Damp Forest on Mt Davidson – Tony Holiday

This is another of our Park Visitor series: First-person accounts of visits to our San Francisco parks. This photo-essay is by Tony Holiday, a San Francisco hiker and blogger.  It’s adapted from his blog, Stairways are Heaven and published with permission. (Visit his blog for more pictures, and for the second post that details the route out of the forest down the Bengal steps.)

It’s high summer now, and elsewhere in California, fires have started. In our forests, it’s damp, even wet. We were struck by the contrast between the wetness of the forested area, and the dry open space adjacent to it on Mount Davidson. This is the cloud forest effect: The trees harvest the moisture from the fog and keep the forest cool and damp.

DAMP FOREST by Tony Holiday

The #36 Teresita stops at Mount Davidson Park’s main south entrance (Dalewood & Myra) where a steep trail climbs to the openspace part of the park. I love this trail: forested to start out, with a vast view to the east a little way up.

Here’s the south trail head.

4334894_orig - 1 South trailhead

And a small offshoot trail…

8176020_orig 2 offshoot trail

I climbed out of the forest to the open space.

7570617_orig 4 curving around

7082684_orig 3 climbing to the open space


This is the open space part of the mountain, with views to the east  and south over the city.

5027966_orig 5 view east

7960836_orig 8 looking south

2513967_orig 9 openspace bench

3514794_orig 10 view north

7411013_orig 11 view north

It’s a good place to pause for tea and admire the view…

5093980_orig 12 pausing for tea

Climbing 22 steps from the open space brings you to the plateau on top of the mountain with the 103-foot cross.

2858920_orig 16 summit cross


Down 22 old wood steps from the north side of the cross…

4275316_orig 17 old wood step start down from the side of the monument

… there’s a short trail…

5819148_orig 19 ferns and a damp trail

2691069_orig 20 down to a main trail

…then 12 more stone steps to the next main trail down.

1660245_orig 22 foot of one of the short stone stairways

Up here the trails were damp or muddy, including some actual puddles.

7940036_orig 23 muddy upper trail

Another short stone stairway:

572463_orig 24 anothr stone stairway

Following the trailing down, enjoying the cool, lush forest…

6294871_orig 25 trees and rocks

3227413_orig 26 down through the forest

… and the greenery below the trail…

4428599_orig 27 below the trail

4787964_orig 28 forest view

The trail went winding down…
3864834_orig 29 winding around

… and it was just me, the forest, and birdsong.

8763025_orig 30 just me, the forest, and birdsong

The forest was peaceful…

806571_orig 31 peaceful and cool

… as I followed the narrow and winding path to its end.

1526681_orig 33 narrow and winding

Love the ferns here!

6534432_orig 34 love the ferns

Natives and Newcomers Can Get Along – Dr. Scott Carroll

Dr. Scott Carroll of UC Davis, and the founder of the Institute for Contemporary Evolution in Davis, spoke at the Commonwealth Club as part of the series “The Science of Conservation and Biodiversity in the 21st Century.” His main message:

Mixed communities, consisting of non-native and native species of plants, animals and other organisms, are here to stay. We need to find ways to live with these new neighbors. Once they are introduced, they will evolve, and so will the species that were already there. Trying to eradicate “invasive” and non-native species is expensive, likely to cause unforeseen problems, and have uncertain success – in part because evolution will make a moving target of an introduced species.

Read on for notes from Dr. Carroll’s talk. (There are also links to his Powerpoint presentation, and to the audio recording from the Commonwealth Club.)



(Notes from a talk by Dr Scott Carroll)

Plants and animals have always moved around the planet, but gradually enough that the world had distinct bio-regions with their own indigenous species. About 500 years ago, shipping greatly increased the pace – people deliberately or inadvertently introduced species into new places. It’s what people do.

historical bioregions - dr scott carroll talk at commonwealth club 2014Invasion biology” as a discipline originated with Charles Elton’s 1958 book. The response to Invasion Biology is a deeply emotional one, coming from a sense of how an ecosystem should look and how species should interact. The transfer of species around the globe has been called the greatest ecological spasm since the extinction of the dinosaurs. But is it?

brown earthIn fact, there’s been a much more important change. The amount of wilderness on the earth’s surface has fallen sharply, from around 50% in the 1700s, to around 20% by the year 2000. The rest is cultivated or range lands or built-up. We need to look at invasion biology – permanently mixed communities of native and introduced organisms – in the context of that land use change.

These land use changes drastically altered the environment for all species, with a major impact on all species and ecological relationships. Natural selection picks new winners: Changed environments have different fitness criteria, so plants or animals that were successful before may become losers. If populations decline, it reduces their chances of evolving to meet the new environment: fewer individuals mean a smaller gene pool, fewer potentially beneficial random mutations, and fewer offspring. Some species go extinct.

But others don’t. They adapt and evolve and use the resources the new environment or new introduced species provide. Some players in these novel interactions have the capacity to solve their own problems, restoring more balanced kinds of ecological interactions than one would expect from the terms “invasion” and “takeover” and “destruction.”


How do we define an “Invasive Species”?

It’s a species not native to a bio-region that are:

  • Introduced
  • Reproducing independent of our assistance (naturalized, in the case of plants) and
  • Very specifically, they are doing something that we do not like.

This means that it has to be defined with reference to who “we” are. The definition of “invasive” must include who is doing the defining.

In some cases there’s broad agreement. Nearly everyone agrees on fighting invasive disease-causing insects, for instance. In the case of plants and trees and animals, people may diverge sharply in their opinions. Eucalyptus is an example; those who dislike it make consider it invasive; others would disagree vehemently.

The ‘eradication’ arm of Invasion Biology – i.e. those looking to destroy introduced species, perhaps 90% of invasion biologists – is fighting a very difficult battle. It’s extremely expensive, and risks doing much more harm than good.


What are the problems of Eradication policies? Here are 8 issues:

1. It’s extremely expensive, both in time and effort.
Even in cases that seem possible – eliminating rats on an island, for instance, it may be an uphill battle. The first 75% are easy to kill. The next 20% are more difficult. By the time you’re down to the last 5%, your team is exhausted and you’ve “spent $3.2 mn of your $2.7 mn budget.” You haven’t seen a rat recently, so you leave. And then – the 2% of the rats that remain reproduce and repopulate the entire island in five years.

2. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
Even if you succeed in killing off the invader, it won’t necessarily bring back the ecosystem that existed before. For instance, soil conditions may have changed so instead of native plants returning, other non-native plants – or nothing at all – grows.

3. It can disrupt ecological systems.
For instance, an introduced predator may have been keeping an introduced plant-feeding prey species in check. Once the predator is eliminated, the prey may destroy vegetation and the ecosystem as it exists.

4. It can disrupt replacement ecological relationships that existing plants and animals may have developed with the “invaders.” They may be providing food, seed dispersal, pollination, cover and other ecosystem services. For instance, if a native plant species is declining because of climate change, an introduced species can provide food for birds, animals and insects.

Loggerhead_sea_turtle_hatchlings_caretta_caretta public domain5. Sometimes, the new species provide a new ecosystem service to existing species, and destroying them would hurt the native species too. For instance, beachside non-native trees may protect turtle hatchlings from artificial lights that can disorient them, and so improve their survival rates. Or the non-native species may be controlling a different non-native species that might otherwise become a pest.

6. Trying to kill off non-natives can drive them to evolve resistance to the agent used to kill them. This is a common problem when herbicides are widely used to kill “invasive” plants.

7. Killing non-natives may reduce biodiversity of the area by reducing the pressure on native species to diversify and become new species.

8. The new species may directly increase biodiversity in the area, and eradicating them reduces this biodiversity.


rabbit public domain clipartA story that illustrates many of these problems is that of the myxoma virus, used to control Australia’s huge rabbit population.

The Iberian (or European) rabbit was introduced into Australia by Europeans in the 19th century, and eventually bred so prolifically that it started to destroy the environment. In the 1950s, the Australian government introduced the myxoma virus, a New World rabbit disease lethal to European rabbits. Initially, that killed 99.5% of infected rabbits, and the population plummeted.

But the surviving rabbits continued to breed until the next time the disease went around. With each successive outbreak, the mortality declined. Frank Fenner, the scientist overseeing the project, found that the virus was attenuating – becoming less lethal – while the rabbits were developing resistance to it. Eventually, each outbreak killed only 20% of the rabbits in the area.

In 1952, a landowner in France introduced the virus on his farm to control rabbits. Soon it spread across that country, and then to Britain, where it killed 95% of the rabbit population.

Large Blue Butterfly - wikimedia commons cca3 - PJC&coThis led to the extinction of the British population of the Large Blue Butterfly. The butterfly is an unusual species whose caterpillars mimic larvae of the ant species Myrmica sabuleti, so they get carried into the ant’s nests where they eat the larvae. Rabbits cropping meadow-grasses had kept them short, providing ideal conditions for the ants. With the rabbits gone, the grass grew, ants declined, and the Large Blue Butterflies vanished.

iberian lynx wikimedia commons cca25-klia Meanwhile, the myxoma virus also reached the Iberian peninsula, where it devastated the native rabbit population. The rare Iberian lynx, which depends solely on rabbits as a food source, became critically endangered, and the Iberian eagle – which also preyed on rabbits – declined sharply. Aquila_adalberti wikimedia commons cca3Officials are looking to vaccinate the wild rabbit population against myxomatosis.

Another unforeseen consequence occurred on Macquarie Island. This desolate Australian island was a breeding place for seals and sea-birds. Human introductions of rats (inadvertently), rabbits (for food), and cats (to combat the rats) impacted the sea-bird populations. The eradicators first introduced fleas to the island as a vector for the myxoma virus, and then the actual virus in 1978. Then they eradicated the cats. However, the cats had been hunting the rabbits, and now the rabbits multiplied out of control reversing years of conservation efforts. The myxoma virus had likely attenuated, and failed to control the rabbit numbers. The rabbits grazing destroyed the hillsides where the penguins nested, causing landslides that harmed their breeding success.


The story of the soapberry bug is more encouraging.

Soapberries are a plant family with a number of separate species, two of which are invasive vines in Australia. They invade along water-courses, and grow over trees in those areas. One vine species reached Northern Australia around 1680; the other, much taller species arrived in Eastern Australia around in the 1920s and has become particularly damaging to the forests there.

soapberry bug smSoapberry plants have fruit of varying sizes with nutritious (to insects) seeds at the center. Soapberry bugs are specialized soapberry eaters, with long beaks to pierce the fruit and reach the seed. The beak-lengths of these bugs are evolved to fit the particular species of soapberry they prey on.

