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After the crowds have gone
Park managers help clear beach of garbage, graffiti

- Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

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On Tuesday morning, nine hours after the Labor Day weekend had ended, the crowds had gone home, and San Francisco's Ocean Beach belonged to the seagulls and garbage gatherers.

The birds knotted together, but the debris collectors spread out. Brian O'Neill was one of them.

The work was, for him, a happy departure. As superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, he attends eight or nine meetings in a typical day.

"Trash," he said. "It's appealing."

There are 20 members of the GGNRA management team, and most of them participated in Tuesday's beach cleanup.

If the notion of mucky-mucks pawing through garbage cans and plucking cigarette butts from the sand fulfills a rank-and-file fantasy, it also reflects O'Neill's notion of "managing by engagement."

"We started Memorial Day at Stinson Beach," O'Neill said. "That place was really blitzed. It was really good for us to see it the morning after. It gave us a sense of what we had to do differently."

The staff realized that sand was clogging some drains, and there weren't enough shower heads. They pondered how many garbage cans were needed and where they should be placed.

"What we want (management) people to do is get familiar with what our field staff is dealing with," O'Neill said. "They just think we sit there and have meetings."

Ocean Beach is one of the most popular urban national park sites in the country, according to GGNRA publicist Chris Powell.

The problems range from erosion control to resource protection, from keeping blown sand off the Great Highway to tending to the needs of the snowy plover.

The historic seawall is covered with graffiti and is falling apart. Bonfires produce smoke that annoys neighbors and embers that melt the belts inside beach-cleaning equipment.

And there is, always, garbage. On Tuesday, managers filled huge plastic bags with the remnants of the holiday weekend.

"I have T-shirts and orange peels in here," said Howard Levitt, chief of interpretation and education at the GGNRA. "I've got two unopened cans of beer -- someone's in deep mourning right now -- sock, undershirts, a page from a German novel, partly burnt PG&E bills."

There weren't any metal cans. Recycling scavengers already had picked them up.

A sign at a beach entrance across from Balboa Street prohibited alcohol, glass containers and fires, and it warned people to leash their pets and pick up dog litter.

Every rule had been broken, repeatedly, over the holiday weekend.

Fire pits contained glass, hot coals and metal from shopping crates that had been lugged out to the beach. Dog feces were lurking under the sand. And then there was the snowy plover, a seldom seen but well publicized bird that is federally listed as a threatened species.

"Weather is the biggest factor in the number of people on the beach," said Daphne Hatch, chief of natural resources management and science at the GGNRA. "On a really busy nice weekend, we have had surveys where we couldn't find the plovers. Then they come back."

She gazed out at the ravens that had joined the seagulls on the beach. In the early 1990s, almost none could be found on Ocean Beach, which stretches from the Cliff House almost 5 miles south to Fort Funston.

The ravens prey on the eggs and young of many birds, especially the bank swallows in the cliffs at the south end of the beach, Hatch said.

"Ocean Beach without the people is an incredible habitat," Hatch said. "But people think of it as a sandbox or their backyard."

While most GGNRA workers picked up refuse, others painted over vividly colored graffiti on the inside seawall.

"You can just jump right in and do it," said GGNRA planning manager Nancy Hornor as she painted away. "I have a real sense of accomplishment."

Mike Savidge, head of strategic planning for the agency, said, "Graffiti is a legitimate expression. It can be great but not on a historic structure. People come here to get away from urban-ness, but this is just more of the city."

Three hours after the workers began, the legacy of "Chubs" and "Chaos" and "SF Locals" had been obliterated by the beige acrylic masonry paint. But "Guam" and "Oh Yoko" and "Sur X3" survived.

O'Neill is hoping to work with the city to get graffiti wiped out more often. He'd also like to see more restrooms and a "pack it in, pack it out" approach to garbage. Maybe removing some trash cans, he mused, would force people to do that. He's not sure whether outlawing bonfires on the whole beach, instead of just part of it, would help or hurt.

Above the beach, he looked at the rebar that had burst from the concrete on the outer seawall, after moisture caused it to swell up.

"We want to make this promenade on top of the seawall more promenade-like," he said.

Still, O'Neill was satisfied with how the "morning after" had gone.

"In spite of the issues we're dealing with, Ocean Beach is in good shape," O'Neill said. "And it didn't look too bad, considering it was a holiday weekend. But it's a constant challenge, and it needs serious, loving attention."

E-mail Patricia Yollin at pyollin@sfchronicle.com.

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2005 San Francisco Chronicle