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September|October 2005
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Evil Twins By John Wolfson
Elder Counsel By Louisa Lombard
U-Hell By Nicholas Hengen
Torture, Inc. By Tara McKelvey
Was the Plant a Plant? By Demian Bulwa
Cases & Controversies

Was the Plant a Plant?

An endangered flower sprouts mysteriously in the path of a planned development.

By Demian Bulwa

ON A RAIN-SOAKED AFTERNOON IN APRIL, Robert Evans pulled on rubber boots, drove to the edge of a brush-covered field, and waded deeper into controversy. The bird watcher and retired school administrator had spent the last four years leading the fight against Laguna Vista, a housing development scheduled to rise within view of his redwood deck in the wine country of Sebastopol, Calif. Evans had protested at city hearings against the plan for 145 houses and apartments, and he had escorted reporters on tours of the site, 21 acres of what he believed were irreplaceable wetlands that supported rare plants and animals. But as the 6 foot 2 inch Evans hiked through the field, along a fence separating the property from a mobile-home park, he spotted what appeared to be kernels of popcorn in the brush.

Evans, 71, recognized them almost immediately. They were the bowl-shaped blossoms of the Sebastopol meadowfoam, Limnanthes vinculans, a low-growing plant that was threatened by encroaching civilization and declared endangered in 1979. Evans knew that many a housing development in the state had been stopped by tiger salamanders, spineflowers, and other species protected under the California Environmental Quality Act, and now Laguna Vista would have to contend with meadowfoam. But Evans's first thought was that he could be in trouble. No one had seen the meadowfoam at the site before, and when he reported his discovery, the authorities might get suspicious. "I've been fighting this project for four years," he said, "and now I find, potentially, Limnanthes vinculans?"

SEBASTOPOL IS A HOT SPOT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM in a coastal region famous for it. The city of 7,800 people is governed by a council with five members, and three are registered with the Green Party. In March, an army of residents agreed to pull thousands of pepperweed plants from a nature preserve rather than allow the city to kill the weeds with herbicide. Evans is among the most visible activists devoted to the region's conservation. Several years ago, he hiked through nearby hills to investigate a plot of land donated to the Audubon Society. He found descendants of an old mining town living there, and earlier this year he told their story in Pine Flat, a 120-page book that he wrote and published "so the community would have this as a reference."

Two days after discovering the meadowfoam, Evans returned to the site with Philip Northen, a biology professor at nearby Sonoma State University. Northen confirmed the plants' identity, writing to state environmental officials that he had found about 30 Sebastopol meadowfoam and 15 snowy meadowfoam, a more common variety, "growing naturally on the property." He speculated that an unusually rainy winter had awakened dormant seeds, or that they had been carried to the spot on the feet of jackrabbits or deer. On April 26, the state Department of Fish and Game sent a biologist to investigate, and he concurred with Northen.

But there were skeptics. Scott Schellinger of Schellinger Brothers, the developer of the project, visited the site with his environmental consultant and quickly grew suspicious. The meadowfoam was "right inside the development footprint," he said, and none of the flowers were in larger wetlands nearby. He described the plants as looking like a "bad toupee." One of Schellinger's consultants repeatedly e-mailed Fish and Game officials and, two weeks later, the department sent two more experts to investigate.

One of the officials, botanist Gene Cooley, quickly concluded that the endangered plants had been planted, a crime under state law. "People joke about this all the time, stopping a development by putting an endangered plant in its path," he said a few days after his visit to the site. "I have 25 years' experience with state and federal agencies, and this is the only instance I know of where it's actually happened." Cooley declined to reveal his evidence, explaining that he did not want to encourage copycats. But a department spokesman later said the plants could not have grown naturally at the site, because they were too easily lifted from the soil, which itself was a combination of organic material and "more recent material." And matted plants were found underneath the meadowfoam, indicating that it had been placed on top of them. The department spokesman denied that Cooley's findings contradicted those of the department's biologist, because the biologist's job was to identify the plants as meadowfoam. Cooley's job was to dig deeper—literally.

But the mystery of the meadowfoam persisted. Schellinger said it was "a very safe assumption and a logical one" that an opponent of the project had moved the plants to the building site. Evans, though, pulled city records and found that, well before his discovery, environmental firms hired by the city had twice reported seeing meadowfoam at the site. Project supporters countered that the first sighting was a false alarm, wrongly recorded by an intern translating field notes, and the second turned out to be of the common snowy meadowfoam. Northen, meanwhile, suggested that someone had tampered with the plants to make it look as if they had been moved and to keep environmentalists from stalling the project. And Schellinger insisted that even if the discovery had been real, it would not have stopped Laguna Vista. It would only have forced the developer to abate any environmental damage by, for example, promising to propagate meadowfoam somewhere else.

IN THE MIDST OF THE CONTROVERSY, the project was placed back on track. The state Department of Fish and Game opened an investigation aimed at finding the green-thumbed criminal who had pulled off the meadowfoam "translocation." And reporters and editors at Sebastopol's weekly newspaper, the Sonoma West Times & News, started referring to the story as Foamgate.

During an interview at his home, Evans declined to escort a reporter to the location of the meadowfoam patch, which had been removed by then. A Fish and Game warden had questioned Evans in connection with the criminal case, and Evans said he was just following the advice of his attorney by not returning to the scene of the alleged crime. But he displayed maps, city records, and timelines he had gathered into an extensive collection of evidence to support his belief that the meadowfoam had grown on its own, and he explained that the state's criminal theory did not make sense.

Why would a horticultural vandal relocate an endangered flower, likely in the dead of night, and assume that someone else would happen upon it—someone who knew the importance of popcorn kernel—like petals in the brush? As Philip Northen said, "either Bob Evans was in on the scheme, or there was no scheme." There was no scheme, said Evans, other than nature's grand one: "It was just wonderful to see this plant there, and to see that, through the hard times, it had survived."

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