When the introduced soapberry plants arrived in Australia, the native soapberry bugs had beaks too small to use the new food source. But with time, they started to evolve.

In Eastern Australia, it took 30 years for the soapberry bug’s beak to evolve from 7 mm to 7.5 mm. That doesn’t sound like much, but an increase of 0.5 mm doubles the number of seeds the bug can reach.

In Northern Australia, where the bugs have had over 300 years to evolve, their beaks have grown from about 5.5 mm in length to around 8 mm – exactly the length they need to attack the introduced soapberry plant. They match as well as if the soapberry plant was native.

It’s the same species of bug.

One interesting experiment would be to see if breeding the two strains would help the Eastern bugs grow a longer beak and control the soapberry vines better. Dr. Carroll recommended stopping the plant eradication program in Northern Australia to protect the long-beaked soapberry bugs there while evaluating whether interbreeding the two bug strains could accelerate the evolution to slow the spread of the large vine in Eastern Australia.


Dr. Carroll stopped his presentation there because time ran out. But if you would like to see his PowerPoint slides, they are here (in ppt and pptx formats). The Commonwealth Club’s Audio recording of his talk is also linked here. (There’s a lively question and answer session at the end, which isn’t included in these notes.)

Powerpoint presentation in ppt format: S Carroll Commonwealth Club Jan 2014

Powerpoint presentation in pptx format:S Carroll Commonwealth Club Jan 2014 (2)

Audio recording from Dr Carroll’s Commonwealth Club talk: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/archive/podcast/scott-carroll-conciliation-biology-13014

McLaren Park: Stairways, Wildflowers, and Great Blue Heron

This is another of our Park Visitor series: First-person accounts of visits to our San Francisco parks. This is by Tony Holiday, a San Francisco hiker and blogger. It’s adapted from his blog, Stairways are Heaven and published with permission.

Go HERE for the original post on McLaren Park (and more pictures).


1 Starts from Visitacion Ave.

Passing on recent pix of a McLaren Park stairway that some SF stairway walkers may not be familiar with: The longest in the park with 195 steps, and starts up at the dead-end of Campbell Ave  in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. It’s set back a bit from the street, thus slightly “hidden.”

195 steps

195 steps

Down into Vis Valley neighborhood

Down into Vis Valley neighborhood and out to Campbell Ave

It climbs past Visitacion Valley Middle School and up to Visitacion Ave. When you reach the top, continue up steep Visitacion to divided Mansell.

hidden stairs at dead end of Campbell

South of Mansell is the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. North of Mansell, to the east of the park, is the Portola ‘hood.

From the foot of the stairs, this time downhilled on Campbell a couple of streets to Delta. Left on Delta to the next street up, Tucker, and onto the skinny, steep, rough concrete walk (seven steps to start).

Delta pathway Tucker to Tioga


At the top of this pathway, the next cross-street up is Tioga, then Wilde. Turn left on Wilde to Ervine for a steep curving trail into the park, the old observation tower above.

Vis Valley below

You can’t see the stairs until you’re partway up (about 56 steps) at the top of which are a couple of Philosopher’s Way musing stations and view benches.

Musing Station on the Philosophers Way

There’s a seriously steep trail off the stairway, also up to the view benches.

Steep trail up from the stairway

Especially love the south, open space part of McLaren with big sis San Bruno Mountain across, everything green and wildflowery now at both parks.

san bruno mountain in the distance

San Bruno mountain in the distance

What is this flower seen south of Mansell?

[Webmaster: Gaillardia?]


Unfortunately one of the nearby musing station plaques had been graffitied-upon; hope there are ways to remove the paint from the artwork.

Check out these daisies all over the place, just north of the tennis courts, with Bernal Hill in distance.

Daisies on the lawn, Bernal Hill in the distance

A favorite trail descends to Lake McNab that starts a short distance below the tennis courts, north of Mansell.

Trail to Lake McNab

It’s steep, switchbacked, hard-packed dirt.

Trail sign climbing back up

Critters seen: a squirrel (too far away), a lizard (too fast), and this guy.

great blue heron gopher-hunting

McLaren is around 318 acres and the third largest park within SF city limits. However, since the Presidio’s a national park, some people don’t include it when talking about acreage, even though it’s larger than Golden Gate Park. So one is likely to hear city park McLaren still spoken of as being the second largest SF park.

Great Blue Heron - long-legged beauty

The Logic of Ecological Change – Prof Art Shapiro

Recently, UC Davis Professor Art Shapiro gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club.  It was a tour-de-force. He described it as a very quick resume of a course he’s been teaching for 40 years at UC Davis.

The takeaway: The conventional wisdom about ecology is often wrong.

[You can listen to the one-hour audio recording of his talk HERE.]


eco-jigsaw2Nativists idealize an ecosystem as a community of plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that have evolved together over many thousands of years in a particular place so that they fit like a complicated jigsaw – the balance of Nature. (We’ve heard them use phrases such as “lock and key” to describe the effect of this co-evolution.) When non-native and invasive species enter, nativists believe, they destroy this intricate mechanism, resulting in an impoverished and simplified ecosystem with fewer species and no natural balance – and even the dire possibility of ecosystem collapse. They talk in terms of plants and animals that “shouldn’t be there” – usually, immigrant species brought in by humans.

But it’s not often true. What the scientific data show is that “communities” of that interdependent kind are unusual. Instead, most ecosystems are groups of plants and animals that happen to be in a place where they can thrive. When they interact, it’s usually because of “ecological fitting” – they can use the other plants and animals in that area to help them survive. Depending on how ancient they are, communities may include tightly co-evolved mutually interdependent multispecies systems. But these make up only a fraction of the community as a whole.

Anise swallowtail butterfly breeds on fennel

Anise swallowtail butterfly breeds on fennel

Here’s the evidence against the concept of tight-knit interdependent “communities”:

1. There’s no functional difference between a heritage ecosystem and one with exotic species. If there was, scientists should be able to tell an undisturbed “community” from an invaded one without knowing its history. In fact, they can’t. There are no consistent  functional differences once an “invading” species has been established. Some ‘invaders’ can drastically transform the systems they enter – an example is cheatgrass in the Western deserts, which greatly amplified fire risk there. But most do nothing of the sort.

2. Species recolonize open land at different rates.Species move, communities don’t.” If a landscape is wiped clean – say by glaciers or a volcanic eruption – nature begins to move back in almost immediately. The pollen record allows scientists to understand which species of trees arrived at which time. It shows that tree-species move individually, not as communities.

3. Species that now don’t exist in the same place did so in the past, which would not be true if plants and animals normally lived in fixed communities. One example: the wood turtle and the southern toad are not found in the same areas now – but the fossil record shows that in the past, the ranges did overlap. This couldn’t have happened if they needed to be part of different communities. Vast areas were occupied in the past by “no-analogue” communities – ones that simply don’t exist anywhere at all today.

He ended by pointing out that we – humans – are an invasive species. So are most things, at least at one time.

Read on for detailed notes from Professor Shapiro’s talk at the Commonwealth Club.

Again, you can listen to an audio-recording of the whole talk HERE (on the Commonwealth Club website).




(The talk was dedicated to Prof Shapiro’s late neighbor, Steven Warnock.)

commonwealth club motto

Commonwealth Club motto

The talk was in three parts: The first laid out the historic context for two opposing schools of thought about ecology. The second examined the data, and concluded that the evidence supports Gleason. The third part looked at the future, which includes climate change.


Here’s the conventional wisdom about ecology, associated with Frederic Clements: Plants, animals, insects, fungi and microscopic creatures form interdependent groups, or “communities.” The process by which this happens is “co-evolution” (sometimes described as evolving a “lock and key”), leading to an ecology where all the species fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. (“Co-evolution” is associated with Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich, who described it in butterflies and plants that evolved together.) If an area is disturbed, it will go through a predictable process of “natural succession” that will lead to a stable “climax” situation, with all its species again interacting as a community.

This stable ecosystem is sometimes called “the balance of nature.” Tamper with  it, this theory says,  and you could destabilize the whole community, even leading to ecological collapse.

assemblageThe opposing view, associated with Henry Gleason, is that plants and animals do not necessarily form ecological communities. Instead, groupings or “assemblages” of plants and animals occur mainly by accident. They happen to arrive in that space at that time, and find conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. The species in such an assemblage will interact, not because they co-evolved, but because they find an opportunity to do so.

These theories about how species fit within an ecosystem were quantified when several ecologists – including the famous Robert McArthur – introduced mathematical models that looked at populations of plants and animals and their interactions. They used these models to look at Species Packing – i.e., how many different species of plants and animals could live in a particular ecosystem.  Assembly rules says that the distribution of plant and animals species in a given area isn’t random: both competition and cooperation between plants and animals affect what you find. Competing species can’t all live in the same area, but their niches can overlap. Where they do overlap, the two species may evolve more differences (“character displacement“) so they compete less. These mathematical models assumed a condition of equilibrium, i.e. stability. Opponents have argued that ecological niches are seldom stable because the physical environment is not stable for very long.

R.H. Whittaker introduced the idea that the levels of dependency could vary within communities. For any two species, you could assign a number: +1 meant that the species needed each other to survive; -1 meant that they could not live in the same space.  He speculated  that these relationships tended to be distributed in a bell curve – meaning that most species in a group didn’t depend on the presence or absence of another species. But some subsets of the community were tightly integrated.

How adaptable are living things? They can evolve, but only in certain ways.  Niche conservatism is the idea that most species cannot change very much or very fast in response to changes in their ecological niches.

The idea of co-evolution was fine-tuned with John Thompson’s concept of Geographic Mosaics. Co-evolution between two species can happen differently in different  geographic areas. So, for example, a plant in one place might depend totally on one insect for pollination, but elsewhere, the same species of plant might find alternative pollinators available. Such Fine-Tuning is the opposite of Niche Conservatism – and both occur in Nature.


Cladistics (i.e., the system of showing how related species evolved from common ancestors) provided a way to test the Ehrlich-Raven co-evolution hypothesis. If one kind of animal or plant developed into a separate species (“speciation”) then did the plants and animals depending on it also co-evolve into a separate species? There was no evidence that this happened. Co-evolution was a lot sloppier and more unpredictable than that!

