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San Diego County has more endangered species than any other place in America

Up by the roots

Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport. - Image by Tamara Kulikova
Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport.

Otay Mesa on a hot summer morning. A few dazed-looking cattle wander aimlessly through the brush. Off to the south, the huge tail of a jet, taxiing for takeoff at the Tijuana airport, rises above the chaparral. A couple of U.S. Border Patrol agents are standing outside their van, searching the border with binoculars. To the north, across Otay Mesa Road, a swarm of three-wheeled motorcycles romps over the bald hills. In almost every direction, battered billboards are screaming of twenty- and forty-acre parcels of land “available for immediate development!”

There are only four groves of Tecate cypress growing in the United States, and three of them are in San Diego County: Otay Mountain (which is the largest existing population), Tecate Peak, and Guatay Mountain.

Geoff Levin, a botanist with the San Diego Natural History Museum, ignores these distractions as he steps from the truck and places a straw hat on his head. As a native of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, Levin learned at a young age never to go anywhere without a hat.

Levin is a careful, soft-spoken man with a full beard and a quiet presence. He has come to this bleak landscape to point out one of the unique plant habitats in California. “As you can see,” Levin sighs, “it’s a pretty grim picture here. This is an area where a lot of plants are making their last stand.”

Gander’s butterweed (Senecio gander) is found only in the mountains of San Diego County.

Not many people can look at the brushlands that cover most of San Diego County and appreciate the fact that, in botanical terms, this is an exceptional comer of the world. Because of the great variations in rainfall, temperature, elevation, and topography here, San Diego has an almost unparalleled diversity in plant habitats. Botanists recognize twenty-six separate vegetation patterns in the county, including salt marsh, coastal sage, chaparral, grassland, oak, woodland, riparian, mountain "meadow, mountain forest, and desert. As a result of this great diversity, there are approximately 1500 species of plants native to San Diego County — more than any other county in the United States.

"Meadowfoam is a low-growing plant, rather pretty. When it’s in bloom, it’s just a mass of white flowers.”

Because of the large number of native plant species found here, even without man’s influence, one might expect to find a large percentage of species heading toward extinction. Plant extinction is a slow process, occurring in nature at roughly the same pace as evolution. But in an area where the natural landscape is being subjected to rapid change, as it is in San Diego, extinction can happen almost overnight. “There are more sensitive, rare, or endangered plants found in San Diego County than in any other area of the United States,” Levin says.

False Lupine, found only in San Diego. "This year they seem to be doing well, vegetatively, but there was a very poor showing of flowers."

The federal and state endangered species lists include twenty-two plant species in San Diego County — though these lists are considered by many botanists to be lamentably incomplete. The California Native Plant Society, an organization of professional and amateur botanists dedicated to the preservation of native plants, keeps an informal list of plants in San Diego County that might be considered threatened or endangered. The list now contains about 160 species. A written assessment of those species by one CNPS member (a botanical consultant) reads like an obituary. For the first plant on that list. Acacia smallii, the assessment reads: “The small population of trees near Montgomery Park in south San Diego was recently bulldozed when San Diego officials negligently allowed the site to be cleared for a public housing project without checking available resource maps ... an incomprehensible blunder. A single, mature tree growing adjacent to Highway 94 in East San Diego is the only other known specimen.”

Thornmint, a state-listed endangered species, is found on the Cleveland near Alpine.

Many other listings are equally grim:

Aphanisma blitoides: “Formerly grew on beach dunes and coastal bluffs. Heavy recreational use of beaches and housing construction have removed or degraded most dune/bluff habitat from Oceanside to Mexican Border. A recent sighting on Point Loma now extirpated by navy construction.”

Encinitas baccharis (Baccharis vanessae): ”... a substantial population [across the street from Oak Crest Park, in Encinitas] was recently bulldozed for shopping and light industrial use. Immediately to the north, an illegal alien encampment has utilized another small population for firewood ... one of the rarest shrubs in California... not being protected.”

Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport.... Surviving species — if any exist — should be given the highest priority for protection.” Liveforever (Dudleya blochmanae): “A large population was bulldozed to provide navy housing at Wire Mountain [on Camp Pendleton], although the site was peripheral and could easily have been set aside.... Apparently has been extirpated in San Diego County.”

Monardella linoides: “The population in San Clemente Canyon has been partially displaced by a new freeway spur. The Caltrans mitigation site nearby showed virtually all tagged specimens dead... seriously endangered throughout most of its range.” Myosurus minimus: “Rare in ... pools ... on Otay Mesa. This site is severely impacted by cattle wallowing in the vernal pools. Local inhabitants and Border Patrol vehicles drive through these pools.”

Orthocarpus lasiorhynchus: ”... unable to relocate an historic population at the north end of Cuyamaca Lake. May be extirpated by cattle grazing. No other known sites in San Diego County.”

Baja wild rose (Rosa minutifolia): “A sizable thicket grows on the edge of a mesa north of Dillon Road [on Otay Mesa]. This is an ORV ‘playground’ and is virtually denuded of vegetation. This is the only known U.S. site.”

One of the hardest hit of all rare-plant habitats in San Diego County is that of vernal pools, which are shallow, clay-bottomed basins that fill with water during the rainy season, then dry up during the warmer months. Besides being very susceptible to disturbance, the fragile and lovely little pools are home to a number of sensitive plants that can be found nowhere else but San Diego. Otay Mesa, and Kearny Mesa to the north, are two of the last places in California where the vernal pools still exist, and they are being destroyed at an alarming rate. As recently as 1979, there were an estimated 3699 vernal pools in San Diego County. By 1986, 838 of those pools had been destroyed. Overall, it is estimated that nearly ninety-seven percent of San Diego’s original vernal pools have been lost.

The recently completed section of Highway 52 through Clairemont Mesa destroyed a number of vernal pools, and on Otay Mesa there are a number of devastating projects planned, including the extension of Highway 117, two correctional facilities, an auto raceway, and a number of industrial and residential construction projects — not to mention the almost routine destruction of vernal pools by grazing cattle and off-road vehicles.

By this time of year, the vernal pools on Otay Mesa have dried up, along with the mostly annual plants that ring their edges. But Levin points out their shallow basins and says, “If you look around, you can see there are tire tracks everywhere. During the wet season, people like to come out here and drive around in their trucks. It’s fun, I’m sure, but people don’t understand this is a unique habitat for plants, and it’s being irreparably damaged. As you can see, one set of tire tracks would damage the edge of the pool, pierce the clay bottom, the pool would drain, and nonnative plants would immediately take over.”

