A promising future for tiny plant once believed extinct

Recognizing the ecological value of Ahmanson Ranch, the land was purchased by the state of California, and as a result, is today the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a permanently protected open space that provides habitat not only for San Fernando Valley spineflower, but an array of wildlife and city dwellers looking for space for outdoor recreation from hiking to horseback riding. Credit: Connie Rutherford/USFWS

How a Southern California developer helped save the San Fernando Valley spineflower

By Ashley Spratt
April 4, 2018

Nathan Gale and Anuja Parikh were among the botanist team that rediscovered the San Fernando Valley spineflower at Newhall Ranch in 2000. Photo courtesy of Nathan Gale and Anuja Parikh

The San Fernando Valley spineflower, a tiny plant once believed extinct, has a promising future thanks to innovation, perseverance and proactive collaboration between conservation agencies and a Southern California developer.

“We thought this plant was lost forever,” says Cat Darst, Assistant Field Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, California. “Now, less than 20 years later, it’s being reestablished in historical locations. To me, that means success.”

Presumed extinct for more than 70 years, the San Fernando Valley spineflower was rediscovered in 1999 in just two locations in Southern California: Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County, which at the time was proposed for development; and, Newhall Ranch, where state and Los Angeles County officials last summer reapproved a mixed-use master-planned community west of Interstate 5 in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The San Fernando Valley spineflower was designated a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 and listed as endangered under California state law in 2001.

“This is a success story,” said Emile Haddad, Chairman and CEO of FivePoint Holdings, LLC, the developer of Newhall Ranch and the largest developer of master-planned communities in Coastal California. “If you have an open mind, you can problem solve. A healthy economy can go hand in hand with a healthy environment.”

Botanist Anuja Parikh (left) with Cat Darst,  points toward a small San Fernando Valley spineflower plant at Potrero Preserve, site of seeding trials to help grow the plant in previously unoccupied areas. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

The unique collaboration began in the midst of a decades-long entitlement process that led key stakeholders to see that their interests could complement each other. It also highlights the increasing importance of public-private partnerships – particularly in land-constrained and ecologically sensitive regions like California – to accomplish vital environmental objectives.

Although the state’s 2003 acquisition of Ahmanson Ranch ensured that spineflower habitat would be protected in perpetuity in the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon, Darst was still concerned for the plant’s future. Invasive grasses at the Upper Los Virgenes Canyon pose a threat to the population of the tiny annual buckwheat there.

And as Newhall Ranch moved slowly through the approval process, botanists were concerned how its development might impact the spineflower.

Finally, the presence of Argentine ants, common invaders in urban environments, could undermine the spineflower’s reproduction by displacing native ants, which are known pollinators of the spineflower.

“We needed to find a way to ensure spineflower populations could be sustainable in the long-run,” Darst said.

A closer look: Andy Thomson, restoration ecologist with Dudek, an environmental consulting firm, points out a tiny San Fernando Valley spineflower plant at the Potrero Preserve on Newhall Ranch in Los Angeles County. The preserve is part of an introduction plan to reestablish San Fernando Valley spineflower. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

It was clear that FivePoint, the parent company to Newhall Land and Farming Company, would ultimately play an important role in preserving the San Fernando Valley spineflower for generations to come.

Colored markers designate San Fernando Valley spineflower seeding trial study at Potrero Preserve in Los Angeles County. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

Newhall Ranch was reapproved in 2017 for 21,500 homes and seven schools within nine interconnected neighborhood villages. Newhall Ranch is estimated to create 75,000 new permanent jobs to the area, preserve more than 10,000 acres of open space and establish more than 50 miles of walking trails. It will be the largest community in the United States that commits to a net zero increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

With FivePoint’s commitment to environmental stewardship, botanists and restoration ecologists were recruited to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for the San Fernando Valley spineflower.

Nathan Gale and Anuja Parikh, a husband-and-wife botanist team fondly called the ‘spineflower whisperers,’ were charged with finding San Fernando Valley spineflower plants in the field. “Our claim to fame is that we’ve seen more spineflower than anyone else on the planet,” said Gale, who along with Parikh rediscovered the San Fernando Valley spineflower on Grapevine Mesa of Newhall Ranch in 2000.

Husband and wife team Nathan Gale and Anuja Parikh, fondly known as the "spineflower whisperers," were among the first botanists to rediscover San Fernando Valley spineflower on the Grapevine Mesa of Newhall Ranch in 2000. “Our claim to fame is that we’ve seen more spineflower than anyone else on the planet,” Gale said. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

The result of their work based on data collected from nearly a decade of survey and conservation planning was a 2010 Spineflower Conservation Plan to protect, enhance and manage a 230-acre preserve system within Newhall Ranch that held 75 percent of the Los Angeles County spineflower population at the time.

