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Poison oak activists restrained
- Ken Garcia
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

The native plant lovers who have been busily trying to transform large chunks of San Francisco's parks must really enjoy working with the soil because they've dug quite a hole for themselves.

After years of toiling as a low-profile division of the Recreation and Park Department, the city's Natural Areas Program has, without doubt, become the most controversial group in the city's park system. Its members find themselves under fire from neighborhood groups, park protectors, dog lovers and City Hall.

Neighborhood park groups started getting suspicious when their desire to have some input in the NAP's master plan was rebuffed. Their suspicions intensified earlier this year when some of the program's most avid subscribers got caught engaging in numerous anti-preservation adventures. City officials were deluged with complaints, which resulted in several public hearings and damning publicity.

It seems that gardeners and volunteers working in the program had taken it upon themselves to kill scores of healthy mature trees around the city. The trees were removed because they were seen to be interfering with the native plants that NAP has vowed to protect.

More ire was raised when some of the program's members began referring to eucalyptus and cypress trees as alien species that needed to be eradicated.

By the time neighbors in Glen Canyon discovered that some NAP volunteers decided to plant poison oak as part of their back-to-nature theme, park activists throughout the city began to get a little itchy.

And when they found out that their "good species vs. bad species" bent included replacing turtles at Pine Lake with a more gene-appropriate tortoise, the neighbors knew they weren't dealing with your average weekend backyard gardeners.

Dog owners were concerned because the habitat restoration crews had been fencing off more and more areas in city parks. And, of course, the members of the San Francisco Tree Council were crestfallen when they discovered that untold numbers of trees were on NAP's long-term removal list to provide more room for native plants and grasslands.

Few people expected sparks to fly over a group of native habitat enthusiasts whose seemingly innocuous charge was to restore native plants and resources, a laudable goal. But things tend to get uprooted when you start destroying trees and plants around town in the name of more righteous vegetation, such as poison oak, and you do it without letting the public in on what you're up to.

"This is a group that has excluded criticism and public oversight and acted without any accountability," said Bill Shepard, who has been active in dealing with the federal government's restoration plans in the Presidio.

Someone in City Hall listened because the group will no longer be packed with native plant enthusiasts who share a singular -- some would say myopic -- vision.

"We need others involved who don't share that purist view," said Supervisor Tony Hall. "We need people who would bring balance to the program."

Balance is a word rarely associated with the true believers inside the native plant community, which is why well-publicized skirmishes have sprung up in recent years at Fort Funston, the Marin headlands, the Presidio and other parklands around the Bay. Given the pressure placed on city and county parks and recreation areas from competing interests -- ranging from bicyclists to bird watchers -- it's no wonder that conflicts would arise.

Adding to the turmoil is the general overuse of neighborhood parks -- one of the reasons that San Francisco voters saw fit to pass a $100 million park bond measure to address the need for capital improvements.

Responding to the mounting criticism that NAP's mission had gotten lost in a forest of overzealousness, the Park Department decided to create a so-called green-ribbon advisory panel to advise the group's division. But then it was discovered that most of the organizations on the list consisted of similar native plant supporters. To address this problem, Supervisor Leland Yee proposed legislation to reform NAP's oversight panel to give other park users a say.

Last week, the city's supervisors dropped the ax on the program's direction,

much to the chagrin of the native plant volunteers, by deciding to remake the advisory panel. Four spots would go to NAP officials, but four others would go to those who promote more park access, and four would go to the elected supervisors and the Rec Department's general manager.

This was a negotiated solution that in legal arbitration circles would be called the smell test -- everybody leaves the courtroom holding their noses over a settlement. In the native plant community, it is what is known as a hostile intrusion.

Time will tell whether the most ardent natural area supporters can climb out of their self-imposed rut. But they should have enough knowledge by now to understand that if given a short leash, it's best not to get it caught up a tree.

E-mail Ken Garcia at kgarcia@sfchronicle.com.

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