One of the rarest plants that inhabits the vernal pools on Otay Mesa is the Otay Mesa mint, or Pogogyne nudiuscula. “Its name means ‘bearded lady,’ ” Levin says, “which is kind of interesting in itself. It refers to the hairs around some of the female parts of the flower. It’s a genus that’s pretty much restricted to California. It includes a diversity of species, many of which have a very limited distribution because they’re specialists in vernal pools. One species will grow in one area of vernal pools, another species in another series of vernal pools. Because they’re isolated from one another, they have grown into separate species.”

The Otay Mesa mint is strictly an annual plant. Its seeds germinate and sprout in winter, soon after the start of the rainy season. It grows in the standing water around the edges of the vernal pools, giving it an advantage over many other nonnative species that can’t tolerate standing water. By the time the pools begin to dry up, in April or May, the mint has grown to six or eight inches tall. It then flowers and produces seeds. In June the plant dies, and the seeds persist to the next rainy season.

The Otay Mesa mint’s nearest relative is the San Diego mesa mint (Pogogyne abramsii), also a threatened species that once thrived in the area where the community of Kensington is now. Today, the largest populations of San Diego mesa mint are found on Miramar Naval Air Station. “Driving by there on 1-15 on a warm day in April, there are enough of them that you can smell a pleasant, minty aroma,” Levin says. “It’s a real treat to know there’s an endangered species there doing well enough that you can smell it.”

There are several sensitive plants that survive on military bases in the county, mostly because places like Camp Pendelton and Miramar NAS are some of the last large, undeveloped tracts of land in the county. But some botanists say the military’s attitude toward sensitive plants is indifferent, at best, and they routinely ignore the needs of sensitive plants except those on the federal listing. (The State of California has no jurisdiction on federal lands, and, at any rate, the state laws protecting sensitive plants are too weak to be effective, even on nonfederal lands.)

The record of other land-use agencies in San Diego is just as dismal as the military’s, however. Several botanists bitterly criticize the City of San Diego for failing to use funds set aside for vernal pool preservation; though the funds amount to more than $100,000, not a single vernal pool has been purchased. Last year, in an extensive report on vernal pools prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game, Ellen Bauder, a botanist at San Diego State, wrote, “The City of San Diego’s ‘Vernal Pool Preservation Program’ (1980) has had very limited success in preserving and protecting vernal pools within city jurisdiction.... It is recommended that no further loss of vernal pool habitat be allowed....”

About eight miles east of the vernal pools on Otay Mesa, on the west slope of Otay Mountain, is one of San Diego's most interesting, and famous, sensitive plants, the Tecate cypress (Cupressus forbesii). There are only four groves of Tecate cypress growing in the United States, and three of them are in San Diego County: Otay Mountain (which is the largest existing population), Tecate Peak, and Guatay Mountain. A fourth grove in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange county marks the northernmost limit of the Tecate cypress. Some isolated and poorly protected groves are found in Baja.

The Tecate cypress is what botanists call a “relictual” species, a tough old survivor, persisting stubbornly where many other species of its era have died out. At one time, when California’s climate was wetter than it is now, cypress forests covered much of the state. Even today California contains forty percent of the cypress species on earth. But in San Diego, their habitat has grown increasingly inhospitable — due to natural causes as well as man’s destruction of the habitat.

In the chaparral region where the Tecate cypress grows, there are many younger plant species that have developed better strategies for surviving in the dry, rocky areas of poor soil and frequent, devastating wildfires. Plants like manzanita, chamise, and ceanothus are able to send out fresh new shoots from their trunks after their crowns have been destroyed by fire. The plants’ carbohydrates are stored in their roots, and the fire, rather than destroying the plants, acts more like an invigorating pruning, giving the plants a fresh new start.

Tecate cypresses, on the other hand, are not stump sprouters. They rely solely on seed production to reproduce. Though the cypresses are dependent upon their occasional cool-burning fires to open their cones and allow their seeds to scatter, hot-burning fires can kill mature cypresses that might have taken decades to grow, while their stump-sprouting competitors continue to thrive.

Without competition from younger, better-adapted species, the Tecate cypress could probably inhabit a much larger area than it does today. But times have changed, and the Tecate cypress’s best strategy for survival is to inhabit rough, rocky areas of very poor soils, where other plants can’t make a go of it.

As Anthony Dunn wrote in an article in Fremontia, the publication of the California Native Plant Society, “Though the Tecate cypress is not threatened with extinction as a species, the future of a number of stands in California is precarious.... It is the impact of man’s activities that has caused a dramatic decline ... In the past sixty years, the extent of the Tecate cypress population has dropped from 260 acres to only about 64 acres."

Besides the threats of uncontrolled fires and off-road vehicles, one of the greatest dangers to the Tecate cypress is cattle grazing. As botanist Wayne Armstrong has written, “The most severe impact of grazing is on the susceptible cypress seedlings. Fire, followed by intensive grazing, could eliminate a grove.... The present policy of 'multiple use’ [on U.S. Forest Service lands] does not ensure their protection."

Of the three Tecate cypress groves in San Diego County, all are on federally owned lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

A weekday morning at Laguna Meadow. Most of the weekend campers have left, and the meadow is quiet and peaceful. A cool breeze blows from the west, and a hawk hunting for rodents soars over the pines.

The mountain-meadow habitat at Laguna Meadow is not a common one for San Diego. It's only found in a narrow strip that runs north from Mount Laguna, through Cuyamaca, the Volcan Mountains, and Mount Palomar. While rainfall on the coastal plane is typically only nine to fifteen inches per year — and only three to five inches on the eastern deserts — the average rainfall in the mountains of San Diego can be as high as forty-eight inches per year, wet enough to allow the delicate vegetation at Laguna Meadow to thrive.

Many of the plants found in San Diego's mountains are typically found in the mountains of central and northern California — an area more naturally suited for them. During the glacial periods of the last million years, when San Diego was wetter and cooler than it is now, many of those northern plants invaded Southern California. They have since become isolated from their parent populations yet have continued to evolve on their own. Consequently, as might be expected, there are a large number of plants found in the mountainous areas of San Diego that can be found nowhere else in the world. Examples are Gander’s butterweed (Senecio gander), which is found only in the mountains of San Diego County, and Laguna aster (Macaeranthera lagunensis), which grows at only one site near Mt. Laguna.

Maribeth Kottman is the botanist whose job it is to look after the Cleveland National Forest’s thirty-eight species of sensitive plants. Like many botanists, she’s a cautious, patient person, trained to think in terms of millenia, not eight-hour work days. She acquired her botanical skills at San Diego State, where she participated in a work/school program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, and has worked on the Cleveland for about ten years.

