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Tree Removal, the Vegetative Management Plan and Our Vision for the Mountain

Bird nesting season has begun on Mount Sutro which means tree removal has been put on hold. Chain saws and chippers have been hard at work on the Mountain since the fall. This tree removal happens to coincide with the approval of the Comprehensive Parnassus Heights Plan by the Regents of the University of California. The CPHP is a major redevelopment of the campus that will extend beyond 2030. Let's start off by making one thing clear, the approval of this plan and the removal of dead and dying trees on Mount Sutro are not related. The CPHP promises to maintain the current 61 acres of University-owned open space. It does call for a substantial increase in housing units at Aldea by tearing down the current buildings and rebuilding taller units in the same footprint. We do have some concerns about the increased density and transportation needs this will invite and will be watching this matter closely. That said, the tree felling that has been happening on the Mountain is not to make room for high rise condos and luxury hospital suites, it is to manage a forest that has been neglected for decades, the result of which is a thicket of overcrowded Eucalyptus trees, many of which are diseased, dying and dead. These trees pose a fire hazard and with high winds have a tendency to fall over.

Tree removal is part of the 30-year Vegetative Management Plan for Mount Sutro that took over ten years to draft, negotiate on and finally approve in 2018. The removal of dead and dying trees is Phase 1 of the plan. Replanting with a diversity of species of trees, 50% California native trees and 50% eucalyptus species has already begun as part of this first phase. Because of deferred maintenance of dead and dying trees before the Vegetative Management Plan was in place, it will be at least 20 years of seasonal felling and replanting before we can catch up to a healthy state.

Sutro Stewards was at the negotiating table for the plan and we advised on its contents. While we have some reservations with the plan, we are glad to see the Mountain finally receive the kind of heavy equipment care that our hand picks and shovels cannot provide. As the plan unfolds, we will be working closely with UCSF to follow up tree removal with weed management and the planting of habitat enhancing, locally native understory species grown at our nursery. Over time, we look forward to seeing the habitat improve on Mount Sutro and wildlife increase.

Why we support the plan

Absent stewardship, land degrades. Mount Sutro has suffered from many years of relative neglect. This is apparent when you look into the canopy of the eucalyptus and see the sparse foliage, bare branches and the trees leaning precariously into each other. It is clear when you look down into the impenetrable understory of invasive species forming thick monocultures.

There is a conservationist myth that must be shattered right here, right now. In North America, land fenced off and left alone does not allow for an ecosystem’s continued health. Humans are not inherently destructive to nature. In fact, nature needs us, just as we need nature. The key is how we engage with nature. The western model of believed human supremacy over all other beings and therefore the right to limitless extraction, has, after about 2,000 years, pushed us to the brink of ecological collapse. In contrast, the relationship with nature held by indigenous Calfiornians is one that meets the needs of people, while allowing for nature’s continued reproduction, and even increased biodiversity over time.

For the past 10,000 years, California flora and fauna evolved with indigenous stewardship. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild beautifully chronicles the ways that native Californians resource the land for culinary, cultural and religious purposes with methods that allow for its continued renewal. With their genocide and forced removal from the land, California no longer receives this widespread care. This is one factor of many leading to the decline of biodiversity and the increase in frequency and severity of fire across our state.

At the time of Spanish arrival to San Francisco, our City was made up of windswept dunes, rolling grasslands, lush marshes, cascading coastal shrubs and only the occasional Oak grove. There were very few trees when Europeans first arrived on the peninsula. Creeks ran from Glen Canyon to the Bay and Grizzly Bears and Tulle Elk roamed from the western cliffs to the eastern wetlands. When Adolph Sutro first began planting his Eucalyptus at the turn of the 20th Century, Mount Sutro, then called Blue Mountain, was blanketed in coastal scrub and perennial grasslands. The trees were installed as a fast growing shade crop to shelter Ash and Cypress. The original plan to tear them out was abandoned after he died and the trees were left to expand unchecked.

Until recently, the Mountain received very little active care. As a result, the Eucalyptus understory has become mostly an impenetrable thicket of invasive species, with Himalayan Blackberry and English and Cape Ivy dominating. As indigenous stewardship teaches us, this hands-off approach is not natural for humans or for the land. Over time, the result is decreased biodiversity, decreased health of individual plants and decreased functioning of the system as a whole.

We support the Vegetative Management Plan and this first phase of tree removal, not because it ultimately maintains a forest on Mount Sutro (where one did not exist before), but because it offers a pathway for active care of the Mountain, one that will increase biodiversity, the health of the native and non-native ecosystem and with structurally compromised trees removed, the Mountain will be a safer place to enjoy.

Our Reservations with the Plan

Now, if we had our druthers, this Plan would favor plant species native to San Francisco and would not include the replanting of Eucalyptus. We believe in the public process that the plan went through, and at the time, this is the compromise that we were all able to agree on. We stand by the legality this public process represents. However, we favor biodiversity and the stable functioning of balanced ecosystems. It's these native ecosystems that sequester and store carbon, filter air and water and provide habitat to our pollinators (which support our food supply) at more efficient rates than land dominated by a single tree species and the invasive understory plants that manage to grow underneath it. In this age of global warming, we tend to think of trees as the carbon sequestration power houses, but studies are showing that California's native perennial grasslands, which graced Mount Sutro before Adolph planted his trees and we are restoring pieces of at the Summit, are more reliable carbon sinks than forests.

Eucalyptus are beautiful and smell delicious, but they are also allelopathic trees, meaning they emit chemicals, in this case an oil, making it difficult for many species to grow in their understory. These are species that our local wildlife depend on for food. If you want the birds and butterflies, you must plant the plants that those creatures evolved with. Additionally, it isn't the tree by itself that accounts for the carbon cycle, it is the entire forest ecosystem with its understory of perennial forbs and shrubs, vines and wildflowers, and the animals that use them that cycle nutrients and minerals, including carbon.

We would never advocate for clear-cutting, but a phased, gradual and studied return of our native ecosystems is a good idea. This is why we have a Nursery that grows plants native to Mount Sutro, and this is why we have a conservation program that installs these plants with the help of volunteers. The trails we maintain help us access these restoration sites and give you an opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of our urban oasis. This is how we do our part to invite our local wildlife back, to repair the global carbon cycle, and to offer the community an alternative relationship to nature, one that is based on reciprocity rather than extraction.

The Vegetative Management Plan is a step in the right direction, and though our vision is one of more integrity of local biodiversity than it currently allows for, we are happy to participate in its execution.

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Thanks for this post. I like eucalyptus trees quite a lot, although, I do know how they have this allelopathic effect. Eucalyptus provide habitat to so many bird species, but I was wondering, what was the argument used by those who designed the Vegetation Management Plan to install new eucalyptus individuals? was it the fast growing aspect or something else?, and what alternative tree could have been used?

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