Lawyer leads fight to save species on city-owned golf course

SF Public Press
 — Jan 19 2010 - 2:33am

If the California red-legged frog and its main predator — the San Francisco garter snake — survive, it will likely be due to one man: Brent Plater.  

The 35-year-old environmental lawyer, rarely seen in public without a freshly pressed suit and a gold-plated belt buckle with his name on it, has single-handedly brought the fight to close the Sharp Park Golf Course to the attention of San Francisco city leaders, who are on the verge of making the city-owned course in Pacifica a high-profile example of local leadership to save endangered species on public lands.
 
A leader in several groups such as Wild Equity and the Sierra Club, Plater also is the mastermind of the Big Year contest to discover more rare plants and animals on public land as a way of saving and expanding sensitive endangered species’ habitats.
 
His most recent, and arguably most public, battle — the controversy over whether to close Pacifica’s Sharp Park Golf Course — is just now coming to a head. On Dec. 14, the Wild Equity Institute issued a 60-day intent to sue the city for violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
 
“Brent has a deep knowledge of the law and he’s also a phenomenal grass-roots organizer,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. “I and many others expect to see many great things from Brent.”
 
Bay Area scientists and ecologists say Plater has an uncanny ability to merge environmental advocacy with community engagement. Environmentalists say he has a gift for helping others to relate with the natural world, a quality that may help propel the next wave of the environmental movement.
 
Colleagues say a paradigm shift happened in 2008, when Plater launched the first Big Year, a birder phrase borrowed from the 1998 North American Big Year, when more birds were seen that year than any other — 745 different species to be exact. This year’s search kicked off Jan. 9.
 
During 2008, Plater rallied thousands of volunteers to take notice of the Bay Area’s 36 federally protected plants and animals, and to take action to help save them, such as pulling nonnative weeds and writing congress members. People who know Plater say he has the power to ignite passion for the tiniest of critters like the red-legged frog and garter snake, to more charismatic creatures such as the Southern sea otter, a mammal endemic to San Francisco Bay whose health is also indicative of the bay’s health.
 
“The Big Year in 2008 exceeded the expectations I had for it,” Plater said. “About 14,000 people participated, and we had only hoped to reach 1,000 people by the end of the year.”
 
Plater has his detractors, who say he is too radical when it comes to filing lawsuits and taking other actions to save endangered species, like preventing domesticated animals from encroaching on vulnerable habitat.
 
“Personally, I think if you’re out there to change the world and you’re not ruffling any feathers, then something’s wrong,” said Brad Johnson, a legislative coordinator for the Sierra Club Bay Area Chapter.  “A lot of people don’t like him, and I think that’s a good thing.”
 
Endangered frog, snake at center of conflict 
 
The debate between Bay Area environmentalists and a strong-willed band of golf enthusiasts over the golf course has the city’s ears. One side is fighting for an 18-hole golf course, the other for a restored national park. At the center of this heated conflict are a frog and a snake on the brink of extinction.
 
Throughout the past few months, the Board of Supervisors has held public meetings to solicit public opinion about whether to keep the golf course alive or expand the parklands. Future meetings are expected, but not scheduled thus far.
 
Sharp Park Golf Course, lining Highway 1, is a former wetland that was turned into a golf course in 1932. Environmentalists say wetlands and lagoons are particularly important along coastlines because they act like sponges, protecting inland areas from storm surges, and are essential to help protect land from coastal erosion.
 
The golf course is adjacent to Mori Point, the frog and snakes’ main habitat. But the federally protected animals can’t tell the difference between the national park and the manicured golf course, leaving them struggling for survival.
 
Environmental advocates argue that San Francisco drastically altered Sharp Park’s natural features by dredging and filling the area to create the golf course 80 years ago. Since then, they say, Sharp Park has been plagued with water-management and flood-control problems.
 
Meanwhile, golfers are clinging to the hope that their golf course — designed by famed architect Allister Mackenzie, who is most celebrated for Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia, where the Masters Tournament is played — will hold up as a historic preservation site. 
 
