Bleeding Green

Forget about Sharp Park’s endangered frogs and snakes. The real problem with the golf course is its enormous cost to the city.

The question of what constitutes proper ecological stewardship at Sharp Park is not a simple one. In December, the Board of Supervisors' Government Audit and Oversight Committee heard testimony from Karen Swaim, one of the state's foremost wildlife biologists, to the effect that the existing golf course is not only harmless insofar as the red-legged frog and garter snake are concerned, but is actually necessary to their survival. She argued that Sharp Park's previous incarnation as an artichoke farm built over salty coastal wetlands could not have supported a population of red-legged frogs — which live and breed only in fresh water — and hence would not have attracted the snakes, which feed on them.

She noted that both species were first observed at Sharp Park in the 1940s, after the golf course had been in operation for a decade, and predicted that both would die out at the site if the seawall were removed or breached. "Golf is not what is responsible for the decline of the San Francisco garter snake," Swaim said. "You need to protect the seawall. ... You need to have a freshwater, managed habitat currently for this species ... and that is all there is to it."

This way of looking at Sharp Park has gotten some traction in the environmental community. "By putting the golf course in, it changed to a freshwater environment from salt, and into that freshwater environment moved two endangered species," says Mike Ferreira, an officer with the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. "If you undo that environment, it's a detriment to the species. Restoring it to a salt environment is a no-no ... and that's what happens when you return it to the way it was." Even the name of the central marsh at Sharp Park, Laguna Salada — "Salty Lagoon" — would appear to hint at a historically brackish body of water.

Wetlands at Sharp Park are home to rare species of frog and snake.
Frank Gaglione
Wetlands at Sharp Park are home to rare species of frog and snake.
The San Francisco garter snake found at Sharp Park is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Victor Abbley
The San Francisco garter snake found at Sharp Park is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Others dispute this view, arguing that other coastal water bodies — such as Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands — support healthy populations of frogs in their inland reaches, where salinity levels decline. Asked about the etymology of Laguna Salada, Plater evinces a note of exasperation. "It's kind of like Mount Diablo," he says. "The Spanish came and they thought devils lived on top of the mountain, whereas the native people thought it was nirvana. Trying to do historical ecology just based on common names created by people who used to live there is a sophomoric attempt to look at what needs to be done."

Jeff Miller is a San Francisco–based conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit that has filed a notice of intent to sue the city over alleged Endangered Species Act violations at Sharp Park. He says arguments that restoration would harm the snake and frog are based on "misconceptions" about both historical conditions at the site and environmentalists' vision for what it would look like without golf. Before the course was built, "it wasn't one big salt pond," he says. "What was there before the golf course was primarily a freshwater system that occasionally had saltwater." Moreover, any environmental restoration should at least temporarily preserve the seawall to prevent abrupt saltwater flooding, he says.

Demons, salt, snakes, storms, golf — the abstract debate over what course man and nature should take at Sharp Park tends to range far afield. It's odd, then, that one of the more basic aspects of the discussion — how much any of this will cost, and whether San Francisco can afford it in a time of severe budget crisis — has barely been broached at City Hall. When it has come up in talks, it turns out that, despite the rosy picture painted by Rec and Park officials, maintaining a golf course in Pacifica is going to cost an awful lot.

The key to understanding the true scope of the financial burden Sharp Park poses lies in looking away from proposed renovations at Sharp itself and toward the infrastructure needed to sustain a golf course on this flood-prone coastal flat in the first place. While the expense of realigning the course to create a more hospitable enclave for the frog and snake is not insignificant — according to Rec and Park estimates, it could rise as high as $11.3 million — the more consequential costs involved in keeping Sharp Park open are those attached to a large-scale recycled-water project and required repairs to the seawall that protects the course (and its amphibian and reptilian inhabitants) from harmful incursions of saltwater.

It's worth noting, at the outset, that Sharp Park does bring in revenue from greens fees. The problem is that when operating expenses are factored in, the golf course doesn't turn out to be much of a moneymaker. Since 2006, it has brought the city an average of about $1.2 million annually, according to an April 2009 report from the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst. In fiscal year 2008-2009, however, it ran an operating deficit of $43,000 when expenses were accounted for. Of course, such small running deficits aren't a big deal, far outstripped as they are by the looming cost of capital improvements. "In its day-to-day operational costs, it's fairly negligible in terms of what the deficit is," Mirkarimi says. "But that's not the issue that's before us."

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