Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

An Instigator's Instigator 

The guy who pitted dog people against plant people in one of S.F.'s epic political battles has, um, switched sides

Wednesday, Mar 3 2004
Gadflies (Hypoderma lineatum) are often found at muddy stream crossings, below the crust of manure piles, and at San Francisco committee hearings. Adult gadflies bite and lay their eggs in the hair of the hocks and hind legs, and when the eggs hatch, larvae burrow through the flesh and congregate in the esophagus before moving to the lower back. There, they cut air holes in the skin, fall to the soil, pupate, and eventually lay more eggs. Gadflies can be treated with sprays, dips, pour-ons, or injections of ivermectin, a pesticide that kills by paralysis. However, decomposition of ivermectin-contaminated dung can harm earthworms and other insect communities. Since gadflies lay their eggs in daylight, one environmentally friendly prevention method is to provide darkened sheds as refuge.

But in San Francisco, there's no hiding from gadflies.

With a landmass of only 49 square miles, San Francisco is crawling with more than 400 tiny interest groups, neighborhood associations, and related gadfly swarms. There are advocacy groups for every civic issue, every city block, every ethnicity, lifestyle preference, ideology, hobby, and frame of mind. There are people, thousands of them, who make a life-consuming avocation of speaking at meetings and hearings, writing newsletters, updating Web sites, walking precincts – and, above all, denouncing enemies made in the process of doing all this.

Take, by way of illustration, the war in this city between dog walkers and native plant restorationists – an insubstantial conflict that anywhere else in the world would be resolved with minimum consumption of civic energy. Here, dog and tree people do pitched battle with plant people, falsely claiming that the latter wish to shut out canines and destroy forests. This controversy has dragged on for three years, involved the formation and destruction of multiple government commissions, spawned citizens' groups and political action committees. In terms of meeting attendance, dogs versus plants ranks among the biggest issues in San Francisco, with some gatherings attended by thousands of infuriated San Franciscans. That's right, thousands.

"I've never seen anything like this," notes Paul Gobster, a scientist employed by the National Park Service who studies human behavior as it pertains to parks. Gobster is on sabbatical to study San Francisco's native plant restoration controversy, in which dog walkers and tree enthusiasts have sought to curtail the city Recreation and Park Department's Natural Areas Program. The program consists of five entry-level gardeners along with dozens more volunteer high school kids and retirees, who hoe weeds in select parts of the city where native California flora remains.

Gobster has made a life's work of studying the type of social interaction involved in San Francisco's dispute over this program. He's the co-author of the book Restoring Nature: Perspectives From the Social Sciences and Humanities; he's written in academic journals about how different social and ethnic groups relate to urban green spaces and how different types of parks affect people's behavior. He's even conducted in-depth studies of civic disputes over native plant restoration programs in cities such as Chicago. But Gobster had never witnessed a struggle as vigorous as San Francisco's dog people/ plant people war.

"The magnitude of it has blown me away," Gobster says. "There's a 'friends' group for every park, and there's a Web site for them, too. The rapidity by which something happens and something else happens, and somebody is telling a bunch of people about it by e-mail -- the whole electronic rapidity of it is amazing. It's something I want to explore more. It's something I didn't know was happening until I got here."

Clearly, Gobster has never witnessed an acute gadfly infestation, in which victims "run about widely with tails in the air, standing in water to protect themselves," as an agricultural extension agent would say.

Or there's the dictionary definition of gadflying humans, who go "about much, needlessly or without purpose."

To wit: In a move that will be mentioned by gadfly taxonomists for decades, the man who pitted dog people against plant people in one of San Francisco's epic political battles has switched sides.

If Gobster is to truly understand the battle concerning the preservation of native plant life in San Francisco, he will have to pioneer a new area of behavioral science studying the San Francisco gadfly. SF Weekly, with its long-standing commitment to science, has aided this effort. We sought out a splendid, unhybridized Paeninsula civis infensus. We observed him – on the Web, by phone, over e-mail, in meetings with fellow civum. We discovered that, for the true thoroughbreds of this genus, it's not ideology, or specific objectives, or the promise of possible material gain that motivates, but pure love of the hunt. This uncomplicated striving is the species' most elegant trait. Yet it is pernicious to the city at large: San Francisco has become a living experiment in public policy set by people who bore through our civic flesh for the mere sake of living life as a gadfly.

"You've got to turn up the noise," says Steve Cockrell, a thin, fortysomething man with close-cut hair and a stern, chiseled face. He's sitting at the head of the dining room table in the home of Roland and Barbara Pitschel, attempting to energize a half-dozen soft-spoken officers of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, a smallish club of environmentalists dedicated to preserving some of the places in San Francisco still covered by native California growth. They spend weekends volunteering to help the Park Department's Natural Areas Program gardeners hoe weeds; they then write about it in their club newsletter.

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.

"He's kind of a character," observes Gobster, who's a visiting professor at UC Berkeley during his sabbatical studying the S.F. dog/plant wars. "I only met him once at a meeting you were at. But I'd like to talk with him some more."

That sounds like a research plan to me.

About The Author

Matt Smith


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"