While we pause on the way Lisa Wayne unfolds two photos of the urban creek that passes us. Every eight years, the snapshots show that where there was once a stand of eucalyptus trees along the stream, willows, dogwoods and elderberries are now growing. “You can see that there is actually a good amount of water in the creek now, and it supports migratory birds and native wildlife,” says Wayne, who administers the newly anointed and long-contested wildlife conservation program for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
The serene creek, bird-busted riparian corridor, and open slopes of Glen Canyon Park in southern San Francisco embody a plan to protect and support the city’s few remaining native habitats and species in 31 “natural areas” in city parks Resident Administrator of the Natural Heritage of San Francisco. “The aim of the program is to preserve biodiversity for future generations, keep ecosystems healthy and involve people,” says Wayne. “And offer people opportunities to interact with them [natural areas]whether it’s on a trail, leading a school group, or walking a dog. “
After more than 20 years of process, the Significant Natural Resource Management Plan passed its final regulatory circle earlier this year. The plan aims to increase biodiversity from around 1,100 acres in the SFRPD’s 3,500 acres of parkland across a mix of habitats – from river beds and forests to coastal and grassland meadows – with the help of community volunteers. The natural areas range in size from 0.3 acres in 15th Avenue Steps Park to 395 acres in Lake Merced Park. To help the habitats and the roughly 140 sensitive species in the parks, the plan is to remove invasive species and some non-native trees and enforce dog areas on a leash.
So the plan became controversial.
In the 1990s, several grassroots environmental groups in San Francisco launched a pioneering plan to protect and improve living space in urban areas. “We started to see species being lost,” says Sarah Madland, director of politics and public affairs for the SFRPD. “And this conversation wasn’t just in Yellowstone and Yosemite. We understand that we have to play a role in the urban environment. “
However, the effort quickly subsided in detail: How do you maintain natural areas and at the same time offer relaxation for people and their dogs? Which areas are most important to preserve and why? How far should the city go to bring back native habitats when people also enjoy non-native trees like eucalyptus? In the early 2000s, as major cities like New York, Chicago, and Paris made commitments to urban biodiversity and natural areas, Franciscans continued to debate non-indigenous tree removal, linen laws, and golf courses.
Last year, the supervisory body approved a final version of the environmental impact report (EIR) of the management plan, which classifies the species and habitat value in the 31 natural areas – an approach established by the SFRPD and community groups. Areas of high biodiversity, sensitive species, or significant biodiversity restoration potential – including the possible reintroduction of species on the verge of local extinction, such as the Mission Blue Butterfly on Twin Peaks – have become priority sections within the natural areas. In these critical sections, management includes removing invasive species – using herbicide as a last resort – and alien trees and reintroducing sensitive species. Sensitive species can be reintroduced into less biologically critical parklands, and the removal and care of native plant communities will be limited. The least sensitive areas remain unchanged as there are few restrictions on recreational use.
A glimpse into Glen Canyon gives a glimpse of the natural areas of other parts of the city: rolling grassland where flowers bloom and redtail falcons soar in spring, a seasonal natural stream that flows through pastures and open meadows, the foothills of Franziskaner-Chert where snakes and Lizards thrive. A path that winds along the creek bed climbs towards Portola Avenue and then to Twin Peaks where Mission Blues fly in another natural area.
Islais Creek’s potential as a natural water source made Glen Canyon Park an obvious choice for restoration even before the reserve’s program existed, Wayne says. “The water sources themselves are pretty limited for wildlife in San Francisco, so these remains – those little streams that are left – are really important.”
In order to restore the habitat of Glen Canyon, the employees of Natural Resources explored comparable Franciscan landscape locations in the Bay Area that were comparatively undisturbed. For Islais Creek, the team examined similar streams in San Mateo and Marin Counties. Now the creek bed and 60 acre natural area of Glen Canyon support common urban wildlife such as ringneck snakes, gopher snakes, salamanders, skunks and raccoons. As a hummingbird passes by, Wayne notices that sparrows and warblers, as well as dark-eyed junkos, are visiting the creek and resting on restored native plants such as wax myrtle and deciduous red alder.
Audrey McNamara is an editorial intern at Bay Nature and a news editor at Daily Californian.