Going Native: A Plant Lovers' War Turns Political

A three-minute YouTube video by the local nonprofit group San Francisco Forest Alliance shows how easily an internecine debate between environmentalists can devolve into political mudslinging.

"NAP's Nativist Agenda is Taking Our Parks," reads the video's first subtitle, imposed over a blurry, forest landscape with tense synthesizer music thrumming in the background. It goes on to accuse NAP, the Natural Areas Program within San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department, of felling trees, choking off trail access, and using toxic pesticides to rejuvenate native plants.

To Forest Alliance members, the Natural Areas Program essentially serves as a front for native plant activists, who are "obsessed" with restoring the city's indigenous flora. Because that agenda might not seem particularly controversial on its face, the Alliance has turned to polarizing language — namely by conflating "native plants" with the value-loaded term "nativist."

"What the hell is nativism?" Jake Sigg, a longtime gardener turned native-plant advocate, retorts. He accuses the Alliance of harboring an agenda, too — one that caters to a mix of forest-lovers, feral cat activists, and off-leash dog walkers. This political battle dates back 12 years, he says, with each side accusing the other of various conspiracies.

So it's not enough to be a tree-hugger anymore; you have to hug the right tree.

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Dear SF Weekly,

Thank you for reporting on the rift within the environmental community, and thank you to Rachel Swan for planning the article. This issue is something too few San Franciscans are aware of.

(We hope we’re not actually slinging mud when we oppose the destruction of trees, use of toxic herbicides, and access restrictions in our parks. We think it’s possible to oppose the Nativist Agenda in the strongest terms while being respectful of the people who support it.)

Your reporter sent us a few questions, which we answered at some length. Obviously she couldn’t include all of that in the article. But we’d like to share it with our readers, and perhaps you would like to share it with yours.

Her first question was what plant we thought was being preserved in Glen Canyon Park, justifying herbicides and tree-cutting?

We don’t actually think the tree-cutting and herbicide application in Glen Canyon is targeted at preserving any specific native plant. Instead, it’s a more generalized preference for “native” plants, so that herbicides are used to remove non-native plants naturalized to the Canyon, and non-native trees are cut down, to be replaced (if at all) with “native” shrubs and other smaller plants. Though the original Environmental Impact Report for the Glen Canyon project said it would not be in the Natural Areas of the canyon, in fact the work area did include a substantial “Natural Areas” portion.

Who, she wanted to know, did we target our video at, and what result did we wish to see?

Our video is intended to get the word out to people who care. San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department policy is hostile to the 117,000 non-native trees in the park system’s Natural Areas. (They are on the wrong side of the climate change issue). We hope this video will show our concerns about tree removals, trail closures and herbicide usage, and show that native plant gardens provide very limited recreation opportunities and are not sustainable.

Most people don’t understand what’s happening in their parks until they see trees being removed or pesticide notices or trails being blocked, and then it’s usually too late. They also can’t understand why a program like NAP is funded at around $1.5 mn annually (which would go up by a factor of 4 or more if the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan is adopted), while recreation centers are closed because the Director was fired, or the retiring gardener in their local park was not replaced, or park patrols are infrequent because of staffing issues.

Here’s what we would like to see happen:

    We would like trees to be preserved as far as possible unless they are truly hazardous (and it’s not used as an excuse). They should be the responsibility of a department that wants to protect them instead of one which wants them gone. San Francisco’s tree canopy at 13.7% is low compared to most major cities – and we lose more trees each year than we plant. Trees fight pollution and save lives. In this era of global warming, trees are a crucial resource, sequestering carbon. (Eucalyptus, a fast-growing and long-lived tree with dense wood, is particularly effective at doing this.) We want tree-felling for native plant “restoration” to be stopped and prevented.
    We want to stop use of toxic herbicides in Natural Areas (all Tier I and Tier II herbicides).
    We want no additional access restrictions on people or pets in Natural Areas.
    We want financial resources to be allocated in line with people’s actual priorities – which would include functioning (and open!) restrooms, funding for recreational programs people enjoy, patrols that improve safety, trash removal.

