Bad Seed: City Residents Fight Over a Botanical Miracle

To San Francisco biologist Daniel Gluesenkamp, finding a rare species of manzanita on Doyle Drive — the site of a major Caltrans construction project in the Presidio — was like discovering an exotic orchid, or the tallest redwood tree. Manzanita itself is widely sanctified for its decorative and medicinal properties, and this particular species — Franciscan manzanita — had totemic power. It's the city's namesake, after all.

Never mind that Franciscan is a red-headed stepchild of the manzanita family, with a look and texture more redolent of steel wool than sleek vegetation. Never mind that it only grows on serpentine rock, and needs fire to germinate. To conservationists, Gluesenkamp's 2009 discovery was a grand environmental success story for a city corrupted by urban development. Franciscan manzanita had long been thought extinct in the wild; no one had seen it growing outside an arboretum since 1947. That the native plant had burst, miraculously, from a bulldozed swath of road, on a site riven with concrete and steel rebar, made it all the more extraordinary.

That set the stage for a massive campaign to re-propagate the rare shrub in parkland throughout the city. Local environmental lawyer Brent Plater sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to get it on the endangered species list, clinching an easy victory and a chance to drum up publicity for his organization, the Wild Equity Institute. (He's also waged a number of other high-profile lawsuits in the name of conservation, including this summer's triumph over Sharp Park Golf Course for killing endangered red-legged frogs and garter snakes.) With the new designation in place, Fish & Wildlife set forth an intricate, costly, bureaucratic recovery plan — as in “Recovery” with a capital “R.” The Metropolitan Transportation Commission paid some $200,000 to transplant the errant shrub, and regional agencies may spend thousands more to cultivate it along 270 acres of designated “critical habitat.”

It's become a divisive issue in the city's more residential neighborhoods, both for homeowners who worry about the government encroaching on private property, and for conservationists who believe the whole rigamarole is unnecessary. In an article for the Westside Observer, neighborhood activist George Wooding voiced a litany of concerns — among them, the prospect that San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department might have to close public land on Mount Davidson to give the plant space to grow. He also pointed out that since manzanita seeds regenerate with fire, city officials might have to burn other forested areas in order to create a self-sustaining colony.

Native-plants activist Jake Sigg dismisses those arguments, explaining that the plant's preferred substrate, serpentine rock, can't be found on Mount Davidson. Given Rec and Park's current paucity of resources, it's unlikely to bankroll a vast recovery on public land anyway, he says. But Sigg has his own reasons for opposing the plan, which he believes was counterproductive. When Gluesenkamp first made his discovery four years ago, the Presidio Trust — and its army of volunteers — immediately took steps to transplant and clone the rare shrub, he says. There was no need to have it listed.

“The listing process is expensive,” Sigg says. “It's all this bureaucracy, and all these elaborate plans, and that doesn't come free.” Once recovery comes under federal oversight, he adds, the volunteers who might have quietly cloned their own manzanita crop have to cede that task to someone officially hired to do it. What could have been a grassroots gardening campaign suddenly becomes a complex web of governmental logistics.

“The logical thing for Fish & Wildlife to do is to say, 'This plant is already on federal protected land, it's already got all this staff and volunteer mothering, it doesn't need a federal listing,” Sigg says.

But that's not the way government agencies like to operate.

It's not the first time a manzanita plant has become a cudgel in San Francisco.

In 2008, scientists and preservationists proposed to save a similar shrub, the freckled, gnarly-branched Raven's manzanita, by chopping down nonnative trees on 75 acres of parkland, which raised hackles in a city populated by NIMBYs and tree-huggers. (It's a fair guess that San Franciscans usually deem trees more deserving of protection than shrubs.) In some senses, the current shrub debate is just the rehashing of an old drama, and despite its magical rise from death, some detractors believe Franciscan manzanita to be no prettier and no less irritating than its scruffy cousin. Wooding downplays the significance of Gluesenkamp's discovery, pointing out that similar manzanita strains sell in nurseries for about $15.98.

The coterie of people who've assailed Rec and Park's current manzanita revival campaign include members of the Miraloma Park Homeowner Association, who believe — mistakenly — that the government might use its power of eminent domain to plant the rare shrubs in their backyards. They're abetted by off-leash dog walkers, who oppose any conservation effort that might curb their animals' unfettered access to parkland. Some have joined the fray only to denigrate Rec and Park's Natural Areas Program, which will oversee the replanting. That outfit has long suffered slings and arrows for its mission to turn back the clock and reestablish San Francisco's natural environment, even if that means cutting down trees, or shuttering public space, or imposing native vegetation where residents don't want it.

Sigg believes the whole debate is moot because the Natural Areas Program has no means to fund its restoration effort. For four years, officials from various agencies have quibbled over acreage that may never see its crop of miracle shrubbery. That said, Gluesenkamp's specimen appears to be thriving. It might even propagate on its own.

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