The Story Behind the Protection of San Francisco’s Namesake Manzanita

In preparation of tonight’s celebration for the Franciscan Manzanita, the Wild Equity Institute has compiled the remarkable story of this little plant’s most recent history. It is a genuine Endangered Species Act success story, one that we hope will inspire us all. And there is no better day to share this story than today, the day the plant formally receives federal Endangered Species Act protection nearly 70 years after it was mistakenly deemed extinct in the wild.

The Process.

Rare plants do not receive automatic protection simply because they are on federal lands. And the Franciscan manzanita was worse than rare—it was presumed extinct in the wild, and extinct species receive no protection at all.

So when the Franciscan manzanita was rediscovered in the the Presidio Parkway’s construction footprint, CalTrans could have destroyed it without any legal consequence, particularly since the project had already been approved through CEQA and NEPA.

It was only through a coordinated effort of multiple parties that this outcome was avoided. One of the parties that played a role in this was the Wild Equity Institute, which, along with the California Native Plant Society and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed an emergency administrative petition to list the plant as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A petition is not a lawsuit—it is a formal, legal request to protect the species, combined with the best available science that demonstrates how the species meets the criteria for listing under law. The Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed this petition and determined that the petition presented substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing this species may be warranted: a decision it made unilaterally and without litigation.

Shortly thereafter, the Service wrote a rule to protect the plant, but the rule became buried in the federal rulemaking process, somewhere between the Service’s regional office in Sacramento and the Federal Register’s publishing office in DC. When that happened, Wild Equity worked with San Francisco’s local and federal politicians to get the process moving again.

While a lawsuit ultimately was filed as a part of this work, it was not fully briefed, because the suit caught the attention of agency insiders with the power to take the written rule and send it to the Federal Register for printing. That simple act was all the species needed for it to finally receive full protection under law. Once that happened the case was voluntarily dismissed.

The Priority.

It is hard to imagine a more pressing conservation priority than the last known wild plant of an entire species that is ‘in the way’ of a multi-billion dollar construction project connecting San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge. Nonetheless, some critics—typically unsophisticated or uninformed, but occasionally spiteful—have suggested that the plant is undeserving of protection. the most spiteful criticisms suggest that Franciscan Manzanita protection prevents some other deserving conservation priority from being achieved.

Unlike these commentators, the Fish and Wildlife Service has always considered the Franciscan manzanita to be a top-tier conservation concern: in 1980 the Service ranked it a Category 1 conservation concern, losing out on formal protection only because it was thought extinct in the wild.

But even if it were true that other species deserve higher priority than the Franciscan Manzanita, the assertion that protecting the Manzanita negatively affected the Service’s other conservation priorities is not true. The Service was able to use this species’ remarkable story to secure specific funding to process the listing rule. No one has ever suggested that this listing rule took funding away from the protection of any other species in need.

Other uninformed criticisms suggest that recovery planning will never occur for this species, because no private entity or local government will spend the funds to do it. But the Federal government creates recovery plans for listed species, not local governments or private entities: therefore, the argument that entities like San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program will not aid recovery because it is inept or underfunded is simply non sequitur.

Moreover, when Dr. Peter Baye drafted the official federal recovery plan for Coastal Plants of the Northern San Francisco Peninsula about a decade ago, he included recovery recommendations for the Franciscan manzanita, one of the many acts of prescience in his remarkable career. Much of the investment needed for recovery planning has thus already been done.

The Plant.

Perhaps the most uninformed—and surprisingly heartless—criticism is that the Franciscan Manzanita is a “weak” species, unable to survive in the limited habitats where it was found. In fact, the recovery plan states that the species is “easily cultivated,” “thrives on neglect after established on a wide range of substrates,” has “good soil adaptability,” and “sets viable seed that can be propagated,” all of which indicates the species is perfectly capable of thriving if left to its own devices. The historic record also indicates that franciscana was a robust species: until it was deliberately destroyed by urban development. It exists today because of the heroic acts by some of California’s greatest botanists who saved specimens from imminent destruction: and because developers just happened to miss a spot.

The Promise.

The Endangered Species Act listing will give botanists the best tools ever adopted by any nation to recover Arctostaphylos franciscana, and with so many Arctostaphylos experts in the Bay Area, we are confident it will recover and one day be delisted like the Brown Pelican, the Bald Eagle, and dozens of other Endangered Species Act success stories.

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