What Happened to the Big Tree in the Bernal Heights Library Playground?

Bernalwood has received several shouts of alarm from Central Cortlandia, where neighbors report that the big shade tree in the playground behind the Bernal Heights Library was suddenly and summarily cut down.

Neighbor Melissa writes:

Sad news for the younger set: The Bernal library playgrouind tree has been taken down without comment. This was really the only source of shade on the playground, so many youngsters (including my own) loved this tree. No word from Rec and Park on the tree’s removal, and no word on what’s next for the hundreds of families that use this park. What gives?

Neighbor Kathryn adds:

The beloved library tree was taken out. Apparently, it was dying. People are really missing this tree.

I know a lot of trees are dying due to the extra rain after our long drought, but how do we know the tree was dangerous? Lots of things are dying, but they may still be around for years or even decades to come.

One thing that is baffling – there is no plan to replace the tree yet – or even a plan to remove the stub.

Apparently, SF Parks and Works doesn’t have access to a stump removal machine, which strikes me as very bizarre considering they remove trees often.

If it takes an act of God for homeowners to get approval to remove a tree – why can Parks and Recs just swoop in and cut down a tree? For homeowners, there is a long drawn out process for notifying the community. Most requests are denied – and if a home owner appeals, they must provide proof of why the tree is an endangerment. If any tree is removed, there must be an approved plan for replacing it BEFORE it is removed.

Why is this not the case for Parks and Rec?

Questions of arboreal equity aside, Bernalwood reached out to the San Francisco Rec and Park department to learn more about the situation.

Connie Chan from Rec and Park tells Bernalwood:

The tree was assessed as hazardous and deemed unsafe by the Department’s Urban Forestry crew. At this time, our crew is working to remove the remaining stump so that it would allow new tree planting in the area in the near future.

We definitely plan to plant a new tree, but in order for that to happen, we have to remove the stump so that it has the space to plant the tree.

Chan adds there is currently no timeframe or estimate when the tree in the Bernal library playground will be replaced.

PHOTOS: Top, Bernal library playground with no tree, by Neighbor Melissa. Below, tree stump by Neighbor Kathryn

24 thoughts on “What Happened to the Big Tree in the Bernal Heights Library Playground?

  1. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they need a special stump grinder to use in that planter. It’s not like it’s flush with the ground.
    Thanks RPD, for taking out a hazardous tree in the playground. I take my niece and nephew there and as much as I loved the shade, I think you made the right call!

  2. Not only was it summarily removed, but they left sawdust and pieces everywhere and did not sift the sand so the play area is littered with tree remnants. 😦

  3. I remember when that tree was planted in the Mid 70’s. I was a teenager. And like most teenage young men at that time, I “Hung out” at times, with my Buddies Robert Wiggs Kirk Bowman and Donny Brillhardt late nights in the Bernal library playground. It was central to all of our homes on the hill and quiet safe and secluded after dark. we weren’t in plain view and off Cortland. We listened to each other stories, what was happening at home or school. With girlfriends or what was going on at St. Kevins. The Teen Club helping younger kids after school w their homework at the church. And yes, we listened to the music of the time: Journey, Van Halen, Boston, Aerosmith, Santana. Michael Jackson, a guy named Prince. Earth Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Lionel Ritchie & the Commodores, Fleetwood Mac, Heart,.The Eagles..( our girlfriends liked to dance)

    We drank a bit.
    We never smoked. Somehow we understood, even back then, that it didn’t really make you cool, just smell like your dad and it wasn’t good for your health. Drinking isn’t either as it turns out but we liked the taste of wine and a cold beer, somehow it made listening to the music a bit better and easier to talk to each other about what was going on in our lives. The tree was ever present. A silent witness to our youth. And to some of Rights of passage.

    Its very sad to hear the tree is gone. as our population here In SF grows, and more and more land is being developed, WE NEED MORE TREES IN SF We need MORE TREES. Not less. What can we do to encourage the city to replant that tree? In fact, what can we do to have them plant a few MORE there in the playground? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

  4. Really disappointed. Anyone know how we can get a priority for replacement asap! ? I will help coordinate upset parents and neighbors.

    • No matter how many upset people you corral to complain, the stump has to be ground out and a new tree will have to G-R-O-W. I love trees, too, but this cycle is part of life. Give Rec and Park a chance to do the job. This is not an emergency and the City has clearly responded that replacement is intended.