But Jodi McGraw, a botanist who joined the team to answer information gaps about the ecology of the San Fernando Valley spineflower, knew preserving spineflower populations only where the plant currently existed wouldn’t be enough.

“Once we understood the habitat that the spineflower needed, the question became, can we establish this plant in suitable but unoccupied areas through the addition of seeds?” said McGraw, whose 25 years of experience with the Ben Lomond spineflower in Santa Cruz County gave her unique insight into the plant’s habitat needs.

So the team started to think about potential reintroductions beyond the footprint of the Newhall Ranch development site, including where it existed historically and where it could persist in the future.

Botanist Jodi McGraw collects data from the San Fernando Valley spineflower seeding study plots. The team collected salvaged top soil including spineflower seedbanks from development areas and stored it for safekeeping at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens and National Seed Lab in Colorado.  Photo courtesy of Andy Thomson.

Andy Thomson, a restoration ecologist with the environmental consulting firm Dudek, helped lay the foundation for a spineflower introduction plan, including seeding trials launched in 2016. The basic goal was to establish new spineflower populations in unoccupied areas, including sites that were historically occupied by the plant and entirely new locations with qualities of suitable spineflower habitat.

Andy Thomson, a restoration ecologist with the environmental consulting firm, Dudek, points out spineflower seedlings to conservation partners from Newhall Land and Farming company (owned by FivePoint Holdings), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jodi McGraw Consulting, and FLx environmental consulting firms. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

The team collected seeds from flowers and salvaged top soil from development areas that included the seedbank of the San Fernando Valley spineflower and stored them for safekeeping at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens and National Seed Lab in Colorado. Seeding trials began in 2016 at two sites adjacent to existing spineflower preserves established by the 2010 Spineflower Conservation Plan.

Spineflower seeding study plot with colored flags marking spineflower plants that have initiated flowering (blue) or are already in flower (red). Photo courtesy of Jodi McGraw

It was a success.

“From a return-on-investment perspective, we had 30 times as many seeds produced as were put out into the ground,” McGraw said. “One of our highest performing plants produced up to 10,000 flowers.”

Buoyed by that early success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FivePoint formalized plans for introduction of the spineflower in a Candidate Conservation Agreement in 2017. That plan secured the permanent conservation of over 1,500 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties for the benefit of the spineflower.

“FivePoint has committed the resources needed for this to be a successful introduction with long-term management and monitoring,” Thomson said. FivePoint has dedicated more than $8 million to fund the establishment of spineflower introductions and long-term conservation and management of the new sites.

Matt Carpenter, of FivePoint (center), discusses long-term conservation efforts for San Fernando Valley spineflower at Newhall Ranch with assistant field supervisor Cat Darst (left) and field supervisor Steve Henry (right) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We take on conservation efforts that are meaningful and going to work,” said Carpenter. “That can’t be accomplished without working with agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help us get there.” Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

That number is in addition to the approximately $10 million in habitat enhancements and endowments for long-term management efforts that FivePoint is funding for the 2010 Spineflower Conservation Plan already underway.

As a result of collaborative, proactive conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a 2016 proposal to list the spineflower as threatened under the Endangered Species Act this March.

“This is a victory for proactive, partnership-driven conservation,” said Paul Souza, the Service’s Pacific Southwest Regional Director. “Listing a species under the Endangered Species Act is neither a goal nor a measure of success. Working together with state, local and private partners to avert the need to list, saves taxpayer money, reduces the regulatory burden and ensures our wildlife thrive for future generations.”

The Service remains committed to working closely with FivePoint and the botanical community to ensure the San Fernando Valley spineflower remains part of the Southern California landscape for years to come, and will evaluate both implementation and effectiveness of conservation measures over the next 10 years, Darst said.

“The level of commitment to this plant is unprecedented,” she said.

As a result of collaborative, proactive conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a 2016 proposal to list the spineflower as threatened under the Endangered Species Act this March. Credit: Ashley Spratt/USFWS

The Service remains committed to working closely with FivePoint and the botanical community to ensure the San Fernando Valley spineflower remains part of the Southern California landscape for years to come and will evaluate both implementation and effectiveness of conservation measures over the next 10 years. Here, conservation partners from Newhall Land and Farming Company, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dudek, Jodi McGraw Consulting, and FLx environmental consulting firms observe spineflower seedlings. “The level of commitment to this plant is unprecedented,” said assistant field supervisor Cat Darst.

Askley Spratt

Ashley Spratt

About the writer...

Ashley Spratt is the public affairs supervisor for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. Ashley established her love of wildlife and the great outdoors as a child exploring national parks in South Africa. Today, she guides a team of communicators who tell stories about the unique and diverse wildlife and wild places of the southern and central California coast.

You can find more of their work at http://www.fws.gov/ventura and http://www.facebook.com/VenturaFWO

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