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An Inconvenient Plant 

One of the world's rarest plants grows in the Presidio. Plans are under way to save it — and ax thousands of trees in the process.

Wednesday, Apr 16 2008

Page 3 of 5

"Nazis, yeah. That's a term I've heard since day one," says Peter Brastow, a genial, red-bearded man who looks as if he strolled off a container of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Now the executive director of the nonprofit Nature in the City, he was Chassé's predecessor at the Presidio, maintaining the Raven's manzanita site for more than a decade. "Nazi and fascist — yeah, I hear those terms a lot."

For the record, the Nazis were indeed enthusiasts of native plant gardens, and did extol the superiority of German plants. However, they actively sought to "Germanize" the landscapes of neighboring countries — the very opposite of the native plant movement's goal. Also, they killed people.

Certainly, not every critic of native plant restoration will quote the Nuremberg Laws. Yet the neighborhood and tree activists contacted for this story all described the Presidio's plan as an environmental misstep. "Removing trees of any species is pretty questionable these days in terms of global warming," said Isabel Wade, a founder of Friends of the Urban Forest and executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council. Added Bill Henslin, cofounder of the antidevelopment group Friends of the Presidio National Park, "So many great old trees, which are good for the environment, are being sacrificed for some arbitrary aesthetic and historical goal."

These arguments are scientifically questionable. A 2002 study undertaken jointly by Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed that some grasses can store nearly twice the carbon that forests can. And a 2006 report by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory demonstrated that planting trees outside the world's tropical zones actually raises global temperatures. Installing forested tracts over former grasslands — as Jones did 120 years ago in the Presidio — is especially troublesome: Dark forest canopies absorb sunlight, whereas shrubs and grassland reflect it.

But while scientific arguments can be disproved, emotional ones cannot.

"I'm assuming that an environmental argument has more validity than someone's aesthetic preferences," says Mary McAllister, a former member of the city's Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee and a public critic of native plant restoration. "But if it's aesthetics you want, I'll tell you that as far as I'm concerned, a forested and landscaped park is a more beautiful place than dune scrub and grassland, which is native to San Francisco."

As McAllister's view indicates, the fact trees didn't grow in this area naturally is of little concern to their advocates.

"People weren't here naturally either," says Jocelyn Cohen, a member of the San Francisco Tree Council and the Urban Forest Council. "Nothing that is here now was here then." In other words, in a city clogged with SUVs, parking lots, and fast-food chains, what's the fuss over some nice trees?

In 2002, while the Presidio plan was being argued, then-Supervisor Leland Yee stepped into the fray with an editorial in The Independent on the unimportance of being native: "How many of us are 'invasive exotics' who have taken root in the San Francisco soil, have thrived and flourished here, and now contribute to the diversity of the wonderful mix that constitutes present-day San Francisco?"

This indignant attitude may form the ultimate irony in today's debate over re-establishing rare native plants such as the Raven's manzanita or sparing the magnificent — though artificial — forests. City dwellers' idea of "nature" is far less likely to be defined by the dunes and brush actually natural to this area, but instead by an imported plantation manufactured to instill awe for higher authority.

"Trees have not only come to symbolize nature to us ... they have become a kind of 'second nature' that stands in contrast to the 'first nature' of the original landscape cities have in most cases displaced," wrote Paul Gobster, a USDA scientist who has authored several papers on San Francisco land-use conflicts.

Gobster reckons the average city resident gives little thought to the merits of native plants in an urban setting. But he's dead sure of this: Once you propose buzz-sawing trees, you'll always have a problem — always. Apparently, it's our second nature to object to the removal of "second nature."

And while people killing trees can induce general fury, trees killing native plants doesn't seem to bother most folks. "What you're doing when you plant those trees is trapping the fog, which condenses on the leaves and needles and drops as artificial rain, increasing the precipitation by a third," says Steve Edwards, the director of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley's Tilden Park. "You foster a jungle of blackberries, ivy, and poison oak."

A strikingly tall and thin man with a long white beard of the sort fashionable in the time of President Rutherford B. Hayes (whom he resembles more than a little), Edwards refers to the nonnative trees shading the Raven's manzanita and other native species as "junk plants."

"The main things those trees do is reduce the native diversity," he says. "There would have been, like, 60 types of native plants growing there, maybe 100. And a lot of them are very rare and unique to the site. When you plant those trees, you end up with maybe two or three species. You reduce the uniqueness of California to a homogenized redundancy."

Statistics back up Edwards' scenario: Fully half of the native San Francisco vegetation listed in the 1958 edition of John Thomas Howell, Peter Raven, and Peter Rubtzoff's A Flora of San Francisco, California has been driven to extinction. When asked whether it's worth clearing out 75 acres of trees to benefit native plants, Edwards seems insulted: "We're talking about a postage stamp of land. It's the least we can do."

He shakes his head. "The whole of San Francisco was once a floral treasure trove. Can't we do just a little bit? My God!"

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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