Every time you see two organisms working together, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are co-evolved. Dan Janzen, a great tropical ecologis, pointed out that organisms could be taking advantage of niches and resources that appear through  Ecological fitting, with no history of coevolution at all. We see this happen when introduced pests attack native plants, and native insects attack introduced plants, forming brand-new associations. It happens all the time.

pacific reed grass under eucalyptus

Pacific reed grass thrives in eucalyptus fog drip

Is there really a difference between “intact” ecosystems and ones that are disturbed or invaded? Mark Sagoff pointed out that if there really is a functional difference between “invaded” and “co-evolved” ecosystems, then scientists should be able to tell them apart without knowing their history.

“The theory that evolutionary processes structure ecosystems and endow them with a mathematical organization (e.g., rule-governed patterns that ecologists can study) has the following implication….scientists should be able to tell by observation whether a given ecosystem is heavily invaded or remains in mint condition…

“In fact, once non-native species have become established, which may take only a short time, ecologists are unable by observing a system to tell whether or not a given site has been heavily invaded. Invaded and heirloom systems do not differ in pattern or process, structure or function, in any general ways.”

There’s more evidence against the idea of stable interdependent communities as the norm in nature. For example: pollen core data shows that trees recolonizing lands after glaciation don’t move in “communities.” The tree species migrate at different rates. Only those species that have mutualistic relationships move together (for example, mycorrhizae and trees).

WoodTurtle public domain Ltshears sm“Communities” are like still shots from a movie. They show a set of relationships at a particular point in time. That doesn’t mean the relationships are stable or unchanging. Many species show different sets of relationships in the past. For instance: at present, the wood turtle and the southern toad have completely different ranges – but in the past, those ranges overlapped in places. In the UK, workers building Hadrian’s Wall nearly 2000 years ago left middens that have remains of beetles of species now found only in Lapland.  When an event that wipes out an ecosystem and recolonization starts, it takes trees 50-100 years to leave a pollen signature. Bufo_terrestris public domain Norman Benton smBeetles that can fly get there in  months to a few years.

If communities were stable groupings of interdependent co-evolved species, then we would expect to see the same communities repeated in similar conditions. But in fact, we often see different groupings in similar conditions.


Decisions about what ecosystems should look like are subject to human preferences. For most people, what they grew up with is “normal.” But the world has changed. The climate is changing.  The pool of available species has increased enormously. In terms of trying to “restore” an earlier ecosystem – there’s no going back.

Good News on Rat Poison in California

dead barn owl found in Glen Canyon ParkAs our readers will know, we’ve been concerned about the use of second-generation rat poisons that cause death by slow internal bleeding. The poisoned mice and rats are likely to be captured and eaten by other animals – owls, coyotes, dogs, cats, hawks. When this happens, they can get poisoned too, and we’ve seen two owls die this way: a barn owl and a Great Horned Owl. These poisons are currently available in stores, and anyone can buy and use them – without knowing they could harm wildlife, pets, and even small children who pick up the bait by accident.

So here’s the GOOD NEWS! California is passing legislation restricting the sale of these products only to licensed applicators, which means that they won’t be available in stores for unthinking use by people who don’t realize their effects. (A link to the actual proposed legislation is HERE.)

The San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFDOE), which has been working on this for years, sent round a message about it, saying:

‘The California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has announced that it is designating the certain hazardous rat baits as “restricted materials.”

These are the products that the US EPA concluded (way back in 2008) pose an “unreasonable risk,” and tried to remove from the consumer market. The active ingredients affected by the DPR decision are brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum, and difethialone.

Restricting pesticide products means that they may only be applied by licensed applicators, or by those meeting the definition of “private applicator.” In essence, you will no longer see these products on the hardware store shelf. Considering all the data that has been amassed on poisonings of pets, wildlife and children, we consider this a very positive step.”

They asked for emails to be sent to the DPR thanking them to dpr13002@cdpr.ca.gov

If this is an issue you care about, please send them an email of thanks. We’d also like to thank all the organizations that have been involved in trying to get these restrictions, and all those that have campaigned against these rodenticides.

Ecological Communities and Time – Dr Arthur Shapiro, March 24 noon, Commonwealth Club

Earlier, we alerted you to a series of lectures that may provide thought leadership  important thought leadership that could shift the way San Francisco manages its wild spaces. It’s the Science of Conservation and Biodiversity in the 21st Century series, from three professors each giving one talk in San Francisco.

“This series of lectures will present a new way of looking at public issues in conservation. The things we’ve assumed as facts often are not. Traditional approaches are losing ground as science illuminates new pathways for framing and achieving conservation goals for open space and Natural Areas.”

A good turnout would encourage the Commonwealth Club to have more such talks.  The first lecture, by Dr Scott Carroll, was completely booked, with standing room only. Please do attend the other two if you can.

  • The next one, by Dr Art Shapiro, is on “Ecological Communities and the March of Time,” on Monday, March 24 at noon.
  • After that, Dr Joe McBride will speak on April 9th about eucalyptus.

All lectures are at the San Francisco Club Office, 595 Market St. Registration: http://www.commonwealthclub.org or call 415.597.6705

More details below.


MARCH 24, 2014, 12 NOON: DR. ARTHUR SHAPIRO ON  “Ecological Communities and the March of Time”

Dr. Arthur M. Shapiro is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology, College of Biological Sciences, at UC Davis.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly emerges on passiflora plantFrom the website: “Ecological communities as we know them are similar to freeze-frames from a long movie. Associations among species are very dynamic on millennial scales, as demonstrated by the evidence since deglaciation 15,000 years ago. Coevolution of species occurs locally in geographic mosaics, and can be extremely dynamic as well. Frederic Clements, the father of American community ecology, had a holistic vision. He saw communities as super-organisms. He was wrong.”

Please register at: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-03-24/arthur-m-shapiro-ecological-communities-and-march-time

Flyer_Arthur M Shapiro_3.24.2014
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 9, NOON, DR. JOE R. MCBRIDE ON “The History, Ecology and Future of Eucalyptus Plantations in the Bay Area.”

Please register at:http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-04-09/joe-r-mcbride-history-ecology-and-future-eucalyptus-plantations-bay-area

ferns and blackberry and poison oakDr. Joe R. McBride is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, UC Berkeley. His talk is about The History, Ecology and Future of Eucalyptus Plantations in the Bay Area.

The website says: “McBride will explain the ecology of the eucalyptus forest in the Bay Area. He will discuss its structure, the variety of plants and animals that live within it, its health and the ecological functions it performs. There will be a description of the dynamics within these forest stands (such as whether they are successional or a climax-species that replace themselves over time without human input) and about their invasive potential.”

Flyer_Joe McBride_4.9.2014

Poisonous Meatballs in Twin Peaks – reposting recent article

Editor Note:
This is a re-posting of  a recent article in sfist about poisoned meatballs being discovered in the Twin Peaks neighborhood of San Francisco. At least 3 dogs have been injured as a result.  We want to ensure that this matter is adequately publicized. Original article here

Warning: Poisonous Meatballs Return To Twin Peaks [Updated]

This Dachshund named Oskar being treated for poisoning in July of 2013 at Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.


Animal Care & Control spokesperson Deb Campbell confirms the return of the tainted meat, noting that “the meatballs were well-hidden in bushes and shrubbery, and the highest concentration were found in the vicinity of Crestline Drive and Parkridge Drive.”

San Francisco Animal Control Officers spent four hours this morning scouring a Twin Peaks neighborhood for poisoned meatballs that could sicken or kill pets. Lieutenant BonGiovanni of San Francisco Animal Care & Control discovered twenty-one meatballs that appear similar to ones found last summer in the same location. The meatballs were well-hidden in bushes and shrubbery, and the highest concentration were found in the vicinity of Crestline Drive and Parkridge Drive. Animal Control Officers posted over fifty warning signs in the area to alert pet owners to the situation.

Animal Care & Control officials are not aware of any pets that have been sickened or killed by the meatballs, but they are not 100% certain that all of the poisoned meatballs have been recovered. Animal Control Officers are encouraging pet owners to keep cats indoors and dogs on a short leash – and away from shrubbery – until the situation is resolved. The San Francisco Police Department is asking the public for assistance. If anyone has information that could help the investigation, they are encouraged to call the SFPD anonymous tip line at (415) 575-4444.
We’re getting word from a Twin Peaks resident that poisoned meatballs, which injured at least three dogs, are possibly back. The latest alleged sighting was at 80 Crestline.

While, yes, this story is still in the unconfirmed stages, SFist thought it would be best to let you know in case it’s real and you plan on taking your pooch for a walk in the area tonight.

Below, the urgent Nextdoor Twin Peaks posting:


Following are meatballs plucked from the sidewalk last June:

Picture of the meatballs found on Wednesday.


One resident notes via Twitter:

SFist has contacted SFPD for more info. We’ll update as soon as we hear more.

When the tainted treats began to appear in Twin Peaks, vets suspect that the meatballs are tainted with strychnine, a rat poison. Strychnine can causes seizures and muscle spasms 10 to 120 minutes after ingestion.

Any suspicious activity or tips about anyone trying to poising pets should call the SF Police Department’s anonymous tip line at (415) 575-4444.

Rat Poison Killed the Glen Canyon Owl

We’ve just heard back about the results of the necropsy on the barn owl found dead in near Glen Canyon. As suspected, it died of consuming rodents poisoned with rat poison.  This is the letter we received.

Edited to Add: If you would like to spread the word to people not to use rodenticides, we have a flyer/ poster you could use. It’s here as a PDF: Avoid rat poison to save owls

The dead Barn Owl we found and took to WildCare for rodenticide testing, Patient #1754, was found, indeed, to have died of rat poisoning.

dead barn owl found in Glen Canyon Park

Many people don’t know that when a hawk or owl or other predator eats a poisoned rodent, that animal gets poisoned too. Please STOP using rat poisons (rodenticides)! These poisons are killing the very animals, like this Barn Owl, that naturally control rodents.

The Barn Owl was found to be internally toxic, diffusely discolored and badly hemorrhaged throughout. There was evidence of a heavy load of the rodenticide brodifacoum in her system — enough to kill her.

Shockingly, over 86% of tested WildCare patients show evidence of exposure to rat poisons! These animals are eating poisoned rodents and carrying varying loads of toxic poison in their systems as a result. Rat poison used by residents of San Francisco is having dangerous and detrimental effects on the wildlife of our area. A Great Horned Owl was found dead last year due to the same rat poisoning.

