San Francisco Natural Areas Overview
Welcome to SF Natural Areas!! This site is for, by, and about the volunteers who work to preserve and protect the remnant habitats within San Francisco.
Unlike most other major urban areas, San Francisco’s steep topography has prevented the sort of torched-earth development that completely obliterated all traces of original landscapes elsewhere. In fact, 1100 acres (that’s 27%) of the San Francisco parks system are officially designated Significant Natural Resource Areas because they still contain irreplaceable biological communities. Other mostly-pristine remnant areas are owned by other public entities including the Public Utilities Commission and the Presidio Trust.
These public lands are under constant threat, however, from invasive weeds and over-use — and this is where volunteers come in. Volunteers with the Natural Areas Program of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) contribute tens of thousands of hours each year pulling weeds, maintaining trails, and propagating and planting native plants.
In fact, Natural Areas Program volunteers constitute over 25% of all RPD volunteer hours even though the Natural Areas Program has only 2% of RPD staff and receives only 1% of the RPD budget. The Natural Areas Program is underfunded and understaffed by a factor of ten. Volunteers are what prevent these priceless biological assets in San Francisco from collapsing into weedy ruin.
Anyway, other natural areas managers besides the SFRPD include the Presidio Trust which runs its own volunteer program; the National Park Service, which runs the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the SF Public Utilities Commission which owns important remnant areas near Laguna Honda; and UCSF, which owns and manages Mt Sutro. Plus, there are other important groups which play crucial roles in San Francisco’s preservation of its biological heritage.
However, what has been missing is a site where volunteers can post their photos and tell their stories about working in these remarkable areas. That need is what this site attempts to fill. This site also, over time, may become an integrated botanical guide to San Francisco’s native plants, though this be an over-ambitious goal.
Browse the Events, Photos, and Blogs to see what’s happening at all the various Natural Areas. To track quickly and easily the most recent contributions, check the general blog section and the general photo section. These combine all content from all the natural areas we cover in reverse chronological order, so the newest stuff is always the first you’ll see.
General Blog Posts
These posts concern general SF Natural Areas themes. For posts regarding an individual site, go to that site's main page. For all blog posts from all sites in chronological order, go here.
Henhouses, Foxes, and Guards
Last night’s public meeting about the Mt Davidson seismic retrofit project revealed several concerning issues that pose a significant risk of escalating into real problems for Mt D. I’ll get to these in a moment, but some background first.
Back in May 2006, regular hikers on Mt D were surprised to discover orange spray paint up and down the sides of the mountain. Natural Areas Program staff — who are the people within the Rec&Park Dept who manage Mt D — were equally mystified. It turned out that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was prepping for a major repair of the 75,000 gallon, 20 foot deep water tank at the summit and replacement of the iron pipes up and down the north and south flanks of Mt D to the tank. That this work was going to happen was never in question; funds were available and the PUC made a convincing case that the updates were needed. However, how the work was going to be done was very much at issue.
The initial plans called for trenching straight up the NE flank of Mt D right through the corridor between the grasslands and the trees — where the most complex plant communities and best bird habitat are located. After great public outcry and multiple meetings, this northern route was pushed back into the trees where lurk only weedy tangles of blackberry, ivy, and cape ivy. The southern route was always planned to follow existing trails up to the summit, but public lobbying obtained agreement that the width of this disturbance would be carefully limited.
On paper at least, this project appeared to have been redeemed from an unmitigated disaster to an acceptable, if regrettable, impact. All that needed to happen was for sufficient provisions to be worked into the actual contracts so that these acceptable plans will actually be implemented correctly.
And there lies the rub. At last night’s meeting, we learned several things:
- Natural Areas Program staff theoretically have the power to approve or disapprove the route of the pipeline (specifically the fencing that will constrain the route) and to monitor and enforce the contractor’s compliance. However, despite the assertions of PUC representatives, there is in fact no money budgeted in this $4 million project to pay for Natural Areas Program staff time. Everyone else gets paid — PUC staff, the contractors, and no doubt many of their brothers-in-law — but Natural Areas Program staff are simply expected to set aside their other responsibilities in order to do what is actually one of the most crucial activities — making sure the contractor doesn’t screw up.
- The penalties/fines structure for this project are pathetically feeble. The various costs to the contractor for trenching the wrong place or destroying the wrong plants add up to a paltry $30-40K — less than 1% of the budget. Any contractor who can figure out a way to cut his costs 2% by paying a fine of 1% will obviously view those violations as simply a cost of doing business. And even if violations are not committed intentionally, such impotent wrist slaps provide the contractor with little incentive to worry about “mistakes” or “accidents”.
