Tree huggers, sand huggers square off in San Francisco

Plan suggests clearing greenery for dune flower


SAN FRANCISCO - From the city's hilltops, the trees of the Presidio form luxurious green plumage against winter's crystalline skies.

When the U.S. Army planted this urban forest - now a 1,480-acre national park - on ridges and wind-swept sand dunes in the 1880s, it imbued the trees of what was then a military post with deep symbolism. Maj. W.A. Jones, the landscape engineer, wrote that soaring Monterey cypress, eucalyptus and other trees would make the base appear imposing and "indirectly accentuate the idea of the power of government."

San Franciscans take their history and horticulture seriously. So it is probably not surprising that a philosophical tempest has erupted over a draft plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now under review, that suggests removing 3,800 trees to re-establish the sand dunes that once blanketed the landscape. The dunes are immeasurably older than the trees and are home to an endangered species: the San Francisco lessingia, a delicate bell-shaped yellow flower that flourishes in wind-swept sand.

Although large swaths of the city were once sand, the mere suggestion that dunes replace trees, even for an endangered species, has stirred deep emotions and pitted "tree hugger" against "sand hugger," as the two camps call each other.

Environmentalists have scorned the eucalyptus trees as a troublesome invasive species.

The San Francisco lessingia, an annual in the aster family, is found in only two places: the Presidio and a hillside below a housing development in nearby Daly City. It thrives in "disturbed" terrain, specifically drifting sand.

The dune recovery plan, written by Peter Baye, a coastal plant ecologist who has since left the Fish and Wildlife Service, recommends expanding Lobos Creek Valley, a dune area resurrected in 1997 with $1 million in city funds and hundreds of volunteers.

Creating the "new" 13 acres of dunes involved cutting down 19 trees. In exchange, the number of lessingia plants, which bloom in late summer, rose from about 600 to more than a million.

The draft plan calls for increasing the lessingia habitat by removing more "wind obstacles" (translation: trees). The trees, on the hillside above the dunes, include stands of Monterey cypress, their wind-sculptured limbs and fanning branches a symbol of the Northern California coast. They are among the Presidio's 120-year-old trees, coastal varieties with a relatively short life span that are starting to die or blow over.

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