Rat poisons kill by making whatever animal eats them bleed to death internally – slowly and painfully. While the poisoned rats or mice are still alive, they (and their deadly load of poison) can be consumed by other predators including cats and dogs. Rodents are the basic food source for a number of different predators all the way up the food chain. It is a terrifying prospect; to kill many animals while targeting only one. We need to find better ways to live well with wildlife.

If you need help with any wildlife issues, please contact WildCare Solutions at 415.456.7283 (456-SAVE), or http://www.wildcarebayarea.org/wildlifesolutions.

Barn Owls are one of the most common owl species in the country, but seeing one, especially in the City, is always a treat. These silent nocturnal hunters often appear completely white against the night sky as they glide over open spaces in search of rodent prey. A family of Barn Owls can eat over 3,000 rodents in a single 4-month breeding season, which makes them a magnificent source of rodent pest control, but also one of the most common victims of secondary rodenticide poisoning. Barn Owls nest early in the season, usually producing eggs sometime between January and March.

A special thanks to everyone who made a contribution to the testing, especially to the San Francisco Forest Alliance for their substantial donation. 

Thank you for taking the initiative in finding out what killed her. It’s a first step in spreading the word to save other owls.

Rehabilitated Owl Returned to Glen Canyon

It’s so wonderful to be able to post good news about Glen Canyon and its fauna. Wildlife photographer Janet Kessler recently sent around this item about a one-eyed owl that has been released in the Canyon after rehabilitation. This post has been republished from Saving the trees of Glen Canyon Park.


owl eye treatmentThe injured owl found in a Glen Canyon neighbor’s yard in September has been rehabilitated and returned! We now have a one-eyed Great Horned Owl living in the area.

The Peninsula Human Society (PHS), which rehabilitated the owl, found blood pooling in both of the owl’s eyes — something often seen with head trauma, and there was ulceration of one eye. However, unusually for trauma, there were no broken bones and the beak was not injured, so the cause of the injury still remains a mystery. The PHS treated the owl for a month with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pain medication, and kept the owl long enough for the blood to drain out of the eyes.

When all was said and done, one eye had recovered, but the other will remain permanently blind. A friend suggested we name the owl “One Eyed Jack”!

2013-09-30 at 10-50-12 one-eyed great horned owlGreat Horned Owls have large eyes proportional to their bodies, so removing the blind eye was not an option since this could have affected the owl’s balance during flight.

Even with one eye, this owl will be able to perceive depth and hunt accurately. The asymmetrical ear positions on the sides of their heads help owls perceive the location of their prey.

Please call Animal Care & Control, WildCare (a rescue organization), or Peninsula Humane Society if you find an injured wild animal. There is a possibility the animal can be saved, and it definitely can be kept from further pain.

Thanks! Janet Kessler

Share your Photos on our Flickr Page

We now have a photo sharing site (Flickr) and encourage you to submit your photos of San Francisco city parks!

Forest Alliance Photo Sharing Site

Forest Alliance Photo Sharing Site

Have your photo(s) ready and then follow these steps:

Step 1:   Click this  http://www.flickr.com/groups/sanfranciscoforestalliance/

(Tip: bookmark in your browser favorites folder!)

Step 2:   Select the + Join Group item

Select Join Group

Need to Join Group to post pictures

Step 3: Upload and label your photo(s) to the SF Forest Alliance – Shared Photos page

We hope people who care about our parks will help document our special areas. Changes are under way in many of them, both good and bad.  Please share your photographs of what you notice, what you love, what you treasure, what alterations are under way. We would like a record of events as they occur. Occasionally, we may publish your photographs on our website, sfforest.com, with attribution of course.

Thank you.

Long Lost Manzanita Brings Newfound Problems (Westside Observer re-post)

Editor Notes:
This is a reposting of  an important story about the plan to reintroduce Franciscan manzanita into City park land – and now also private property along Marietta Drive in the Miraloma Park neighborhood. We also want to refer to important background information about the ambiguity of the taxonomy of manzanita.  Click here


George Wooding

George Wooding

By George Wooding

Westside neighbors are concerned a rare manzanita plant will have a profound impact on neighborhood habitats and uses.

franciscan manzanita

Franciscan manzanita

In 2009, a 14-foot wide Arctostaphylos franciscana (Franciscan manzanita) — a plant thought to be extinct in the wild for the last 60 years — was discovered in the Presidio during the 2009 Doyle Drive rebuild. It was deemed to be the last wild Franciscan manzanita and immediately labeled a genetically-unique plant that needed to be saved.

“Does it make sense for over six percent — 318 acres — of City-managed park land to be permanently committed to planting an endangered species that can be readily purchased in nurseries?”

Flash forward to 2013. In just four years, 424 plants genetically identical to the Franciscan manzanita found in the Doyle Drive construction site have been propagated via cuttings, according to Betty Young, director of nurseries for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, who is coordinating the effort.Manzanita habitat

On September 5, 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its proposed designation of 11 areas in San Francisco as critical habitat for the endangered manzanita plant. That proposed designation includes part of Mt. Davidson. Critical habitats are places where endangered plants are either known to have existed in the past, or are places that provide what a plant needs to survive.

By June 28, 2013 the Fish and Wildlife Service designated 318 acres in San Francisco as critical habitat for the plant.

Critical Habitat vs. Eminent Domain

One of the new critical area habitats for the manzanita plant includes the area along Marietta Drive facing O’Shaughnessy Hollow all the way down along O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, and includes all of the open space known as Reservoir Lands at Glen Park, which has trails currently accessible on Marietta Drive.

The designation of 3.2 acres of private property directly below Marietta Drive as critical habitat has been controversial. The backyards of 22 homes on Marietta Drive are now designated as critical habitat for the Franciscan manzanita. The government cannot use critical habitat designations to take over or control property rights.

However, at the September 23 West of Twin Peaks Central Council meeting, it was stated that the Fish and Wildlife Service may use “eminent domain” to control the 3.2 acres for possible reforestation. But according to Robert Moler, Assistant Field Supervisor for External Affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, “Activities on private lands that don’t require Federal permits or funding are not affected by a critical habitat designation.” In other words, private citizens will still be able to control 100% of their land regardless of a critical habitat determination.

manzanita brush

“Eminent Domain is completely different than a critical habitat designation. Eminent domain is the power of the state to seize private property without the owner’s consent. A critical habitat designation only delineates the best places an organism can survive.”

NAP Clams Up

All of this Mt. Davidson land is controlled by the SF Rec & Parks (RPD). The RPD’s Native Area Plants Department (NAP) will be overseeing the replanting of the Franciscan manzanita throughout this area. Unfortunately, NAP has not met with neighbors to discuss its plans to reestablish the manzanita. Nor has any government agency contacted the neighborhoods about the manzanita. Calls to NAP Director, Lisa Wayne, were not returned.

As with other NAP projects, public access to large areas may become off-limits so that the Francisco manzanita can become reestablished. Neighbors are worried that large sections of Mt. Davidson might be closed to the public for years while the wild Franciscan manzanita is getting established. NAP has been completely silent on whether it will designate open space areas as being off-limits, and for how long.

It cost San Francisco $205,075 to dig up and replant the last remaining wild Franciscan manzanita, including $100,000 to pay for the “hard removal,” $79,470 to pay for the “establishment, nurturing and monitoring” of the plant for a decade after its “hard removal,” and $25,605 to cover the “reporting requirements” for the decade after the “hard removal.”

The Franciscan manzanita is also a commercially cultivated species of shrub that can be purchased from nurseries for as little as $15.98 per plant, and have been available for purchase in nurseries for about 50 years. The plants are propagated by taking cuttings and, therefore, are presumed to be almost genetically-similar.

The last wild Franciscan manzanita may have been found, but it may be a hybrid of the manzanita plants found in nurseries. Recent taxonomic revisions have established Franciscan manzanita as a separate species, based primarily on genetic comparisons, including the fact that Franciscan manzanita has 13 pairs of chromosomes, while its closest relative (A. montana ravenii )  has 26 chromosome pairs.

Manzanita seeds are germinated by fire, but the exact relationship between germination and fire isn’t known. This is why the plant is constantly cloned. The plant also requires full sunlight. How many trees will NAP cut down to provide the Franciscan manzanita with full sunlight?

The Francisco manzanita is listed as an endangered species. The Endangered Species Act listing for the rare bush means anyone who removes or tampers with the plant could face criminal prosecution and fines. The designation also qualifies the plant for federal conservation funds.

Does it make sense for over six percent — 318 acres — of City-managed park land to be permanently committed to planting an endangered species that can be readily purchased in nurseries? How will the Franciscan manzanita be able to survive without fire?

Neighbors need to know what is happening with the 318 acres of San Francisco private and public land that will be used to replant the manzanita, and how the critical habitat determination will impact public open space. RPD outreach to neighborhoods continues to be poor and disingenuous. NAP has stonewalled the public far too long and must be required to meet with Westside neighbors.

by George Wooding, Midtown Terrace Homeowners Association

Willie Brown’s opinion on the Natural Areas Program (NAP)

The following question was posed to Willie Brown recently:

Rec and Park is planning to cut down 20,000 healthy trees because they are not native; considering the threat to global warming and Al Gore’s advice to plant lots of tree, what would you do about this tree destruction plan?

His answer, in part:

“I would terminate every person connected to my administration who would advocate cutting down any of the trees in this city.”

He goes on to say: “It is ludicrous for this city to be talking about removing trees that are allegedly not native to the environment” …. “I would direct the Rec and Park department to cease and desist, and if they don’t, it will not be the trees removed, it will be you removed !”

Hear the 3 minute video here:

Photographic evidence that eucalyptus is NOT invasive

Photographic evidence that eucalyptus is NOT invasive | Death of a Million Trees

Guest Post: Death of a Million Trees

Our subscribers have probably noticed that we are studying the case the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) has made to classify Blue Gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) as “invasive.”  We have reported to our readers that Cal-IPC has made speculative claims about harm to wildlife that are unsupported by scientific evidence:

Is Blue Gum eucalyptus invasive?

