group, took issue with the idea of trail separation:  Mt Sutro is surrounded by trails that are not accessible to bikes. We built Mt Sutro to be bike accessible. It would be ironic if they were now separated into pedestrian and bike trails.”

Other commenters were neighbors and/ or members of the community. They noted that Sutro Forest has a diverse bird population, and that any changes should include positive changes for the birds. Other concerns were increased landslide risk from tree removal, and potential criminal activity with more access to the forest. There was strong opposition to herbicide use, and thanks to UCSF for avoiding them.

Our comment:  In seeking to reduce fire hazard, we should consider the microclimate and moisture levels. Reducing forest density could dry out the forest, because of less vegetation to retard evaporation, and also increased wind speeds. This is one of the windiest areas of the city.

Other comments:

  • Has enough data been gathered on such things as soil, biology, and microclimate?
  • Maybe UCSF should consider engaging UC Davis students to work on the forest?
  • Opposition to Peter Brastow’s inclusion on the TAC, since his main qualification is that he promotes native plant restoration but has no experience of forests. Unless UCSF has already dec ided to replace the forest with native plants.

Jake Sigg, doyen of the native plant movement and a strong supporter of herbicide use, also identified himself as a Sutro Steward. His main points:  Don’t call it a forest, it’s a horticultural area. And of course he said that herbicides are essential and must be used.

Craig Dawson, Executive Director of the Sutro Stewards spoke about fire danger and said the forest burns every ten years or so. [We don’t believe this is true; we would like to see it substantiated. Our data shows that fires have been rare or non-existent since the logging stopped in the 1930s.]

He also said they’ve done 18 years of work, and recommends the 2001 Plan. [We imagine that if UCSF pulls out that plan again, it will meet with the same intense opposition that it did the first time.] 

He said Mt Sutro is a unique open space in the midst of a city, connected to Glen Canyon, a corridor for wildlife and people. It has lots of wildlife species, from coyotes to amphibians. The forest is dying, because nothing regenerates. [We think if the Stewards and UCSF would leave it alone except for actually keeping the trails open, it would regenerate quite effectively. The constant destruction of understory and tree removal is damaging the forest.]  

forget me nots 2

Forest scene with forget-me-nots – 2010

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