Kottman spends a good deal of her time in the field, plotting the location of sensitive plants and trying to observe any new changes in their condition — a task she admits can’t be done by one person over an area as large as the Cleveland, particularly with the stingy budgets of the 1980s. "We don’t have the funding in our program to do basic research,’’ she says. "It makes it very difficult to make management decisions when we don’t know that much about some of the plants.”

At Laguna Meadow, Kottman is quickly able to point out three sensitive plants, beginning with meadowfoam (Limnanthes gracilis), a plant listed as endangered by the State of California. It’s an annual plant that has already flowered this year, but by getting down on the ground, Kottman is able to locate its remnants. "It’s a low-growing plant, rather pretty. When it’s in bloom, it’s just a mass of white flowers.”

The meadowfoam favors wet areas, where its seeds are able to germinate. As the moisture dries, the plant begins to grow. After it flowers, it leaves large seeds that contain a lot of oil. Other species of Limanthes are being hybridized and grown agriculturally because of the high quality of the oil for industrial uses.

Just a few feet away is a population of another plant, false lupine (Thermopsis macrophylla), found only in San Diego. It’s about two to three feet tall, with bluish-green leaves and bright yellow flowers. "This year they seem to be doing well, vegetatively,” Kottman says, "but there was a very poor showing of flowers. I’ve noticed for the last few years it produces very few viable seeds. Maybe the weather hasn’t suited them, or maybe the right pollinator isn’t here. I just don’t know ... but it’s something we’d like to know more about."

As with the meadowfoam, it makes Kottman nervous to think that the campground is so close — just Fifty feet away from the false lupine. "I’m sure they get picked a lot,” she says. "But the campground was here long before our identification of rare plants. Personally, I think it would be better if the campground weren’t here."

To the west of the campground, in the heart of Laguna Meadow, grows a third sensitive plant, a bluegrass called Poa atropurpurea, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to be added to the federal list of threatened or endangered plants. Laguna Meadow has been heavily grazed by cattle for more than a hundred years and continues to be grazed today. Kottman says the forest service has put up small, fenced exclosures to protect the bluegrass, but discussing those exclosures makes her uneasy. “I have a gut feeling the grazing might be harmful,” she says. “But this is definitely a multiple-use area, and no single resource can be looked at singlemindedly.”

The fenced exclosures used by the forest service to protect sensitive plants have been attacked by some botanists as “ridiculous,” “postage-stamp preserves,” and “like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.” They are widely considered to be ineffective and little more than a public-relations attempt to avoid responsibility for protecting the plants from the real danger — grazing cattle.

The record for cattle grazing on public lands is a shameful one throughout the American West. One local botanist has called cattle “the most destructive creature on the planet right now.” Another botanist, Mitch Beauchamp, author of A Flora of San Diego County, says, “Grazing cattle on Laguna Meadow is insane. In a general way, there are at least three problems with grazing: First, do we really need all that beef? Second, why is the government subsidizing it? And the third problem is all the damage it’s doing [to sensitive plants].”

For years cattlemen have been able to lease public lands for grazing at just a fraction of their actual values. Resource managers whose job it is to protect the lands are often cronies of the cattlemen or are bullied into submission by them. There’s scarcely a mountain meadow in California that doesn’t show the ill effects of decades of overgrazing, and Laguna Meadow is no exception. According to the Cleveland’s master plan, seventy-five percent of the vegetation in Laguna Meadow now consists of nonnative plants, due to overgrazing.

And the problem isn’t just confined to Laguna Meadow. According to Beauchamp, “There’s grazing at the Kitchen Creek turnoff, on the Sunrise Highway. That’s the only place in the world where the Laguna aster grows.”

At an overgrazed meadow near Cuyamaca Lake, on state park land, the Downingia concolor was on the verge of extinction — at one point, botanist were unable to locate any surviving plants — until the cattle that had been grazing the area were removed. The Downingia has now reappeared.

One advantage that sensitive plants on the Cleveland have over those in most other national forests is that with such an arid climate, commercial logging is not practical there. The most valuable use of the land in the Cleveland is for recreation, which, if well managed, is much less destructive than logging, mining, or grazing.

As much of the private land in San Diego County becomes developed, the relatively large tracts of open land on the Cleveland have become increasingly valuable as habitat for sensitive plants. For example, a chaparral plant, San Diego thornmint (Acanthomintha ilicifolia), which is a state-listed endangered species, is found on the Cleveland near Alpine. A small, short-lived annual with prickly leaves, the thornmint favors poor, clay soils. “Some of the historical areas for this plant are now entirely built up by housing developments,” Kottman explains. “So I now feel the location of the thornmint inside the forest is extremely important. We may end up having one of the few undisturbed habitats for that plant.”

According to Tom Oberbauer, a botanist with the county planning department, “No rare or endangered plant has ever caused the termination of a development project in San Diego County.” As bad as that sounds, Oberbauer doesn’t believe it is necessarily a negative comment; rather, “it shows that a compromise [between development and environmental interests] can always be worked out.” Oberbauer is reluctant to criticize his employer, San Diego County, though he is willing to say the overall picture for rare and endangered plants in San Diego is a fairly grim one. For example, he says, “There have been no new listings [from San Diego County] on the federal listing of rare and endangered plants since 1978,” even though there are several that could and should qualify. The reason, he believes, “is the national political situation.” Nationwide, the Reagan administration has been very resistant to adding species to the federal listing, and the few species that have been added are generally in remote areas where the plants were already protected by their isolation.

Meanwhile, the plants that really need protection aren’t getting it.

The process of qualifying a plant for the federal list of endangered species is a long and clumsy one and is badly in need of reform. Sometimes just trying to protect a plant can endanger it. Several years ago, before the San Diego mesa mint was on the federal list of endangered plants, the Pardee Construction Company wanted to develop a piece of land on Mira Mesa that was vernal pool habitat and home to the mesa mint. Botanical consultant Mitch Beauchamp tried to get emergency federal protection for the mint, but as soon as Pardee heard of Beauchamp's efforts, they went out with bulldozers and worked all night, scraping the site clean of all vegetation, including the rare mint, presumably so their project wouldn’t be affected by the federal protection.

Some environmentalists have criticized the state and local governments for approving developments to go ahead after the developer agreed to “mitigation” projects to ease the impact on sensitive plants. These mitigations include transplanting the sensitive plants to another site, altering the development to protect sensitive plants in the site, purchasing similar plant habitat to replace the habitat that was destroyed, or even trying to create new plant habitat. All too often, the critics say, these mitigations are ineffective in protecting the plants and sometimes have even been the cause of the sensitive plant’s destruction. At a building site in Encinitas, for example, clumsy and haphazard attempts to transplant the Encinitas baccharis, one of the rarest plants in California, resulted in complete failure. All the transplants died.

