UCSF Works to Maintain Healthy Forest on Mount Sutro

University to Host Public Hearing on Draft Environmental Impact Report

February 21, 2013

The Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve above UCSF’s campus at Parnassus Heights stands as an urban oasis amidst San Francisco’s Cole Valley and Sunset neighborhoods. Filled with blue-gum eucalyptus trees, the forest provides the neighborhood with hiking trails and habitats that are enjoyed by hundreds of visitors every year.

UCSF will host a public hearing on Monday, Feb. 25 to get feedback from the community about a draft Environmental Impact Report (Draft EIR) for the Mount Sutro Management Project, which aims to preserve the health of that forest – now and into the future.

The efforts reflect UCSF’s decades-long work to both engage the community in the University’s long-term development plans, as well as its stewardship of this jewel in the heart of San Francisco.

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“We are in the process of developing a management plan to keep the Reserve accessible to the community, healthy as a forest, and safe for both our own campus and our neighbors,” said UCSF Community Relations Director Barbara Bagot-López. “Right now, we’re issuing an environmental impact report on the proposal. If the EIR is certified, we’ll then take steps to  implement small demonstration projects to identify – with the community – the best approach to managing the entire forest.”

In January 2013, UCSF released the Draft EIR for the Mount Sutro Management Project, which addresses thinning of the forest, removal of some invasive shrubs and vines, native plant restoration and construction of new trail linkages.

The primary goal of that management project is to ensure public safety and property protection; improve the forest’s health; protect and expand native plants; enhance wildlife habitat values, maintain scenic quality, and improve public access.

Maintaining a Safe Environment

The plans come in light of rising concerns over both the health of the forest and its risk as a fire hazard for its neighbors and the city as a whole.

In the past eight years, two independent, professional foresters have evaluated the Reserve and determined that the forest had declined in vigor, with increased numbers of dead or unhealthy trees, due to overgrowth and lack of optimal growth conditions.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management also issued a Hazard Mitigation Plan in 2008 that identified the Reserve as a high- to very-high wildfire hazard, with ensuing risk to the city.

Named for former San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro, who donated 13 acres in 1895 to UCSF for its Parnassus campus, the now 61-acre Reserve was designated as permanent open space by the UC Regents in 1976.

Many of the hiking trails have recently been rediscovered and reopened, attracting even more visitors to the Reserve. With the increase in use of the Reserve and its continuing decline in forest health, UCSF is committed to maintaining a safe environment for visitors, neighbors and the campus community, as well as protecting adjacent buildings from a potential wildfire.

Camino del Canyon, before
Camino del Canyon, after

The Camino Del Canyon project near Muir Woods National Monument was similarly undertaken to reduce the fuel load and improve the health of the forest. The top image shows the canyon before maintenance, and the bottom image shows the canyon afterward. The results were a more open, accessible forest, and the essential visual and aesthetic qualities of the forest remained intact. Photos by Ray Moritz

Working with the Community

The University also is committed to working with its neighbors to ensure that any maintenance program meets their needs, as well.

“For over a decade, UCSF has worked hand-in-hand with neighbors to preserve Mount Sutro as a healthy forest,” Bagot-López said.  “UCSF is committed to continuing community engagement in the planning and management activities associated with the Reserve.”

During the 1990s, a group of San Franciscans who serve as the UCSF Community Advisory Group advised the university to create a maintenance and restoration program for Mount Sutro’s vegetation and hiking trails, which led to the 2001 Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Management Plan. The plan was developed over three years – with substantial involvement from members of the community – and strikes a balance between neighborhood interests and UCSF concerns.

In 2009-2010, many of UCSF’s neighbors participated in three community workshops and two walking tours in the Reserve to learn about the forest health, determine where the demonstration projects should be located and discuss what actions should be planned and evaluated in each of them. A summary of the community planning process can be found here.

UCSF hosted a scoping meeting for the EIR in January 2011, which provided another opportunity for the community to voice concerns, offer suggestions and help UCSF identify what environmental information, feasible alternatives and potential mitigation measures should be included in the EIR. The University also will hold a public hearing on Feb. 25, 2013, for community input on the EIR.

Responding to Community Concerns

Recently, neighbors have expressed concerns about the number of trees that will be removed during this forest management project. Those concerns are based on misconceptions around a “worst case” scenario in the EIR. In fact, no such plan exists.

While a large portion of underbrush, including blackberry, ivy and poison oak, will be removed in the demonstration areas, the removal of trees, especially those larger than saplings, will be far more limited and selective, based primarily on their health, potential for long-term survival and potential for falling or posing a hazard.

The forest is not being “clear cut.” The appearance of Mount Sutro will not substantially change for those looking toward it from a distance, and it will remain a forest — a unique outdoor experience in the heart of San Francisco.

Public Hearing

A public hearing on the draft EIR is scheduled for Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. in the Millberry Union Conference Center, 500 Parnassus Ave. The purpose of this hearing is to receive public comments regarding the analysis of environmental impacts contained in the Draft EIR Due to the legal structure of this particular meeting, UCSF will not be able to respond to those comments during the meeting.

Chapter 2 of the Draft EIR gives a summary and description of the proposed project and demonstration areas.

More information about the Mount Sutro Reserve is available online, including an extensive Q&A.

Those with concerns or questions regarding the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve should contact Damon Lew, assistant director of Community Relations.