gall and gumption

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sebastopol Meadowfoam 2006



Eric sent me a photo he took of the endangered plant Sebastopol meadowfoam (Limnanthes vinculans) growing on the Laguna Vista site in Sebastopol, this year.

A developer is trying to get approval for a 150-unit housing development on this site, which is basically the uplands of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. A large group of Sebastopol residents have been fighting this project for years, demanding that every step of the environmental review be done properly.

This species of meadowfoam only grows in the Santa Rosa Plain, which is -- at least west of Highway 101 -- basically a flood plain with a water channel winding through it from the southeast corner northwards to the Russian River. That channel (the Laguna) overflows its banks in the winter so that the lowlands around Sebastopol are like a lake. It's really beautiful, So as spring comes on this lake recedes and the mobile home park on the edge of town can open its lower campground which is basically underwater from November through June. Then the wildflowers come out, among them the meadowfoam. I had heard of Sebastopol meadowfoam at city council meetings though not in connection with this particular issue, the Laguna Vista project. But I had never seen any and didn't look it up. Then one spring day I was walking through Ragle Ranch Park and saw these flowers and knew that they had to be meadowfoam because what they look like is a great mass of foam hovering above the grass, at that point in the year when the grass is at its darkest and greenest, this brilliant white mass of small flowers. Stunning. They are one of those plants that are part of the weird water cycle of California -- they grow at the edge of vernal pools or on the slopes just above places where water collects, and after all the water is dried up, their brief blooming season is over and they put out their seed and die off completely. So for most of the year there is no visible evidence that this incredibly lovely plant is even in existence at all. Moreover, if there is a succession of dry years, the plant may not make any appearance until things improve.

The meadowfoam plants I saw in Ragle Ranch Park were not, so far as I know, the Sebastopol meadowfoam but some other, non-endangered one. The Sebastopol one is federally listed. So last year Bob Evans, a Sebastopol resident, found a couple dozen specimens of the endangered meadowfoam, growing in two clumps in an area that had already been the subject of controversy. The developer's environmental consultant, in his review of the biological resources on the 21-acre site, had somehow overlooked an entire acre of jurisdictional wetlands, right within the footprint of the project (The lower half of the property, the part that is probably flooded after all the rains this spring, is to be a sort of park). "Jurisdictional wetlands" are wetlands that are sufficiently "wet" that they come under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. Which means they have to approve whatever you do to them.

There's a long story about why this omission occurred and how it got sort of put right, and they were still fighting over it when I left Sebastopol, as the opponents of the project were trying at least to get the developer to stay out of the wetlands and he was insisting that he would not revise his project etc. One reason why he felt free to make this point was because of what happened with the meadowfoam.

Finding an endangered species on a property is a big headache for a developer. Well, I mean, if they want to look at it that way. The Endangered Species Act requires the developer to go through a whole fresh round of consultations with state and federal agencies -- maybe half a dozen in all, depending on the species. All this can take months. So if you look you will read stories about developers who somehow "accidentally" or "inadvertently" let endangered plants or habitats get bulldozed away. "I didn't know anything about it, it was Manual/my ex-wife with the bulldozer..." But developers (and right wing loonies) are also prone to the belief that environmentalists of a terroristic bent may want to plant endangered species on a site to prevent development and oh, I dunno, destroy the American way of life or something.

There has never been a proven instance of an environmentalist planting an endangered species somewhere. There has been wishful thinking. But not proven. One reason is simply the reason why endangered plants are endangered: if it were easy to cultivate or transplant them, well, maybe there would be a lot more of them. One agent from the California Department of Fish & Game told me that endangered plants had about an 80-90 percent failure rate at transplantation. This same agent, however, within days, went and inspected the plants at the Laguna Vista site and declared that they had been planted there. Fish and Game also advised the City of Sebastopol that since that plants had been transplanted, no further consultation would be needed and none would be needed for any subsequent generations of plants that appeared there since it was assumed that they were the results of this transplanted (not naturally occurring) population. The entire department then became incommunicado, and all calls were referred to a PR official in Sacramento who knew nothing. It was now a criminal investigation so they couldn't disclose anything.

Well, that's when the story went all over the state. And it was a story that I liked to consider my own. In fact, Barry, my editor, made a sign and put it up over my desk, "Meadowfoam Central" because I was pretty much all meadowfoam all the time for a while. This detail was mentioned in Legal Affairs magazine but not, alas, the name of the person sitting at the desk below the sign. It was really a fun story. And so these new plants at the Laguna Vista site remind me of where I was last year and of how much I enjoyed what I was doing.

This is so so so the simplified version of the story. But it's nearly two in the morning. And I have still my other journalism nostalgia story to tell which is even worse than this one as you will see.

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