Foamgate: Mystery of an endangered flower

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TESS VIGELAND: History is filled with epic battles over land . . . Who gets to use it, how much development is allowed. The stakes are usually high. Here's one that revoles around a flower.A delicate white flower called the Sebastopol Meadowfoam. It's the key to a nine-year, not-so-delicate fight over 21 acres of open space in the town of Sebastopol, Calif. The battle may be coming to an end soon.But a mystery remains. Was the Meadowfoam's appearance an act of Mother Nature, or an act of genteel ecoterrorism? Brendan Newnam reports on . . . Foamgate.


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BRENDAN NEWNAM: On a plateau overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a tributary to the Russian River, you can hear the wind rustle through the grass.

There's a lone vulture flying over this 21-acre wetland, the proposed site of the Laguna Vista subdivision.

Robert Evans loves this place. An avid naturalist and former school administrator, he's hiked here for years. One day last April, Evans was enjoying an amble when suddenly a small cluster of flowers caught his eye.

ROBERT EVANS: So I had the Aha! We probably have a rare and endangered plant here but I'm not an expert and I know that whoever declares this plant to be what it is has to be seen as someone who is totally impartial and totally an expert.

Evans called in a local botanist. As luck would have it, the plant was the Sebastopol Meadowfoam, an herb with tiny white flowers that's considered an endangered species both locally and federally. Just the ally Evans might need in his quest to fend off developers.

CARL WILCOX: The fact that this plant just showed up in atypical habitat caused us to question whether or not it was naturally occurring, and I think from our perspective in looking at the . . . investigating the situation that, you know, they were probably brought there.

Carl Wilcox is the the California Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Conservation Manager for the Central Coast.

Wilcox says the sudden appearance of the Sebastapol Meadowfoam raised his suspicions. Evans was a leading opponent of Laguna Vista. And if the Meadowfoam was found to be native to the site, the flower could impede or stop the proposed development.

But it turns out the history of the Meadowfoam at the site is not clear. Robert Evans uncovered reports previously written by scientists on the developer's payroll that indicated they had seen the flower at the site before. The author of that report now claims that it was a clerical error.

Meanwhile, Wilcox has opened a criminal investigation. He maintains that the Sebastopol Meadowfoam was falsely introduced into the area. He says the plants Evans discovered existed on top of other plants and did not appear to be rooted in the subsoil.

Eric Johnson is a member of the Laguna Preservation Council, a group dedicated to preserving the area. He says it's not easy to believe that someone could have planted the herb.

ERIC JOHNSON: It would take a sort of ninja to accomplish this thing, because that's open land and right next to it are all these homes and mobile home park people who look out their windows at the land.

But since anyone can have access to the land, it's impossible to know which came first, the activist or the meadowfoam. And now, Sebastopol Meadowfoam is blooming once again on the Laguna Vista site.

But the Department of Fish and Game still maintains that the flowers are from the seeds of the introduced plants. That begs the question: if the Meadowfoam so easily took seed why is it endangered in the first place? Wilcox replies:

WILCOX: Well its endangered status results from its rarity and the loss of its habitat.

That's one thing both proponents and opponents of the development can agree on.

In San Francisco, Calif., I'm Brendan Newnam for Marketplace.

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