      I respect Rec and Park for daring to take down a *hazardous* tree in this neighborhood. Folks on this blog list their minds in the comments over DEAD trees being removed in the hill a two years ago. Think they would have made it through our winter storms this year? Rec and Park is trying to do right by neighbors and our park lands. Give them a chance to finish the job.

      FWIW, planting in SF is smartest and most natural in late Fall as our rains kick up. If you pay attention to the natural world here, you might notice that’s when nature does it. I hope Rec and Park waits til fall, but I defer to their professional judgement.

  5. I’m sad the tree is gone. But I’m also glad that it was removed before it dropped a limb on a toddler.

  6. We live across from the library and look out over the playground. It was pretty obvious late last year and early this year that this poor, beautiful specimen had severely declined. What little green had returned this year was wilted and unhealthy.

    Let’s not be upset that a dying tree was removed without a long public approval process. It wouldn’t have brought the tree back to life, and I expect the public outcry would have been very harsh and damning had as much as a twig fallen onto someone. That playground gets crowded and kids clamber all over the tree–like everyone else who can see the playground, pieces of it were already broken and tumbling out after all the windy storms this year.

    I expect the site will be cleaned and spiffed in no time. I look forward to a replanting, because, honestly, what an awesome spot!

  7. Fear not, Rec and Parks plans to showcase a beautiful native plant assortment in the box where the tree was. That tree was not native. No room for non-native trees in parks, and too much maintenance they say. If any herbicides are used in the native plant area to halt weeds, they will clearly mark the sprayed area with blue dye or flags for 48 hours, as they are required to do for our safety.

    • Sorry if the following qualifies as a “rant,” but here is an opportunity to get the word out about SF’s urban trees….


      Nativist sentiment such as yours has led to the proposed destruction of more than 500,000 trees on San Francisco-owned land. “Native” is a relative word. We don’t live in a nature preserve. We live in a city. And we like trees.

      For anyone who cares about trees in San Francisco, take a look at Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro. Literally… go look at the half-bald mountain, where pressure from the NAP program on Parks and Rec and UCSF has already caused destruction of a unique Cloud Forest and its microclimate in the middle of our City.

      Please make your voice heard. The blog “Death of a Million Trees” is a good place to start. It is not mine.

      Thank you.

      • @takebackthegreen While I’m not a big fan of removing trees that are perfectly healthy just because they’re not native, this tree we’re discussing is already gone. Replanting a native tree in its places is both more sustainable and better for the the ecosystem, so I’m not sure what your complaint is. If you’re just using this conversation as a soapbox that’s one thing, but there’s absolutely no reason to shame William for stating the obvious…native trees are better in SF than non-native trees.

        Also, if you want to look at the hilltops in SF and Oakland you’re going to see overwhelming numbers of eucalyptus trees. They’re both invasive (killing off the native trees) and a fire hazard. Just ask those who lived in Oakland during the Oakland fire.

      • B:

        I appreciate you taking the time to give this issue some thought. Of course the library tree needed removal if it was hazardous. It is the after-planning that matters here.

        Please re-read William’s post. He did NOT propose replacing the tree with another tree. He said “an assortment of native plants.”

        That is a HUGE difference; and it is being proposed on a large scale throughout SF. You see, in the nativist’s limited and subjective view, the “native” landscape here was mostly scrub grass and sand dunes…

        There are plenty of historical pictures available. Look especially at Golden Gate Park before it was made into the treasure it is today. And look at Mt. Sutro, which is now an incredibly rare, 200 year old (and unique in North America) ecological system known as a “cloud forest.”

        Look quick though. The native plant movement will have it destroyed within the year, and it will never return in our lifetimes.

        My hope is that the discussion about our lone library tree draws even a little more attention to an irreversible and destructive policy that is too complicated for “soundbite news,” and has therefore remained under the radar for most San Franciscans.

        Thanks for the discussion.

      • B:

        I just now read the final paragraph of your post. Rather than hijack this thread further, I’ll refer you to any of several local blogs about the Eucalypts of the Bay Area (“Save Mt. Sutro Forest,” “Death of a Million Trees,” etc.). The take-away: Most of the “facts” that the average person assumes about Eucalyptus trees are absolutely false, and have been comprehensively addressed by scientists of all kinds.