In 2008, the most recent year for which records are available, a $1.3 million deficit was reported in the operation of San Francisco’s golf courses, according to a report by the San Francisco golf alternatives task force.
 
An array of problems has made Sharp Park a strain on the city’s golf fund and has swelled the city’s budget. Though some courses like Harding Park Municipal Golf Course generate significant revenue, an August 2009 report found that Sharp Park and Lincoln Park golf courses do not generate enough revenue to support their operations on an annual basis.
 
Parks and recreation officials say that the park makes money only in some years. Last year, Sharp Park lost $92,000.
 
In a November 2009 financial viability and analysis report, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department weighed alternatives like getting rid of the golf course entirely or reducing the number of holes. But the department decided to keep the 18-hole golf course open with some minor changes, such as relocating a few holes and doing some minor dredging and draining.
 
“This option really is a win-win for everyone,” said Phil Ginsburg, manager for San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re able to maintain an 18-hole course while meeting recovery goals for the beloved California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake. And, it’s the most cost-effective solution of the three.”
 
The minor changes to the golf course cost could range anywhere from $6 million to $10 million.
 
The report concluded more than the loss of wetlands, the biggest threat to the frog and snake is the increase of recreational activities. However, Bay Area environmentalists dispute reports’ claim.
 
“This is absurd,” Plater said. “There has been hundreds of frogs and snakes killed at Sharp Park. We know because we’ve seen the dead eggs, we’ve seen the dead bodies. Those deaths have been caused because of the pumping and mowing operations.
 
“There’s never anywhere been a picnicker that’s killed a frog or a snake,” he added. “Sharp Park golf course is losing money. It’s killing endangered species and it puts the surrounding community at risk every year when it floods.”
 
But golf course manager Mark Duane stands by the Recreation and Parks Department’s report, saying protected animals can live in harmony with the golf course. “Science backs it up,” he said.
 
Institute assails report on climate effects 
 
Every year during the rainy season, ponds form on the green, creating new habitat for the frogs to lay their eggs. But because of the federal protection of the frogs, the park is prevented from draining the ponds and killing the eggs — leaving the golf course virtually unusable. Wild Equity’s intent to sue charges, among other violations of the Endangered Species Act, that the park has been pumping the ponds, causing eggs to perish.
 
There is evidence that at least one garter snake has been mowed over and killed because of the golf-course upkeep.
 
The institute argues that the report ignores the impact climate change will have on the sensitive area, such as rising sea levels and the increase of salt levels in the ponds, rendering them inhabitable. It also disagrees with the report’s findings that recreational activities would cause further harm to the frog and snake.
 
“What we have found is the status quo at Sharp Park has not a lot of supporters, not nearly as many supporters as we have to create a better public park out there,” Plater said. “But they have powerful supporters. Golfers are rich and they put a lot of pressure on the Parks and Recreation Department by waving money around to keep the golf course as it is.”
 
It’s hard to pull Plater away from his work. When not at City Hall talking up public officials or out in the field digging up exotic plants, he’s frequently on the phone rallying for a little animal no one may even know about, such as the unarmored threespine stickleback, a tiny freshwater fish.
 
His coworkers often ask how he gets so much done. Siegel said Plater’s approach is pragmatic: “You might have to pressure an elected official for a cause, but the thing is, do it dressed well.”
 
On a recent day, Plater recalled a quote from Ralph Nader that reflects his work ethic. He took a swig from his chocolate stout, a bite from his sesame bagel — the only thing he’d eaten all day, and said,  “If you approach a job that deals with the public interest with a typical 9-to-5 mindset, you’re doing yourself a disservice because the beauty of the work is in the opportunity you have to create something wonderful and build something that everybody can enjoy.”

The Golden Gate National Park Big Year was launched Jan. 9. The goal is to see and save as many endangered species within a year’s time as possible, and complete action items to help save the federally protected species. The winner will win a $1,000 cash prize. To learn more, visit www.wildequity.org/sections/2.

