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In S.F., Tree Huggers Vs. Sand Huggers

Special to The Times

This city’s political stage often rivals the local opera company for torrid skirmishes and over-the-top drama.

But a current conflict over how to manage San Francisco’s limited open space is being played out with a level of passion that might make even the divas at War Memorial Opera House blush.

Plans to preserve and restore remnants of San Francisco’s natural flora and fauna pit green versus green, dog lover versus wildflower fan and, as the two sides derisively call each other, “tree huggers” versus “sand huggers.”

On one side are self-proclaimed environmentalists who want to preserve and restore “natural areas” to look as San Francisco did more than a century ago, when most of the land was covered with sand dunes and wild shrubs.

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On the other side are self-proclaimed environmentalists who prefer their open space as “cultural areas” -- places where dogs run free, families picnic on vast lawns, softball players circle the bases and children seesaw and swing. They are comfortable with trees, no matter when they were planted or what their land of origin.

“We’re all ecologists and we’re all on the same side,” said Nancy Wuerfel, an opponent of natural areas. “But it’s an all-out war.”

The war centers on two proposals -- one federal and one local -- that would restore open space to a historic condition but that critics fear would cut into areas open to the public.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed and the National Park Service is considering a plan to chop down about 3,800 trees, mostly nonnative Monterey cypress and pines, in the federally owned Presidio. The lush 1,480-acre national historic landmark in the city’s northwest corner was an Army installation until 1994.

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The other plan, a 740-page draft prepared by consultants for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, would set aside areas to be cleared of eucalyptus trees, weeds and other nonnative plants. Critics say that more than 1,100 acres, nearly a third of city-owned open space, could be off limits to the public.

Tempers ran so hot over the plans that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, under pressure from opponents of natural areas, established the Park Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee, a citizens watchdog group. Given the squabble’s intensity, the group’s acronym, PROSAC, might seem an apt prescription for all sides.

“These people are flat-out crazy,” Bill Sheppard, a lawyer who has worked on behalf of a number of environmental groups said of the restorationists. “They pick a point hundreds of years ago and try to replicate it. They are ignoring one of the most important parts of nature: evolution.”

Sheppard and other opponents of expanding natural areas say it is impossible to sustain historical biological conditions in a city as developed as San Francisco. “They can’t get rid of nonnative plants, because they blow in from people’s yards, they’re brought in on people’s clothes, the birds bring them in,” he said. “They are manipulating nature at the expense of public access.”

Golden Gate Park

San Franciscans love their parks, and they love none more than the lush 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park, which was established entirely on sand dunes in the 1870s. Opponents of natural area restoration often point to the park as an example of how publicly accessible open space is preferable to the conditions of pre-urbanized San Francisco.

“The most unnatural thing in the whole world is Golden Gate Park,” Wuerfel said. “It was turned into a beautiful urban setting with plants donated from around the world, and it developed with a beautiful, exotic, nonnative flavor. And people from around the world come to visit it.”

Critics of the restoration programs compare nonnative trees to human immigrants.

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“How many of us are ‘invasive exotics’ who have taken root in the San Francisco soil, have thrived and flourished?” former Supervisor and current Assemblyman Leland Yee asked in a neighborhood newspaper.

David Looman, a longtime liberal strategist who created a political action committee, SF Dog PAC, in response to recent prohibitions against off-leash dogs in both city and federal recreation areas, agrees with Yee.

“A lot of this does have an aura of veggie racism,” he said, maintaining that natural areas limit access to the city’s public parks, which are used by many immigrants and ethnic minorities.

The person on the hot seat in this internecine battle is Lisa Wayne, a biologist who, since 1977, has headed the Natural Areas Program, a division of the San Francisco parks department established by city voters a year earlier.

“I thought this job was a great way to bring ecology to different parts of San Francisco and get my hands dirty,” she said. “I had no idea I would be spending a good deal of my time involved in San Francisco politics.”

According to Wayne, opponents of the Natural Areas Program are mostly dog owners angry about the crackdown on off-leash pets. She called them “savvy political players” who “exaggerate the numbers and distort the truth” about the restoration of native species, while obscuring their main agenda because “it’s not a particularly popular perspective to have such extreme views on dogs.”

Wayne denies that it is the parks department’s objective to expand the footprint of natural areas. She says those who say that one-third of the city’s public parks will become inaccessible to the public are just plain wrong.

Wayne says it is important to protect whatever patches of “natural San Francisco” remain because of the area’s biodiversity -- with 24 endangered plant and animal species, including butterflies, snakes, insects and wildflowers.

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Opponents of natural areas maintain that the department has chopped down thousands of trees in a number of parks throughout San Francisco, evidence of the Natural Areas Program’s expansionist ways.

Wayne and other proponents say most of the trees being removed are saplings that encroach on existing protected areas.

“The eucalyptus tree is a weed,” said Greg Gaar, a supporter of the Natural Areas Program. “All we’re trying to do is save what remains of nature prior to the arrival of the Europeans.”

He said some properties have become so overgrown with nonnative bushes and ivy that they have become inaccessible.

At the Presidio, fierce opposition has led to expectations of a cutback in plans to restore native plants where groves of cypress have taken over amid the red-roofed former military buildings.

“One of the weaknesses of the plan is that it didn’t take into concern the cultural resource value of the Presidio,” said National Park Service spokesman Rich Weideman. A new plan for restoring wild areas on the land around the old Army base will be released in September.

Already, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has brought back a salt marsh at the site of the Crissy Field air base, complete with an island where herons and other large birds nest.

Volunteers have planted hundreds of thousands of native specimens along Lobos Creek, the last remaining natural creek that flows above ground in the city.

“There’s such increasing pressure over the use of the open space that’s left that it’s led to this polarizing situation,” said Pete Holleran, a former California Native Plant Society president who has helped with the restorations.

More Dog Areas Urged

Some suggest that much of the friction over the issue could be reduced if new parks where dogs could romp and run with their owners were developed. Animal owners could also learn to enjoy the preserves by keeping their pets on trails.

Bill Carlin, a former supporter of the Natural Areas Program who is now an ardent critic, said the issue is not dogs, but the “arbitrary designation of natural areas” without taking into account “that humans are part of nature too.”

“Of course, humans are a part of natural systems,” said Wayne, the program director. “The difference is, we have the ability to control what happens in these natural systems. And because we have that ability, we have that responsibility.”


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