An Instigator's Instigator

The guy who pitted dog people against plant people in one of S.F.'s epic political battles has, um, switched sides

Gadflies (Hypoderma lineatum) are often found at muddy stream crossings, below the crust of manure piles, and at San Francisco committee hearings. Adult gadflies bite and lay their eggs in the hair of the hocks and hind legs, and when the eggs hatch, larvae burrow through the flesh and congregate in the esophagus before moving to the lower back. There, they cut air holes in the skin, fall to the soil, pupate, and eventually lay more eggs. Gadflies can be treated with sprays, dips, pour-ons, or injections of ivermectin, a pesticide that kills by paralysis. However, decomposition of ivermectin-contaminated dung can harm earthworms and other insect communities. Since gadflies lay their eggs in daylight, one environmentally friendly prevention method is to provide darkened sheds as refuge.

But in San Francisco, there's no hiding from gadflies.

With a landmass of only 49 square miles, San Francisco is crawling with more than 400 tiny interest groups, neighborhood associations, and related gadfly swarms. There are advocacy groups for every civic issue, every city block, every ethnicity, lifestyle preference, ideology, hobby, and frame of mind. There are people, thousands of them, who make a life-consuming avocation of speaking at meetings and hearings, writing newsletters, updating Web sites, walking precincts – and, above all, denouncing enemies made in the process of doing all this.

Take, by way of illustration, the war in this city between dog walkers and native plant restorationists – an insubstantial conflict that anywhere else in the world would be resolved with minimum consumption of civic energy. Here, dog and tree people do pitched battle with plant people, falsely claiming that the latter wish to shut out canines and destroy forests. This controversy has dragged on for three years, involved the formation and destruction of multiple government commissions, spawned citizens' groups and political action committees. In terms of meeting attendance, dogs versus plants ranks among the biggest issues in San Francisco, with some gatherings attended by thousands of infuriated San Franciscans. That's right, thousands.

"I've never seen anything like this," notes Paul Gobster, a scientist employed by the National Park Service who studies human behavior as it pertains to parks. Gobster is on sabbatical to study San Francisco's native plant restoration controversy, in which dog walkers and tree enthusiasts have sought to curtail the city Recreation and Park Department's Natural Areas Program. The program consists of five entry-level gardeners along with dozens more volunteer high school kids and retirees, who hoe weeds in select parts of the city where native California flora remains.

Gobster has made a life's work of studying the type of social interaction involved in San Francisco's dispute over this program. He's the co-author of the book Restoring Nature: Perspectives From the Social Sciences and Humanities; he's written in academic journals about how different social and ethnic groups relate to urban green spaces and how different types of parks affect people's behavior. He's even conducted in-depth studies of civic disputes over native plant restoration programs in cities such as Chicago. But Gobster had never witnessed a struggle as vigorous as San Francisco's dog people/ plant people war.

"The magnitude of it has blown me away," Gobster says. "There's a 'friends' group for every park, and there's a Web site for them, too. The rapidity by which something happens and something else happens, and somebody is telling a bunch of people about it by e-mail -- the whole electronic rapidity of it is amazing. It's something I want to explore more. It's something I didn't know was happening until I got here."

Clearly, Gobster has never witnessed an acute gadfly infestation, in which victims "run about widely with tails in the air, standing in water to protect themselves," as an agricultural extension agent would say.

Or there's the dictionary definition of gadflying humans, who go "about much, needlessly or without purpose."

To wit: In a move that will be mentioned by gadfly taxonomists for decades, the man who pitted dog people against plant people in one of San Francisco's epic political battles has switched sides.

If Gobster is to truly understand the battle concerning the preservation of native plant life in San Francisco, he will have to pioneer a new area of behavioral science studying the San Francisco gadfly. SF Weekly, with its long-standing commitment to science, has aided this effort. We sought out a splendid, unhybridized Paeninsula civis infensus. We observed him – on the Web, by phone, over e-mail, in meetings with fellow civum. We discovered that, for the true thoroughbreds of this genus, it's not ideology, or specific objectives, or the promise of possible material gain that motivates, but pure love of the hunt. This uncomplicated striving is the species' most elegant trait. Yet it is pernicious to the city at large: San Francisco has become a living experiment in public policy set by people who bore through our civic flesh for the mere sake of living life as a gadfly.

"You've got to turn up the noise," says Steve Cockrell, a thin, fortysomething man with close-cut hair and a stern, chiseled face. He's sitting at the head of the dining room table in the home of Roland and Barbara Pitschel, attempting to energize a half-dozen soft-spoken officers of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, a smallish club of environmentalists dedicated to preserving some of the places in San Francisco still covered by native California growth. They spend weekends volunteering to help the Park Department's Natural Areas Program gardeners hoe weeds; they then write about it in their club newsletter.

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