Shovel Ready in San Fran: $205,075 to ‘Translocate’ One Shrub from Path of Stimulus Project

Thomas Cloud | April 12, 2012 | 6:06pm EDT
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Workers translocate a manzanita bush in San Francisco, at a cost of at least $205,075, to make way for a highway project. (Photo: Michael Chasse/National Park Service.)

( -- The government spent at least $205,075 in 2010 to “translocate” a single bush in San Francisco that stood in the path of a $1.045-billion highway-renovation project that was partially funded by the economic stimulus legislation President Barack Obama signed in 2009.

“In October 2009, an ecologist identified a plant growing in a concrete-bound median strip along Doyle Drive in the Presidio as Arctostaphylos franciscana,” the U.S. Department of Interior reported in the Aug. 10, 2010 edition of the Federal Register. “The plant’s location was directly in the footprint of a roadway improvement project designed to upgrade the seismic and structural integrity of the south access to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The translocation of the Arctostaphylos franciscana plant to an active native plant management area of the Presidio was accomplished, apparently successfully and according to plan, on January 23, 2010,” the Interior Department reported.

The bush—a Franciscan manzanita—was a specimen of a commercially cultivated species of shrub that can be purchased from nurseries for as little as $15.98 per plant. The particular plant in question, however, was discovered in the midst of the City of San Francisco, in the median strip of a highway, and was deemed to be the last example of the species in the “wild.”

Prior to the discovery of this “wild” Franciscan manzanita, the plant had been considered extinct for as long as 62 years--extinct, that is, outside of people’s yards and botanical gardens.

Before that, the bush had grown in the “wild” in two cemeteries in San Francisco’s Richmond District as well as on Mount Davidson, a peak in the middle of San Francisco. The Department of Interior said that there had also been “unconfirmed sightings” of the shrub in the city’s Haight-Ashbury District—an area that became famous in the late 1960s as the epicenter of the psychedelic hippie movement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ( Starr)

The Haight-Ashbury population of the plant, the Interior Department said in the Federal Register, was believed to have been "lost to urbanization."

On Oct. 16, 2009, Dr. Daniel Gluesenkamp, a botanist who was then the director of Habitat Protection and Restoration for Audubon Canyon Ranch, noticed the manzanita when he was driving along Doyle Drive (the highway leading to the Golden Gate Bride that is now under renovation). The manzanita had been previously hidden by other vegetation but was uncovered as the area was being cleared in preparation for road construction.

With help from a biologist from the Presidio Trust (which oversees the Presidio) and an ecologist from the National Park Service, Gluesenkamp’s discovery was determined to be a Franciscan manzanita.

Shortly thereafter, the Presidio Trust, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game developed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for saving this one bush from the highway project, for which ground had been broken in December 2009.

The agreement of Dec. 21, 2009 – Memorandum of Agreement Regarding Planning, Development, and Implementation of the Conservation Plan for Franciscan Manzanita – explains how, why, and when the bush would be moved and which agencies would be responsible for which aspects of the move. (MOA - Fran Man - 2009.pdf)

While the MOA did not detail all the costs for moving the bush, it did state that in addition to funding removal and transportation of the Franciscan manzanita, Caltrans agreed to transfer $79,470 to the Presidio Trust “to fund the establishment, nurturing, and monitoring of the Mother Plant in its new location for a period not to exceed ten (10) years following relocation and two (2) years for salvaged rooted layers and cuttings according to the activities outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

Furthermore, Presidio Parkway Project spokesperson Molly Graham told that the “hard removal”—n.b. actually digging up the plant, putting it on a truck, driving it somewhere else and replanting it--cost $100,000.

The MOA also stated that Caltrans agreed to “Transfer $25,605.00 to the Trust to fund the costs of reporting requirements of the initial 10-year period as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

President Barack Obama signed an economic stimulus law, now determined by the CBO to cost $821 billion, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Feb. 17, 2009. (AP photo)

The $100,000 to pay for the “hard removal,” the $79,470 to pay for the “establishment, nurturing and monitoring” of the plant for a decade after its “hard removal,” and the $25,605 to cover the “reporting requirements” for the decade after the “hard removal,” equaled a total cost of $205,075 for “translocating” this manzanita bush.

But those were not the only costs incurred by taxpayers on behalf of the bush. According to the MOA, other costs included:

--“Contract for and provide funding not to exceed $7,025.00 for initial genetic or chromosomal testing of the Mother Plant by a qualified expert to be selected at Caltrans’ sole discretion.”  (MOA - Fran Man - 2009.pdf)

--“Contract for and fund the input, guidance, and advice of a qualified Manzanita expert on an as-needed basis to support the tending of the Mother Plant for a period not to exceed five (5) years, provided that said expert selection, retention and replacement at any point after hiring rests in the sole discretion of Caltrans.”

“Provide funding not to exceed $5,000.00 to each of 3 botanical gardens (Strybing, UC, and Tilden) to nurture salvaged rooted layers and to monitor and report findings as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

--“Provide funding not to exceed $1,500.00 for the long-term seed storage of 300 seeds collected around the Mother Plant in November 2009 as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

The plant is now protected by a fence and its location is kept secret, in part because the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service fear that nature-lovers seeking to see the rare wild Manzanita might trample it to death.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Calif. (AP Photo)

“[A] single trampling event could result in damage or the death of the wild plant,” the Interior Department noted in the Federal Register for Sept. 8, 2011. “As noted …, the Presidio Trust and NPS have made continuous efforts not to reveal the location of Arctostaphylos franciscana. They are concerned that public knowledge of the A. franciscana location would attract large numbers of plant enthusiasts who may damage the A. franciscana and compact the soil.”

The project to replace the Doyle Drive approach to the Golden Gate Bridge with a new road called the Presidio Parkway has an estimated total cost of $1.045 billion. The project has received a number of federal grants, including two under President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These included $83.28 million in stimulus funds awarded to the project on Dec. 24, 2009 (about a month before the manzanita bush was “translocated”) and $46 million awarded on Dec. 30, 2010.

In a Feb. 17, 2010 statement about stimulus money going to the project, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described herself as “a long-time supporter of the Presidio Parkway project.”

“This badly deteriorated structure is designated a Post Disaster Recovery Route and is the only route between the San Francisco peninsula and northern California counties,” Pelosi’s statement said of project. “Unfortunately, the current roadway is reaching the end of its useful life. The Federal Highway Administration ranks Doyle Drive as the fifth worst bridge in the nation and the worst in California for structural sufficiency.

Construction on the new Presidio Parkway began in late 2009 and is scheduled to be completed in 2013.”

In September 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed naming the Franciscan manzanita an endangered species.

Had the plant been moved to a botanical garden it would have remained “extinct in the wild.” According to the MOA “Such translocation would essentially render the plant extinct in the wild (once again); it would be unlikely that the plant could be moved a second time once reintroduced populations are established; the seed from the mother plant would not be usable due to likely genetic contamination from other garden species of manzanitas.”

The plant is still considered wild according to the 2011 Federal Register entry because it has been moved to an undeveloped area of the Presidio and “is not receiving the level of protection, water, and nutrients that plants in a botanical garden may receive.”

One California nursery currently allows customer to purchase Franciscan manzanitas online for $15.98 per bush. Another sells them for $18.00 per bush.

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