Crissy Field tidal wetlands may be too small to function


Mar 11, 2001
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Marsh expansion to be studied

Crissy Field tidal wetlands may be too small to function properly

Kathleen Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer  

June 6, 2002
San Francisco -- The Presidio Trust has promised to resurrect the streams of Tennessee Hollow and to restore native plants in the hills above Baker Beach by razing nonhistoric buildings in the Presidio of San Francisco.

But the trust has taken a wait-and-see stance toward the expansion of the tidal marsh at Crissy Field -- another project that has attracted widespread public support -- by announcing plans to study the issue.

Hillary Gitelman, the trust's deputy director for planning, said many questions need to be answered before the federal agency can decide if -- and where -- to expand the restored tidal marsh in the national park.

"Everyone thinks this is a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue, but we still have the obligation to assess the impact," she said.

At 18 acres, Crissy Marsh is much smaller than the 60-acre expanse its designers envisioned in 1995, when they drew long curving lines on a map of the Presidio's waterfront to create the ideal boundary of a marsh that could emerge from land then covered in soil, asphalt and rubble.

Back then, wetland experts thought 30 acres was the minimum required to ensure that the marsh would be self-sustaining -- that saltwater would flow freely in and out of the marsh as ocean tides rose and fell.

Its current size reflects compromises made to satisfy competing uses and goals.

Its eastern boundary was trimmed to make room for parking. A few acres were shaved off to preserve an Ohlone shell midden discovered during excavation. To the west, expansion was limited by the decision to restore a historic airfield with native grasses. To the south is Mason Street.

The marsh is on land controlled by the National Park Service, which oversees the Presidio's coastal areas. But the decision to enlarge the marsh rests with the trust, which oversees the rest of the park, including land available for expansion.

The trust has imposed a two-year moratorium on development south of the marsh -- along Mason Street -- and east of the commissary, a vacant grocery store it wants to turn into a museum.

Some marsh advocates had hoped the trust would raze the unsightly and cavernous commissary -- one observer described it as a Wal-Mart with an orange roof -- to allow the marsh to grow.

The trust's Gitelman said the 30-year-old commissary may not be attractive but is solid.

"In terms of our commitment to sustainability, it would be a shame to knock down something that is perfectly useable," she said.

However, the commissary may be demolished for another reason: for a detour for commuters while a new Doyle Drive is built by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Lee Saage, who is managing the project for the transportation authority, said other sites were ruled out for detours.

Saage said Doyle Drive, built in the 1930s, no longer meets safety or seismic standards.

Saage said the project should not hurt the trust's ability to expand Crissy Marsh.

Saage said the project also leaves room for "daylighting" Tennessee Hollow Creek, which flows into Crissy Marsh through underground pipes, and for restoring vegetation along its banks.

"It's been a challenge for all of us, though, because neither the expansion of Crissy Marsh nor the restoration of Tennessee Hollow is defined, much less designed or advanced in a significant way," he said.

A team from the trust, the park service and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Association will oversee the marsh expansion study.

They will assess the health of the marsh, which was brought back to life nearly three years ago through a major restoration project. They will also identify factors threatening Crissy Marsh's long-term survival and present alternatives for ensuring its viability.

Those alternatives will then be analyzed -- under federal environmental protection laws -- and discussed in public meetings.

Even at its diminutive size, the marsh has attracted loyal fans.

The trust received more letters about Crissy Marsh than any other topic when it released its draft plan for the park last year.

Maps of the Presidio show the Crissy Marsh inlet to San Francisco Bay directly north of the pedestrian bridge -- just as it looked last winter. Currently, the inlet meanders east, toward the Marina.

That's part of a recurring cycle for the inlet, said Philip Williams, president of Philip Williams & Associates, which helped design the restored marsh and has been monitoring it since it was reconnected to the bay in late 1999.

Sometimes, high waves plug the inlet with sand, he said.

"Then, it may or may not reopen naturally by going straight out again," Williams said. "Or, it may have to be dug out. Last winter, it was dug out."

Paul McLoughlin, a natural resources program manager with the National Park Service, said the original, 130-acre marsh stayed open all the time. It was filled in during preparations for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition.

"The real question is: How small can Crissy Marsh be and still stay open," said McLoughlin, a member of the marsh study team. "Our goal is that it stay open most or all of the time, with no mechanical intervention."

He said connecting a restored Tennessee Hollow watershed to Crissy Marsh will allow a greater variety of plants and animals to flourish in the area.

John Helding, one of thousands of volunteers who helped restore the marsh and now spends time weeding its native plant beds, said he hopes to see it grow.

"Crissy Marsh has been a resounding success," said Helding, 44, a group and conference facilitator in San Francisco. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could build on that success?"

E-mail Kathleen Sullivan at

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