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An Inconvenient Plant 

One of the world's rarest plants grows in the Presidio. Plans are under way to save it — and ax thousands of trees in the process.

Wednesday, Apr 16 2008

Page 2 of 5

Yet it turned out the plant Raven had just stumbled across wouldn't be known anywhere else. The generations of ecologists and gardeners who have tended the manzanita "mother plant" — which is estimated to be more than 100 years old — since Raven's discovery have been won over by its sheer tenacity. While its forebears couldn't survive San Francisco's housing boom in the 20th century, the final bush is a plant that knows how to cheat death.

In 1958, oblivious Army landscapers undertaking a construction project halted their bulldozers only 20 yards from the manzanita. Thirty years later, a crew of Army lumberjacks felling large pines shading the mother plant nearly landed a tree on it. In rainy years, the plant develops a fungal infection called black smut that often kills 40 percent of its leaves and branches. And, in 1999 and 2000, it was swarmed by hordes of ravenous insects.

"It was like, 'Aaaaaah! The Raven's manzanita is being attacked!'" recalls Kirra Swenerton, the seed ecologist at the Presidio's native plant nursery.

When a horde of tussock moth caterpillars descended upon the plant not long ago, frenzied Presidio employees were relegated to picking off every last one by hand. "There's just the one [manzanita] left, and it's so vulnerable," Swenerton says. "And for that species to go extinct under our watch, in a national park — I mean, where else would you expect people to take better care of it? Oh, I was freaked out."

While the mother plant has escaped death, it has hardly lived a fruitful life. No Raven's manzanita seedlings have ever been discovered in the park.

Shortly after the Army nearly bulldozed the plant in 1958, numerous cuttings were taken. These were planted and cultivated into living insurance policies; roughly a dozen "clones" exist within about 100 yards of the mother plant, in addition to specimens at Tilden Park and UC Berkeley. As the name indicates, clones are genetically identical to the original — the sole genetic individual is the mother plant, leaving the species vulnerable to disease and changing conditions. Scientists can replicate Raven's manzanitas like so many photocopies, but without genetic variability a species cannot evolve. In the long run this, too, is a death sentence.

Botanists have long pegged the Raven's manzanita an "obligate outcrosser," requiring another genetic individual to pollinate it. With none in existence, decades of scientific reports gauged the species' hope of recovery as low.

Still, its champions cop the same attitude as Han Solo careening into an asteroid field: "Never tell me the odds." Allowing the manzanita to die without a fight would be "like burning down the library without reading the books," says Holly Forbes, the curator of the University of California's Botanical Garden in Berkeley. "You don't know what you've missed."

Restorationists like Forbes and Swenerton see the manzanita as "one of the last San Franciscans," a link to the days when Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza first ambled into the city limits — and got sand in his boots.

Dune restoration in the Presidio is not an abstract concept, but a concrete one. Or, more accurately, it's sand — 70,000 tons of it. This mountain of sand, which was trucked over from the de Young Museum construction site, is roughly the size of a high school gym.

While the sand now sits in the shadow of the abandoned Public Health Service Hospital, a diminutive sign informs those navigating this isolated quadrant of the Presidio that the gargantuan pile is slated to fill a trio of dune restoration sites by 2010. The sign's fluorescent tangerine text also beseeches passersby to stay off the dune — which is, naturally, pockmarked by countless footprints.

While the Presidio's original restoration plan for the Raven's manzanita and other native species called for the removal of 3,800 trees, the version it adopted in 2003 ostensibly goes easier on the chainsaws. And yet the tally of condemned trees is nowhere to be found within the 322 pages of the innocuously titled Recovery Plan for Coastal Plants of the Northern San Francisco Peninsula. Five years after enacting the plan, Presidio officials still aren't sure how many trees will stay and how many will go.

The Presidio is jointly run by both the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, which means getting answers can be more than a little tedious. National Park Service officials claimed to have no idea how many trees they'll cut. Mark Frey, a Trust ecologist, estimates that perhaps 1,000 or more will be removed from Trust land over the next 30 years. Eyeballing a map, Terri Thomas, the Trust's director of park resources, states that the majority of trees to be cut are on Park Service land — meaning at least 2,000 (and perhaps many more) will go. Most of those trees, Thomas claims, would have died anyway in the coming decades.

The dune restoration plan's methodical pace is difficult to observe in real time, but a few dozen trees here and there add up over the years. The Trust has been removing around 100 trees a year for much of this decade; in 2008 alone, a minimum of 85 trees are scheduled to be felled. NPS spokesman Rich Weideman adds that the parks service's 2010 budgetary request from the federal government will include significant expenditures for tree removal.

That has neighborhood and tree activists grumbling. The notion of removing thousands of trees to provide sunlight for endangered bushes and grasses is as welcome to Presidio neighborhood groups as a family of sand dunes moving in next door.

"I find the nativism movement particularly disturbing, in large part because of its origins in Nazi Germany," wrote local native plant movement critic Steve Sayad in an e-mail. In a recent online debate with a plant aficionado, Sayad referred to native plant restoration as a "racist and sexist cult" befitting a "Green Nazi." Several other public critics of tree removal in the Presidio agreed that local native plant enthusiasts' ethos was derived from Nazism.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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