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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