For Immediate Release, September 24, 2008
Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
City of San Francisco Warned of Lawsuit over
Killing Endangered Species at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica
Conservation Groups Urge Restoration of Coastal Wetlands at
Park to Protect San Francisco Garter Snake, California Red-Legged Frog
SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the City and County of San Francisco for illegally killing and harming two endangered species at Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. Activities at the golf course have been killing federally protected California red-legged frogs, and recent studies show that ongoing course operations may be threatening endangered San Francisco garter snakes.
“The time is right to restore Sharp Park to its natural condition,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “ San Francisco has a golden opportunity to save taxpayers’ money, preserve our endangered species, and improve recreational access to our coast.”
The Center is calling on San Francisco to cease harming endangered species, restore Sharp Park to its natural state as a coastal wetland, and provide more diverse recreational opportunities for the public at the site. The Center opposes a flawed plan released recently by San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department that calls for privatizing the mismanaged and financially failing golf course and illegally reconstructing flooded portions of the course at the expense of endangered species.
The operation and mismanagement of the golf course is undermining habitat-restoration work within the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the garter snake and the frog at adjacent Mori Point. In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified the Recreation and Park Department that golf course operations were illegally “taking” threatened California red-legged frogs (Rana aurora draytonii) by draining and pumping the frog’s aquatic habitats, which strands and desiccates frog eggs and kills tadpoles. New evidence has surfaced that extremely rare San Francisco garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) have been killed by groundskeepers mowing grass in areas that the snake uses for basking.
Sharp Park Golf Course is owned by the City and County of San Francisco but is located to the south of the city on the coast, in Pacifica. Its ongoing environmental problems are largely due to poor design and unfortunate placement. To create the course in the early 1930s, the Recreation and Park Department dredged and filled areas around a lagoon known as Laguna Salada for 14 months. Not surprisingly, Sharp Park has had problems with flooding and drainage ever since. The course’s ceremonial opening day was delayed twice due to wet playing conditions, major coastal floods have on two occasions destroyed several holes, and normal winter rains flood the course nearly every year.
“Sharp Park is built over lagoon wetlands and will always lack proper natural drainage and require extravagant effort to maintain,” said Peter Baye, a coastal ecologist who prepared lagoon-wetland restoration plans for California State Parks and the National Recreation Area. “Maintaining a drowning golf course as sea levels rise is a futile investment. Restoring flood outlets and expanding marsh areas would improve endangered species habitat and increase flood-control options for adjacent landowners.”
San Francisco is reviewing all of its municipally owned golf courses to map out their future use. The Center for Biological Diversity has proposed restoring Sharp Park to a natural state and providing access to hiking trails, picnicking spots, camping facilities and educational opportunities – all of which are sorely needed in San Mateo County.
The Recreation and Park Department, on the other hand, in August released a fatally flawed consultant’s report that advocates privatizing San Francisco’s public golf courses and reconstructing Sharp Park as an "elite" golf course with all 18 holes west of Highway 1. The plan’s recommendations would destroy and fragment much of the snake and frog habitat on the site. It would make flood problems significantly worse, create legal liability to San Francisco for flood damage to adjacent properties, and involve time-consuming permit processes for development that will never be allowed by state and federal regulatory agencies.
“This habitat destruction plan is a non-starter, and if pursued further by the Recreation and Park Department will result in a costly lawsuit for San Francisco,” Miller said. “It is untenable on economic, flood management, and ecological grounds and imposes huge financial and legal risks to the City and County of San Francisco and its taxpayers.”
"Sharp Park is a critical link in the chain of endangered species habitats on the central coast,” said Peter Brastow, director of Nature in the City, a local conservation group. “A restored Sharp Park ecosystem would seamlessly integrate into the surrounding National Park landscape and could be showcased as a natural area where children and adults can connect with wild nature in their own backyard."
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club San Francisco Bay and Loma Prieta chapters, San Francisco League of Conservation Voters, Nature In The City, and Golden Gate Audubon Society all have called on San Francisco to consider restoration of coastal wetlands and endangered species habitat at Sharp Park.
The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s Golf Course Task Force will meet at 6 p.m. next Monday, September 29th, at San Francisco City Hall, Room 278, to discuss the consultant’s report and the future of the Sharp Park Golf Course.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Background on Endangered Species
The San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) has been dubbed “the most beautiful serpent in North America.” The fantastically colored snake has a broad greenish-yellow stripe on its back bordered by black and red stripes, and a distinctive greenish-blue or bright turquoise-blue belly. Adults can grow to a length of two to three feet. All known populations of this snake occur in San Mateo County near freshwater marshes, ponds, canals, and slow-moving streams along the coast. The snake’s preferred habitats have been hit hard by agricultural, residential, commercial, and even recreational development.
Loss of habitat because of development caused the garter snake to be listed as a federally endangered species in 1967 and a state endangered species in 1971. It feeds on the California red-legged frog and the Pacific tree frog and hibernates in winter. There may be only one to two thousand San Francisco garter snakes remaining in the wild today. One of the last places to see this gorgeous species is at Mori Point in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the adjacent Sharp Park Golf Course.
The state’s largest native frog, the California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii) has disappeared from more than 70 percent of its historic range in California. This frog prefers ponds, marshes and creeks with still water. It requires riparian and upland areas with dense vegetation and open areas for cover, aestivation (summertime hibernation), food and basking. Habitat loss to urban development and the effects of introduced predators, such as bullfrogs, are the primary threats to red-legged frogs. It was listed as a federally threatened species in 1996.
Sharp Park: A Financial Drain
Sharp Park’s environmental problems are compounded by the fiscal drain the golf course puts on San Francisco’s budget. The Recreation and Park Department estimates indicate that Sharp Park will drain between $100,000 and $4 million dollars from San Francisco’s coffers between now and 2012. Unfortunately, the lower-loss estimates are achievable only if the City privatizes management and pays employees “lower union wages” – the Department’s sorry euphemism for busting the gardener’s union – and convinces a private corporation to invest millions of dollars in capital improvements in the course, presumably by granting the corporation a long-term lease of the property.
This golf bailout plan has its detractors. Harvey Rose, San Francisco’s independent budget analyst, has noted that golf rounds played at Sharp Park have declined by almost 40 percent since 2000, and that without massive infrastructure investments Sharp Park cannot increase revenues for the city budget. If fees are raised to pay for the investments, it is very likely that rounds played at Sharp Park will decrease – the primary reason golfers play there today is that course fees are low. The National Golf Foundation,,a golf industry group, reported in 2007 that Sharp Park golfers have “very little loyalty” to the course relative to national averages and are “very unsatisfied” with everything from pace of play, on-course services, conditions of golf carts and friendliness of the staff. Any plan to maintain the golf course by squeezing more revenue through “improved” course conditions will not only harm endangered species, but may also bring San Francisco’s recreation budget closer to permanent insolvency.
Habitat restoration may prove to be the most fiscally responsible method of managing Sharp Park. While capital investments will be necessary, existing funding sources from private foundations to government agencies that specialize in restoring wetlands have already expressed interest in funding the effort, similar to efforts undertaken at Crissy Field Marsh in the Presidio. The annual operating costs of the restored area would be substantially lower than what San Francisco presently spends on golf course operations.