In this post, we will look at the “evidence” provided by Cal-IPC that Blue Gum eucalyptus is invasive in California.  Here is how Cal-IPC described the “local rate of spread with no management” of Blue Gum eucalyptus:

“Once a tree matures and produces seed, it can produce a profusion of progeny within a few years; doubling of stand area within 10 years possible but not well documented Without quantitative data, this response is conservative; stands have certainly expanded far beyond initial plantings in many locations, based on unpublished photodocumentation (1, 2) and personal observations (3)”  [numbers refer to cited “references”]

And here is the “evidence” Cal-IPC provides in support of this rather dire prediction of the invasiveness of Blue Gum in California:

 “Potts, Michael. 2003. About this edition. Caspar News. Online @http://casparcommons.org/Press/News0305.htm. 2. Site Stewardship Program, Parks Conservancy. Unpublished photographs of Oakwood Valley, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 3. Warner, PJ. 2004. Personal observations from 1980-2004 working in and adjacent to Eucalyptus stands in Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties, CA. 707/937-9172; pwarner@mcn.org.”

With the exception of an article in “Caspar News,” all evidence provided by Cal-IPC is unpublished.  Although the one written source is described as “Caspar News,” in fact its title is “Caspar Newsletter.”  The edition of this newsletter that is cited is the first unprinted edition of the “Caspar Newsletter.” Some of the unpublished “evidence” cited by Cal-IPC is described as “personal observations” of Peter Warner, who is the author of the Cal-IPC assessment for Blue Gum eucalyptus. 

Therefore, the only source of information about the invasiveness of Blue Gum that we can evaluate is the one that is available on the internet HERE.

First a word about the town of Caspar, which is located 4 miles north of Mendocino on the coast of California.  According to the 2010 census, it has a population of 509 souls.  We celebrated New Years Eve there many years ago in a rocking bar, so we have fond memories of it.  It is a lovely little town.  We mention its small size to put its newsletter into perspective.  It’s hardly mainstream journalism.

The article in the “Caspar Newsletter” starts with the recommendation of Peter Warner to eradicate all eucalyptus in Caspar:

“In this newsletter you find several articles written by strong advocates of dire means, including the authoritative Eucalyptus indictment written by State Parks’ expert on managing exotics Peter Warner, who advocates a draconian solution:  cutting and then careful application of a dire chemical to eliminate every tree.”

In other words, the “Caspar Newsletter” is merely a repetition of Peter Warner’s agenda to eradicate eucalyptus and poison them with herbicides to prevent them from resprouting.  It’s not an independent source of information.

Photographic evidence of invasiveness?

The only photographic evidence of the invasiveness of Blue Gum eucalyptus provided by Cal-IPC’s assessment is in the article in “Caspar News:”

"Eucalyptus encroaching on the ocean view"

“Eucalyptus encroaching on the ocean view”

There are three problems with this photograph with respect to the claim that it is evidence of the invasiveness of eucalypts:

  • We are asked to trust the memory of the photographer about the history of this eucalyptus grove.  Credible evidence of spread of the eucalyptus grove would provide dated photographs taken at each period of time represented in this photo, i.e., 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2003.
  • We see the ocean in the far distance, west of this grove of trees.  As the forest approaches the ocean, we see that the trees are smaller.  This is as we would expect, because the wind from the ocean has suppressed the growth of the trees on the windward side of the grove.  The fact that wind suppresses the growth of trees was established by Joe R. McBride in his study of trees in the San Francisco Presidio which the Presidio contracted with him to conduct:  “Wind at the Presidio affects tree growth, form, and mortality. Exposure to winds in excess of 5 mph usually results in the closure of the stomata to prevent the desiccation of the foliage (Kozlowski and Palhardy, 1997) Photosynthesis is thereby stopped during periods of moderate to high wind exposure resulting in a reduction in tree growth…Eucalyptus showed the greatest reduction in growth with trees at the windward edge being only 46 percent as tall as trees on the leeward side.” (1) (emphasis added)
  • The photographer asks us to believe that the eucalyptus forest is spreading towards the ocean.  Given that the seeds of eucalyptus are dispersed by gravity and wind and that the wind is coming from the ocean, we would not expect the eucalypts to spread towards the ocean, but rather on the leeward side of the forest.

In other words the “evidence” provided by the Cal-IPC assessment that E. globulus is very invasive is not supported by the evidence that is provided.

It is possible to document invasiveness with photographic evidence.  We have provided our readers with two such examples that indicate that Blue Gum eucalyptus is not invasive in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • In “Vegetation Change and Fire Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area Open Spaces,” William Russell (USGS) and Joe McBride (UC Berkeley) used aerial photos of Bay Area parks taken over a 60 year period from 1939 to 1997, to study changes in vegetation types.  They studied photos of 3 parks in the East Bay (Chabot, Tilden, Redwood), 2 parks in the North Bay (Pt Reyes, Bolinas Ridge), and one on the Peninsula (Skyline).  These photos revealed that grasslands are succeeding to shrubland, dominated by native coyote brush and manzanita.  Eucalyptus and Monterey pine forests actually decreased during the period of study.  In those cases in which forests increased in size, they were native forests of oaks or Douglas fir.  In other words, they found no evidence that non-native trees are invading native trees or shrubs.
  • Another example of photographic evidence that E. globulus is not invasive is from Mount Davidson in San Francisco.  Adolph Sutro purchased Mount Davidson in 1881.  He planted it—and other properties he owned in San Francisco—with eucalyptus because he preferred a forest to the grassland that is native to the hills of San Francisco.  Here are historical photos of what Mt. Davidson looked like in 1885, 1927 and 2010:

Mt Davidson 1885

Since Sutro didn’t own all of Mt. Davidson, there was a sharp line between the forest and the grassland when this photo was taken in 1927.

MD 1927 RPD presentation

Over 80 years later, in a photo taken in 2010, there is still a sharp line between the forest and the grassland.  We see more trees in the foreground where residential areas have been developed and home owners have planted more trees, but the dividing line on the mountain is nearly unchanged.

MD 2010 RPD

There is one well-documented case of significant expansion of planted E. globuluson Angel Island.  Using historical records of planting of E. globulus on 23.6 acres as well as observations of uniform spacing of those plantings, McBride et. al., determined that E. globulusspread to 86.1 acres.  The trees were planted starting in the mid-1870s to 1933 and their spread was measured in 1988.  The authors of the study reported that most spreading occurred in areas of high soil moisture, such as swales, and in disturbed areas such as road cuts.  This is also the only documented case of significant expansion of planted E. globulus mentioned in the US Forest Service plant data base. (2)

The one exception to the general rule that Blue Gum eucalyptus has not been invasive in California is consistent with what we know about Angel Island and about the limitations of seed dispersal and germination rates of Blue Gum eucalyptus:

  • Angel Island is an extremely windy and foggy place because it is located in the San Francisco Bay, close to the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean, where wind and fog enter the bay.
  • Eucalyptus seeds are dispersed by gravity and wind.  Therefore we can expect seeds to travel further in a very windy place.
  • Optimal soil moisture increases the success of seed germination.  Fog drip increases soil moisture and spreading of the eucalyptus forest on Angel Island occurred in drainage swales, where moisture would be greatest.

How invasive is Blue Gum eucalyptus?

Blue Gum eucalyptus is rarely invasive.  The only documented case of significant spread of eucalyptus forest occurred in ideal conditions for seed dispersal and germination.  Therefore,Cal-IPC’s claim that Blue Gum eucalyptus is extremely invasive is exaggerated at best and fabricated at worst. 

If our readers are aware of any other documented cases of spreading of eucalyptus, we invite them to inform us.  We are committed to accurately informing ourselves and our readers of the reality of invasiveness of Blue Gum eucalyptus.


(1)	“Presidio of San Francisco, Wind Study, First Phase,” Joe R. McBride, circa 2002, page 6.  (unpublished, contracted study) 
(2)	“Focused Environmental Study, Restoration of Angel Island Natural Areas Affected by Eucalyptus,” California State Parks and Recreation, July 1988, pg 47 & 51.

Seeing Red Over Green Shrub (WSJ article)

Plan to Create an Urban Federal Preserve for the Manzanita Sparks Some Opposition


SAN FRANCISCO—In order to protect and restore an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets aside “critical habitats” in places such as the wilds of Alaska or the pine forests of Louisiana. Now, the agency has targeted a few hundred acres in the heart of this city—including the backyards of some homeowners.

That is drawing fire from some residents who, despite government assurances, fear the proposed protections could constrain land use.

Under the proposal, about 270 acres of land mostly in parks would be designated as critical habitat for the Franciscan manzanita, a low-growing evergreen shrub thought to have been extinct here since the 1940s until a single example was found in 2009.

Franciscan Manzanita Shrub (available at nurseries)

Franciscan Manzanita Shrub (available at nurseries)

Proposed Shrub Habitat Sparks Concern

Owen Randall of San Francisco is concerned about a federal proposal to designate a ‘critical habitat’ for the endangered manzanita.

Owen Randall on rocky outcrop near home

Owen Randall on rocky outcrop near home

According to Jennifer Norris, supervisor of the agency’s field office in Sacramento, a critical-habitat designation often comes with minimal restrictions on land’s use, except perhaps to temporarily fence off a particular area. When it involves private property, she said, cooperation is voluntary—unless plans by a landowner require federal approval, in which case her agency would need to be consulted. She said an activity that would raise that concern, such as filling in wetlands, would be rare in a San Francisco backyard.

Still, many residents have expressed concern that creating the habitat may curtail recreational activities such as hiking and dog walking. “We don’t have enough open space for all the recreation needs of city residents as it is,” Mary McAllister, a retired-medical school administrator, wrote in a public comment regarding the proposal. “We cannot afford to lose huge swaths of this precious resource to become a manzanita garden.”

The habitat would include about one-third of the 800 acres of undeveloped parklands managed by the city’s Recreation and Park Department. San Francisco has about 3,470 acres of city-owned parkland in total, according to the Trust for Public Land, an open-space conservation group.

Tim Armour on Mt Davidson

Tim Armour on Mt Davidson

Similar debates are playing out across the U.S. The amount of land and water covered by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical-habitat listings has jumped 46% since 2003 to an area as big as Texas and Tennessee combined. That growth has come in tandem with increased listings under the Endangered Species Act, according to the service.

In St. Tammany Parish, La., five landowners in February filed multiple suits against Fish and Wildlife for designating 1,544 acres of a timber farm, which sits on federally supervised wetlands, as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. The government estimated the designation could cost them as much as $33.9 million, in part, landowners say, because they wouldn’t be able to develop the property. The cases were consolidated into one suit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

“When your land is designated as critical habitat, they do something worse than take your land—they turn it into a federal preserve,” said Reed Hopper, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group representing plaintiffs in the Louisiana case and others.

