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.
Propagating Plants and Goodwill
Here is a modest proposal I’d like to make. It has no official or unofficial sanction at this point, though I hope that it gains the support from the Right People so that it gets implemented sometime soon.
The Big Idea
The San Francisco Rec&Park Dept should establish a Native Plant Propagation Unit within the Natural Areas Program that would manage the production, licensing, and marketing of native plant materials (seeds, cuttings, plants) originating from the City’s Significant Natural Resource Areas.
Operationally, this Propagation Unit would:
- Set the annual level of acceptable field collection for all native plants.
- Perform and/or license-and-monitor all field collections
- Establish a certification process for all native plant materials obtained from SNRAs.
- Establish criteria for acceptable native plant materials not originating within the City.
- Create logos and other labeling to be included in all marketing and sales of “Natural Areas Program Approved” materials.
- Manage relationships with all distribution channels—free-standing nurseries selling native plants.
This plan would yield these benefits (at least):
- Collection of scarce local native plant genetic material will be planned, monitored, and controlled—fixing the current completely ad hoc and excessive collection by numerous parties.
- Demand for local native plants will be better met due to increased availability through planned and controlled propagation.
- Nurseries will have clear indication of what are and are not approved local native plants for distribution in the City.
- Gardeners will have a clear label to look for when purchasing native plants.
- Habitat reconstruction projects such as the proposed “critter corridors” will be more feasible with better availability and visibility of proper stock.
- The Natural Areas Program will generate considerable public good will as the respected authoritative source of native plants.
- Licensing and sales revenues will underwrite part of the Natural Areas Program.
So why bother with this at all, and why now?
First, there is a problem that needs to be fixed. Currently a variety of people are collecting seed, cuttings, and entire plants from the Significant Natural Resource Areas in our parks. Some of these people are private individuals and some are commercial nurseries. Many of the plants being collected are rare so that over-collection poses a great threat to their survival in the wild. However some collection is important (more so even for particularly rare plants) as long as it is done by experts who have a high likelihood of success. Continued ad hoc, unregulated and unobserved collection must be stopped. Prohibition never works, though, so these activities need to be legalized, regulated, and and thus controlled.
Second, there is a big demand for native plants. Gardeners are increasingly looking for climate-appropriate, drought-tolerant plants, and this demand has been recognized by a number of local nurseries who have indicated that they want to carry native plants. Neighborhood projects such as “critter corridors” for species like butterflies are being developed and will drive significant additional demand. This demand requires adequate material and user-friendly distribution channels such as the existing nurseries who have store-front and online sales capabilities. The Natural Areas Program staff and volunteer groups like the California Native Plant Society cannot handle sales themselves and should partner with other entities who are ready and willing.
Third, genetic pollution is a big concern in the City. Lacking sources for geographically-local native plants, gardeners are importing similar species from stock derived from other locations where different conditions have selected out different traits within the species. Cross pollination with local natives may make local populations less robust and potentially introduce other changes that make these altered natives less usable by the food chain that depends on them.
Fourth, the Rec&Park Dept is searching for “new regulatory, market, and philanthropic funding opportunities”. These are basically public-private partnerships that generate operational funds for RPD programs outside of the standard budget process. The RPD should back this idea enthusiastically since this idea is exactly the sort of program that the RPD says it wants to see.
Fifth, the Natural Areas Program has been vilified by parties who have used it as a convenient target for their wrath about off-leash dog regulations within other jurisdictions—notably the GGNRA. RPD leadership have cowardly failed to defend their own program against the most outrageous slander and accusations. The Natural Areas Program needs a new public face, and being the authoritative source of native plant information and stock will give it this. People should be saying, “I’ll only plant it if it has the Natural Areas Program pedigree. They’re the ones that I trust.”
There are no doubt many organizational and implementation issues to grapple with in moving this idea forward, but I think it deserves close scrutiny—particularly by RPD upper management and planning staff.
2008-02-14 23:50:39 -0800, jfred decker said:
Too bad I’m not a banker, because you’ve got an excellent business idea.
What you see should be done, should be and could be done quickly and well by a few enterprising individuals who have a basic understanding of horticulture along with investors. You’ve shown that now’s the time to get in on the ground floor!
