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During the past two years these mild-mannered folk have been demonized in newspapers and at public hearings as wild-eyed zealots bent on turning San Francisco into a sand-dune wasteland. They've been called racist in one newspaper for preferring native plant species to immigrants, and white elitists in another for indulging in such an esoteric hobby. A citizens' coalition of dog, tree, and feral cat advocates has nearly succeeded in curtailing their efforts; the Board of Supervisors is poised to consider the advisory group's final solution to the plant issue.
The Yerba Buena group, not usually one much for politics, has been bewildered by the onslaught.
"It came absolutely out of nowhere," confides a distraught Roland Pitschel, the outfit's vice president.
Aside from the stress, the scene in Pitschel's dining room is prosaic, a pastoral diorama of San Francisco civic life. We're in a book-filled Bernal Hill home; snacks and juice cover the table; club officers politely take turns reporting on club activities.
Then Steve Cockrell speaks: "You have to get in their offices and show them your votes, or you have to ask for a meeting and document it. I've been working the Recreation and Park Commission for a couple of months, very quietly, so they know this is coming" – and suddenly this prosaic scene shifts to surreal.
Cockrell has asked to attend the monthly meeting of the native plant club to offer himself up as a leader in the fight against forces seeking to quash native plant restoration. Until recently Cockrell had been the creator and leader of those forces. Just over two years ago he began dedicating his life to convincing dog owners, tree lovers, and feral cat fanciers that the Natural Areas Program was their enemy. An adman by profession, Cockrell sold the false message that plant restoration efforts would keep dogs off public lands, when in reality the program would do almost nothing to fetter dogs. Most of the gardeners who work for the program are dog owners; they know the dogs who visit their work sites by name.
"We like dogs a lot," one gardener told me last month. "We just happen to like native plants, too."
Truth be damned, Cockrell exploited a mood of anti-wildlife-preservation hysteria that had formed among dog owners after federal park officials – in a move completely unrelated to the city's Natural Areas Program – had begun enforcing leash laws on federal parkland at Fort Funston and Crissy Field. Cockrell made a tour of neighborhood group meetings demonizing native plant advocates and recruiting dog walkers and others into an anti-native-plant-preservation coalition. He lobbied San Francisco supervisors, wrote letters to the editor, and assembled dossiers on his native-plant-activist enemies. He spent so much time agitating and organizing and propagandizing, as Cockrell explains it to me, that he became alcoholic and broke.
Through pain came success. Thanks primarily to Cockrell's efforts, native plant enthusiasts are now widely perceived as zealots and fools. At Cockrell's behest, the Board of Supervisors a year ago set up a special committee to "advise" the Natural Areas Program; the board then stacked the committee with Cockrell acolytes bent on curtailing NAP. The committee issued a report two months ago, which members of the Native Plant Society say will essentially dismantle the program's work. And the Board of Supervisors is poised to implement the committee's recommendations.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
Last year Steve Cockrell switched sides.
And he's now plying City Hall from the opposite perspective, running a sophisticated, anti-anti-plant-people Web site, drafting and revising anti-anti-plant-people reports, and pulling on politicians' sleeves in a full-on effort to demolish the movement he not long ago created of whole cloth. Cockrell's creation, called the Natural Areas Program Citizens Advisory Committee – which he apparently planned to influence from behind the scenes – didn't wish to be told what to do by its patron. For his own part, Cockrell had neglected to get himself appointed to the committee, seemingly figuring his force of will was influence enough.
"It was an accumulation of things," Cockrell recalls of his decision to abandon his swarm. "Some of my followers were invasive, divisive, controlling, and I don't need that. I was carrying most of the weight; I was saying, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.' I said, 'If you don't want to follow my leadership, go somewhere else and lead someone else.' I did the work, and I don't like someone horning in and trying to lead what I'm doing. So I guess it was a conflict of personalities."
During the past month Cockrell has given me lengthy reports he's researched, written, and distributed denouncing the Natural Areas Program Citizens Advisory Committee. His headings include "Key Defects," "Failure of Process," and "Documentation of Bias." He's coaching plant advocates as they form an urban environmentalist coalition, then using their clout to lobby against his new foes. Last week I began receiving press releases as part of this effort. Again, Cockrell tells me, this is taking up much of his time.
Cockrell is a splendid specimen, a thoroughbred gadfly, unconstrained by objectives, unfettered by ideology.