At other times, transplanting has succeeded — for example, using scuba divers to transplant eel grass in Sail Bay. Still, many botanists scorn mitigation projects, saying they’re nothing more than “politically acceptable failures” to protect sensitive plants, or that, at best, mitigation projects can only be last-ditch efforts, preferable only to the total extinction of a species. As several botanists have pointed out, the best way to protect sensitive plants is to protect entire plant habitats, not individual plants or even small populations of plants. In San Diego County, that means setting aside large tracts of land to be untouched forever.

Botanist Geoff Levin is not a pessimist. In his gloomiest moments, like many environmentalists, he sometimes feels that all is lost, that the wonderful diversity of life on this Earth is being destroyed at a rate from which it can never recover. And no place is that destruction happening more rapidly than here in Southern California. Very few people are as well trained as Levin to understand the complexity of plant life, so it is heartening to hear him speak of hope.

Sitting in the back of a shuttle bus, bouncing over a dirt road that passes from Chula Vista’s E Street trolley station to San Diego Bay, Levin says, “There’s a danger of becoming too gloomy, of people believing there is no need to preserve what we have left. People need to know there are still places where we can save plant habitat — even restore habitat — and sustain viable plant populations. You can’t have a doomsday attitude and still argue for conservation.’’

As the bus passes under the 1-5 freeway, it seems as though Levin has come to the worst place in the county to look for hope in restoring plant habitats. The only plant life in sight is the bermuda grass growing from cracks in the concrete. But after another block or so, a patch of green and blue begins to appear in the world of asphalt, steel, and glass.

Before long, the bus is passing through a salt marsh that looks as though it belongs in another era of San Diego’s history. To the south, the Sweetwater River meanders through a lush plain of native vegetation, snowy egrets and flocks of shorebirds wade through pools of salt water.and in the distance the open waters of San Diego Bay rise to meet the horizon.

Of all the places in San Diego County, few have been as badly abused as Gunpowder Point. Since the turn of the century, this site has been used for a number of industrial purposes, including the production of cordite, an ingredient in the manufacturing of gunpowder. A number of dikes were built, disturbing the natural waterflow, and for decades the entire area has been used as an unofficial dump. If anybody had anything ugly, toxic, or illegal he wanted to get rid of. Gunpowder Point was the place to go. So it’s almost miraculous that two of San Diego's rare plants — including one of its rarest — are found here.

Ninety-one percent of the salt-marsh habitat in San Diego County has already been destroyed. Gunpowder Point represents a large part of the nine percent that remains. The Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center protects Gunpowder Point now, and, if luck holds, it will be kept forever as a salt-marsh preserve. Visitors can only enter by bus. Even walking in is prohibited — humans afoot disturb the birds more than an occasional motor vehicle. A beautiful and innovative visitors’ center was recently opened to aid the public in understanding the preserve, and Gunpowder Point is well on its way to becoming one of the brightest hopes in San Diego’s urban environmental picture.

But on the west end of Gunpowder Point, near the bay the entire area is still littered with chucks of old concrete, lumber, and truck tires. The cleaning-up process will be a long and difficult one.

After a few minutes of wandering back and forth over the dunes separating the marshes. Levin finds one of the rare plants he has been looking for, Frankenia palmeri. It’s a small, low-growing, semisucculent plant with tiny pink flowers. Gunpowder Point is the only place in the U.S. where it’s found, though it’s considerably more common in Baja.

The Frankenia is an example of how San Diego County is at the heart of a unique region where water-loving, northern plants overlap with dry-loving, southern plants. Consequently, the most northerly, or southerly, locations of many plants are found here.

Though some of the sensitive plants in the county, like the Frankenia, are much more common in other areas. Levin explains why it’s just as important to protect their populations here: “Plants vary considerably throughout their ranges. Perhaps the reason Frankenia can survive here is that it’s slightly different genetically If you reduce the genetic variation within a species, you make it more vulnerable to changes. So in conservation, we need to look at a plant’s entire range, to preserve variation within the species.”

Because the Frankenia is more common in Baja, it hasn’t qualified for federal or state listing as a rare plant. “By the time a plant is listed as a federally endangered species, it’s usually just about extinct,” Levin says. But because the plant is rare in California, it’s on the Department of Fish and Game’s list of rare plants.

On the northern side of Gunpowder Point is found one of the rarest plants in San Diego County, salt marsh bird’s beak (Cordylanthus maritimus).

There are only two known sites for this plant anywhere in the world. One is here on Gunpowder Point, and one is at Imperial Beach.

The bird’s beak is an annual plant — rare in itself for salt marshes — and grows eight to twelve inches high, with cream-colored flowers. “Salt marshes are stressful places for plants,” Levin explains. “They don’t like standing in that salt water. Plants can survive here once they get established, but the germinating seeds need more fresh water. The perennials get established in a wet year, then survive twenty or thirty years. But the Cordylanthus, being an annual, has to start over each year. So it has a fairly precarious existence, even without man interfering with the habitat.”

Some people, looking at the homely little bird’s beak, might wonder why anybody would want to save such a thing. It’s not “showy” of “sexy” as we botanists say. As far as we know, no animal requires it for food or shelter. It doesn’t have the grandeur of a sequoia, nor the usefulness of a tomato. It doesn’t offer a cure for cancer, a remedy for colds, or even relief from constipation. A lot of sensitive plants are in the same predicament as the bird’s beak — as far as we know, they aren’t good for a damn thing.

So, some people might ask, why save them?

We know that plant and animal species are becoming extinct at somewhere between 40 and 400 times the rate that would normally occur in nature without man’s influence, that 25,000 species are candidates for becoming extinct right now, and that we are in danger of losing twenty percent of the species now on Earth by the year 2000. For some people, those statistics speak for4 themselves. But for many other people, more practical reasons for trying to preserve biological diversity are required.

Here the lowly bird’s beak, a plant too plain to love, can help provide at least a partial answer. “One reason we don’t have much of a commercial fishing industry in San Diego anymore is that we’ve destroyed so much of the salt marshes,’’ Levin says. “Salt marshes are very important for purifying the water that goes into the bay; they act almost like filters, using the nitrogen that would otherwise go into the bay. Also, salt marshes act as nurseries for fish; there are lots of small invertebrates there that are food for young fish. The Cordylanthus is an indicator of the health of the salt-marsh habitat. If the Cordylanthus survives, then the salt marsh itself is doing well, and the other plants and animals should be doing well, too.”

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Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport. - Image by Tamara Kulikova
Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport.

