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.
A Crosslinked, Mapped Guide to Natural Areas Plants
In designing the SF Natural Areas web site, one of the goals was to be able to construct over time a useful guide to specific native plants of interest in San Francisco. Whether or not contributors to this site ultimately generate such a resource, the engineering is here to make it happen.
Here’s how it works. A contributor can
- Upload a photo of a plant
- Title it with the common and scientific names
- Describe it with these names plus other interesting info
- Tag it with the common name (the scientific name could also be used, but since these are far longer in most cases and since most other visitors are going to be looking for the common name, that is the better choice)
- Include a Location link in the photo description
Here’s an example of the result. This is a photo of a soap plant on Twin Peaks. Note the description below the photo where you can read the common and scientific names and also follow a link to where this particular plant is located.
Also, you can go to the main tags page where you’ll see a bunch of tags including SoapPlant. These tags are sized in proportion to the number of photos in the collection. In the case of the soap plant, there are (as of this posting) only two images, so its tag is quite small. Still, you can see how the tagging system collects photos for a given species from all the various Natural Areas sites (Mt D and Twin Peaks in this case).
“Locations” embed Google maps with markers showing a specific spot, and as many of these can be created for each Natural Area as there are relevant locations to show. (Creating and managing them involves a higher level of Superpowers than do blogging and photo uploading, but once set up, these locations are obviously reusable and don’t need frequent messing with.)
Whether the SF Natural Areas web site will come to be used to house this kind of resource will depend on how much interest there is amongst contributors. The process of constructing this crosslinked, mapped guide to the native plants in San Francisco is a simple one, but it does involve several steps that require a bit of attention. So we shall see whether this gains traction or not.
In the meantime, we’ll continue the site’s primary purpose—displaying the contributions and work of volunteers in defense of our remnant native habitats!
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Growing the Volunteer Base
I just received a call from someone who lives near Billy Goat Hill, a tiny Significant Natural Resource Area in the Diamond Heights neighborhood. She is concerned about a development project that is well on its way through the Planning Department because of its potential effects on the park. Unfortunately, the “Friends of Billy Goat Hill” — the volunteer group for the park — exists on paper but has been inactive for a number of years. Worse, because the Natural Areas Program is so abysmally funded and staffed (it is responsible for 27% of Rec&Park’s lands but has only 2% of its staff positions and 1% of its budget), the Natural Areas Program staff person who is nominally in charge of the site can only get there once or twice a year.
In the grand scheme of things, Billy Goat Hill is one of the less valuable remnant habitats in the RPD system because it has been thoroughly abused over the recent decades. Most of it is heavily infested with invasive weeds (the radish problem is particularly noisome), and heavy traffic (people and pets) have badly eroded the hills. However, one particularly steep slope still has a rich assembly of native plant species.
Still, this site illustrates a fundamental problem in the preservation and protection of our Public Commons. The RPD upper management’s penurious funding of the Natural Areas Program — coupled with union rules that limit to 15 the number of volunteers that a single staff person can supervise — means that the Natural Areas Program staff simply cannot be all the places that people want them to be. The Program cannot utilize all the volunteers who want to help. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy when volunteers get turned away and thereby are prevented from expanding the constituency that can demand better funding of the Program. Neighbors around sites like Billy Goat Hill end up with more weeds and degraded parklands—accelerated by RPD budget decisions.
It’s almost as if the RPD’s upper management wants the Natural Areas Program to fail. Perhaps they do.
The solution is quite simple: the Natural Areas Program needs funding and staffing at least ten times its current levels. Only then will the neighbors around sites like Billy Goat Hill get the results that they’re hoping for from the City.
Or perhaps we need new people heading up the RPD.
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