by Andrea Williams
This post is the third in a year-long series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Read last month’s post here.
In talking about saving rare things, the question of “What good is it?” is often raised. After I set aside my unvoiced, impertinent rejoinder of “What good are you?” I still find the question of a species needing to have use a rather odd one, along the lines of “What good is beauty?” or “Why keep all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle?” And I could talk about intrinsic value, or about potential undiscovered uses, or about the morality of stewardship over destruction, but I won’t.
I want you to think of a place. A wild place that you love, and what makes it different from any other place for you.
Unlike Mt. Tamalpais, which has thousands of acres of serpentine soils that provide homes for plants found nowhere else on earth, San Francisco only has a few patches. In the early 1900s Alice Eastwood named a new kind of manzanita the Franciscan manzanita (Arctostaphylos franciscana), as it grew on three of the rare patches of thin soil in the City and nowhere else. But San Francisco was a growing metropolis and the first site was lost to a subdivision; two others remained in cemeteries. But when San Francisco’s land became so valuable the buried dead were shipped to Colma, the last populations of Franciscan manzanita were also dug up. Alice Eastwood bemoaned the loss of the wild plant she loved as Laurel Hill Cemetery fell to the blade, even though her colleague took cuttings to grow in a garden; would we celebrate the last wild tigers living in zoos? She grieved the loss of a plant that made “her” place what it was, a place like no other on earth.
In a new chapter for the Franciscan manzanita, ecologist Dan Gluesenkamp doing what many of us do—scanning roadsides for weeds—saw a mound of manzanita growing next to an off-ramp. The area had been cleared of taller vegetation in preparation for the Doyle Drive work near the Golden Gate Bridge. He thought perhaps it was the endangered Raven’s manzanita (Arctostaphylos montana ssp. ravenii), another plant that once grew with the Franciscan manzanita but still exists in a single genetic individual growing as clones around the Presidio. The shrub turned out to be the Franciscan manzanita, now a listed endangered species that has been moved to a different spot on the Presidio.
So how does this tie to Tam? We have our own “rare” serpentine-loving manzanita, the Mt. Tamalpais manzanita (Arctostaphylos montana ssp. montana), but instead of a few individuals we have several thousand. It’s one of the dominant plants in our serpentine chaparral, one of the plants that make Tam different from any other place. And as the closest living relative to the endangered manzanitas of San Francisco, plant experts turned to our populations to test germination methods for any seeds of the Franciscan manzanita in the soil salvaged along with the plant. Our wealth of serpentine and foresight in setting land aside a century ago may help contribute to the saving of a species, returning a piece of uniqueness back to the world.