Otay Mesa on a hot summer morning. A few dazed-looking cattle wander aimlessly through the brush. Off to the south, the huge tail of a jet, taxiing for takeoff at the Tijuana airport, rises above the chaparral. A couple of U.S. Border Patrol agents are standing outside their van, searching the border with binoculars. To the north, across Otay Mesa Road, a swarm of three-wheeled motorcycles romps over the bald hills. In almost every direction, battered billboards are screaming of twenty- and forty-acre parcels of land “available for immediate development!”

There are only four groves of Tecate cypress growing in the United States, and three of them are in San Diego County: Otay Mountain (which is the largest existing population), Tecate Peak, and Guatay Mountain.

Geoff Levin, a botanist with the San Diego Natural History Museum, ignores these distractions as he steps from the truck and places a straw hat on his head. As a native of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, Levin learned at a young age never to go anywhere without a hat.

Levin is a careful, soft-spoken man with a full beard and a quiet presence. He has come to this bleak landscape to point out one of the unique plant habitats in California. “As you can see,” Levin sighs, “it’s a pretty grim picture here. This is an area where a lot of plants are making their last stand.”

Gander’s butterweed (Senecio gander) is found only in the mountains of San Diego County.

Not many people can look at the brushlands that cover most of San Diego County and appreciate the fact that, in botanical terms, this is an exceptional comer of the world. Because of the great variations in rainfall, temperature, elevation, and topography here, San Diego has an almost unparalleled diversity in plant habitats. Botanists recognize twenty-six separate vegetation patterns in the county, including salt marsh, coastal sage, chaparral, grassland, oak, woodland, riparian, mountain "meadow, mountain forest, and desert. As a result of this great diversity, there are approximately 1500 species of plants native to San Diego County — more than any other county in the United States.

"Meadowfoam is a low-growing plant, rather pretty. When it’s in bloom, it’s just a mass of white flowers.”

Because of the large number of native plant species found here, even without man’s influence, one might expect to find a large percentage of species heading toward extinction. Plant extinction is a slow process, occurring in nature at roughly the same pace as evolution. But in an area where the natural landscape is being subjected to rapid change, as it is in San Diego, extinction can happen almost overnight. “There are more sensitive, rare, or endangered plants found in San Diego County than in any other area of the United States,” Levin says.

False Lupine, found only in San Diego. "This year they seem to be doing well, vegetatively, but there was a very poor showing of flowers."

The federal and state endangered species lists include twenty-two plant species in San Diego County — though these lists are considered by many botanists to be lamentably incomplete. The California Native Plant Society, an organization of professional and amateur botanists dedicated to the preservation of native plants, keeps an informal list of plants in San Diego County that might be considered threatened or endangered. The list now contains about 160 species. A written assessment of those species by one CNPS member (a botanical consultant) reads like an obituary. For the first plant on that list. Acacia smallii, the assessment reads: “The small population of trees near Montgomery Park in south San Diego was recently bulldozed when San Diego officials negligently allowed the site to be cleared for a public housing project without checking available resource maps ... an incomprehensible blunder. A single, mature tree growing adjacent to Highway 94 in East San Diego is the only other known specimen.”

Thornmint, a state-listed endangered species, is found on the Cleveland near Alpine.

Many other listings are equally grim:

Aphanisma blitoides: “Formerly grew on beach dunes and coastal bluffs. Heavy recreational use of beaches and housing construction have removed or degraded most dune/bluff habitat from Oceanside to Mexican Border. A recent sighting on Point Loma now extirpated by navy construction.”

Encinitas baccharis (Baccharis vanessae): ”... a substantial population [across the street from Oak Crest Park, in Encinitas] was recently bulldozed for shopping and light industrial use. Immediately to the north, an illegal alien encampment has utilized another small population for firewood ... one of the rarest shrubs in California... not being protected.”

Thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia): “Perhaps the worst record of ‘protection’ of any rare plant species in San Diego County... is systematically being destroyed by numerous unrelated construction projects around Palomar Airport.... Surviving species — if any exist — should be given the highest priority for protection.” Liveforever (Dudleya blochmanae): “A large population was bulldozed to provide navy housing at Wire Mountain [on Camp Pendleton], although the site was peripheral and could easily have been set aside.... Apparently has been extirpated in San Diego County.”

Monardella linoides: “The population in San Clemente Canyon has been partially displaced by a new freeway spur. The Caltrans mitigation site nearby showed virtually all tagged specimens dead... seriously endangered throughout most of its range.” Myosurus minimus: “Rare in ... pools ... on Otay Mesa. This site is severely impacted by cattle wallowing in the vernal pools. Local inhabitants and Border Patrol vehicles drive through these pools.”

Orthocarpus lasiorhynchus: ”... unable to relocate an historic population at the north end of Cuyamaca Lake. May be extirpated by cattle grazing. No other known sites in San Diego County.”

Baja wild rose (Rosa minutifolia): “A sizable thicket grows on the edge of a mesa north of Dillon Road [on Otay Mesa]. This is an ORV ‘playground’ and is virtually denuded of vegetation. This is the only known U.S. site.”

One of the hardest hit of all rare-plant habitats in San Diego County is that of vernal pools, which are shallow, clay-bottomed basins that fill with water during the rainy season, then dry up during the warmer months. Besides being very susceptible to disturbance, the fragile and lovely little pools are home to a number of sensitive plants that can be found nowhere else but San Diego. Otay Mesa, and Kearny Mesa to the north, are two of the last places in California where the vernal pools still exist, and they are being destroyed at an alarming rate. As recently as 1979, there were an estimated 3699 vernal pools in San Diego County. By 1986, 838 of those pools had been destroyed. Overall, it is estimated that nearly ninety-seven percent of San Diego’s original vernal pools have been lost.

The recently completed section of Highway 52 through Clairemont Mesa destroyed a number of vernal pools, and on Otay Mesa there are a number of devastating projects planned, including the extension of Highway 117, two correctional facilities, an auto raceway, and a number of industrial and residential construction projects — not to mention the almost routine destruction of vernal pools by grazing cattle and off-road vehicles.

By this time of year, the vernal pools on Otay Mesa have dried up, along with the mostly annual plants that ring their edges. But Levin points out their shallow basins and says, “If you look around, you can see there are tire tracks everywhere. During the wet season, people like to come out here and drive around in their trucks. It’s fun, I’m sure, but people don’t understand this is a unique habitat for plants, and it’s being irreparably damaged. As you can see, one set of tire tracks would damage the edge of the pool, pierce the clay bottom, the pool would drain, and nonnative plants would immediately take over.”

