Barbara Pitschel: 1939–2010

Roland and Barbara Pitschel. Photo courtesy of Margo Bors and Barbara Pitschel.

By Terry Milne

Barbara Pitschel, one of the giants of preservation of the heights of Bernal Heights and a guardian for many decades of the neighborhood's original open space, passed away unexpectedly on August 3, 2010. A woman with tremendous energy and excellent organizing skills, she was one of the leaders in ecological restoration in San Francisco. Barbara, along with her late husband Roland and many other citizens of Bernal, was at the forefront of the battle to preserve the crown of Bernal Hill from real estate development. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the City had plans to declare the hilltop a "blighted area" and sell the land for up-scale housing much like had been done at Diamond Heights. After prolonged neighborhood resistance, the land was named Bernal Heights Park and officially transferred to the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department in 1972.

Barbara was very hands-on, boots-on-the-ground about restoring the bare hilltop to the original native grassland that existed before the Spanish fathers of Mission Dolores used it as a cattle pasture (Potrero Viejo). Starting about 1972, Barbara and Roland worked one day a month clearing invasive nonnative species and nursing native grass and wildflower seedlings with organized volunteer work parties of school youngsters and older garden enthusiasts. Finally in 1980, the Recreation and Park Department recognized and authorized the Bernal Hilltop Native Grassland Restoration Project.

Among her many endeavors, Barbara was librarian of the Helen Crocker Russell Library at San Francisco's Strybing Arboretum for more than 30 years. She edited the newsletter of the California Native Plant Society for 15 years. For many years, her column and sketches describing the wildflowers and grasses and other plants on top of the hill graced the Bernal Journal, predecessor of the New Bernal Journal. Barbara was recognized for her pioneering ecological restoration, the first such project in San Francisco. She also was honored by the California Native Plant Society, the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, and the Trust for Public Land for volunteer stewardship.

Barbara said that Bernal Heights was a piece of country inside a city, and the hilltop will stand as a memorial to her for years to come.

Barbara's husband, Roland Pitschel, died in August 2009. Read his obituary.

Read another obituary for Barbara from her colleagues and friends at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.