Pioneer stock

Finding the ivory-billed woodpecker of the plant world

  • A Caltrans crew moves a recently discovered Franciscan manzanita, once believed extinct in the wild, onto a flatbed truck to transport it to its new home.

    Courtesy Presidio Parkway
 

On a mid-January morning between San Francisco rainstorms, six horticulturists came to see what one expert calls "the blessed one." They approached not in robes with prayer beads, but in bright yellow safety vests, with pruning shears and spray bottles tucked into utility belts.

At the northern edge of the 1,500-acre Presidio, a former Army base now part of the national park system, they ducked through orange plastic fencing and crossed a closed on-ramp. After stepping onto a triangular wedge of land between two busy roadways, they hovered around the object of devotion: a Franciscan manzanita. For decades, the low-growing shrub was believed extinct in the wild. This specimen was discovered last fall -- right in the path of a $1 billion highway reconstruction project.

With small gray-green leaves on gnarled red-barked branches, the manzanita sprawled over an area the size of a queen-sized bed. Two horticulturists snipped cuttings, while another carefully exhumed a rooted branch. These people weren't taking any chances. The tough old pioneer would soon be transplanted to a new home, and if anything happened to it in the process, they would have cuttings and a rooted clone.

The last time a Franciscan manzanita (Arctostaphylos franciscana) was seen growing naturally was in 1947, when botanist James Roof rescued several specimens from bulldozers at a former cemetery south of the Presidio. He was trying to save remnants of the maritime chaparral -- the community of plants that grew in pockets of harsh serpentine soil among the sand dunes that once covered the San Francisco peninsula. By the mid-20th century, most of the peninsula's exposed soils, whether serpentine or sand, had been capped with buildings. Only the old cemeteries still preserved some wild places, and the cemeteries were being removed for more development. Roof had no idea that a single rogue Franciscan was growing on a serpentine outcrop just a few miles away, hidden by a slouching Australian tea tree.

The manzanita lived unmolested for half a century. Then, in October 2009, a work crew began clearing a path for a new viaduct and tunnel. The crew chain-sawed acres of trees and spread wood chips on low-lying vegetation to smother it. As they were about to cover the manzanita (they didn't know it was the manzanita), they noticed a Highway Patrol car inadvertently parked in the line of fire. So they postponed blowing the chips.

A few days later, conservation biologist Daniel Gluesenkamp drove by at 50 mph and spied the now-exposed manzanita. It can't be, he thought. There were only two manzanita species in the Presidio, and one of them, the Franciscan, he knew to be extinct in the wild. The other, the Raven's, is represented by just one specimen. After two more drive-bys, he thought, "Maybe I found a mate for the Raven's, the loneliest plant in the world."

He called Presidio Trust Supervising Ecologist Mark Frey, who took his colleagues to see the plant. They suspected it was a Franciscan, and DNA tests later confirmed it. "It was like finding the ivory-billed woodpecker," said Frey.

The rare plant couldn't stay where it was, "right in the heart of the watermelon," as Caltrans project manager David Yam described it. Five agencies worked together to draw up a conservation plan and a budget; Caltrans committed $130,000 to prepare, move and care for the plant.

By 4:00 a.m. on moving day, lights flooded the site, the crane had arrived, and Caltrans closed its lanes. A light drizzle fell while professional tree movers trenched around the plant. They hammered steel pipes below the roots, connected the pipes to I-beams, and hitched straps to the corners. "Everybody was respectful," said Mike Vasey, manzanita expert with San Francisco State University. "It was inspiring to watch how gently they moved it," he said of the 22,000-pound bundle of plant, rock and soil.

A Highway Patrol car escorted the flatbed carrying the manzanita through San Francisco's dark streets. After the sun rose, the truck backed down a narrow, mucky road to tuck the plant into its new, undisclosed home in the Presidio near a serpentine outcrop.

"This plant is a fulcrum to bring back not only a species, but the vanished community of maritime chaparral to San Francisco," said Vasey. There are specimens of various chaparral plants in the Presidio, but no complete communities. Not yet, anyhow. In its new location, "the blessed one" will once again be surrounded by native flora and fauna. "It's not the end of the story," said Vasey, "but the beginning."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...