The result of not funding the Natural Areas Program staff — who are supposed to be the primary enforcers here — is to emasculate enforcement. They are already responsible for 1100 acres — 27% of RPD’s lands — as it is, even though RPD allocates them only 1% of the RPD headcount and 2% of the RPD budget. Either they will have to neglect other Significant Natural Resource Areas, or they will have to neglect this one. And perhaps that is the RPD GM’s objective — to set the program up for failure. He has shown a consistent hostility to the needs of RPD’s assets that aren’t golf courses and playfields. RPD upper management were conspicuously MIA in these negotiations with PUC that left the Natural Areas Program with these unfunded mandates.
The paltry penalties in this contract raise “good government” questions. Penalties for major contract violations that add up to less than 1% of the budget may be the standard in this business, but that fact stands as an indictment of the far-too-cushy relationships between City departments and contractors rather than a justification of this practice. The fact that Natural Areas Program staff “signed off” on these provisions reveals how marginalized and powerless they were — not that the provisions are actually acceptable. RPD upper management could have intervened here. Hmm…maybe they did.
In any case, the contracts are signed and the work is about to start. At this point, there appears to be no chance of changing the penalties or shunting some cash to hire another Natural Areas Program staff person. Monitoring this project will fall to citizen volunteers, and enforcement will fall to, well, it will just fall. The PUC’s faith-based relationship to the contractor will prove justified or naive; we’ll soon see.
In the meantime, Mt Davidson volunteers and fans will need to walk the hill daily — digital camera in hand — to record and post here what transpires. Perhaps all the photos will be lovely, or perhaps they’ll show a slow-motion train wreck. All we can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst — and tell the story here either way.
There are no comments so far.
Sharp Park Golf Course Must Close!
A Recreation Alternatives at S.F. Golf Courses Taskforce has been created by the BOS to advise the City about the future management of its many golf courses. This body consists of golfers from each of the City’s courses plus a couple of token non-golfers, so it’s easy to see what direction it is likely to take. Still, due to considerable pressure from a variety of directions, one matter it is considering is closing the Sharp Park golf course.
This is a dramatically good idea, and here is why.
Sharp Park is located in San Mateo county but owned by San Francisco county and run by the SFRPD. The majority of its 411 acres constitute an officially-designated Significant Natural Resource Area due to the high biodiversity of its remnant coastal scrub communities. The lower 174 acres contain a golf course built back in the 1920s after the owners of the land deeded it to San Francisco for “recreational purposes”.
This golf course was only possible once a seawall was constructed to convert the salt-water marsh that covered the area west of Highway 1 into “usable” land. This area is the final drainage of the Sanchez Creek canyon, and the reason it was a salt-water marsh and not fresh is that the whole area is at or below sea-level, as shown in a current topographic map:
In photo below looking north along the seawall, note that it serves as a bi-directional dam — to keep the Pacific ocean out on the left, and to bottle up the drainage of the Sanchez Creek on the right. What results is now a fresh-water marsh that includes two larger bodies of water — Horse Stable Pond (seen on the right) and the larger Laguna Salada a bit further north and out of this photo. The final route for the creek drainage is through a pump and pipes. Yes, the City of San Francisco pumps the entire volume of water of this creek up and over this seawall into the ocean.
However, there is trouble in paradise. The seawall is deteriorating due to damage from storm surf and burrowing squirrels, and salt-water incursion into Horse Stable pond has been documented. It is only a matter of time before rising ocean levels and further deterioration breach the seawall.
Furthermore, the Sanchez Creek drainage system is broken. The channel connecting Laguna Salada down to Horse Stable Pond (where the pump lives) is blocked. This means that the entire lower area is flooded for at least several months every winter during the rains—turning the front nine holes of the golf course into an unplayable “Sharp Park Lake”.
Partly due to these problems, partly due to the strong prevailing winds, and partly due to a variety of clumsy ways the golf course has been run by contracted vendors, it has become the least popular course that San Francisco owns. The “number of holes played” has dropped 38% since 2000, according the 2006 budget analyst audit. Golfers have many far better alternatives to Sharp Park, and they are voting with their feet.
So, why is there still a golf course there? Well, one group of supporters are the residents of Pacifica for whom this is their local neighborhood course—one that they enjoy courtesy of San Francisco taxpayers. What’s not to love about a major recreational outlet paid for by someone else? Another group appears to be the upper management ranks of the SF RPD, who seem simply to love golf. Of course, the RPD General Manager personally lives in Pacifica, so he’s got double reasons for backing the course. One wonders what his handicap is.