To try do it as a government commission would be self-defeating if only because of the long lag time creating commissions (the specimens will all have been poached by then, doh!), destructive politics over any and every budget question, and, unfortunately, mind-numbing idiocy trumps good intentions every time.
You have detailed the pressing needs and given examples of powerful economic incentives to fulfill those needs. Sheesh, like who needs The City? Yes, perhaps The City could pass legislation wielding carrots and sticks to encourage plant poachers to go straight—straight to you with their checkbooks out! If The City details additional Park Police to the Natural Areas beat, so much the better – but I ain’t holding my breath! (And how about some more gardeners first?)
Otherwise, let’s encourage Parks & Rec to continue to do the right thing as best they can in “San Francisco, The City That No Longer Seems to Know How....”
Great idea…Great opportunity! Just successfully propagating seed or plants in quantity could be a gold mine to successful growers and a blessing to the environment. By entering the market, we will stimulate higher standards of competition from nurseries and growers seeking to provide better products at better prices. Most importantly, our Franciscan biological heritage will profit most of all.
If a few people contributing to a private business approach wish to include me, I could assist in developing business and marketing plans, as well as intellectual property issues policies (just because this is LOW-tech doesn’t mean it isn’t BIO-tech). My field is argumentative visuals using media like 3D visualization and Flash, so I might be able to really help.
Some interesting ideas about facility development could allow such a business to become profitable quickly on a relatively low capital investment.
To be utterly green about it, I would really, really, really love to assist getting a Permaculture design-infused business off the ground, making a healthy living for its workers and return for its investors. What is “Permaculture”, you ask? Think sustainable, frugal, practical, appropriate, site-specific – albeit intra-urban (i.e. “green”).
Right? OK, now all together: “San Francisco, the City That Knows How” – deja vue all over again…
2008-02-15 09:46:12 -0800, Tinman said:
jfred—While I and many others share your general pessimism about the ability of the City of San Francisco to execute on this idea (or any other, given the City’s tagline “Most expensive and least effective government money can buy”), the fundamental starting point here is that this is the City’s land that we’re talking about.
Unless you’re willing to start by having the City sell off its Significant Natural Resource Areas James Watt style, the City government — RPD specifically — is the central entity involved. That’s just the way the jurisdictional cookie crumbles.
And whether or not this is actually a viable business model remains to be seen. It most definitely is not a “Web 2.0” concept. But it may catch enough wind to sail itself to self-sustenance, which would clearly be an adequately successful result here. I’m hoping that someone with access to the numbers will run them so that we can find out whether there’s a pony here before I mix my metaphors any further.
Monitoring the City's Management of its Lands
The most enjoyable aspects of advocating for the remnant natural areas in our Public Commons are the biological activities — weeding, planting, and the like. However, the most important activities are probably the political — working to make sure that the City’s various landholding entities make good on their commitments to preserve and protect the irreplaceable public assets under their stewardship.
Last summer, volunteers played some small part in bringing attention to the problems in Golden Gate Park including the Oak Woodlands. The Mayor mandated a flurry of activity; he pulled RPD and SFPD staff into new work details at GGP including middle-of-the-night sweeps, and he restricted the newly-funded 12 Park Patrol officers to beats within GGP.
While the initial results of all this looked good in GGP, it quickly became apparent that these efforts were like squeezing on one part of a balloon animal; the problems merely migrated to other parks. In retrospect, this was hardly surprising.
What is a bit more surprising, though, are our findings now that even with the intense focus on GGP including the exclusive attentions of the Park Patrol, we’re still seeing significant problems in GGP as well as creaky-at-best responses from the City.
Obviously we don’t minimize the challenges here; resources are always more limited than optimal and priorities must be set. However, we also don’t believe that the current state of affairs is anywhere near optimal — so we’ll continue to monitor and report what we see here.
On a similar but much more agreeable vein, we’re tracking the upcoming SFPUC pipeline and tank retrofit on Mt Davidson. Here public input succeeded in rerouting the initial plan to avert major damage to one of the most significant parts of the Mt D Significant Natural Resource Area. On paper, the revised plan looks good, but what will happen when the contractors move in remains to be seen. We will be on the scene watching and reporting, however.
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