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For Immediate Release, March 2, 2011

Contact:  Neal Desai, National Parks Conservation Association, (415) 989-9921 x 20
Nancy Arbuckle, Sequoia Audubon Society, (650) 465-3730
Michael Stewart, Surfrider Foundation, (415) 235-9433
Brent Plater, Wild Equity Institute, (415) 572-6989
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

San Francisco Sued for Killing Endangered Species at Sharp Park Golf Course
City's Compliance Plan Fails

SAN FRANCISCO— Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department today for continuing to illegally kill federally protected threatened and endangered species at Sharp Park golf course, a financially troubled, city-owned course located within Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Wild Equity Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Surfrider Foundation, Sequoia Audubon Society and Sierra Club filed the suit in federal court under the Endangered Species Act to stop ongoing harm to the threatened California red-legged frog and the endangered San Francisco garter snake. Counsel representing the plaintiffs are the Washington D.C. public interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal.

"It’s clear that the city’s plan to protect endangered species at Sharp Park has failed miserably and it’s time to stop this unnecessary harm to protected species,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Extensive evidence of harm to red-legged frogs at the golf course this winter shows that the Park Department’s endangered species “compliance plan” has failed. In recent years, pumping and drawdown of wetland water levels after frogs have laid eggs brought notice of violations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Park Department documents show that more than 100 red-legged frog egg masses were jeopardized this winter by pumping as recently as last week. The city regularly drains the wetlands in winter so golf can be played, reducing the depth of the water in breeding and feeding areas for the red-legged frog and garter snake and thereby exposing and killing thousands of frog eggs. The killing was documented as early as 1992: violations were reported to the Park Department in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and again this winter. A San Francisco garter snake killed by a lawnmower was documented at the course in 2005. Despite years of compliance problems at Sharp Park, the city has yet to take the required steps to protect endangered species from further harm.

“Restoring the natural ecosystem at Sharp Park is not only the lowest-cost alternative, it will serve the recreation needs of the greatest number of people including hikers and birders while saving endangered endemic species. It's a win-win-win,” said Nancy Arbuckle, conservation chair of the Sequoia Audubon Society.

“We feel strongly that an interconnected and protective coastal ecosystem (beach, dune and barrier lagoon) must be recognized as a dynamic, integrated unit; you can't save just one part and expect it to work correctly,” said Michael Stewart, vice chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “This would provide the most benefit to local endangered species, an expansion of desired recreational opportunities, and the best (and least expensive) flood protection for the community at Sharp Park - two, four or even zero legged.”

A peer-reviewed scientific study by coastal restoration experts, released in January, concluded that restoration of the natural lagoon and beach processes at Laguna Salada wetlands in Sharp Park will provide the most public benefit and best protect endangered species, at much less expense than the Park Department plan or maintaining the status quo. Last week the Park Department abandoned plans to reinforce a beach-eroding seawall that protects the golf course; it also conceded that current golf operations are not compatible with protection of endangered species. A working group of land managers convened by the Park Department issued a puzzlingly brief two-page policy findings report agreeing with the conclusions of the peer-reviewed study on the impacts of sea-level rise and coastal erosion and the futility of armoring, maintaining or further raising the seawall. The working group recommended a transition to a naturally managed “barrier lagoon” at Sharp Park.

Photo and Video
Please contact Neal Desai at for photos of the California red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake, golf course flooding, and a video link of golf course water pumping.

The study published last month by independent scientists and engineers says that the most cost-effective option for Sharp Park is to remove the golf course and restore the functions of the original natural ecosystem, which will also provide the most benefit to endangered species. Experts on coastal lagoon ecosystems prepared the restoration study, an 18-month assessment of Laguna Salada and Sanchez Creek. The report makes several key findings:

  • Restoring Sharp Park is the cheapest public option, particularly compared to the San Francisco Park Department plan or the option of maintaining the status quo.
  • Restoring the natural processes of the lagoon and surrounding wetlands will provide the best flood protection for neighbors against sea-level rise and coastal storm events.
  • Removing the golf course to restore habitat to the east of the lagoon is essential for the long-term sustainability of endangered species found on the site.

The new restoration alternative would allow beneficial natural processes to reconfigure the Laguna Salada wetlands and beach to a natural dynamic, providing the most benefit to endangered species, protecting the beach from erosion, ensuring resilience and adaptivity for habitat to respond to sea-level rise, and improving flood protection for adjacent residential areas, all with lower long-term costs and maintenance requirements. The authors and peer reviewers of the report have unparalleled expertise in Bay Area coastal and aquatic ecology and wildlife, hydrology, coastal engineering and ecosystem restoration.

The report findings clear up some common misconceptions put forth by supporters of the golf course and the Park Department. Among the report findings:

  • Laguna Salada was historically a brackish-fresh water lagoon, not a saline tidal lagoon, and supported thriving populations of the garter snake and red-legged frog;
  • The golf course did not “create” freshwater habitat for the frog and snake;
  • The sea wall is not necessary for protecting endangered species habitat or preventing flooding of neighborhoods; it in fact contributes to flood risk and the unsustainable character of the existing land use.

The new restoration plan is estimated to cost about $5 million over a 50-year time frame. In contrast, the Park Department preferred plan would drain taxpayers of between $12 million and $18 million in short-term costs (including seawall construction) along with hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for infrastructure operations and maintenance, and continuing liability for fines for Endangered Species Act violations.

Some of the Park Department’s working-group statements are unsupported by science and contradict the conclusions of coastal restoration experts. The claim that endangered species and golf “could be compatible” is unexplained, and the peer-reviewed report shows maintaining the golf course is not compatible with protecting endangered species at the site, since the Park Department “restoration” plan would squeeze endangered species habitats between the golf course and the seawall in the area most vulnerable to salinity intrusion. The working group adopts a misguided Park Department recommendation to dredge the lagoon to reduce sediment, ignoring the fact that loss of open-water habitat is caused by artificial pumping down of the lagoon to maintain the golf course, not sedimentation. Dredging is extremely expensive, damaging to endangered species habitat, and unnecessary; the preferred solution is raising lagoon water levels, allowing wetlands to expand and spread eastward where the golf course is currently located.

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