Letter: Science takes a hit in San Francisco’s rush to dump Sharp Park


Posted by on Mon, April 27, 2009

This story was originally posted as a comment on the story about the Sharp Park Golf Course restoration debate

The financial excuse that San Francisco loses money and has to carry Sharp Park is disingenuous by intention and deliberately misleading. San Francisco Supervisor Mirkarimi, the legislation’s sponsor, has himself said he doubts the accuracy of the figures cited by proponents and thinks that whatever gap there may be is mere "chump change". Given Sharp Park has the lowest greens’ fees among San Francisco’s golf courses, or even in the surrounding area, a modest hike disposes of that argument. But why do that when it serves as an excuse for those intent on accomplishing their own estimable goals? 

"To ‘restore’ the area would involve removing hundreds, maybe thousands of semi trucks full of fill, this in an area containing endangered species.

Goal one of the Center for Biological Diversity and affiliated groups is to restore the area to its original pristine condition for all of the stated purposes outlined by Mr. Plater. Definitely laudable. But take a moment and consider his description of how the entire area was massively filled in, and then later buffered by the addition of an enormous seawall - a 20-foot high berm stretching along the entire width of the golf course at least a half-mile long. To "restore" the area would involve removing hundreds, maybe thousands of semi trucks full of fill, this in an area containing endangered species. Who, we might wonder, would be the permitting authority for this activity? 

There’s more. Laguna Salada, the fresh water lagoon snaking around the edge of the golf course receives the runoff from the entire golf course when it’s watered or raining. The berm between the lagoon and ocean keeps it all from draining, allowing only excess overflow to reach the ocean. This freshwater environment provides breeding habitat for the Red legged frog that in turn provides a food source for the San Francisco garter snake. The restoration folks want the berm breached in order to take us back to the pre-1930s when the lagoon was a brackish, read that as saline, estuary. With global warming raising sea levels three feet by the end of the century, if not faster, there go the frogs and the snakes that rely on them. 

Something seems strangely amiss here with the bio fans pushing so hard in face of the problems and contradictions inherent in this enterprise. Maybe restoration would be a net benefit to the species of concern regardless, but how could we determine that beforehand? The answer of course is to do an Environmental Impact Report that studies all of the possible alternatives, including doing nothing at all, then make the best decision. It so happens that San Francisco’s Planning Department is preparing to do just that, but this process would take one or two years to conduct, and our biological friends are in too much of a hurry and too wowed by their own Big Idea to want to hear anything scientific that might contradict their own romantic and well-intentioned project. There’s momentum now, so keep on pushing and worry about the details after they accomplish their mission. 

"...neither side is so much concerned about the species in question as with getting what they want."

Mr. Plater is an environmental lawyer and college professor with an enviable record suing entities on behalf of threatened species. Supervisor Mirkarimi is looking for a way out of continued nuisance lawsuits from people like Mr. Plater, so one can hardly fault him for trying to remove San Francisco from potential legal liability for Federal violations. However, it’s plain to see that neither side is so much concerned about the species in question as with getting what they want. None of this ought to be considered without condoning and paying for a thorough and complete EIR that will shed light on whether restoration in any form at all will benefit the animals and improve the overall environment or not. 

We know one thing, and that is the frogs and snakes coexisted at Sharp Park for the last seventy+ years. We also know that critter protection improved substantially in recent years as the golf course was enjoined to change its practices. Ending the golf course or substantially altering it as restorationists propose may be a great idea, or it could prove hellish for the animals - remember what they say about the road to hell? The point is that we don’t know, and neither do they. 

The problem in a nutshell is that there’s no science underlying any of this, only out there as an eventual goal, the science education center, etc. Should these folks succeed in pulling this off without an EIR, I hope that there will still be something left to study there one day

Comment 1
Mon, April 27, 2009 10:13pm
Carl May
All my comments

Got to agree, this will test the meaning of the word “restore.”

How can one restore if not all the pieces have been saved? In addition to the golf course, let’s not forget the Fairway Park subdivision occupying former habitat on both sides of the highway as well as all the other paved and roofed over landscape in the watershed.

A better project might concentrate on enhancement of existing habitat. But the two species of animals, SFGS and red-legged frog, are only banner carriers. Enhancement of freshwater marsh conditions would be the better ecological cause for all the other species that would benefit and the overall sustainability of the system.

The berm isn’t going to be removed. People in Fairway Park and the southern end of Sharp Park would never allow it. Pacifica is hung up on trying to stop the ocean by artificial means, witness the sea walls, berms, rip rap, etc.

