Protection Sought for Rare Beach Plant Threatened by Off-Road Vehicles

An extremely rare, low-growing beach plant that survives in just a few coastal sites in Oregon and the extreme north of California is being proposed by a number of environmental groups for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The silvery phacelia, Phacelia argentea, an 18-inch mat-forming herb that grows only in Del Norte County in California, and Coos and Curry counties in adjacent Oregon, is threatened by improper off-road vehicle recreation and invasive plants, according to a petition filed Friday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by eight environmental protection groups.

The groups are asking USFWS to consider the plant for listing as either Endangered or Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"Silvery phacelia is a unique part of the natural heritage of our coast but we could lose it forever if we aren't careful," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups filing the petition with USFWS. "Endangered Species Act protection is the best hope for protecting this beautiful plant for future generations," Curry added.

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The other groups joining CBD in petitioning USFWS to consider listing the plant are (in alphabetical order) the California Native Plant Society, the Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of Del Norte, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, the Native Plant Society of Oregon, Oregon Coast Alliance, and Oregon Wild.

Restricted to sandy coastal soils such as dunes and uplifted marine terraces, the silver-leafed plant species grows in fewer than 40 known sites, four or five of them in California. Development, roadbuilding, and a proposed coastal golf course on now-public land in Oregon threaten to infringe on some of the populations, but the more pressing threats are competition with the introduced plants gorse and European beachgrass, both of which shade out the low-growing plant.

In California, where the plant mainly grows in and near Tolowa Dunes State Park, trampling from off-road vehicles is also a serious threat, as shown in this photo by the group Tolowa Dunes Stewards that was included in the petition:

ORV tracks cut through a mat of Phacelia argentea at Tolowa Dunes State Park | Photo: Tolowa Dunes Stewards

If the plant is listed as Endangered or Threatened, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Del Norte County could be compelled to adjust their policy on off-road vehicles in the plant's habitat, and a critical habitat designation would make it harder to get federal funding for any project or policy that stood a chance of harming the Phacelia.

The petition now kicks off a 90-day period in which USFWS must decide whether to declare the plant a candidate for listing. If it does so, the agency will them embark on a year-long listing process during which the plant species will enjoy protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"Protecting silvery phacelia will not only ensure a future for this one plant species, but will also help safeguard our coastal environment for the quiet enjoyment of humans and for other rare species," said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator at Oregon Wild.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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