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Pine Lake/Stern Grove

These are actual photos of the carnage brought to us by the NAP at Stern Grove-Pine Lake in November,  2006.   There is more to come. 
The description of all of the changes NAP has planned for Stern Grove-Pine Lake follow.  As you will see, sadly, our cartoon is not an exaggeration of the death NAP will bring to Stern Grove-Pine Lake. 


Pine Lake/Stern Grove Park

Site problems:  Deteriorating water quality and health of Pine Lake, in part due to erosion

NAP Proposes:

  • Shoreline of Pine Lake will be permanently inaccessible except for one small area NAP has designated  
  • Removing non-native invasive plants and trees
  • Stabilize the shoreline with native vegetation
  • Fence off access to lake for 3-5 years (possible exception would be the one access point)
  • Dogs will be required to be on-leash and excluded from the lake permanently
  • Stabilize the steep slopes after removing eucalyptus trees by various methods
  • Habitat creation for Western Pond Turtle (evidence indicates no remnant population at Pine Lake) will lead to killing of other turtle species, destruction of more healthy trees and elimination of the dog play area 
  • Feral cats, raccoons, and other potential predators could be trapped and removed

The actions proposed by NAP are so radical and so controversial that we have chosen to provide you with an in depth evaluation of how NAP conducts itself in such matters:


In 1931, Mrs. Sigmund Stern bought the property and deeded it to the city as a memorial to her late husband, with the provision that it forever be used for recreational purposes. NAP fails to respect the one contractual requirement outlined for this park when it was so generously donated by Mrs. Sigmund Stern.  In essence, it is a betrayal, it is unethical, and it is perhaps illegal.  The Natural Areas Program does NOT foster recreational access.  There is no pressing reason to create a Natural Area at Pine Lake.  Restoration of water quality and the lake’s health can easily be accomplished without creating a Natural Area. 


This plan is in violation of the performance standards established in the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s (SFRPD) own Operational Plan.  First, public safety is not protected by implementing an inferior erosion control plan which may threaten the homes of taxpayers surrounding the lake area.  Native plants are inferior to non-native plants in controlling erosion – as was evidenced by the failure of Natural Areas at Fort Ord, along Great Highway, and at Fort Funston. Ice plant is the proven solution to sandy slopes which must resist erosion.  Nasturtium grow readily as well as ivy in the Pine Lake area.  All of these plants would be superior in erosion control to preserve the health of the lake. 

The “natural area” at Pine Lake is at the western end of Stern Grove. It was designated as a “natural area” because it is one of the few natural lakes in San Francisco.  However, there were few native plants there when it was claimed by NAP and it is surrounded by a forest of non-native trees.  One of the most popular, legal off-leash areas in the City is adjacent to it.  Park visitors have documented several hundred visitors—most in the company of their dogs--visiting this part of the park in a 10-hour period on a weekday. 


The capital planning division of Rec & Park has been engaged in a master planning process in Stern Grove/Pine Lake since 2001, in preparation for major capital improvements.  Hundreds of park visitors and neighbors attended many community meetings while the plans were being developed.  In contrast, NAP developed its plans without having any meetings with the public until much of their “restoration” work was already done and their plans were complete in June 2005.  NAP plans are controversial with this community of park visitors partially because their plans and actions are not consistent with the master plan in which the community participated.


The master plan contained a detailed list of plants for the “restoration” of Pine Lake.  This list was ignored by NAP, which planted a Federal Species of Concern (Grindelia hirsutula var. maritime) not included in the master plans around the lake while the master plan was being developed. 

Planting a rare, legally protected plant at Pine Lake, December 2001

Most of the planting by NAP was done on the shore, below the path, despite the fact that the master plan proposed to raise the water level of the lake by opening a well and pumping water into the lake.  NAP was asked repeatedly why they were planting on the shore of the lake, when the shore was soon to be underwater.  These questions were ignored.  The plants are now underwater.  They are dead.

Same plants drowning, December 2004
Same plants dead, April 2005

The master plan proposed to remove hundreds of trees from Stern Grove/Pine Lake that are hazardous and 10-12 trees on the southern side of the lake to increase sun exposure on the native plants being planted on that shore.  One of the reasons why trees are often destroyed in the “natural areas” is that most plants that are native to San Francisco are not shade tolerant.  This is as you might expect since there were few trees in San Francisco prior to the arrival of Europeans. 


Park advocates fought and won to save the healthy trees at the western end of Pine Lake on the grounds that they are essential to the windbreak for the entire park. 

The owners of the Pine Lake property started planting eucalyptus trees around the canyon’s perimeter to serve as a windbreak in 1871. Stern Grove/Pine Lake park is essentially a wind tunnel.  It is an upward sloping, windward facing canyon that accelerates the wind as it enters the park from the west end.  Since the trees in this park are old and many are hazardous, the removal of the windbreak could cause a massive failure of the remaining trees.  Ironically, as park advocates were winning this empty victory, NAP was expanding their native plant garden into the western end of the park.  About 12 healthy trees were then destroyed to bring light to this native plant garden.

Healthy trees destroyed without posting and an old motor casing, April 2004

These healthy trees were destroyed without following the Rec & Park Department’s policy of posting trees 30 days in advance of their removal.  So there was no way for the community to know about the destruction in time to save the trees.  Although NAP denies having anything to do with the removal of these trees, park advocates think that the removal of the trees at the same time that the native plant garden was expanded under those trees is not a coincidence.  Their denials only add to the suspicion that has surrounded NAP for many years.  Park advocates negotiated an agreement with Rec and Park to replace these trees with trees of equal stature.  One year after this agreement was reached, the trees have not yet been planted. 


