"Rare plants look like rarer transplants"

"Protected plant suddenly shows on project’s land"

Those were the headlines in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the San Francisco Chronicle recently on articles about the sudden appearance of a clump of endangered plants in a proposed 21-acre subdivision near the town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County.

The two articles detail how a Santa Rosa developer has tried for three years to win approval for a 145-unit subdivision. Blocked by environmentalists, the developer scaled back his subdivision plans in response to the objections.

The county was in the final stages of an environmental review, according to the Press Democrat article, when suddenly a hiker who just happened to be a member of an environmental group opposing the development found an endangered species under state and federal law, Sebastopol meadowfoam, on the site.

"People joke about this all the time -- stopping a development by putting an endangered species in its path" Gene Cooley, a California Fish and Game botanist was quoted in the Chronicle article. "I have 25 years’ experience with state and federal agencies, and this is the only instance I know of where it’s actually happened."

It took Cooley just one hour to determine the endangered meadowfoam along with more common snowy meadowfoam had been transplanted on the proposed subdivision land.

Marco Waaland, who owns a firm called Golden Bear Biostudies, which is working on the project’s environmental report, said in the Chronicle article that the plants "weren’t even rooted in native soil.

"I’m dismayed that someone would try to use ecology in an unethical, unfair and unjust way," Waaland was quoted. "It seems like a desperate act to me."

Of course the man who found the endangered disagrees with the state findings. After he spotted the plants, he called Sonoma State University biology professor Phil Northern, who made the call to the county after determining the plants were "naturally occurring," according to the Chronicle article.

The man who found the plants scoffed at the idea some environmental group transplanted the meadowfoam. He was quoted in the San Francisco newspaper saying if anyone tampered with the plants it was the developer who made them appear to be transplanted.

Now that makes sense. Sure the developer who has spent thousands of dollars trying to win subdivision approval would try to disparage the environmental groups opposing it by making it appear that the opponents transplanted naturally occurring endangered species.

Five agencies are now reportedly looking into the incident.

There is a chance the meadowfoam could have sprouted long dormant seed in the proposed subdivision after the wet winter and spring California experienced this year. The development is within the natural range of the species.

However, there seems to be compelling evidence that the plants were transplanted since a state Game and Fish botanist as well as an environmental expert quickly determined that someone other than Mother Nature put them there.

If in fact they were transplants that raises the question of who did it and is that person guilty of a crime, specifically putting an endangered species in jeopardy. If investigators find a culprit, will the shovel used to dig up the endangered species be impounded like the tractor of the poor Kern County farmer who inadvertently disked a field several years ago that was the home of a kangaroo rat.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com