Comments

Swaim Biological was hired by San Francisco Rec & Park to deliver a report. And that's what they did. Taxpayers are paying over $50 million and counting ~ to keep out the ocean and raise golf holes! so that a few retirees can pay below market golf. Oh, and yes, keep wildlife habitat as a golf course. Seems a bit too costly for the taxpayer.

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Pacifica thanks Brent Plater and team for their awesome work ~ !! And likely San Francisco thanks them more, because the costs of running a losing golf course [$30,000 to $300,000 a year], ad hoc cost of pump repairs [@ $200,000 last year], $9 million for recycled water plant [who's counting?], cost of armoring the beach $32 million... That's a lot of money for even SF's tax base! It would be a lot cheaper to donate the property to the GGNRA.

Frogs of multiple species worldwide are heading toward endangerment. Their skin easily absorbs all kinds of toxins (fertilizer or weed-killers for instance).

But the area around the course doesn't flood. I don't golf but know people who do and they are not rich. If the frogs and snakes have survived with the golf course there for the last 70 plus years, why is it a problem now? Is it just about some attention loving lawyer?

Then you should listen to what biologist Karen Swaim has to say about this issue. Karen Swaim is the foremost authority on the Red-legged frog and the SF garter snake in the Bay Area. She has been working with both species and specifically this habitat around Mori Point and Sharp Park for over 20 years. She is regarded as an expert on this topic by GGNRA, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the SF Rec and Parks Commission.

You can watch her testimony to the SF Government Audit and Oversight Committee on the blog post linked here. She directly contradicts many of the representations made by lawyer Brent Plater in this article. Some of her quotes from that presentation:

"Our goal is to provide the science about the biology of what is best for the San Francisco garter snake..."

"Golf is not what is responsible for the decline of the San Francisco garter snake."

"This is a photograph from 1928. There is no golf here. The land surrounding Laguna Salada to the East, to the South, to the North, everywhere except the ocean, was agricultural fields. It is not pristine upland coastal prairie that would've been high quality upland for the San Francisco garter snake. You can see that there is a major channel up here [points to Laguna Salada] that illustrates there was connection to the ocean."

"1946 is the very first year the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog were documented... there are 46 [garter snakes] he gets over two years, and golf has already been here for 16 years."

"In 1978 Sean Berry did his studies and he observed 37 San Francisco garter snakes along this area... and again golf has been in place for 46 years"

"1989 - This [photo] is not long after the the El Nino storms and the big storms of the eighties that resulted in a lot of sea water intrusion into the lagoon. By now, the sea wall is mostly constructed... From 1986 to 1988 some studies were done and no San Francisco garter snakes were found in this area after all the salt water intrusion. That was to a large part because the red legged frog was wiped out by the salt water."

"We're back to present day conditions... the frogs are prolific west of highway one, they are not in any trouble at all west of highway one. San Francisco garter snakes are concentrating again at Mori Point pond and horse stable pond."

"You need to protect the sea wall. You need to have a fresh water managed habitat currently for this species to recover it, and that is all there is to it."

So who you gonna believe? A scientist who has been studying the frog, snake and habitat for 20 years? Or a lawyer with an appetite for publicity?

Show me the proof of dead animals. So many lies in such a short space.

Watch Avatar, then comment. Golfers can always go somewhere else. Species cannot.

Really, Seriously?

Nature will have her way. We need to work with, not against the inevitable and predictable elements of hydrology. I am a Sharp Park local and I do NOT think the needs of a few golfers outweigh all we have to gain by: sharing this area with all visitors, saving these species and better protecting our local residences and buildings from increased flood risks that the golf course and its "protective" levee present.

Last thing we need is more golf.

San Francisco is in debt. We need money for services in the city.

Why are we paying for this in San Mateo?

I hope this golf debacle is resolved for people, not the rich.

This is not a corporation, these are retirees that use this for excecise and community.

i am grateful for anyone who helps defend the fragile life around us from corporate developer greed. thank you Brendt. Hope you win.

Corporate development...what? Have you ever been to Sharp Park Golf Course?
A very distance drive from anything corporate. Get the facts, not the hype!