The professional consultants who participated in the master planning process conducted several plant and animal surveys.  They did not find any rare plants or animals.  However, NAP planners claim to have seen the Western Pond Turtle, a Federal and State Species of Concern.  The California Academy of Sciences reported to the California Fish and Game Department in 1994 that this turtle was extirpated (locally extinct) in San Francisco, “as verified by museum records.”  The author of this report told park advocates (in writing) that if this turtle is found in San Francisco it was put there by man and that it is incapable of breeding because the habitat it needs can no longer be found in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, laws protecting endangered species protect reintroduced animals on an equal footing with those that occur naturally.  Please click here to view the article on the "Western Pond Turtle and Other Rare Species" for a complete explanation.


The California Academy of Sciences, the State of Washington, and the State of Oregon all agree that the Western Pond Turtle requires unshaded nesting habitat (without trees) and grassland within a 500 meter (about 5 football fields) radius of the water that is undisturbed by other activities such as recreation. 


The revised NAP plan of June 2005, says that if the existence of this rare turtle is verified that its habitat should be improved and that its population will be augmented.  However, NAP also claims that they do not plan to cut down more trees than those identified by the master plan or to restrict recreational activities around the lake.


These claims are inconsistent with the scientific documents that establish the habitat needs of this turtle.  They are also inconsistent with the NAP plan itself.  The NAP plans for Lake Merced—where Western Pond Turtles have also been sighted by NAP—propose to restrict public access:  “To prevent native turtles from being disturbed during the breeding season, restrict public access to the waters and shoreline of East lake between April 1 and August 31.”  (page 6.1-18)  The shores of East Lake are very steep and there is virtually no public access except by boat.  There is therefore very little recreational use of East Lake, except for fishing and boating.  So, NAP proposes to restrict access for the rare turtle where there is very little access, yet they deny that they will restrict access at Pine Lake, where there is heavy recreational use.


This is the type of double talk that infuriates park advocates who have been negotiating with NAP for many years to design a program that is consistent with the recreational and aesthetic preferences of many San Franciscans, particularly those who are frequent visitors to our parks.  It is either a demonstration of their ignorance (of the needs of a rare turtle, in this case) or it is underhanded strategy to use the “Trojan Turtle” to achieve their objective of creating a native plant museum for the service of rare animals, rather than in the service of the public.  In either case, it is not acceptable behavior from our public servants, paid with our taxes.


There is a day camp for children at the eastern end of Pine Lake that operates during the nesting period of the Western Pond Turtle.  This day camp will have to be closed in order to accommodate the habitat needs of this rare and legally protected turtle.  And, of course, the legal off-leash area is certainly inconsistent with the legal protections required for this turtle.   


Park advocates have asked that if Western Pond Turtles are found at Pine Lake, they be relocated to Lake Merced where there is a larger population and where they can be protected without tree destruction or disruption of heavy recreational use.  We will be looking for these revisions in the final draft of the NAP plan.  If the plans don’t make a commitment to relocate this rare turtle, the Rec & Park Department is likely to see a noisy demonstration of the public’s commitment to their park. 


In addition to these issues that are unique to Pine Lake, there are the usual issues that affect most “natural areas” in the City:

  • Most of the plants that are native to San Francisco are dormant during the dry season.  Therefore, about half the year the plants that have been introduced by NAP are brown and ugly.  Most park visitors prefer year-around greenery with a dash of color to the brief lives of native plants. 

  • NAP removes non-native vegetation, exposing barren ground.  They plant a few native plants and hundreds of little flags that are apparently indicators of a dormant plant.  The resulting landscape is a motley collection of barren ground, weeds taking advantage of the vacuum, and little flags--an unsightly mess in the opinion of most park visitors.

Flags, fences and weeds (now mostly under water), March 2004

  • NAP creates piles of debris along the paths that they claim are for the benefit of birds and insects.  Perhaps they are, but they are also functioning as fencing to keep park visitors on the paths.  They add to the messy appearance of the “natural area” and they contribute to the public’s perception that NAP wishes to control and limit the public’s access to their park.

Brush piles and stumps, September 2004

  • NAP builds temporary fences around their new plantings to keep the public out and to protect the fragile plants.  The master plan proposes to fence the perimeter of the lake for 3-5 years while the new vegetation on the lakeshore matures.  There will be only one small access point to the lake during this time and after the fence is removed, the vegetation barrier will also limit access to this one access point.  The NAP plan permanently prohibits dogs from swimming in the lake.  We find it disturbing that when questioned by SF Rec and Park Commissioner Jim Lazarus as to what alternatives to Pine Lake for dogs to recreate in the water have been considered by SFRPD/NAP, NAP Director Lisa Wayne responded, "None".

From a scientific standpoint, as well as a public benefit standpoint, this NAP plan for Pine Lake cannot be justified.  The NAP plan is unrealistic for Pine Lake; this is a highly utilized urban park which does not currently have the ecosystem to support native plants.  The experimental native plants planted at Pine Lake a year or so ago are mostly dead.  It is not acceptable to subject the public to a loss of recreational use for a plan that is sure to fail.


What is our option?  Let the SFRPD know by way of comment if you do not consider Pine Lake a suitable site for a Natural Area.

Pine tree