Starr King Open Space Steadily Being Restored

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A work party at the park replace a paved area with native plants. Photo: Margo Bors

Starr King Open Space is slowly being returned to its indigenous flora, with the cultivation of a native plant garden and creation of a plot to be conserved by students at adjacent Starr King Elementary School.

“We have been coordinating with Literacy for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit in southeast San Francisco that promotes environmental health, getting native plants from their nursery to propagate our garden. This fall, Education Outside, an AmeriCorps program, will work with fourth and fifth grade classes to cordon off the Annex, a 50 foot by 50-foot area to educate students throughout the school year,” said Bill Gollihur, a Starr King board member who serves as a stewardship and volunteer coordinator.

Gollihur said the board anticipates cultivating native grasses in the area that’s presently covered by Coral Road after that street’s pavement has been removed and the home under construction on adjacent De Haro Street has been completed.

Nine Starr King board members, who aren’t compensated, are elected from and by Potrero Hill residents to serve two to three-year terms. They must be at least 18 years-old. Votes are held annually in May at a general board meeting. If a member is unable to serve the remainder of their term, the board selects a replacement.  Present members include Maureen Kelly Loya, president, Annabrooke Temple, vice president, Daniel Fineman, treasurer, and Siobhan Dolan, secretary.

According to Alyssa Pun, LEJ’s restoration and stewardship coordinator, 1,728 plants belonging to 27 different native plant species have been planted across the three and half acres of the open space. Species include blue wild rye, red fescue, blue fescue, purple needle grass, aster, yarrow, buckwheat, mule’s ear, lomatium, soap plant, sticky cinquefoil, Islais cherry, and oak trees.

“Teens ages 14 through 18 from Bayview and Hunters Point have helped with the maintenance work and planting for the native plant garden,” said Pun.

Peter Brastow, senior environmental specialist for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said the Department provided $20,000 from the San Francisco Carbon Fund to support development of the native plant garden.  “The Carbon Fund is a climate mitigation program that provides grants to projects throughout the City, including for greening. Every time a City employee books a plane flight for a work-related purpose, a percentage of the price of the ticket is put into the Carbon Fund,” said Brastow.

The Open Space is divided into two parts, the larger portion across Carolina Street, with a smaller plot to the left of Starr King Elementary School. Liam O’Brien, a lepidopterist and conservationist, said the City has a large number of natural areas like Starr King Open Space that “are rather comprised, quite fractured and small.”  He believes it’s important to cultivate native species. “The non-native plants are like a tsunami on our native hillside. In some places, nothing endemic is left,” said O’Brien.

Gollihur said seeds for grasses cultivated in the native plant garden come from open areas in Bernal Heights and Candlestick Park, as well as San Bruno Mountain. “One of the ways we control non-native plant growth is by replacing the invasive grasses with perennials. Many invasive species are annual. They only grow once a year. Unfortunately, they’re really bad for fire fuel. They build up all this matter, this thatch. So, we mow the Open Space and introduce native plants that can survive with less water. Those plants are pretty competitive,” said Pun.

According to Jake Sigg, member and former president of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, the fact that the Open Space is a serpentine grassland doesn’t stop vegetation from doing well in it.  “Serpentine soil is deficient in several elements, like calcium. In place of that, it has magnesium. That’s problematic for most plants, which can’t handle the magnesium. Yet there are degrees of serpentine toxicity. Some serpentine areas of California have less than others. The Starr King serpentine is not as toxic as most serpentine,” said Sigg.

Sigg said the high number of Oxalis plants – a shamrock-like plant with a bright yellow flower – in the Open Space presents an additional concern. Oxalis has a reputation for taking over plots, excluding native species. “This is a bulb, so pulling out the green, leafy part of the plant doesn’t work. It can keep coming back indefinitely. You have to kill the bulb,” said Sigg. Sigg said the only feasible way to kill Oxalis is with herbicide. “Digging is forbidden because you damage the soil structure…assures that only invasive weeds will growth there henceforth,” he said.

Native plants at risk in the Open Space include the Yellow Mariposa Lily (Calochortus luteus) and Silvery Lupine (Lupinus albifrons). These wildflowers provide food for native butterfly species like the Woodland Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides) and the West Coast painted lady (Vanessa anabella). In turn, native predators feed on the butterflies.  “Butterflies are pretty much food at all four stages of their life, egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. They’re a movable feast for all the rest of nature. About 80 percent of butterflies at the adult stage are eaten by birds and spiders,” said O’Brien.

George Spencer, Education Outside instructor, said understanding the links between the different plants and animals that live in the Open Space is a goal for Starr King-Annex students. The Annex project is part of Education Outside’s work to engage Starr King Elementary School pupils in science knowledge and stewardship, creating lifelong learners and community leaders.

“The Open Space surrounds the school. Utilizing it really empowers the students to get involved in a place that’s so near and dear to them. Students already do a lot of work on greening the School. They pick up litter because it’s very windy up there. Trash just blows around the area. They sort trash into the different recycling bins. That’s a big part of meal time. Connecting students to the idea of urban greenspaces should be exciting,” said Spencer.

Spencer said the number of students who participate in the Annex depends on how many teachers voluntarily signup to take their classes there. Education Outside funds Spencer’s position.

“We’ve been trying to cut down the foxtails. They’re not native and they’re a hazard to dogs’” said Loya. “We are in desperate need of volunteer help for weeding. We have workdays with free coffee and bagels every second Saturday of the month from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It’s a great way to get to know your neighbors.”

Gollihur said that nearby homeowners plant non-native species in the Open Space.  “We’ve seen rose bushes that aren’t native. We can take those out. But there’s a bunch of eucalyptus planted at the top of the Hill. It would be a lot of money to cut them down,” said Gollihur.

In addition to insects and plants, the Open Space is home to gophers and rats, though few mammals are drawn to it. “We don’t have a water source. That keeps the larger animals like skunks away. You often see hawks and crows hunting in the Space. They swoop around up here because they like the wind that comes up through the Mission District. It allows them to hang there on the average windy day,” said Gollihur.

“Starr King Open Space is a privately held natural area, the only one with this kind of arrangement in the City. It’s a natural area and a community park. This has proved successful,” said Brastow.  “We play a support role for a lot of land managers in terms of integrated pest management and biodiversity. The City does not have oversight per se of privately owned lands like this one. The only time there would be a concern is if there was a public nuisance on the property.”

During World War II, the spot that’s now Starr King Open Space housed Pier 70 shipyard workers. After the war, the housing was demolished. The land sat vacant for roughly four decades, until it was dedicated as a green space in 1984.

The Department is collecting information about San Francisco’s biodiversity, including related to the Open Space.  “I am leading a project funded by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network,” a peer-to-peer network of local government professionals across the U.S. and Canada that seeks to create a healthier environment. We started the project in January 2018. We are funded by Seed Fund Grants, the USDN, and the Presidio Trust. The total budget is $119,000. This money creates a toolkit for the City to figure out which sites and which species are critical to maintaining biodiversity. The goal is to create a model of citizen science with apps like eBird and iNaturalist. Since Starr King Open Space is a natural area in the middle of the City, it allows folks to go out and collect data about the plants and animals on it with very little coordination. That is very valuable,” said Brastow.

Pun anticipates people will want to help collect data. “I think education is a huge strategy here. By working with the school and the neighborhood, the board is already ahead,” said Pun.

See page 9 for details on Starr King Open Space’s annual Fundraising event on September 30.