San Francisco's Tree Wars: Go Native or Out on a Limb?

If you thought tree-hugging was a simple act of preservation, hang on to your love beads.

The Natives Are Getting Restless

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images News/Getty Images Oodles of tiny colored flags denote newly planted native vegetation along a Golden Gate Bridge bike path.

In The Lord of the Rings, the forests literally come to life as Treebeard, the leader of the Ents, calls on his "people" to march on uprooted feet in a battle against the evil Sauron. Generations of hippies, nerds and hippie-nerds have imagined they see Ents everywhere, and cite passages from the books as proof that all trees are sacred, and that anyone who disagrees is a destructive troll.

The lines between nature-loving tree-huggers are much more blurred these days. The Bay Area is the site of a pitched battle between equally passionate activists both bent on preservation — of different kinds of landscape.

On one side are proponents of native plants. Their point, and it's a valid one, is that invasive trees, such as the eucalyptus, were brought here by European settlers. They grow fast, like oversized weeds, and many of the plants and animals that were here initially are threatened with extinction if they are left to grow unchecked. The San Francisco Natural Areas Program's Forestry Restoration department has slated about 3500 trees for removal over the next 20 years, to be replaced with native plants better suited to the soil, other plants and animals of the area. 

On the other hand are the supporters of the trees as they are today. Their point, and it's also a valid one, is that these trees are here and have been beloved by generations of San Franciscans, that it will cost millions to remove the trees, and that the urban forest as it stands has tremendous value. They argue that one can create sustainable garden design and value native plants "without being xenophobic," as landscape designer Alma Hecht puts it.

It's hard to know exactly where to stand on this issue, although even the park's plan doesn't get rid of all the trees — it only thins them out. The same war is being waged in Oakland, and in the block associations of the suburbs, disagreements bubble up over grass lawns that require sprinklers vs. succulent groundcover that is not as nice to sit and walk upon. A simple walk in the park has gotten decidedly less so.

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