SAN FRANCISCO -- On a sunny, brisk November morning, National Park Service ranger Michael Chassé hopped over a railing and bent down to check on a row of small plants on a ridge overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
The evergreen shrubs, reaching no more than a foot off the ground, aren't much to look at, but people are eager to see them. They are cuttings taken from a massive Franciscan manzanita, a plant that had been thought extinct in the wild since the 1940s, whose precise location in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has been a closely held secret since it was spotted three years ago.
The plant's discovery sparked an elaborate rescue and transplant operation, an endangered species designation and controversy over how far federal officials should go in trying to keep the Franciscan manzanita -- clones of which can be bought in garden stores -- alive in the wild.
The dramatic tale has led nature-loving locals to try to seek out the plant since it was moved to an undisclosed location in the Presidio, a former military base-turned-verdant park on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. The new cuttings are the government's attempt to give enthusiasts an opportunity to see the species without trespassing on federal land or overrunning the plant.
"The people we've seen hopping the fence are people excited about the story and are basically environmentalists, not realizing they're not the only ones doing that," Chassé said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's critical habitat designation for the species is due out next year. The agency's plan envisions 11 plantings around the city, mostly on rocky outcroppings in city parks, though some critics have vowed to fight the proposal.
Naturalists had given the plant up for extinct since the 1940s, after rapid development transformed two local cemeteries -- the shrub's last refuges in the city -- into neighborhoods. The plant thrived on San Francisco's fog and its deposits of serpentinite rock, in part because other species that might have crowded it out are less suited to the shallow, poor-quality soil the mineral produces.
In the fall of 2009, a botanist commuting into the city over the Golden Gate Bridge spotted what looked like a manzanita plant in an area being cleared for a construction project. He knew of the manzanita's troubles; although there are dozens of similar-looking species, none of them thrives in the city, and experts had done an exhaustive search over the years.
"There was sort of an element of, 'It just can't be. I just don't believe it,'" said Dan Gluesenkamp, now the executive director of the California Native Plant Society. He originally thought it might be a Raven's manzanita, another endangered, endemic-to-San Francisco species. Upon driving past the plant again, he called other experts, who quickly pinpointed the plant as the Franciscan manzanita.
Then followed an early-morning rescue operation in January 2010, in which state and federal agencies, environmentalists and biologists moved the 10-ton plant and root ball into the Presidio, where it is regularly monitored.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the plant as endangered in September 2012 and simultaneously proposed 11 locations within San Francisco as critical habitat. FWS plans to make official site selections by September 2013 with a more-detailed recovery plan to follow by 2015.
For now, the cuttings in Golden Gate give hikers, bicyclists and school groups an opportunity to see the species without harming it.
"If we did have some plants established near scenic overlooks or along trails, where people can stay on the trail and not go off the trail to see the plants, that is another step in preserving the species," Chassé said. "That's the phase we're in right now."
A viable population
Until three years ago, the manzanita was thought only to exist in botanical gardens around the Bay Area, which have housed specimens surviving from the cemeteries, and in clones available from garden stores.
The plantings in backyards and botanical gardens weren't enough to get the plant listed under the Endangered Species Act, and a single specimen in the wild wouldn't have much hope of creating healthy descendants. But the combination of both has created ideal circumstances for bringing the plant back.
Like humans, manzanita plants need to be cross-pollinated with specimens other than direct relatives, to prevent inbreeding. So the existence of other genetic individuals in addition to the recently discovered plant is crucial, experts engaged in the manzanita's recovery said.
"To me it's the thing that really sets this whole situation in a totally different place than the situation with the Raven's manzanita," said Mike Vasey, a biology lecturer at San Francisco State University, who was involved in the replanting operation. The Raven's, declared endangered in 1979, has a sole "mother plant" in the Presidio as well but has not produced any seedlings since its rediscovery in 1952.
"From a biological perspective, one individual who can't produce over time, there's been a term used for that," Vasey added. "We call them zombies. The living dead. They're alive, but they're not capable of producing wild populations in the future. For all intents and purposes, when that individual dies, the species again goes extinct. It's not the same thing as a viable population of a species."
Don Mahoney, curator at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which has about 30 thriving specimens on its grounds as well as about 120 cuttings in planters, also said the wild plant and garden specimens are both necessary. "If we only had the Doyle Drive one, it probably would be lost," Mahoney said.
About half the 14 plants on the overlook in the Presidio are dried-out and burned-looking, evidence of the difficulties in resurrecting a plant that can be hard to cultivate even in well-kept gardens.
Heather-type shrubs such as the manzanita "tend to be a very difficult plant family to grow in nurseries and then plant out," Chassé said. "It's often susceptible to different diseases in gardens and seeds have a low germination rate, so we're not discouraged."
Fish and Wildlife Service officials say they will use the other genetic individuals to bolster the species when they approve the final habitat designations.
"The plan is to take cuttings of those and outplant some of those in the critical habitat areas to promote that cross-pollination," said Daniel Russell, an FWS deputy assistant field supervisor.
But that plan has drawn criticism from some quarters.
Public comments have been filed objecting to the use of parks and expressing concern that trees might be cut down to give the manzanita full access to sunlight. They also have noted that the plant -- as cloned from a 1940s individual -- is publicly available for purchase at area nurseries.
"Closing scarce city parkland to plant a manzanita you can easily buy in Berkeley is ludicrous," wrote San Francisco resident Curt Theisen.
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck picked up on the plan in April. "This is the most amazing story I have ever heard," he said. "That's your tax dollar, hard at work, by the president of the United States. His name is on the side of the highway that just spent $205,000 to translocate a plant that you can buy at Home Depot for $15.95. But this is a wild one."
Plant experts dispute that it's a waste of money to re-establish the manzanita in the wild.
"The idea that plants that are in backyards or that kind of thing [would be considered wild] is just completely missing the point about what's a species," said Vasey of San Francisco State University. "If people don't attempt to manage and essentially establish wild populations, then it will remain extinct for all intents and purposes."
Others say the plan might not go far enough in protecting the species. Critical habitat should be given to all the plants propagated from wild specimens, including ones sold by botanical gardens, said Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute, which filed the original petition to list the Franciscan manzanita as endangered.
He said he didn't see an issue with private homes' yards potentially being declared off-limits to federal activity. "That's plant enthusiasts' ultimate hope for the work that they do, to participate and be part of it, have their hobbies be part of the recovery efforts," he said. "There's a lot of people in San Francisco who would love their backyards to be part of a recovery effort like this."