Could Discovery of 'Extinct' Plant Toss Monkey Wrench Into Doyle Drive Rebuild?

Franciscan Manzanita.jpeg
© California Academy of Sciences
The Franciscan Manzanita
The other day we reported on the apparent discovery of a Franciscan Manzanita in the Presidio -- the first wild specimen of the native San Franciscan plant spotted since 1947. But, in a development that appears to be ironic -- without any mention of diabetics being flattened by insulin trucks -- the manzanita is smackdab in the middle of the planned route for the billion-dollar Doyle Drive redesign. 

According to Al Donner, an assistant regional supervisor with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, a consortium has been cobbled together to decide what comes next. Representatives from the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fish and Wildlife, and expert botanists have a couple of weeks to bang out a conservation plan. Is it within the group's power to tell Caltrans to make costly and time-draining changes to the revamp of the state's most dangerous highway to save a single bush? Donner isn't sure -- but a member of the group told us it can. And yet, that group member also told SF Weekly that moving the roadway doesn't appear to be the route being taken with regards to saving the Franciscan Manzanita.

"The current location of the plant is a place where, even if you left it there, it's not really likely to become a functional population over time," said the group member, who insisted on speaking anonymously. "The goal should be the long-term persistence of the plant. Ideally, the recovery of the plant will involve essentially making it part of a population."

In short, many cuttings need to be taken of the bush and planted elsewhere, and an attempt needs to be made to replant the Franciscan Manzanita (this will be a risky maneuver). This is also the route favored by Professor Tom Parker of San Francisco State, one of the state's foremost experts on manzanitas. "I would rather see it moved to a place where it's protected better and plant more individuals next to it and basically start a population of them," he says. "There are a couple of different individuals in cultivation in botanic gardens. So it makes a lot more sense to me to restore a population into the wild rather than save a single individual in a place you can't really do that."

But wait -- there's more irony. If the Franciscan Manzanita were a federally listed endangered species, you can bet that experts would be given more than a scant few weeks to come up with a solution -- and the possibility of the highway altering its course would be much more likely. And yet, since it was believed to be extinct, it has no such protections. Again, species in danger of becoming extinct have a bevy of legal protections; those believed to be extinct and miraculously discovered to be alive do not.

John Buse, the legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said that this has come up several times in the past regarding plants that were thought to be extinct. While it's possible to apply for an "emergency listing" of a plant or animal as endangered, Buse said he can't remember the last time such a petition was accepted by the government. In other words, it's the legal equivalent of Bullwinkle trying to pull the rabbit out of his hat -- "that trick never works."

What's more, notes Fish and Wildlife's Donner, the complex procedure of petitioning for the Franciscan Manzanita to be federally protected will almost definitely take longer than the several weeks currently allotted to chart out a course of action.

Still, Buse was unsure if his group would get involved in the proceedings -- legally or otherwise. "The concern I have is, generally moving plants isn't a good idea," he says. "It's very dicey when you have only one of them. That kind of ups the odds of something going dramatically wrong. More care is certainly called for."

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