At least sixty people congregate in a parking lot hidden in the woods.  Young, old, hip, plain, flannels, jeans, back packs; groups circle around and mingle with each other.  Strangers are shaking hands, old friends laughing about good memories and new friends creating new ones.  A table is stacked with boxes of pizza, red keg cups of home brew grace the hands of many, tailgates are dropped, inviting anyone who wishes to take a seat.  It appears to be quite a party on this gorgeous, February, San Francisco afternoon.

Craig Dawson rises above the crowd, standing on the tailgate of his silver Toyota pickup. The back is full of tools, boxes of supplies, work gloves and trail maps. He calls the talkative group who are spread around the small woodland parking lot to attention. One by one people catch on and their heads turns to the man with the beard and graying hair. With the woods behind him, he is the portrait of a life-long outdoor enthusiast, and before him are his people.
“I really appreciate you all coming out this morning,” says Dawson. His eyes scanning over the crowd through his round framed glasses, admiring the turnout.

February fifth, was the first volunteer work day of 2011 for Sutro Stewards, a non-profit organization started by Dawson that commits itself to trail maintenance and expansion in the Sutro Hills above Univeristy of California- San Francisco Medical Center.

“I know it was early for a Saturday,” adds Dawson.  “But it’s a good way to sweat out a hangover and do some good.”

“Or get a hang over,” a volunteer chimes in as he raises his glass to Dawson.

Dawson started Sutro Stewards in 2006. As a native San Franciscan, he has carried on a love affair with the green oasis for most of his life, even using the woods as his commute route to and from high school as a kid.

Now he pioneers efforts to maintain those paths to ensure that the people of San Francisco have an expansive network of pristine trails that go on for miles. The ultimate goal of Sutro Stewards is  to connect the Sutro Hills with Twin Peaks while maintaining minimal road crossings and exposure to the urbanization that dominates San Francisco’s landscape.

Four hours earlier at 9 a.m. the scene in the parking lot is a bit more subdued. As the volunteers gather in the earlier hours, organizers were quick to take charge of the large turnout and ensure that their time is not squandered with excessive chit-chat. The group is divided up, tools are given out, while a short safety seminar telling people how to swing their hoes is given. Soon enough, the groups of people march into the awaiting woods, wielding hoes, pick-axes, garden sheers, shovels and rakes.

Sutro Heights belongs mostly to University of California San Francisco.  In 1998, UCSF began to work with neighbors to manage and maintain the open space preserve, developing an award-winning plan to secure the future of the 61-acre nature preserve. The aim is to improve the health of the forest, public safety and property protection, protect and expand native plants, enhance wildlife habitat values, maintain scenic quality and to improve public access.

In 2006, Dawson and other local volunteers met with officials from UCSF and proposed a stewardship program that would work to further address and act upon the points outlined in the original plan. Through cooperation and approval from UCSF, Sutro Stewards was born and began to do their work in the forest maze.  In the first year, volunteers clocked more than 5,000 man hours of work— it was a success.

On this morning, Steward organizers scramble to keep everyone busy. Rushing up hillsides, one group sets into decimating a crop of blackberry bushes that for years had gone unkempt. With their prickly, long arms reaching in all directions, the unwelcoming plant completely concealed a dramatic outcrop of Chert. Chert is a native, red-rock of San Francisco that can be found through out the area.

Revealing the aesthetic of the rocky outcrop is just one of the many missions for today’s trail maintenance. Volunteers say they want to expose the rocks so people can climb or sit on them so that they may enjoy the view of the ocean. The removal of a hundred square feet of blackberry bushes leaves volunteers with scratched forearms and a thorn or two stuck here and there, but the effect is a full hillside of large rocks that were previously inaccessible.

Bringing people from different walks of life together is  as much a goal as preserving and expanding the trails of Sutro Heights. The satisfaction and reward of working in nature and getting one’s hands dirty is something Dawson and everyone involved want to share with everyone who is interested.

Ari Van Leer, 18 and Kiana Bellinger, 19, are both freshmen at SF State. On Saturday morning many of their friends were sleeping late but they opted to try something new and volunteer their time working outside.

“I had been looking for a good volunteer opportunity,” says Van Leer.  “I heard about this through Kiana and it sounded really cool.  I like the idea of working to maintain trails for people to use and the aspect of everyone working together like this.”

Bright-eyed in her SFSU Gators sweatshirt, Van Leer explained that she is also interested in the prospect of working her way up as a volunteer and one day being more of an organizer.  She felt it would be an opportunity that could work well with her hospitality major—managing a team and seeing to it that productivity is maximized with a large group of people.