        If you care about the issue and are open to interesting and informative scientific discourse on the subject, the blogs I mentioned are great starting points.


        PS– I have a personal interest in one piece of misinformation that just won’t die… [b] Eucalypts are not “fire hazards.” [/b]

        The grasses and weeds and brush that take over when Eucalypts are clear-cut are INFINITELY more flammable than the trees they replace. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that fact.

    • @takebackthegreen, I completely agree with you about replacing the tree with a tree. My desire for that tree to be native to the region is for the benefit of both the tree (which will grown healthier and better in a region it is native to), and to the overall ecosystem. I’m sure P&R are up to the challenge of identifying a tree species that would thrive in the area. While the region was sand dunes and tall grasses, it was also covered in cypress, pine, coastal redwoods and coast live oak. As for the eucalyptus, the fire threat is not the tree itself, it is the regular regeneration of its bark that sheds and drys as tinder. If you’ve gone hiking in the east bay hills you can see that the tinder is a constant battle that the parks department is unable to keep up with. That aside, eucalyptus is an invasive species and has taken over the east bay hills, which at one time were covered in oak. Making an effort to not propagate invasive species is in everyone’s best interest.

      • B:

        I admit I’m a little sad that you and I can’t have a real-life conversation about this subject. You obviously care about it and have given it some thought. I feel like you would be persuaded by, or at least consider, the actual science behind the broad topic “Eucalypts of the Bay Area.”

        I say this in a completely friendly and optimistic way: almost everything you mention about our local Eucs has been shown to be myth, or in a few cases, true but contextually irrelevant. It’s like finding out that an acquaintance you don’t really care for is actually a wonderful and admirable person. 🙂

        So… what to do when there are simple and–IMHO– interesting replies to each topic you raise, but electronic “conversation” doesn’t lend itself to discussing anything in depth?

        I’m stumped (pun intended). 🙂


      • @takebackthegreen, I agree. It’s nice to be able to have a civil exchange despite coming at the issue (tree replacement) from two contrasting angles. I wish that was able to happen more often in comments sections of websites & blogs. I will say that contrary to how it may sound, I’m not a hater of the eucalyptus tree. I grew up with them in my back yard so I’ll always have a nostalgic love of their fresh and unique scent and gentle flowing branches. That aside, as someone who has been working on keeping my native plant garden alive despite the best efforts of invasive volunteers, I also find a need to advocate for that underdog greenery that’s just trying to stay rooted in place (pun intended). All that aside, if you do figure out a way to have a more in depth dialog about these issues I’m certainly game. This is much more interesting and insightful than the alternative personal insults an name calling I’m use to seeing 😉

      • Thank you so much. My sentiments exactly.

        There are a few things no one disputes: Eucalypts are extremely successful in the Bay Area. They are the only forests we can have in our lifetimes. If they are clearcut, we will be treeless for generations.

        I love that you grow, and preserve knowledge about plants from a specific time period. It adds to our understanding of the world. What astonishes me is the almost religious zeal with which other people have declared that time period to be the only true “native” time period, and decided that our irreplaceable forests must be destroyed because they arrived by boat rather than in the gut of a migratory bird.

        If you have time to read the blogs I referenced above (although the comment threads are sometimes frustrating), you will find many posts that talk about exactly the points you raised. You might be pleasantly surprised at the astonishing ways our 200-year old “guests” from Australia contribute to the Bay Area ecology.

        I like the million-year story of the horse. Evolved in North America. Exported to other continents. Went extinct in N. America. Reintroduced to N. America. Became established again, at the expense of species that arose here in the meantime.

        Are horses native or invasive? Depends on the time scale you measure by…


      • B:

        Forgot to mention: interesting what you said about growing up with the scent of eucalyptus trees. A coworker told me the other day that she used to get in trouble as a teen because she would drink beer and hang out in Stern Grove with friends, then get caught because her mother could smell the eucalyptus trees on her clothes…


  8. Completely understand that if the tree had reached the end of it’s lifespan it had to be removed. However, we can fault Rec and Park for 1) lack of communication, 2) poor site mitigation regarding cleanup, and 3) failure to address the loss of shade.

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