Have we encountered different sub-groups within the native plants community, she asked, or did we really think there was one unified agenda?

Let’s be clear: We don’t object to native plants, or to the people who value them. When we speak of the “nativist agenda” we mean the ideological preference for native plants that drives such entities as the Natural Areas Program (NAP) to try to destroy existing trees, habitats, and recreation opportunities – and use powerful herbicides in natural areas. They are a small minority of our park users, and large areas of our parks shouldn’t be landscaped to their preferences, ripping out of plants that the rest of us enjoy and that are important to birds and other wildlife. (NAP has 1100 acres, about 1/4 of the total SFRPD land.) “Nature” does not favor one plant over another.

We have people from the “native plant community” among our supporters: they like native plants, but not the destruction of existing trees, wildlife habitats, and access opportunities.

Finally, she wanted to know who the San Francisco Forest Alliance was. Were we homeowners? Off-leash dog-walkers? Opposers of pesticides? (In the article she quoted Jake Sigg’s definition of us: “Forest lovers, feral cat activists, and off-leash dog walkers.”)

So who are we, really? We’re very broad group with one thing in common: People who enjoy nature and our parks and advocate for trees, the environment and for wildlife.  SF Forest Alliance is not a membership organization, so we don’t have a roster or dues. We’re a grass-roots organization with many supporters, some of whom are active in helping us to spread the word. Our Change.org petition to Mayor Lee is currently at over 1500 signatures – and this is only the latest of several of our petitions that got thousands of signatures (including many on paper only). If you want a better sense of who we are, read some of the comments on that petition – or on the earlier MoveOn.org one HERE.

We have hikers, birders, and people who want public money spent on making parks more beautiful and accessible for recreation. We have homeowners, renters, and people who share apartments. Some of us have pets and walk them on- or off-leash; others don’t.  Some are parents or grandparents, others not.

We all want unrestricted access to our parks, for us and for our families (including children and pets) for active – not just passive recreation. We’re all opposed to toxic herbicide use in “natural” areas. We all oppose removing of healthy trees. We believe most people have these values.

The SFWeekly article said in conclusion: “So it’s not enough to be a tree-hugger anymore; you have to hug the right tree.”

For our part, we think all trees that aren’t actually hazardous are “the right tree” wherever they originated. Perhaps she referred to the Native Plants Community, who dislike non-native trees (and nearly all the trees in San Francisco are non-native, because it had hardly any trees before.)


The San Francisco Forest Alliance


I have attended multiple meetings where the Native Plants and Natural Areas proponents have spoken and dominated the conversation - filibustering for hours to hammer in their ideas, based upon their assertions that their studies of the past 18-22 years are "irrefutable". Yet over this same period of time climate changes statistics have been the TRUE irrefutable component. I have visited San Francisco urban forests with friends and family & within ONLY a month's time period have seen first hand the damage done by the Natural Areas gardeners.Their hacking away at viable green areas to "garden" what has been the beautiful evolution of a forest, is the true culprit in leaving the green areas vulnerable to fire hazards.Their debris has been left behind in piles and yet their fingers point to the "wrong" forests as culprit ."Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." - Bill Mollison- The concept of Permaculture does not factor into the Native Plants Program's visions nor conversations, This is a battle be very clear- not a fluff piece issue -- Rachel Swan to protect the vital green areas in an ever threatened environment of climate changes and other risks that we as a city, state, nation and world face. We saw this year how threatened the state of California was with historic drought . yet still "Natural Areas and Native Plant" proponents have made their ways into majority committees, government offices, received funding and grandstand their views rather than open the floor to any current concerns and actions or any discussions as regards climate change. The City of San Francisco is woefully low on the nation with  tree count. Other cities have surpassed us and have actual programs to plant 25,000 trees a year, and protect their forests - whereas San Francisco has been taken over to some large degree by the Natural Areas Programs in Park and Rec and cutting down trees and native forests and laying down pesticides of alarming rates with no one able to refute them. Wake up the Emperor has no clothes...Rachel Swan and City of San Francisco. The Native plants activists fever to return the landscape to the 16th century plain of oaks savannas and scrub brush and cut down living forests is a true danger to the City and county of San Francisco and ignores the real issues of climate changes and what San Francisco can do to protect rather than to destroy its living forests. The United Nations April 2014 published a three part study pointing to the dangers we humans face in-terms of water shortages and green belts being threatened, Wake up and take a walk through native plants areas and then take a walk through our SF Forests that are on the fast track to being  destroyed and see for yourself the truth. Any child - (our children in fact) -- saw for themselves with just three walks the devastation wrought by the Native Plants Activists. It's a crime to SF forests and SF gardens what Natural Areas Program are doing and plan on doing under the guise of "Nature" lovers to the forests and natural gardens of San Francisco. Our children were almost in tears seeing the harm done by this one group in SF forests. WAKE UP....!! before the forests are destroyed the pesticides laid and the gardens gone. Listen the Climate Change reports - forests trees and green belts need to be protected not hacked away to death and pesticided to waste.