But even if it is academic, the SFGS and most likely both red-legged and tree frogs (snake food) were in the marsh before the berm, anyway, as shown by older specimens in collections. In the last push to develop Mori Point, before it was purchased for open space and became part of the GGNRA, the SFGS was a big issue (it also uses lower areas of upland habitat), it was stated several times that this area was once one of the most popular collecting locations for the snake. Hypothetically, a true restoration effort for the entire habitat would do just fine by the frog and snake, brackish water and occasional storms notwithstanding.

Ken King makes several false statements about Sharp Park, the restoration proposal for the land, and the bill introduced by Supervisor Mirkarimi to kick-start that proposal.

Every environmentalist has demanded that scientific studies be conducted before any decision about Sharp Park’s future is made, including decisions about Sharp Park’s illicitly built and crumbling sea wall.  The Mirkarimi bill expressly requires, based on the best scientific evidence available, that a restoration study be conducted along with alternatives that retain or redesign the golf course.  The bill will force these studies to be integrated into the EIR process referenced by Mr. King, but it will modify that process to ensure that restoration alternatives are considered along with existing alternatives that keep things largely as they are.  Mr. King has steadfastly opposed restoration studies, because for political and personal reasons he doesn’t want the status quo to change.

But the status quo cannot be maintained.  The golf course loses too much money, it causes too much harm to the environment, and it exposes the surrounding community to flooding risks that will be exacerbated by climate change.  In the face of these liabilities, subsidizing golf in San Mateo County for as little as $12 a round while San Francisco makes drastic cuts to basic city services simply cannot continue.

Mr. King proposes a simplistic solution: raise prices.  But if Sharp Park raises prices, fewer golfers will play there and the course’s deficit will increase.  The Bay Area already supplies 6 million more rounds of golf than golfers demand, driving golf prices downward precisely when Mr. King claims we should raise them.  Moreover, the National Golf Foundation found that golfers at Sharp Park have very little loyalty to the course and play there primarily because it is cheap. Because of this, San Francisco’s Budget Analyst concluded that Sharp Park cannot reduce its deficit by simply raising prices: golfers will just take their game elsewhere. 

And Sharp Park’s deficit is substantial. Sharp Park has lost between $30,000 and $300,000 a year for the past four fiscal years from the golf fund alone. San Francisco’s other golf courses suffer for it, because they must subsidize Sharp Park’s losses, robbing other courses of needed maintenance. But that isn’t all it costs San Francisco to operate Sharp Park: Sharp Park also draws down the capital fund, the open space fund, and the natural areas program fund. In 2007, the Recreation and Parks Department concluded that these expenses will not be offset by revenue from Sharp Park, collectively resulting in millions of dollars in losses by 2013.

This may be chump change compared to San Francisco’s multi-billion dollar budget, but if this hemorrhaging were halted San Francisco would not need to make proposed cuts to City services, services that are already distributed inequitably. These funds could keep our community centers open after school so kids will have a safe place to stay until their parents return from work. They could even be used to improve San Francisco’s other golf courses that are suffering from deferred maintenance, or improve our playgrounds and dog parks to make them safe.

On top of all this, the scientific evidence makes it abundantly clear that Sharp Park golf course is the cause of harm to endangered species, not the cure for it.  The San Francisco garter snake, arguably the world’s most beautiful and imperiled serpent, was considered “abundant” at Sharp Park in surveys conducted in the 1940’s—before the sea wall was built—but has declined precipitously in surveys ever since.  In 2006 a US Fish and Wildlife Service report concluded that a San Francisco garter snake was killed by a lawn mower at Sharp Park, and in 2008 only one snake was seen at Sharp Park all year.  The golf course has yet to implement a single mitigation measure for the snake. 

Also in 2008—three years after mitigation measures for take of the California red-legged were reluctantly implemented by the golf course—biological investigators found “several” desiccated California red-legged frog egg masses at Sharp Park.  This year investigators concluded that, subsequent to a $240,000 repair of the golf course’s pump house, entrainment of the frog’s egg masses and tadpoles can occur, sending them out to sea.

Environmentalists have been consistent in their message: use the best available science to consider restoration alternatives at Sharp Park before political deals are cut about the future of the land.  With this information we can select the best choice for everyone at Sharp Park, including golfers, endangered species, and other recreational users of Sharp Park.  The Mirkarimi bill will kick-start this process, and deserves support because of it.

If you’re accusing someone of making false statements you should at least identify those statements you consider to be false. Your posting fails to do that.

Your statement that:

“Environmentalists have been consistent in their message: use the best available science to consider restoration alternatives at Sharp Park before political deals are cut about the future of the land.”

is a statement that I believe Ken would agree with wholeheartedly. In fact, I would say that that is the very reason Ken wrote what he wrote.

