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

Bid to return areas to original dune and shrub habitat, partly by felling thousands of cypresses and pines, has activists bitterly split.

June 29, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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.

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.

"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."

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