One of the rarest plants that inhabits the vernal pools on Otay Mesa is the Otay Mesa mint, or Pogogyne nudiuscula. “Its name means ‘bearded lady,’ ” Levin says, “which is kind of interesting in itself. It refers to the hairs around some of the female parts of the flower. It’s a genus that’s pretty much restricted to California. It includes a diversity of species, many of which have a very limited distribution because they’re specialists in vernal pools. One species will grow in one area of vernal pools, another species in another series of vernal pools. Because they’re isolated from one another, they have grown into separate species.”

The Otay Mesa mint is strictly an annual plant. Its seeds germinate and sprout in winter, soon after the start of the rainy season. It grows in the standing water around the edges of the vernal pools, giving it an advantage over many other nonnative species that can’t tolerate standing water. By the time the pools begin to dry up, in April or May, the mint has grown to six or eight inches tall. It then flowers and produces seeds. In June the plant dies, and the seeds persist to the next rainy season.

The Otay Mesa mint’s nearest relative is the San Diego mesa mint (Pogogyne abramsii), also a threatened species that once thrived in the area where the community of Kensington is now. Today, the largest populations of San Diego mesa mint are found on Miramar Naval Air Station. “Driving by there on 1-15 on a warm day in April, there are enough of them that you can smell a pleasant, minty aroma,” Levin says. “It’s a real treat to know there’s an endangered species there doing well enough that you can smell it.”

There are several sensitive plants that survive on military bases in the county, mostly because places like Camp Pendelton and Miramar NAS are some of the last large, undeveloped tracts of land in the county. But some botanists say the military’s attitude toward sensitive plants is indifferent, at best, and they routinely ignore the needs of sensitive plants except those on the federal listing. (The State of California has no jurisdiction on federal lands, and, at any rate, the state laws protecting sensitive plants are too weak to be effective, even on nonfederal lands.)

The record of other land-use agencies in San Diego is just as dismal as the military’s, however. Several botanists bitterly criticize the City of San Diego for failing to use funds set aside for vernal pool preservation; though the funds amount to more than $100,000, not a single vernal pool has been purchased. Last year, in an extensive report on vernal pools prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game, Ellen Bauder, a botanist at San Diego State, wrote, “The City of San Diego’s ‘Vernal Pool Preservation Program’ (1980) has had very limited success in preserving and protecting vernal pools within city jurisdiction.... It is recommended that no further loss of vernal pool habitat be allowed....”

About eight miles east of the vernal pools on Otay Mesa, on the west slope of Otay Mountain, is one of San Diego's most interesting, and famous, sensitive plants, the Tecate cypress (Cupressus forbesii). There are only four groves of Tecate cypress growing in the United States, and three of them are in San Diego County: Otay Mountain (which is the largest existing population), Tecate Peak, and Guatay Mountain. A fourth grove in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange county marks the northernmost limit of the Tecate cypress. Some isolated and poorly protected groves are found in Baja.

The Tecate cypress is what botanists call a “relictual” species, a tough old survivor, persisting stubbornly where many other species of its era have died out. At one time, when California’s climate was wetter than it is now, cypress forests covered much of the state. Even today California contains forty percent of the cypress species on earth. But in San Diego, their habitat has grown increasingly inhospitable — due to natural causes as well as man’s destruction of the habitat.

In the chaparral region where the Tecate cypress grows, there are many younger plant species that have developed better strategies for surviving in the dry, rocky areas of poor soil and frequent, devastating wildfires. Plants like manzanita, chamise, and ceanothus are able to send out fresh new shoots from their trunks after their crowns have been destroyed by fire. The plants’ carbohydrates are stored in their roots, and the fire, rather than destroying the plants, acts more like an invigorating pruning, giving the plants a fresh new start.

Tecate cypresses, on the other hand, are not stump sprouters. They rely solely on seed production to reproduce. Though the cypresses are dependent upon their occasional cool-burning fires to open their cones and allow their seeds to scatter, hot-burning fires can kill mature cypresses that might have taken decades to grow, while their stump-sprouting competitors continue to thrive.

Without competition from younger, better-adapted species, the Tecate cypress could probably inhabit a much larger area than it does today. But times have changed, and the Tecate cypress’s best strategy for survival is to inhabit rough, rocky areas of very poor soils, where other plants can’t make a go of it.

As Anthony Dunn wrote in an article in Fremontia, the publication of the California Native Plant Society, “Though the Tecate cypress is not threatened with extinction as a species, the future of a number of stands in California is precarious.... It is the impact of man’s activities that has caused a dramatic decline ... In the past sixty years, the extent of the Tecate cypress population has dropped from 260 acres to only about 64 acres."

Besides the threats of uncontrolled fires and off-road vehicles, one of the greatest dangers to the Tecate cypress is cattle grazing. As botanist Wayne Armstrong has written, “The most severe impact of grazing is on the susceptible cypress seedlings. Fire, followed by intensive grazing, could eliminate a grove.... The present policy of 'multiple use’ [on U.S. Forest Service lands] does not ensure their protection."

Of the three Tecate cypress groves in San Diego County, all are on federally owned lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

A weekday morning at Laguna Meadow. Most of the weekend campers have left, and the meadow is quiet and peaceful. A cool breeze blows from the west, and a hawk hunting for rodents soars over the pines.

The mountain-meadow habitat at Laguna Meadow is not a common one for San Diego. It's only found in a narrow strip that runs north from Mount Laguna, through Cuyamaca, the Volcan Mountains, and Mount Palomar. While rainfall on the coastal plane is typically only nine to fifteen inches per year — and only three to five inches on the eastern deserts — the average rainfall in the mountains of San Diego can be as high as forty-eight inches per year, wet enough to allow the delicate vegetation at Laguna Meadow to thrive.

Many of the plants found in San Diego's mountains are typically found in the mountains of central and northern California — an area more naturally suited for them. During the glacial periods of the last million years, when San Diego was wetter and cooler than it is now, many of those northern plants invaded Southern California. They have since become isolated from their parent populations yet have continued to evolve on their own. Consequently, as might be expected, there are a large number of plants found in the mountainous areas of San Diego that can be found nowhere else in the world. Examples are Gander’s butterweed (Senecio gander), which is found only in the mountains of San Diego County, and Laguna aster (Macaeranthera lagunensis), which grows at only one site near Mt. Laguna.

Maribeth Kottman is the botanist whose job it is to look after the Cleveland National Forest’s thirty-eight species of sensitive plants. Like many botanists, she’s a cautious, patient person, trained to think in terms of millenia, not eight-hour work days. She acquired her botanical skills at San Diego State, where she participated in a work/school program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, and has worked on the Cleveland for about ten years.