Brent Plater claims he backed an Environmental Impact Report before Ross Mirkarimi added it to his legislation passed on Tuesday, and that I opposed this EIR.

Permit me to quote from my opening post: “The answer of course is to do an Environmental Impact Report that studies all of the possible alternatives, including doing nothing at all, then make the best decision.”

Clearly Professor Plater is reading-challenged and would benefit by taking a remedial English course in reading comprehension.

Mr. King originally claimed that an environmental review process would not happen under the Mirkarimi ordinance, and now claims that the ordinance was amended to require such an environmental review process. 

Both of these statements are false.  The ordinance was not amended as Mr. King suggests, because such an amendment was unnecessary: the ordinance’s intent was always to require the called-for alternatives to be integrated into planned environmental review processes.

There have been three amendments to the ordinance since it was introduced, all on May 5:

5/5/2009, AMENDED. Amended, page 1, Line 21, changing date to “July 31.”

5/5/2009, AMENDED. Amended, Page 2, Lines 5-7, adding “(b) No later than August 31, 2009, the Department shall provide to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors a report detailing the steps taken, and the progress made, to achieve the goals set forth in subsection (a), above.”

5/5/2009, AMENDED. Amended, Page 2, Line 1, adding “and the City of Pacifica and/or County of San Mateo.”

None of these amendments have anything to do with an EIR process.  This is because such an amendment was unnecessary: the original intent of the ordinance was to require the called-for alternatives to be integrated into planned EIR processes.  Mr. King failed to recognize this originally, and posted false statements regarding the environmental review process on Coastsider because of his failure.

Mr. King now recognizes that the alternatives called for in the Mirkarimi ordinance will be integrated into planned EIR processes, but apparently to save face, he claims that this is only because the ordinance was amended to address his concerns. 

This is another false statement: the only thing that has been amended is Mr. King’s perception of the legislation.  Again, none of the amendments address EIR procedures, because the ordinance always contemplated integrating the called-for alternatives into an environmental review process. 

It is unclear if Mr. King is posting these false statements out of malice or ignorance, but under either scenario he does a disservice to readers when he does so.

Sorry Brent Plater, but the “false statements”, “malice or ignorance”, and “disservice to readers” belong squarely to you. In his office and in the presence of 4 other witnesses, Supervisor Mirkarimi stated that he didn’t want an EIR because “There’s no money to pay for one”. He added that GGNRA could pay for one after the transfer of the property.

If SF is now processing this “study” as an EIR alternatives analysis it’s most likely because City staff recognizes the legal necessity. All the face-saving also belongs to you now that your end-run necessarily has to be played up the middle.

I’ve been treading lightly on this discussion because a lot of useful information is being posting, but I want to repeat my warning that I’ve made to the participants in email: Please keep it civil. You can dispute the other guy’s facts without calling him a liar.

What Supervisor Mirkarmi wisely rejected was an EIR to do an EIR: which is what the King request amounted to and why it was rejected.  It is an absurd waste of money to require an EIR to create alternatives that will be assessed through an EIR process anyway.

The Mirkarimi legislation always intended to add restoration options created through the legislation into planned EIR processes that the recreation and parks department was required to complete.  the Mirkarimi legislation simply requires that these EIRs consider during these processes alternatives that redesign or eliminate the golf course, rather than presuming that the golf course continues. 

This was well known to everyone from the beginning of the process, and is still the process that will be conducted now that the legislation has been passed on first reading unanimously by the Board of Supervisors.

Sorry Brent, but your skeetswhich is disquating your framsaddle - I shouldn’t bother if I were you.

Nothing like the pot calling the kettle black. The fact is, it is not Mr. King, but Mr. Plater’s organization, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), that has a documented track record of less than honest comportment. It is also Mr. Plater’s organization, the CBD, that was, in fact, held accountable by a jury of its peers in Arizona, in the amount of $600,000 ($500,000 in punitive damages) for posting false and malicious information about another on its own internet website. For those interested in learning more about the Center for Biological Diversity’s modus operandi relative to truthfulness in that matter, and the possible relevance of such to its current position regarding Sharp Park and the two endangered species of alleged concern to it here, the Arizona Court of Appeals opinion in Chilton v. Center for Biological Diversity (2 CA-CV 2005-0115, Dec 6, 2006), which was subsequently affirmed but ordered depublished by the Arizona Supreme Court, provides an excellent source of factual information—factual information that the Supervisors should have responsibly availed themselves of (but apparently did not) before making any decision relative to the future of Sharp Park.