Unlike some organizations that work with the city to restore plots of land, Sutro Heights is owned by UCSF, so the stewards do all their work in co-ordinance with the school’s regulations and rules.  Dawson works hard to keep the Steward’s work in line with the original plan of preservation for the forest.
It is true that the Stewards are doing the heavy pulling, but in reality they are the muscle of a much larger machine that takes several pieces to operate smoothly.  Projects are typically coordinated with three groups on the UCSF campus.  There is the facilities management, who arranges for the work to be done.  The campus planning committee which develops plans and performs the necessary environmental analysis. And the community & government affairs committee, which arranges comments from the public and input toward project plans.

Last year a trail marker project was proposed.  In 2001, when the restoration plan was set into motion, there was a restriction put on using signs of any kind on the mountain.  The Sutro Stewards, in collaboration with the Boy Scouts of America, wanted to change that and install trail markers.  In order to do so, community and governmental relations requested community feedback on the idea.  At a public meeting, positive feedback was heard in favor of the idea and The Stewards were able to go ahead with the markers.

Maric Munn is the Director of Facilities Management for Capital Projects and Facilities Management. She acknowledges that not all projects proposed by The Sutro Stewards meet with community approval.  There are different views on how the mountain should look and what should be allowed.  The result is some often times lively and spirited public forums, according to Munn.

“The bottom line is that from my perspective, the Mt Sutro Stewards are a valuable resource in helping facilities management maintain public access areas of the mountain and I can’t express how appreciative I am of their hard work,” said Munn.

The Sutro Stewards don’t work alone.  Other organizations rally volunteers to join the Stewards on their monthly volunteer day and it is together that they work to maintain the trails that they use and cherish.

On this work day the Stewards are joined by SF Urban Riders, SF Rotary Club, Nature in the City and One Brick.  Each organization has a following of loyalists that rarely hesitate to contribute time and energy to a cause like trail maintenance and habitat restoration.

One Brick is a non-profit group headquartered in San Francisco that operates in nearly ten cities across the nation.  A network of volunteers, One Brick works to help reach the goals of other organizations by providing volunteer support.  A volunteer run organization, they provide thousands of hours of community involvement each year, helping take on a variety of causes.

Richard Hom is a One Brick volunteer team leader.  He does recruiting and training and has worked with the Sutro Stewards several times of over the past three years.

Hom joins others in ripping out a hillside of blackberry bushes.  A round face with dark hair, he is all smiles as he holds up a 10 foot length of heavy blackberry vine.  The sturdy thorns do not penetrate his volunteer-issued gloves as he wings the vine in the air, asking if anyone wants to be bullwhipped; walking the tight line between hilarious and threatening.

Once the fear leaves the eyes of anyone within range, he steps down the trail a few yards and returns with a fistful of “miner’s lettuce,” an edible plant that is abundant through out the hills.  The fresh, green bit of sustenance quickly becomes popular and work halts momentarily while troops replenish their stomachs.
“I like to get people up here to Mount Sutro,” says Hom.  “In San Francisco alone, One Brick brings volunteers to at least three to five events each weekend, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s great to see people’s reaction to this place.  Most of them never knew it was here.”

Hom works as a patent litigation lawyer in San Francisco.  He started with One Brick in 2002, took a long hiatus to go to law school and returned in 2006.  After a while it was clear to organizers that he was manager material and by 2009 he became an event organizer.

One Brick has been bringing their team of volunteers to Mount Sutro since 2006.  Their goal as an organization is to bring people from all walks of life, who have the desire to volunteer, and set them up with other organizations currently working on projects.  The idea is for their volunteers to have fun, meet new people and give back to communities.

Colin Pierce, 27, is a biology major at SF State.  With sweat on his brow and his shirt soaked through, he joins four other young men in lifting a gigantic rock that must weigh around 250 pounds.  They have rolled the boulder onto a sturdy webbed net, and are all carrying the rock up a short hill to where a trench has been dug out.  The rock is only one of about 20, all around the same size.  All the rocks are now piled up next to the trench which traces a turn in a set of switch backs on the east side of the mountain.  The rocks are then painstakingly moved into place in the trench, and then more rocks are piled, with much attention to detail, on top of the first layer.  The result is a staggered pattern that will ensure the stability of the down hill turn.  A volunteer coordinator leads the team; this is a particular project that he has been itching to take care of for over a year and so far he is happy with the results.

This is how the Sutro Stewards do things, one thing at a time.  On the other side of the mountain, more groups are busy pulling evasive weeds and cutting back vegetation that is overgrown onto the trails.  A lot of work goes into keeping the trails in good shape.

As a dad and his little girl come up the trail everyone gets out of the way to let them by.  The man thanks the volunteers for all their work and tells them it looks great.  The immediate payoff and feedback is what  makes their job worth while.