Fish and Wildlife officials wouldn’t comment on the Louisiana case and say most of the opposition stems from a misunderstanding of what the critical habitats mean.

Just a designation as a critical habitat can be more significant than any resulting restrictions, said Dave Owen, professor of law at the University of Maine. “There could be economic impacts on properties where someone decides not to develop because of critical habitat,” said Mr. Owen, whose analysis found few restrictions occurred on land use, public or private.

After the discovery of the single Franciscan manzanita, the Wild Equity Institute—a group that helps organize environmental causes—helped get the plant listed as endangered, and in September 2012, Fish and Wildlife proposed the habitat area. In June, the agency added 3.2 acres of private property that would abut as many as 22 homes. The city’s Recreation and Park Department supports the idea of the habitat.

Fish and Wildlife’s Ms. Norris said specific plans for its restoration would be made only after the habitat is finalized in a few months. But affected homeowners remain on edge. “If I wanted to terrace my yard completely, I could potentially run into some resistance,” said Owen Randall, a 38-year-old legal-services project manager whose backyard on Marietta Drive extends down a hill included in the zone.

Their objections have gotten the attention of some city officials. “My hope,” said Supervisor Norman Yee, whose district would include parts of the habitat, “is that the wildlife folks will work with the local jurisdiction and property owners to come up with an amenable solution.”

Photos by Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal

Eucalyptus trees do NOT kill birds!

Guest Post:   Death of a Million Trees

Eucalyptus trees do NOT kill birds! | Death of a Million Trees

The claim that eucalyptus trees kill birds originates with an article in the publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, written by Rich Stallcup.  (1)  Mr. Stallcup was well known as a knowledgeable birder, but he was not a scientist.  He based his claim that eucalyptus trees kill birds on his observation of two dead birds in two different eucalyptus forests over a period of many years.   

Bird mortality rates

Given that Mr. Stallcup was a serious birder who spent much of his time in the field observing birds, we begin our critique of his hypothesis by pointing out that a sample of two is absurdly small from which to extrapolate to a general rule about bird mortality in eucalyptus forests.

Furthermore, the scientific literature about bird mortality informs us that a sample of two does not justify the assumption that these deaths were caused by eucalyptus trees.  For example, the annual survival rate of adult song sparrows has been reported as only 30%.  That is, in a single year, 70% of adult song sparrows will die of predation, disease, starvation, or other factors including old-age. Mortality rates are greater for small birds.  (2)

Mortality rates for young birds are substantially greater than for adult birds.  For example, a longitudinal study of Eurasian kestrels found that 51% of 245 kestrels were dead within their first year.  All of the 245 kestrels in this study were dead by the end of 10 years.  (2)

We have a beautiful Coast Live Oak tree on our property, under which we have found dead birds. Yet we have not concluded from those observations that the birds were killed by the tree.  Of course, they were not.  Although there were probably many different causes of death of these birds, we don’t feel the need to speculate about those causes because bird death is not a rare or unusual event unless, of course, you are looking for an excuse to blame the tree.

Flowers of Blue Gum eucalyptus

Flowers of Blue Gum eucalyptus. Photo by John Hovland

Stallcup’s Theory

Spotted pardalote is an Australian bird with a short beak that feeds in eucalyptus forests in Australia.  Creative Commons

Spotted pardalote is an Australian bird with a short beak that feeds in eucalyptus forests in Australia. Creative Commons

Stallcup speculated that eucalyptus trees kill birds by “gumming” up their beaks or nostrils with the nectar of the eucalyptus flower which blooms from about December to May in California.  He supports this theory by claiming that the birds that are found in Australia, where eucalyptus is native, have long, curved beaks which enable them to eat nectar from the flower without gumming up their beaks or nostrils. 

This theory is not consistent with the “evidence” that Mr. Stallcup uses to support his theory:

  • He found a dead ruby-crowned kinglet.  The kinglet is an insect-eating bird, not a nectar eating bird.
  • Years before that sighting, he found a dead hummingbird.  Hummingbirds eat nectar, but they have long beaks.
  • Many Australian birds that feed in eucalyptus forests do not have long, curved beaks; e.g., spotted pardalote, striated thornbill, and white-naped honeyeater. (3)
  • One study in Santa Cruz, California found many small birds feeding on insects in red gum eucalyptus, including yellow-rumped warblers, Townsend’s warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and bushtits.  The beaks of these birds are not shorter than those found in eucalyptus trees in Australia mentioned by the same study.  The study reported no dead birds or gummed beaks. (3)
  • The nectar of eucalyptus flowers is not “gummy.”  It feels watery to the touch. Eucalypts are not called “gum” trees because of the nectar in their flowers.  They are named for the sap under their bark.

Ruby-crowned kinglet is a North American bird that feeds in the eucalyptus forest in California.  USFWS

Ruby-crowned kinglet is a North American bird that feeds in the eucalyptus forest in California. USFWS

We can compare Mr. Stallcup’s “data” of two dead birds with a database of a local wildlife hospital.  The report of this database was posted to SFBIRD (San Francisco Bird is an email listserve that anyone can subscribe to and report the birds they see in San Francisco) by Richard Drechsler on March 12, 2012 and is quoted here with his permission:

“I have access to a database containing 56,960 records of birds brought to a local wildlife hospital between 1992 and 2010.  During this period this facility also accepted 2500 birds who were classified as DOA (dead on arrival).  I volunteered in that facility for seven months during 2010 where I worked with ‘small birds’ in order to get a better idea of how birds are being injured.  I was aware then of the belief that resin, gum, nectar, etc. from Eucalyptus trees might harm feeding birds.  During my time there I did not encounter any birds whose passages were blocked with any natural resins that would have prevented them from eating or breathing.  This evening I compared my observations with the 19 years of data by searching on the following words:  ‘euc,’ ‘euk,’ ‘bill,’ ‘beak,’ ‘tree,’ ‘asphy,; ‘breath,’ ‘mouth,; ‘nar,’ ‘gum,’ ‘resin,’ ‘nectar,’ ‘nostril,’,’ starv,’ ‘horn,’ ‘stick,’ ‘stuck,’ ‘glue.’ 

Preliminary Data Findings:

(1)    There is no reference to Eucalyptus or any of its byproducts.

(2)    There is one reference to a bill or mouth being restrained…by a synthetic adhesive.

(3)    There is one vague reference to an Anna’s Hummingburd that was “Stuck in Resin”…treated and released one day later.

(4)    Querying on ‘sticky,’ ‘stuck,’ or ‘glue’ yields many records and a wide variety of species being trapped by synthetic adhesives such as rodent traps and building adhesives.”

 Given the ubiquitous presence of Eucalyptus in this area and the birds craving for its nectar one would expect more incidents of starving birds or ones surrendered DOA.  Also, if birds did not have the capacity to preen or molt away this nectar, wouldn’t every (indulging) bird ultimately display this residue?”

 Bird anatomy trumps the absence of data

There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that eucalyptus trees kill birds, but the most compelling evidence that this claim is not factually correct is that it contradicts the basic facts of bird physiology and anatomy.  That is, birds can and do clear their beaks and nostrils with their feet or by rubbing their beaks on branches when necessary.  If their nostrils are obstructed, they can breathe through their mouth and vice versa.

Ask yourself this question to appreciate the absurdity of the claim that birds would passively suffocate rather than using the tools they have at hand:  If you were suffocating because there was something stuck in your mouth or nose, wouldn’t you raise your hands to your face and clear the offending obstacle?  Is there any reason to assume that birds are not physically or mentally capable of the same defensive behavior?  If you have a cold and your nose is stuffed up, don’t you breathe through your mouth?

In 2010, a student taking the Cornell Lab of Ornithology correspondence course on bird biology asked his instructor this question:  Do eucalyptus trees kill North American birds?”  This is the email reply from his instructor:

“I have no firsthand knowledge of the effect of eucalyptus gum suffocating birds (or not), but I share your skepticism for the reasons you mention. The story has birds feeding in flowers and getting gum on their faces. The first bird mentioned in this saga appears to have been a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They don’t feed on or in flowers much; they’re leaf gleaners and flycatchers. Is there even “gum” to be picked up on the flowers? Again, that seems unlikely. Birds can breathe through their mouths, so just plugging up the nostrils won’t kill them. (Nestling crows often get the feathers covering their nostrils so encrusted with food matter that there is no way they could breathe through them, but the young are fine. I chip it off when I band them.) It seems like this story could be investigated rather easily, but I see nothing about it in the scientific literature. I would need to see evidence before I believed it.”  

Those who love to hate eucalyptus

The Cornell ornithologist would need to see evidence before he believed the claim that eucalyptus trees kill birds.  Native plant advocates apparently don’t need any evidence.  They have been repeating this absurd, baseless claim since 1996, when it was originally fabricated.  One subscriber to the SFBIRD email listserve mentions this claim often, although he never offers any new actual dead birds to add to the two that were used to fabricate the story. 

 So, why do we try, once again, to set the record straight despite the stone wall built around this fable by native plant advocates?  Because we find this claim in the“assessment form” used by the California Invasive Plant Council to justify its classification of eucalyptus as “invasive:” “purported to cause mortality in native bird species.”  The California Invasive Plant Council classifies eucalyptus as “invasive” based partly on the existence of two dead birds. 

This story has been repeated by native plant advocates for nearly 20 years without any supporting evidence.  It has taken on a life of its own until those who repeat it apparently are unaware that there is no evidence to support the myth.

The US Forest Service social scientist, Dr. Paul Gobster, interviewed native plant advocates while a visiting professor at UC Berkeley about ten years ago.  At the end of his visit, he delivered a lecture at the Randall Museum about his observations of the local native plant movement.  He said they were victims of “incestuous amplification,” the trading of misinformation in a vacuum caused by their isolation.  The ridiculous story about eucalyptus trees killing birds is surely an example of incestuous amplification.   


(1)    Rich Stallcup, “Deadly Eucalyptus,”  Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Fall 1996

(2)    Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Princeton University Press, 2004

(3)    Julie Lockhart and James Gilroy, “The portability of food-web dynamics:  reassembling an Australian psyllid-eucalypt-bird association within California,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 2004, 13, 445-450

Monarch butterflies in California need eucalyptus trees for their winter roost

Guest Post:   Death of a Million Trees

Monarch butterflies in California need eucalyptus trees for their winter roost | Death of a Million Trees.

