Naming of a park facility sparks political fight

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Rec & Park has proposed naming a building after conservationist Jake Sigg. Some are turned off by his views on immigration.

We at the Bay Guardian were alerted today that San Francisco Recreation & Parks commissioners are poised to name a Golden Gate Park building after a conservationist who blogs openly about “illegal aliens,” and has widely disseminated his view that environmentalists have been “silenced” on the subject of immigration “by intimidation and political correctness.”

But prominent members of the environmental community say Jake Sigg, who worked as a gardener for the Recreation and Parks Department for 31 years, ought to be recognized for his years of contribution to San Francisco parklands. 

A single agenda item for the May 1 meeting of the Operations Committee of the Rec & Parks Commission proposes renaming a Golden Gate Park facility located at 811 Stanyan Street as the Jake Sigg Stewardship Center. The building, which recently underwent a $2.3 million renovation, houses the headquarters for the department’s volunteer and Natural Areas programs.

Sigg, who is in his late 80s, sends out a regular email newsletter to his personal list; it reportedly reaches thousands locally. He also posts content on his personal blog, naturenewssf.blogspot.com. While his emails contain an assortment of poetry and ruminations on the natural world, he’s also been known to express his point of view on immigration – and it has not been well received. It’s prompted rebukes from readers; some have characterized it as racist.

In an exchange from last May that is posted to his blog, a reader named Linda Hunter told Sigg she was offended by an installment in which he used the phrase “illegal aliens.”

In response, Sigg wrote: “I’m not clear on what offends you, other than language. Undocumented workers are illegal aliens, so I don’t understand your point. Trotting out racism is lazy and a refusal to think about a serious problem. I will repeat what I’ve said several times in the past:  My concern on immigration derives solely from population pressures. If you are concerned about human numbers and what that is doing to the planet and to us, you cannot ignore immigration, especially when it is uncontrolled, as now.”

In a private email sent by environmentalist Becky Evans last year and later published by Sigg, Evans said she was “dismayed by the anti-immigrant diatribe in your newsletter,” saying, “all of us are descendants of immigrants except the few who are Native Americans.”

In response, Sigg wrote:

“I am surprised at you, Becky, especially when you use stale, no longer relevant, arguments--such as being descendants of immigrants, &c.  That is a dull old saw.  This country seemed limitless in space and resources and we welcomed immigrants with open arms. Can you say that today?”

When we caught up with Sigg by phone he said he did not believe his views on immigration should be at all connected to the proposal to name the building after him, which stemmed from his decades-long track record as a leader of volunteers.

When we got into a discussion on immigration policy, he said, "I think that our immigration policies are too lax. The borders are too loose, and we need to stabilize our population. If someone wants to accuse me of racism, it just doesn't hold water. Racism is an implication that somehow and some way certain races are inferior to others and I find that idea absurd."

Regardless of what anyone thinks, Sigg has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants.

But things get complicated when one considers that Rec & Park is about to name a public building – owned collectively by San Franciscans, in a city of immigrants designated as a safe zone for the undocumented – after Sigg, who isn’t shy about broadcasting his opinion that undocumented people should be prevented from migrating by land from south of the Mexican border.

This idea of naming the building after Sigg has won the support of prominent environmentalists including Tom Radulovich of Livable City, San Francisco Environment Commissioner Ruth Gravanis, Nature in the City, San Francisco Laborers Union Local 261 and others in a formal letter submitted to the Operations Committee. Unclear is whether supporters know of his views on immigration, or even care or believe it should have any bearing on naming the building.

There's also a murky political backstory. Brent Plater, executive director of Wild Equity, told us that the whole thing stems from an ongoing controversy over Sharp Park.

The idea of naming the building after Sigg originated with Phil Ginsburg, who directs the city’s Rec & Park Department. Sigg is aligned with Ginsburg in the belief that Rec & Park should move forward with a Significant Natural Resource Areas management plan, which would generally do positive things for natural lands yet contains provisions that many environmentalists oppose, given the negative ramifications they would have for Sharp Park.

“The vast majority of the environmental community opposes this plan – except Jake Sigg,” Plater explained. “To reward Jake for this, Phil wants to put Jake’s name on a building.”  

In response to that idea, Sigg said it had no merit, saying, "People just imagine these things ... They just want to poke Rec & Park in the eye."

Meanwhile, Wild Equity and other environmentalists are suing Rec & Park over its planned construction at Sharp Park, the subject of a long battle over how the area’s golf course impacts two endangered species: the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog.

Sigg said he thought the lawsuit had no merit and would hold up the management plan, which he hopes to see advance.

It will be interesting to see what the commissioners do with this one. Will Sigg's views on immigration be deemed irrelevant to the decision over whether or not to name a public San Francisco building after him, as he believes is appropriate?

We left messages for Rec & Park but we did not receive a call back by press time.