Mt. Sutro Forest Management Sparks Community Debate

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The majestic and mysterious Mt. Sutro is usually a place of unspoiled peacefulness, but recently, its dense eucalyptus forest has been the subject of a fierce community debate. 

UCSF, which owns the 61-acre Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve, has been working on creating a long-term plan for the space, and has pledged to maintain the special urban forest in a safe and accessible state.  In recent years, the maintenance of the forest and its trails has been carried out by Sutro Stewards, a volunteer organization, in coordination with UCSF.

However, not everyone has been satisfied with the job that the school and the stewards have done.  The preliminary management plan published by UCSF calls for the thinning of the forest to give bigger trees more space, partial removal of the unruly understory, consisting mostly of Himalayan Blackberry and English Ivy, and the construction of new trails to provide better access to the park.  A group called Save Mount Sutro Forest has published a report in response to the plan, essentially calling for the forest to be left untouched by the University.  

At a contentious meeting on the evening of February 25 in the Milberry Union, members of the community voiced their opinions for and against the plan.  The angriest voices were those opposed to any alteration of the landscape and seemed to imagine that the UCSF plan would be tantamount to clear-cutting the mountain. 

Others expressed the opinion that the UCSF plan was a veiled plot whose true goal is to re-introduce native plants at the expense of existing ones.  All agreed, however, that Mt. Sutro is a beautiful and unique place that should be treated with care.

The school, in its defense, said it has hired two professional arborists and will first test various approaches to forest management in four different pilot plots before making a decision.  None of the possible versions would result in anything close to clear-cutting. 

In fact, the thinning of a forest occurs naturally in mature wild forests. Thinning our 120 year-old forest would be good for it, and is long overdue.  Hopefully, judicious thinning will also provide a few more views, which could be amazing from such a lofty summit but are currently entirely obstructed.

“What has been called for is the thinning of 7 out of 61 acres, not the clear-cutting of everything standing,” said Craig Dawson, president of Sutro Stewards. “What ... the Mt. Sutro Management Plan is about, simply, is managing a forest for its long-term health, the safety of surrounding communities and open space users by mitigating overcrowding [of trees], which is severe in some specific locations, and slowly introducing other species to the monoculture.”

The UCSF forest management plan is quite reasonable. In regards to the stewardship of the UCSF Sutro Open Space, there is one change to the current plan that I would like to see: better access from the Inner Sunset.

The long-term plan does include three short new trail segments, two of which are near Aldea and a third that would be a trailhead starting at the first bend in the Medical Center Way.  While these are all improvements, they do not provide adequate access from the Inner Sunset, where most of the students live. 

It would be easy to make a trailhead above the Dental School parking lot, departing from Koret Way, just past where Kirkham Street runs into the mountain.  This spur trail could be easily joined to the Historic Trail, which traverses the hillside not far above or to the new trail that is being built from Medical Center Way. 

The hillside, admittedly, is steep at this location, so the new trail would require the installation of either switchbacks or a stairway. 

Starting a hike half way up Medical Center Way, as the current development plan suggests, would be a disjointed experience, as walkers must first pass the loud roar and the belching steam of the back of the hospital before entering the serenity of the trees.

 If UCSF added a trailhead above Kirkham Street, it would be much more convenient for students and would indeed provide a better trailhead for all the residents of the Inner Sunset.  If UCSF is investing so much in the stewardship of the forest, it should also provide better access, so that more people can appreciate it.

Forests are always growing and changing, and for as long as San Francisco has been a city, residents have been influencing that process of change on Mt. Sutro.  The UCSF forest plan is well intentioned and well within its purview.  Moreover it would be irresponsible of the school to do nothing with respect to the forest landscape, which it is charged to maintain and which is constantly changing anyway. 

To see the details of the UCSF plan for the Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve, including a video explaining forest ecology, please visit  For those who would like to join the Sutro Stewards on a future volunteer day doing trail and plant work, please see