Kottman spends a good deal of her time in the field, plotting the location of sensitive plants and trying to observe any new changes in their condition — a task she admits can’t be done by one person over an area as large as the Cleveland, particularly with the stingy budgets of the 1980s. "We don’t have the funding in our program to do basic research,’’ she says. "It makes it very difficult to make management decisions when we don’t know that much about some of the plants.”

At Laguna Meadow, Kottman is quickly able to point out three sensitive plants, beginning with meadowfoam (Limnanthes gracilis), a plant listed as endangered by the State of California. It’s an annual plant that has already flowered this year, but by getting down on the ground, Kottman is able to locate its remnants. "It’s a low-growing plant, rather pretty. When it’s in bloom, it’s just a mass of white flowers.”

The meadowfoam favors wet areas, where its seeds are able to germinate. As the moisture dries, the plant begins to grow. After it flowers, it leaves large seeds that contain a lot of oil. Other species of Limanthes are being hybridized and grown agriculturally because of the high quality of the oil for industrial uses.

Just a few feet away is a population of another plant, false lupine (Thermopsis macrophylla), found only in San Diego. It’s about two to three feet tall, with bluish-green leaves and bright yellow flowers. "This year they seem to be doing well, vegetatively,” Kottman says, "but there was a very poor showing of flowers. I’ve noticed for the last few years it produces very few viable seeds. Maybe the weather hasn’t suited them, or maybe the right pollinator isn’t here. I just don’t know ... but it’s something we’d like to know more about."

As with the meadowfoam, it makes Kottman nervous to think that the campground is so close — just Fifty feet away from the false lupine. "I’m sure they get picked a lot,” she says. "But the campground was here long before our identification of rare plants. Personally, I think it would be better if the campground weren’t here."

To the west of the campground, in the heart of Laguna Meadow, grows a third sensitive plant, a bluegrass called Poa atropurpurea, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to be added to the federal list of threatened or endangered plants. Laguna Meadow has been heavily grazed by cattle for more than a hundred years and continues to be grazed today. Kottman says the forest service has put up small, fenced exclosures to protect the bluegrass, but discussing those exclosures makes her uneasy. “I have a gut feeling the grazing might be harmful,” she says. “But this is definitely a multiple-use area, and no single resource can be looked at singlemindedly.”

The fenced exclosures used by the forest service to protect sensitive plants have been attacked by some botanists as “ridiculous,” “postage-stamp preserves,” and “like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.” They are widely considered to be ineffective and little more than a public-relations attempt to avoid responsibility for protecting the plants from the real danger — grazing cattle.

The record for cattle grazing on public lands is a shameful one throughout the American West. One local botanist has called cattle “the most destructive creature on the planet right now.” Another botanist, Mitch Beauchamp, author of A Flora of San Diego County, says, “Grazing cattle on Laguna Meadow is insane. In a general way, there are at least three problems with grazing: First, do we really need all that beef? Second, why is the government subsidizing it? And the third problem is all the damage it’s doing [to sensitive plants].”

For years cattlemen have been able to lease public lands for grazing at just a fraction of their actual values. Resource managers whose job it is to protect the lands are often cronies of the cattlemen or are bullied into submission by them. There’s scarcely a mountain meadow in California that doesn’t show the ill effects of decades of overgrazing, and Laguna Meadow is no exception. According to the Cleveland’s master plan, seventy-five percent of the vegetation in Laguna Meadow now consists of nonnative plants, due to overgrazing.

And the problem isn’t just confined to Laguna Meadow. According to Beauchamp, “There’s grazing at the Kitchen Creek turnoff, on the Sunrise Highway. That’s the only place in the world where the Laguna aster grows.”

At an overgrazed meadow near Cuyamaca Lake, on state park land, the Downingia concolor was on the verge of extinction — at one point, botanist were unable to locate any surviving plants — until the cattle that had been grazing the area were removed. The Downingia has now reappeared.

One advantage that sensitive plants on the Cleveland have over those in most other national forests is that with such an arid climate, commercial logging is not practical there. The most valuable use of the land in the Cleveland is for recreation, which, if well managed, is much less destructive than logging, mining, or grazing.

As much of the private land in San Diego County becomes developed, the relatively large tracts of open land on the Cleveland have become increasingly valuable as habitat for sensitive plants. For example, a chaparral plant, San Diego thornmint (Acanthomintha ilicifolia), which is a state-listed endangered species, is found on the Cleveland near Alpine. A small, short-lived annual with prickly leaves, the thornmint favors poor, clay soils. “Some of the historical areas for this plant are now entirely built up by housing developments,” Kottman explains. “So I now feel the location of the thornmint inside the forest is extremely important. We may end up having one of the few undisturbed habitats for that plant.”

According to Tom Oberbauer, a botanist with the county planning department, “No rare or endangered plant has ever caused the termination of a development project in San Diego County.” As bad as that sounds, Oberbauer doesn’t believe it is necessarily a negative comment; rather, “it shows that a compromise [between development and environmental interests] can always be worked out.” Oberbauer is reluctant to criticize his employer, San Diego County, though he is willing to say the overall picture for rare and endangered plants in San Diego is a fairly grim one. For example, he says, “There have been no new listings [from San Diego County] on the federal listing of rare and endangered plants since 1978,” even though there are several that could and should qualify. The reason, he believes, “is the national political situation.” Nationwide, the Reagan administration has been very resistant to adding species to the federal listing, and the few species that have been added are generally in remote areas where the plants were already protected by their isolation.

Meanwhile, the plants that really need protection aren’t getting it.

The process of qualifying a plant for the federal list of endangered species is a long and clumsy one and is badly in need of reform. Sometimes just trying to protect a plant can endanger it. Several years ago, before the San Diego mesa mint was on the federal list of endangered plants, the Pardee Construction Company wanted to develop a piece of land on Mira Mesa that was vernal pool habitat and home to the mesa mint. Botanical consultant Mitch Beauchamp tried to get emergency federal protection for the mint, but as soon as Pardee heard of Beauchamp's efforts, they went out with bulldozers and worked all night, scraping the site clean of all vegetation, including the rare mint, presumably so their project wouldn’t be affected by the federal protection.

Some environmentalists have criticized the state and local governments for approving developments to go ahead after the developer agreed to “mitigation” projects to ease the impact on sensitive plants. These mitigations include transplanting the sensitive plants to another site, altering the development to protect sensitive plants in the site, purchasing similar plant habitat to replace the habitat that was destroyed, or even trying to create new plant habitat. All too often, the critics say, these mitigations are ineffective in protecting the plants and sometimes have even been the cause of the sensitive plant’s destruction. At a building site in Encinitas, for example, clumsy and haphazard attempts to transplant the Encinitas baccharis, one of the rarest plants in California, resulted in complete failure. All the transplants died.