But unless those who want to maintain the golf course manage to stop rising sea levels by reversing global climate change and to suspend the law of gravity that sends water draining to the coast, the marsh — salt or fresh — will eventually win out and suspend play. The question is how much more good money San Francisco taxpayers are willing to throw after the bad in the meantime.
The only sensible thing from ecological and fiscal perspectives is to close the damn course. It was a ludicrous place to put it back then, and it is an unconscionable place to allow it to remain now. Let it drown.
Addendum—4 April 2008
It turns out that the current seawall was built in 1982. Prior to that, there were large natural dunes that protected the golf course. In fact, several holes were built on the ocean-side of these dunes. Not surprisingly, storms and high tides eventually ruined these holes, and a particularly large storm surge in 1982 wiped out several of the holes on the shore side of the dunes.
It was at this point that the current seawall was built. It, however, has also been breached to the point of requiring substantial repairs over the years. One such breach in the early 1990s killed many of the cypress trees, which still stand as mute testimony to the fact that grass greens walked upon by humans in orange-checked pants are merely a transitory phenomenon here. The ocean will eventually reclaim its own.
2008-04-04 20:43:39 -0700, Brent said:
Sharp Park would make a great San Mateo Co. Gateway for the GGNRA.
2008-04-07 08:24:26 -0700, Butch Larroche said:
In case you did not know, Mori’s Point, just to the south of the golf course is already GGNRA land. As for my take on the article:
“So, why is there still a golf course there? Well, one group of supporters are the residents of Pacifica for whom this is their local neighborhood course—one that they enjoy courtesy of San Francisco taxpayers. What’s not to love about a major recreational outlet paid for by someone else?”
Are you assuming that only Pacifica residents play golf at Sharp Park? That would be wrong. SF residents, Pacifica rresidents and many other from the Bay Area play here wweekly.
2008-04-07 09:21:52 -0700, Tinman said:
Well, fewer and fewer golfers — regardless of where they’re from — are playing at the course. The fact that some still do in no way alters the fundamental problems described above. The site would never be made into a golf course today, and it makes no sense to continue to try to keep it on life support now.
2008-04-08 09:11:58 -0700, Butch Larroche said:
How do you know that the site would never be made into a golf course today? You could say that about alot of things but it does not change the facts. Sharp Park is a golf course today and should remain so. The arguement you offer, on whether something would never be built today can ebe used about the G G Bridge, Bay Bridge, just about anything. History cannot be changed to suit our thoughts or ideas. Sharp Park Golf Course offers a great recreational activity at a fair cost to the public. Also, Pacifica already has ample open space and that cannot be denied.
2008-04-08 09:38:48 -0700, Tinman said:
A golf course could never be built at the current location today because it is endangered species habitat and because coastal protections are otherwise far more appropriately rigorous than they were back in the “anything goes” 1920s.
Further, one would hope that any golf course designer today would notice that the entire lower area is a marsh and always will be a marsh—and would realize that it is a stupid place for a golf course. Golf courses should not flood for half the year. There are far better places for golf courses inland and higher up, and that’s where any intelligent current developer would go.
2008-04-08 11:17:02 -0700, Butch Larroche said:
I think one could argue that the area is an endangered species habitat because the golf course design helped create it. The lack of modern irrigation has caused the Laguna Salada to flood the last 2 of 3 winters. In addtion, the tule grass that has grown in around the ponds edge has created the flooding problem as well. The run-off rains and water have nowhere to go but into the golf course itself. I have been a lifelong Pacifica resident and a golfer of over 25 years at Sharp Park. The first time I ever heard of a Red-Legged Frog was 3 winters ago when the course flooded. If you look at old pictures from Sharp Park, one could see clearly, without the obstruction of tule’s form one end of the pond all the way to the other end. Just because you feel it could not be built there today, does’nt change the fact that it is there now, and should remain so.
2008-04-08 11:51:19 -0700, Tinman said:
The whole Pacifica area is red-legged frog and SF garter snake habitat, or at least was until development paved over most of the space. Sharp Park and the adjacent GGNRA parcels are all that’s left. Whether you knew it or not, these critters have been there all along. That’s why they’re there now; they didn’t escape from a zoo.
Still, you and your fellow golfers shouldn’t worry. As far as I can see, the odds are virtually nil that the current crop of decision-makers actually will move to close the course. If the course closes, it’s far more likely to happen because of a calamitous failure of the seawall.