Environmentalists from the Wild Equity Institute are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Fransciscan manzanita as an endangered species. There is currently only one specimen of the shrub, which grows close to the ground and has narrow, pointed leaves, near the 1,500-acre national park near the Presidio in San Francisco.
The manzanita, Arctostaphylos franciscana, became extinct in the wild in 1947, a victim of urban development in San Francisco. According to the Los Angeles Times, the last place Franciscan manzanita was seen was in Laurel Hill Cemetery, where Gold Rush pioneers were laid to rest. The old cemetery is now covered over with “tony boutiques, pricey houses and tennis courts”; botanists were able to dig up specimens of the plant before the developers sent the bulldozers in.
Then, on October 16, 2009, botanist Daniel Gluesenkamp was on his way home from a climate change conference in Sonoma when something on a traffic island caught his eye:
Just after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, he said, “something caught my eye. Just a flash of a glimpse. And it looked like a manzanita, in a site where they’d kind of removed some trees from behind it.” The shrub was on a traffic island in the middle of a busy highway, part of a billion-dollar-plus construction project aided by federal stimulus funds.
Gluesenkamp, who is executive director of the Calflora database of Golden State plants, drove by three times, trying to get a better glimpse. He eventually called Lew Stringer, an ecologist at the Presidio Trust, who raced across the highway and officially identified the plant.
When he thinks back to his discovery, Gluesenkamp doesn’t recall instant elation but, rather, a little bit of dread. The last thing he wanted, he said, was to have environmentalists blamed for derailing an important job-creating infrastructure project.
Happily, Caltrans had ample funding for an environmental migration:
On a rainy January night in 2010, the manzanita and its 21,000-pound root ball were dug up — a risky proposition with a nearly $200,000 price tag — and moved to the secret site where it grows today.
The Wild Equity Institute filed an emergency petition to have the manzanita protected under the Endangered Species Act shortly after it was moved to a location known only to park officials. But two years have passed and the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to act. Says the Wild Equity Institute‘s executive director Brent Plater about the dragged-out process — there is only one Franciscan manzanita left growing in the wild — “The race against extinction is a race against time.”
Meanwhile, under the care of botanists at the University of California at Santa Cruz, 424 new seedlings have been yielded from cuttings from the one remaining Franciscan manzanita, the Los Angeles Times. Two have been planted in a hillside overlooking the Pacific ocean.
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Photo of refugio manzanita by wlcutler