At other times, transplanting has succeeded — for example, using scuba divers to transplant eel grass in Sail Bay. Still, many botanists scorn mitigation projects, saying they’re nothing more than “politically acceptable failures” to protect sensitive plants, or that, at best, mitigation projects can only be last-ditch efforts, preferable only to the total extinction of a species. As several botanists have pointed out, the best way to protect sensitive plants is to protect entire plant habitats, not individual plants or even small populations of plants. In San Diego County, that means setting aside large tracts of land to be untouched forever.

Botanist Geoff Levin is not a pessimist. In his gloomiest moments, like many environmentalists, he sometimes feels that all is lost, that the wonderful diversity of life on this Earth is being destroyed at a rate from which it can never recover. And no place is that destruction happening more rapidly than here in Southern California. Very few people are as well trained as Levin to understand the complexity of plant life, so it is heartening to hear him speak of hope.

Sitting in the back of a shuttle bus, bouncing over a dirt road that passes from Chula Vista’s E Street trolley station to San Diego Bay, Levin says, “There’s a danger of becoming too gloomy, of people believing there is no need to preserve what we have left. People need to know there are still places where we can save plant habitat — even restore habitat — and sustain viable plant populations. You can’t have a doomsday attitude and still argue for conservation.’’

As the bus passes under the 1-5 freeway, it seems as though Levin has come to the worst place in the county to look for hope in restoring plant habitats. The only plant life in sight is the bermuda grass growing from cracks in the concrete. But after another block or so, a patch of green and blue begins to appear in the world of asphalt, steel, and glass.

Before long, the bus is passing through a salt marsh that looks as though it belongs in another era of San Diego’s history. To the south, the Sweetwater River meanders through a lush plain of native vegetation, snowy egrets and flocks of shorebirds wade through pools of salt water.and in the distance the open waters of San Diego Bay rise to meet the horizon.

Of all the places in San Diego County, few have been as badly abused as Gunpowder Point. Since the turn of the century, this site has been used for a number of industrial purposes, including the production of cordite, an ingredient in the manufacturing of gunpowder. A number of dikes were built, disturbing the natural waterflow, and for decades the entire area has been used as an unofficial dump. If anybody had anything ugly, toxic, or illegal he wanted to get rid of. Gunpowder Point was the place to go. So it’s almost miraculous that two of San Diego's rare plants — including one of its rarest — are found here.

Ninety-one percent of the salt-marsh habitat in San Diego County has already been destroyed. Gunpowder Point represents a large part of the nine percent that remains. The Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center protects Gunpowder Point now, and, if luck holds, it will be kept forever as a salt-marsh preserve. Visitors can only enter by bus. Even walking in is prohibited — humans afoot disturb the birds more than an occasional motor vehicle. A beautiful and innovative visitors’ center was recently opened to aid the public in understanding the preserve, and Gunpowder Point is well on its way to becoming one of the brightest hopes in San Diego’s urban environmental picture.

But on the west end of Gunpowder Point, near the bay the entire area is still littered with chucks of old concrete, lumber, and truck tires. The cleaning-up process will be a long and difficult one.

After a few minutes of wandering back and forth over the dunes separating the marshes. Levin finds one of the rare plants he has been looking for, Frankenia palmeri. It’s a small, low-growing, semisucculent plant with tiny pink flowers. Gunpowder Point is the only place in the U.S. where it’s found, though it’s considerably more common in Baja.

The Frankenia is an example of how San Diego County is at the heart of a unique region where water-loving, northern plants overlap with dry-loving, southern plants. Consequently, the most northerly, or southerly, locations of many plants are found here.

Though some of the sensitive plants in the county, like the Frankenia, are much more common in other areas. Levin explains why it’s just as important to protect their populations here: “Plants vary considerably throughout their ranges. Perhaps the reason Frankenia can survive here is that it’s slightly different genetically If you reduce the genetic variation within a species, you make it more vulnerable to changes. So in conservation, we need to look at a plant’s entire range, to preserve variation within the species.”

Because the Frankenia is more common in Baja, it hasn’t qualified for federal or state listing as a rare plant. “By the time a plant is listed as a federally endangered species, it’s usually just about extinct,” Levin says. But because the plant is rare in California, it’s on the Department of Fish and Game’s list of rare plants.

On the northern side of Gunpowder Point is found one of the rarest plants in San Diego County, salt marsh bird’s beak (Cordylanthus maritimus).

There are only two known sites for this plant anywhere in the world. One is here on Gunpowder Point, and one is at Imperial Beach.

The bird’s beak is an annual plant — rare in itself for salt marshes — and grows eight to twelve inches high, with cream-colored flowers. “Salt marshes are stressful places for plants,” Levin explains. “They don’t like standing in that salt water. Plants can survive here once they get established, but the germinating seeds need more fresh water. The perennials get established in a wet year, then survive twenty or thirty years. But the Cordylanthus, being an annual, has to start over each year. So it has a fairly precarious existence, even without man interfering with the habitat.”

Some people, looking at the homely little bird’s beak, might wonder why anybody would want to save such a thing. It’s not “showy” of “sexy” as we botanists say. As far as we know, no animal requires it for food or shelter. It doesn’t have the grandeur of a sequoia, nor the usefulness of a tomato. It doesn’t offer a cure for cancer, a remedy for colds, or even relief from constipation. A lot of sensitive plants are in the same predicament as the bird’s beak — as far as we know, they aren’t good for a damn thing.

So, some people might ask, why save them?

We know that plant and animal species are becoming extinct at somewhere between 40 and 400 times the rate that would normally occur in nature without man’s influence, that 25,000 species are candidates for becoming extinct right now, and that we are in danger of losing twenty percent of the species now on Earth by the year 2000. For some people, those statistics speak for4 themselves. But for many other people, more practical reasons for trying to preserve biological diversity are required.

Here the lowly bird’s beak, a plant too plain to love, can help provide at least a partial answer. “One reason we don’t have much of a commercial fishing industry in San Diego anymore is that we’ve destroyed so much of the salt marshes,’’ Levin says. “Salt marshes are very important for purifying the water that goes into the bay; they act almost like filters, using the nitrogen that would otherwise go into the bay. Also, salt marshes act as nurseries for fish; there are lots of small invertebrates there that are food for young fish. The Cordylanthus is an indicator of the health of the salt-marsh habitat. If the Cordylanthus survives, then the salt marsh itself is doing well, and the other plants and animals should be doing well, too.”

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