Link to articles re: United Nations 3 part study on "SOUNDING ALARM ON CLIMATE CHANGE DANGERS" 




Rachel : ..........

the last sentence in your article states:   "So it's not enough to be a tree-hugger anymore; you have to hug the right tree...."  

With all respect:  that makes light of a very current - "not so funny".... issue.........the impending effects of climate change weather world wide in the very very near future -- is not a question mark issue. What IF we didn't get the added rainfall in California early 2014-  animals, terrain,nature and humans would be suffering, we need all the forests and trees we are lucky to still  have, There are countries out of water, and crops. We have abundant greenery we need to steward protect, There are no bad forests, there are no bad trees. There are no "good herbicides"

Rachel:  Are you aware this past April 2014 the United Nations issued a three part Climate Change report: Atlantic Report Magazine..????...

".....The United Nations' latest report on climate change contains plenty of dire warnings about the adverse impact "human interference with the climate system" is having on everything from sea levels to crop yields to violent conflicts. But the primary message......appears to be this: Climate change is happening and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. As a result, we need to adapt to a warming planet—to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits associated with increasing temperatures—rather than focusing solely on curbing warming in the first place. And it's businesses and local governments, rather than the international community, that can lead the way. ......"

all hugging aside, rachel ....... no one is protecting the right to "hug a tree" - clearly- the issue is saving forests and trees as valuable resources  for the protection of our environment - all and any green mass  - protects the whole environment -and each community has the right to protect their community not stand by and watch it be destroyed to be rebuilt to a "native" landscape look of 500 centuries ago  - 500 hundred years ago - !!

there are no "bad" forests -  there are no "bad" trees -

......but most of all....... there are no "good herbicides" ......which we know harm nature and humans both .........The native plants area Natural Area Program uses herbicides and cuts down living green masses......forests and trees for a landscaped vision of 500 years ago and a plan they bankrolled and started 18-22 years ago.... when climate change was a question mark and we had time for re-imagining California to be a 15th century Savannah.


If the SF Weekly has questions about the SF Forest Alliance, why doesn’t it ask the Forest Alliance? Instead it turns to Jake Sigg, who asks another question that also could be answered if anyone had a sincere interest in the answers.

Journalism has an ethical obligation to speak to both sides of an issue on which they wish to report. Ms. Swan’s article is not journalism. It is a hit-piece in service of advocacy for one side of a controversial issue. It does not illuminate. It inflames. 


If the SF Weekly has questions about the SF Forest Alliance, why doesn’t it ask the Forest Alliance? Instead it turns to Jake Sigg, who asks another question that also could be answered if anyone had a sincere interest in the answers.

Journalism has an ethical obligation to speak to both sides of an issue on which they wish to report. Ms. Swan’s article is not journalism. It is a hit-piece in service of advocacy for one side of a controversial issue. It does not illuminate. It inflames. 


Is there more to this article?


correction 500 years 5 centuries not 500 centuries...( passion burns deep) ..Happy Arbor day ...!!

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