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Mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A goat will eat most anything, but not California broom grass, a tough, woody plant that grows in scruffy clumps on the rolling hills of Hunters Point's Heron's Head Park.
The 27-acre park, located at the end of Cargo Way, is just northwest of Norcal Waste Systems' recycling warehouse, and its southeast neighbor is an ancient PG&E power plant. This odd little oasis of wetlands and bird blinds was once part of the bay. In the 1950s, the Port of San Francisco created a fill of concrete, asphalt, and dirt here, hoping to build a new pier. Later, the land was suggested as the foot of the fabled "Southern Crossing" bridge to the lower East Bay. Eventually, the disused strip of earth (shaped like a heron's head, with a tidal pool for an eye and a long, thin beak stretching into the water) became an impromptu dump. Then the nonnative plant species moved in hence, goats.
"Goats are a great herbivorous alternative to pesticides," says Benjamin Stone-Francisco, the park's manager and head of Hunters Point's Literacy for Environmental Justice, the nonprofit charged with the Heron's Head's care. The goats, on loan from an Orinda-based company satisfyingly named Goats R Us, until recently roamed a sun-soaked knoll on the park's southern border, grazing on invasive burr clover and Italian rye while disdaining the native broom grass and red fescue. A portable electric fence separated the herd from your capraphile correspondent, however, rendering direct interviews and investigatory petting impossible. The gray stacks of the PG&E plant towered in the background, rumbling quietly. "Can you hear that?" asked Stone-Francisco. "It's on 'idle.'"
The plant has emitted a terrible racket and tons of industrial pollutants for the past 77 years, and when I visited earlier this month it was due to be shut down in six days, following years of complaints. It did close, on May 15, and neighborhood residents are elated the plant has long been blamed for astronomical asthma rates and chronic nosebleeds among children in Bayview-Hunters Point.
Gavin Newsom claims to have plans to rehabilitate the former plant and the dilapidated port into a hub for "green energy" businesses. But the new Third Street light rail runs into the neighborhood, and will soon be ferrying developers in, eradicating the native species of poor people. One large plot of land, named "Parcel A," has already been cleared in preparation for luxury condo development, though it's unclear how many yuppies will want a loft with views of both the Superfund Navy shipyard site and the Hunters Point projects.
But on that early May visit, green energy was winning out. The goats had already rid most of the park of nonnative plant life, and were scheduled to return to Orinda the next day. Handing me his binoculars and speaking over the bleating and the idling, Stone-Francisco directed my attention to a graceful brown-and-white American avocet wading in the pickleweed. The avocet is one of 78 species of migratory birds that stop off in Heron's Head, one of the only wetlands in this part of the bay. Once endangered species start living in an area, environmentalists can step in and protect or rehabilitate the spot, as was the case at Heron's Head.
Stone-Francisco gestured north to Pier 94, past the Norcal warehouse. "The Audubon people got ahold of some land up there," he said. Wetlands had overtaken a former tallow plant, and migrating birds were again nesting on a shore that hadn't supported wildlife in a century. "If any naturalist sees that happening, they're going to protect it." With any luck, Bayview's decrepit shoreline will be unrecognizably green in a generation, and the nonnative Hunters Point yuppie will finally have a suitable habitat.