Killing golf course won’t save your red-legged frogs

A lot of coastal residents near San Francisco are asking themselves an age old question: What came first, the frog egg sacs or the battered sea wall?

The answer will provide a glimpse into the case surrounding Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica that, in the way of old municipal big-footing, is owned and operated by San Francisco, which this week was sued by a host of environmental groups over what they claim is shoddy conservation practices to protect endangered frogs and snakes.

Not included in the lawsuit, filed in federal court over the alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, is the real reason behind the legal challenge, which is that the environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, want the park turned back into natural coastal habitat.

And that is a tad ironic, because if the seawall that separates the ocean from the popular course were removed, the salt-water assault would likely wash away the lagoon that provides life for the frogs, which attract the snakes.

You know, kind of like nature.

I have no particular interest in golf, though I must say that any sport that involves walking, drinking, driving and metal clubs should be given its due respect. And the course at Sharp Park is incredibly popular, as duffers play 54,000 rounds each year, attracted by what its players say is the most-affordable municipal golf course in the Bay Area.

Yet the lawsuit isn’t really about frogs or golf — it’s about land use and entitlement, which is why the environmental groups have refused to go along with any of the plans forwarded by The City’s Recreation and Park Department, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and regulatory bodies in San Mateo and Pacifica, which are all trying to make sure that the golfers and the frogs can peacefully coexist for years to come.

“We have said repeatedly and unequivocally that we understand our legal obligations to the environment
and that there’s a way to move forward, protect these species and still keep the golf course,’’ said Rec and Park chief Phil Ginsburg. “There is a biological solution that can preserve golf.’’

But it’s not really one the Center for Biological Diversity wants to hear, so after 18 months of public hearings at the various local entities and several management plans, its members, after failing to block a proposal for a new $8 million recycled water treatment plant there, decided to act on their continuous threat to sue The City.

It’s enough to give ecology a bad name.

The lawsuit claims that hundreds of egg sacs from California red-legged frogs have been stranded on the golf course. Yet city officials say that its resource experts have identified about 160 of the sacs and moved more than 120 of them out of harm’s way in recent months.

The numbers would also suggest that the frog population is doing pretty well at Sharp Park, where the seaside location is prone to flooding, and where the rains this year have provided some very mucky conditions.

The environmental groups did their own study recently which determined that the most “cost-effective’’ option for the site was to remove the golf course and let the natural restoration of the area get under way. It’s an argument that they’ve been making since the tussle over the land began in 2009 and had park advocates pushing for the closing of numerous golf courses in and around San Francisco.

There is still ongoing debate over whether the golf course at Sharp Park should have ever been built 80 years ago, much in the same way that environmentalists are still upset that O’Shaughnessy Dam was built in the Yosemite Valley to bring water to San Francisco nearly a century ago. It’s mostly a rhetorical exercise that doesn’t quite come to grips with reality.

City officials have agreed to redesign the golf course to help protect the breeding areas of the frogs and snakes, but that’s not an alternative that the environmental coalition will embrace, which is why the case is now in federal court.

Maybe the court can answer another big question: How many eggs would survive if there wasn’t a golf course there?

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