Monarchs are probably the best-known butterfly in North America, partially because they are distinctively beautiful, but also because of their epic migration.  East of the Rocky Mountains, monarchs migrate from the Canadian border and the Atlantic Coast to spend the winter months in fir trees in Michoacan State in Mexico.  West of the Rockies, monarchs migrate from the Canadian border and the Pacific Coast to overwinter along the coast of California from Mendocino County to San Diego County, near the Mexican border.

Monarch Butterfly.  Creative Commons

Monarch Butterfly. Creative Commons

No single monarch makes the entire journey.  It takes two to three generations of monarchs to make the entire round trip.  How each successive generation knows the route remains largely a mystery, although theories exist.  There are a couple of fascinating books about the migration that we recommend to our readers.  Four Wings and a Prayer is a book about the 38-year effort of Canadian entomologists, Fred and Norma Urquhart, to understand the migration.  It reads more like a suspenseful mystery than the non-fiction book that it is.  Flight Behavior is by Barbara Kingsolver, one of our favorite novelists because nature is often the subject of her work.  Although it is fiction, it has been carefully researched by Kingsolver who studied biology before becoming a writer.  It is engaging both as a cautionary tale for environmentalists and as a personal redemption story.

The western migration of the monarch

Monarch butterflies roosting in eucalypus tree.

Monarch butterflies roosting in eucalyptus tree.

We will focus on the western migration of the monarch because that’s our neck of the woods, but also because this migration is one of the reasons why many people who care about nature and wildlife object to the destruction of eucalyptus trees.  Eucalypts are the preferred trees for over-wintering monarchs“Three types of trees were used most frequently by roosting monarchs:  eucalyptus (75% of the habitats primarily Eucalyptus globulus), pine (20% of the habitats; primarily Pinus radiata), and cypress (16% of the Cupressus macrocarpa).  Twelve other tree species were identified…with a combined prevalence of only 10%.” (1)

For those who may not know the botanical names, that’sMonterey pine and Monterey cypress that are the runners-up to eucalypts as the most popular trees for over-wintering monarchs.  Although monarchs roost in those trees in their native range on the Monterey peninsula, they also use those species outside their native range.  Unfortunately, just as the eucalyptus is a target of native plant advocates who demand their destruction because they are not native, bothMonterey pine and Monterey cypress are targeted for destruction outside their native range.  For example, both Monterey pine and Monterey cypress will be eradicated from hundreds of acres of public land if the FEMA grants are funded in the East Bay.  This is just 150 miles away from where those trees are native and there is fossil evidence that they existed in the East Bay in the distant past.  In other words, most of the trees used by monarchs for their winter homes are in jeopardy of being destroyed by the native plant movement.

Another nativist myth BUSTED!

One of the reasons why we are telling this story is that it is a tidy little example of the justifications fabricated by native plant advocates to support their destructive agenda.  In the case of the monarch, native plant advocates claim that prior to the arrival of Europeans, before eucalypts were planted and Monterey pines and cypresses were planted outside their native range, the monarch used native trees for their over-wintering habitat.  The “assessment form” used by the California Invasive Plant Council to classify Blue Gum eucalyptus as invasive says,  “[The Blue Gum] provides roost sites for migratory monarch butterflies…ecological niches for butterflies and raptors probably formerly filled by native plant species.”  No evidence is provided in support of that statement.  We have also read that claim in comments of native plant advocates on internet articles in response to those who defend eucalypts because they are needed by monarchs.

Like many of the “cover stories” of native plant advocates, this is just not true.  A search of the scientific literature about monarchs enables us to bust this particular myth to smithereens.  It would be simple enough for native plant advocates to look at the evidence before spinning their tales, but it is apparently easier to make it up, especially when they are rarely questioned.  Million Trees exists to fill this informational void.

The historical record of the western migration of monarchs

The earliest record of over-wintering monarchs in California is from 1864, when monarchs were observed over-wintering in Monterey pines in their native range.  Richard Vane-Wright, the scientist who reports this record, explains why he believes it is probably the first incidence of over-wintering monarchs in California:

“’Previous to that, no mention has been found of this interesting phenomenon…The early Spanish chronicles and traditions make no mention of it, although Monterey, a scant three miles distant, was gay with life when the last century came in…even David Douglas, the world famed botanist, and the keenest-eyes of all the strangers who came [to California] is silent regarding it.’…Douglas, the indefatigable fir tree collector, appears to have made no mention of the phenomenon in 1830-1832, despite spending two winters at Monterey.” (2)

Vane-Wright believes the eastern monarch migration to Mexico also began around the same time.  His theory is that the agricultural practices of early settlers, which cleared trees, created a population explosion of the milkweed that is the host plant of monarchs.  More milkweeds resulted in more monarchs and monarchs began to migrate in response to population pressure, he believes.  He calls this the “Columbus Hypothesis.”  (2)

Biological facts explain why monarchs choose these species of trees

Aside from the historical record, the biology of monarchs and the physical characteristics of the trees in which they over-winter explain why these species of trees are required by the over-wintering monarch.  During the late fall and winter, monarchs enter a dormant phase called diapause.  They continue to need nectar and moisture during that period, but they are not very active, so these resources must be close by.  Although they migrate to the coast from Mendocino to Mexico, they are most abundant around the mid-point of that range, where temperatures and rainfall are moderate.  Most of the approximately 250 roosting sites are within 2.4 kilometers of the ocean, so wind protection is important for them while they are roosting.  All of these factors predict the ideal conditions provided by eucalyptus trees:

  • Monarchs need tall trees (of at least 60 feet) because they roost in the intermediate level of the canopy where wind protection is greatest (3)
  • The forest must be dense enough to provide wind protection,
  • The tree canopy must be open so that the roosting monarchs receive filtered sunlight to keep their bodies warm enough.
  • The monarchs need enough moisture for hydration, but not so much that they are soaked and lose their body heat.  So, dew and/or fog provide the ideal amount of moisture.  (1 & 4)

All of these requirements for the monarch’s winter roost point to their dependence on eucalyptus, pines and cypress.  The trees that are native to the narrow strip of the coast of California do not meet these criteria.  They are not tall enough and they do not grow that close to the ocean because they do not tolerate wind.  The native vegetation of that narrow strip of California coast is predominately dune scrub and coastal grassland prairie.  And these are the vegetation types that the ecological “restorations” in the Bay Area are trying to re-create.  These vegetation types will not be suitable habitat for over-wintering monarchs.  Furhtermore, plans to drastically thin eucalyptus forests on hundreds of acres of the East Bay Regional Park District will render those habitats useless for over-wintering monarchs.

In addition to the physical properties of eucalyptus, the monarch benefits from the fact that it is flowering from about December to May, while the monarch is roosting in the tree.  The flowers of eucalyptus contain a copious amount of nectar which is also important to the honeybee because it is flowering at a time when there are few other sources of nectar.  One study reported observing monarchs feeding on the flowers of Eucalyptus globulus. (5)

Risky Business

We have mixed feelings about reporting this research about monarchs to our readers because there is some risk to the monarchs in doing so.  The evidence suggests that monarchs did not over-winter in California prior to 1864, after the magical date that nativists have selected to freeze-frame California’s landscape to their nativist ideal.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, this magical date is 1769, when the expedition of Portola laid eyes on the San Francisco Bay.  Will nativists declare the monarch an alien invader to be eradicated along with the hundreds of plants and animals they claim “don’t belong here?”  This may seem a far-fetched conjecture, but keep in mind that the European honeybee is being eradicated in some “restorations” because it is not native.  The honeybee is essential to the survival of American agriculture, yet its existence is threatened by the radical agenda of the native plant movement.

That’s the risk we take in reporting this evidence because we hope that it helps our readers to understand the absurdity of the nativist agenda.


(1)    Dennis Frey and Andrew Schaffner, “Spatial and Temporal Pattern of Monarch Overwintering Abundance in Western North America,” in The Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation, Cornell University Press, 2004.

(2)    Richard Vane-Wright, “The Columbus Hypothesis:  An Explanation for the Dramatic 19thCentury Range Expansion of the Monarch Butterfly,” in Biology and Conservation of the Monarch Butterfly, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1993.

(3)    Andres Kleiman and Miguel Franco, “Don’t See the Forest for the Butterflies:  The Need for Understanding Forest Dynamics at Monarch Overwintering Sites,” in The Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation, Cornell University Press, 2004.

(4)    Kingston Leong, et. al., “Analysis of the Pattern of Distribution and Abundance of Monarch Overwintering Sites along the California Coastline.” in The Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation, Cornell University Press, 2004.

(5)    Susan Chaplin and Patrick Wells, “Energy reserves and metabolic expenditures of monarch butterflies overwintering in southern California,” Ecological Entomology, 7:249-256, 1982

Mt Sutro Hike by Tony Holiday

Tony Holiday, a San Francisco hiker and blogger, recently hiked Mt Sutro from the Stanyan steps to the summit and back down to Parnassus. (Go to his blog, Stairways are Heaven, for more hikes and photographs.) This photo-essay is one of our Park Visitor series – first-person accounts of visits to our San Francisco Natural Areas and wild lands. It’s abridged (and published with permission) from the original post,  Stanyan Trailhead to Summit, on Stairways Are Heaven. (We’ve made some minor edits to the captions to clarify them for those unfamiliar with the forest.)

Started off this very pleasant Mount Sutro hike first uphilling from Parnassus  to Stanyan & 17th for the trail head of the lower Historic Trail…

Trailhead with steps up to Sutro Forest from Stanyan

Entrance to the “lower Historic Trail,” which starts in the Interior Green Belt – city-owned property that comes under the Natural Areas Program of SF Rec & Parks.

Interior Greenbelt’s lower Historic Trail

Continuing on the Lower Historic Trail in Mount Sutro Forest

At some point, the trail crosses from the Interior Green Belt into UCSF’s “Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve.”

… then from the lower Historic Trail, up to Medical Center Way, crossing over to the East Ridge Trail …

Medical Center Way, the paved road that runs through the forest and connects the Aldea Student Housing with Parnassus

…  and up to the summit (where I saw this flower).

Flower on the summit of Mt Sutro

Going down from the summit I went down the North Ridge Trail.

Starting down from the summit on the North Ridge Trail

North Ridge Trail, nearly down to Medical Center Way

I’ve used this convenient short stairway many times from Medical Center Way to the parking lot so as to descend the wood-railed stairway to its foot, then out to Parnassus. (But you can easily just walk downhill to the lot too.)

