Golfers vs. Frogs

6/23/2009

By ERICA GIES

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HOST: Pacifica has been home to a golf course called Sharp Park since 1932. Originally created by famed golf architect Alister Mackenzie, the course lies alongside the Pacific Ocean, and has actually been redesigned several times due to flooding. That’s still a problem. And it highlights another issue with Sharp Park’s location: This land has been home to the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake for millennia, and these species are now federally listed as threatened and endangered, respectively. Now, the park’s owner, the City of San Francisco, faces a dilemma. To protect the wildlife, it can redesign the golf course once again, reduce its size to nine holes, or replace it entirely with a nature park. Reporter Erica Gies has the story.

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[SOUND OF GOLFING, BIRDS]

ERICA GIES: The 400 members of Sharp Park Golf Club are devoted to the course, and on a clear, sunny day, it’s easy to see why. As the club’s president, Dave Diller, drives me around the course in a cart, we glide amidst cypress trees, bird song, and long vistas, pausing now and again to let players take their shots: a woman in a black-and-white argyle sweater, an older man in a visor. The sense of community is palpable and inclusive.

[SOUND OF BIRDS]

ERICA GIES: More subtle is the habitat for the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog. They live around two water features near the western edge of the course: Laguna Salada and Horse Stable Pond. Permanent, shallow, and exposed, ringed by emergent vegetation, they provide cover and breeding habitat for the frog and hunting territory for the snake. Unfortunately, such habitat is now exceedingly rare, a casualty of human development.

BRENT PLATER: “The California red-legged frog has already been lost from 70 percent of its range. Ninety percent of its historical population is gone. And the garter snake is literally on the brink of extinction.”

ERICA GIES: That’s Brent Plater. He belongs to a coalition of environmental groups called Restore Sharp Park. Its primary concern is to save the snake and the frog.

Here’s the backstory: Filling in wetlands to build the course destroyed the area’s natural flood protection from the ocean. So the golf club built a berm to block the heavy surf in the 1940s, and it was fortified in the ’80s.

But that barricade now plugs the natural freshwater outflow, trapping winter rains on the course. And, Plater notes, the mechanical solution to that problem – pumping water off the course – kills frogs.

BRENT PLATER: “When they draw that water down, those egg masses and tadpoles dry out, and you lose entire generations of frogs.”

ERICA GIES: In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified San Francisco that it could no longer pump water off the course. To avoid fines, the city now simply closes the course when it floods.

BRENT PLATER: “If you dry out an entire egg mass that has a hundred individuals in it at $25,000 a pop, I mean, you’re already talking about … an economic calamity that would be imposed upon San Francisco.”

ERICA GIES: But flooding closures have hurt the course’s finances, which were already in the red. That, coupled with broader budget concerns, has led the city to review how Sharp Park is used.

[SOUND OF SUPERVISORS’ MEETING, MIRKARIMI] “What is to become of golf courses that do not pay for themselves and why we continue to subsidize it.”

ERICA GIES: Last month, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi brought the Sharp Park dilemma before the full board.

[SOUND OF SUPERVISORS’ MEETING, MIRKARIMI] “This is not just about golf versus human, endangered species versus golfer or any of our citizenry. This is about our federal obligation and liability in the eyes of a greater authority that requires us to protect a species, where balancing ecosystem, I believe, can only be best answered by science.

ERICA GIES: There was little debate. The Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance to preserve the natural habitat of Sharp Park for the snake and frog.

Still, that leaves some options: the city can improve the 18-hole golf course, reduce its size, or close it and remake the park as a nature preserve and recreation area. A study due July 31 will weigh these scenarios.

Not surprisingly, most golfers object to the idea of losing their course, including Sharp Park Golf Course manager Mark Duane.

MARK DUANE: “There’s over 400 acres here, and only 120 are used by the golf course, so there’s still plenty of room to design other holes should they deem that the three holes surrounding the lagoon are impeding on the habitat of the snake and the frog.”

ERICA GIES: Duane also points out that Sharp Park is special because, at just $21 a game for residents, it’s among the least expensive of 18-hole courses in the Bay Area.

That’s one of the reasons why Supervisor Sean Elsbernd thinks the city needs to find a solution to keep the course open:

SEAN ELSBERND: “We may have many golf courses in San Francisco. How many are affordable to working men and women? To kids? To seniors? Sharp Park is an affordable option.”

ROSS MIRKARIMI: “I think that’s a very valid point.”

ERICA GIES: Again, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

ROSS MIRKARIMI: “But that also comes at an expense while we’re cutting Rec and Park directors here in the interior of San Francisco and inner city neighborhoods, where teens and others do not have programs anymore or the people to help administer those programs.”

ERICA GIES: Mirkarimi also points to a city survey in which residents ranked hiking and biking trails as their number one recreational desire, and golf, seventeenth.

There is no schedule for a final decision on the fate of Sharp Park. But there is some urgency because the city has placed on hold an $8 million water reclamation project for the park, which would be unnecessary if there were no golf course.

BRENT PLATER: “We have a fantastic opportunity here to create a community-centered model for endangered species recovery, outdoor recreation, and really, economic development down in Pacifica.”

[SOUND OF GOLFING]

EG12: For the time being, Sharp Park is still a golf course built on wetlands by the sea, where duffers hit errant shots into protected habitat, uneasily sharing space with endangered species. This confluence may soon separate, however, as the money – and the political will – seem to be bending away from golf, toward a more natural habitat.

In Pacifica, I’m Erica Gies, for Crosscurrents.