Shortcut stairway down to parking lot

There are around 136 steps from the parking lot down to Medical Center Way behind the hospital buildings.

Steps down from Parking Lot

Stairway overlooking UCSF buildings

Stairway connecting parking lot and UCSF

Stairway seen from the bottom (with acacia trees that that form the subcanopy of the forest)

You’ll probably see medical personnel ascending and descending this stairway, but it’s okay for hikers to use also. I’ve been doing so for years.


Tony Holiday likes meandering around on San Francisco’s park trails and public stairways, sometimes taking photos, and enjoying nature and the outdoors.

UCSF’s “Urgent Fire Safety” on Mt Sutro – How True?

Our readers have been following the story of Sutro Forest, the beautiful Cloud Forest that lies in San Francisco’s fog belt. It captures moisture from the marine layer fog, and is thus wet all through the summer and into the Fall, which protects it from fire-hazard. In January 2013, UCSF issued a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on a Plan threatening to cut down 90% of the trees on 3/4 of the Mt Sutro Open Space Reserve.

Until recently, we understood that the tree-felling had been postponed to 2014, as UCSF needed more time to respond to the detailed and voluminous public comments on the DEIR.

Mt Sutro Forest, Sept 2013 (Photo: SutroForest.com)

Then UCSF sent out a notice that it would be performing “urgent fire safety work,” felling over 1000 trees and mowing down understory on Mount Sutro in response to San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) having provided an “independent assessment of the Reserve.” (We reported on that HERE.)  On its own website announcing it had completed work, UCSF says, “The measures, which began Aug. 26, are in response to an assessment this summer by the San Francisco Fire Department that found “extra hazardous fire conditions” in the urban forest.”

All of this creates the impression that SFFD came in, took a close look at the forest, and found “extra hazardous conditions” – and that UCSF’s actions were in response.  But is that what really happened?


The determination that fire conditions are “extra-hazardous” is important. If they’re just the normal fire-risk, then the required clearance to structures is 30 feet. If it’s “extra-hazardous” then it’s 100 feet.

At 30 feet of clearance, UCSF would need to do very little: This amount of clearance already existed in most places.  But by declaring it “extra-hazardous” UCSF decided to clear understory and slender trees on around 20-25% of the Mt Sutro Open Space Reserve.

The discussions about Sutro Forest have been going on since about 1995. Right now, there’s a Draft EIR on a Management Plan being processed. This sudden August 15th UCSF notice planned to start work within 10 days, without any public meeting or discussion, or reference to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it addressed “immediate fire safety and emergency concerns.”

So of course we were very interested in just how the extra hazard – and emergency – had suddenly been decided.


UCSF claimed an “independent assessment” by the SF Fire Department (SFFD).  But was it?

Under the Sunshine Act, we obtained documents from SFFD, covering the correspondence between UCSF and the San Francisco Fire Department. It demonstrates no independent assessment nor any evidence of “extra-hazardous” fire conditions at that time.  It appears that UCSF, finding its efforts to start gutting the forest this year had been stymied by the overwhelming public opposition to its Draft EIR, decided to do an end run around CEQA.

  • SFFD had not independently expressed any concerns about fire hazards on Mount Sutro.  UCSF tried to get them to come to Mt. Sutro and tell UCSF to cut down trees.  That apparently didn’t happen.
  • Then UCSF drafted a letter for SFFD saying there were extra-hazardous conditions requiring the 100-foot clearance.
  • Only after our Public Records Act request revealed that SFFD had been used to get around CEQA, after the public had been told that SFFD had made an independent assessment, on the very day that cutting started, did SFFD perform an after-the-fact walk-through of Mount Sutro to justify what was being done.


Here’s the timeline:

  • 13 June – 10 July 2013:    UCSF tried to get the San Francisco Fire Department (“SFFD”) to come to UCSF to do a fire hazard inspection on July 11th. There’s no record that the meeting ever happened.

(This is a PDF of email correspondence apparently trying to set up such a meeting – but no evidence or acknowledgement that it occurred. Please note UCSF labeled them ‘Attorney-Client Privileged’ – even though they are not. This looks like they’re trying to prevent the public from seeing them. Email messages July 2013 (UCSF-SFFD) )

  • 23 July 2013:   UCSF drafted a letter for SFFD’s signature stating that “SFFD has determined that 100 feet of fuel clearance for structures is required due to extra hazardous fire conditions.” (There was no substantiation of these “extra-hazardous conditions. Without them, a clearance of 30 feet – which already existed in most places – would have been sufficient.)

(Here’s the PDF of correspondence between UCSF and SFFD indicating that UCSF provided the draft letter: UCSF – SFFD emails July 2013 )

  • 27 July 2013:   Due to overwhelming number of comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report opposing felling trees on Mount Sutro, UCSF announced that it would not be able to complete responses and hold the hearing approving the EIR in time for work to begin in 2013, and this would be postponed to 2014 after the bird-nesting season (around mid-August).
  • 14 August 2013:  UCSF sent out a public notice that it would begin tree removals on August 26, and attached the SFFD letter (which had been drafted by UCSF) as justification.
  • 20 August 2013:  San Francisco Forest Alliance sent SFFD a letter demanding immediate disclosure of all records pertaining to fire hazards or assessments of fire hazards on Mt. Sutro.
  • 23 August 2013:  SFFD provided no records of any fire assessment on Mt. Sutro, and only produced one document showing that UCSF had scheduled a tentative Mt. Sutro site visit on July 11th  (and no evidence or assurance that this site visit had occurred).
  • 26 August 2013:  (1) “Urgent fire safety” work started. (2) On the same day, the day tree-felling began, SFFD actually did a site inspection of Mt. Sutro. This was reported in a letter to UCSF dated August 29th, when the work was well under way. Clearly, it was after the fact, and not independent. The inspecting contingent included several UCSF staff.  From SFFD, it apparently included Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White together with several other SFFD staff. Most of the letter details the work that is being done – all of which is apparently based on UCSF-provided information. The “independent assessment” is one paragraph of generalities, describing conditions that have been unchanged in at least the last ten years, and don’t therefore substantiate any “emergency.” That letter is HERE. SFFD Aug 29 letter to UCSF

Is it possible that this letter, too, was drafted by UCSF? We don’t know. If we find out one way or the other, we’ll publish it here.

In any case, SFFD has clearly provided this support as a courtesy to UCSF, and there has still been no independent substantiation of the ‘extra-hazardous’ conditions throughout the areas where the “work” was performed. Or of any emergency.

BEFORE picture in Sutro Forest. (Photo: SutroForest.com)

AFTER picture in Sutro Forest. (Photo: SutroForest.com)

UCSF To Fell 1250 Mt Sutro Trees for “Urgent Fire Safety” – Aug 2013

This article is reprinted with permission from SutroForest.com.


We had thought that UCSF was not going to cut down trees this fall when we wrote One More Year for Sutro Forest. We were wrong.

Yesterday, we received a surprise notification from UCSF. It plans to start felling trees for a “Urgent Fire Safety” project from August 26th. This is separate from (and possibly in addition to) the Plan discussed in the Draft Environmental Impact Report.

Mt Sutro 'fire safety work' mapMORE THAN A THOUSAND TREES

They plan to do the following:

  • Cut down and chip 1,250 trees under 6 inches in diameter in the colored areas on the map. (This comes to over 15 acres, about one-quarter of the forest.)
  • Remove much of the understory bushes in those areas.
  • Remove an unspecified number of “hazardous” trees of any size through the forest. (Presumably those would be the orange-tagged trees.)
  • They will not use pesticides.

In addition, they note that PG&E will prune/remove trees on Clarendon Avenue, and the city will do so in the Interior Green Belt. So we can expect quite a lot of tree-felling in this area this Fall.


UCSF has indicated that work will start on August 26th and take 2 weeks.

ucsf letter abt 'fire safety' work

They also say that because this is “Emergency” work, it is not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and so is separate from the Plan in the Draft Environmental Impact Report and independent of it. Of course, from an actual environmental viewpoint, this would be an addition to everything in that Plan.

They have obtained a letter from San Francisco Fire Department supporting their proposed actions.

defensible spaceThis is a recent picture from Sutro Forest.

fog in the forest 4

Some see trees and understory; others see fuel.

The City That Knows How – Seattle?

This is a first-person account from a reader, but it’s not one of our occasional Park Visitor series. It’s about Seattle.


A few months ago, I visited Seattle. Like every tourist, at some point I headed for the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, the Chihuly Garden, the EMP Museum.  We parked in the underground garage, and emerged at street level to an avenue of graceful trees.

red stanchions and notices on trees in Seattle

Some road work was in progress, and all the trees had small notices on them.  Coming from  San Francisco, I knew what those must be, and my heart sank.  Removal notices. After all, every project in San Francisco means removing trees, doesn’t it?

heavy equipment and tree notices in Seattle

Not here.  As I got closer, I found they were the exact opposite of removal notices.

protect tree

In fact, they were notices to protect the trees. They went further. To each tree, they ascribed a monetary value, and it was not trivial. This tree is valued at approximately $9,000.

$9000 tree in Seattle

Here’s the notice up close. It has specific instructions, and a requirement for notification.  It not only doesn’t permit the tree to be removed, it tries to protect it against damage from the process of construction.

Tree valued at approximately $9,000

Another, larger, tree nearby had an even higher valuation. Here’s a notice for a $15,200 tree.  And none of these trees was anywhere near the size of some of the larger ones we see in San Francisco and cut down so casually.  I don’t know how they calculate the value, but if we go by size, we probably lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of trees.

$15,200 tree in Seattle


Maybe San Francisco should have a system by which the value of each tree cut down has to be donated to some group like Friends of the Urban Forest.  (But not to the city, that would be a perverse incentive.)

For a start, every project should publicly list  up front every tree to be removed, together with a monetary value reflecting the replacement cost of a tree that size.  In some cases, this may even be reason to revise or scrap a project.

Most of the benefits of trees – carbon storage, pollution protection, habitat value, wind protection, slope stabilization, visual impact – are linked to a tree’s size and maturity. But instead of protecting our mature and majestic trees, San Francisco appears to focus on negatives and looks for ways and means to remove them. This may be one of the reasons our urban tree canopy is one of the smallest among major US cities – and is shrinking, not expanding.


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