Crissy Field; Urban Restoration Ten Years Later


Last Sunday, on a foggy morning in August, I took a walk through Crissy Field in the Presidio National Park. This year is the tenth anniversary of this parks restoration from abandoned airfield to the ecological treasure it is today. I knew before I went that the spectacular burst of spring wildflowers had long passed, and that I was between the migratory seasons of birds and waterfowl. What I found was that this park had treasures  to be discovered any time of the year.

Situated in the northeast corner of the San Francisco peninsula, Crissy Field is like a platform  placed before one of the world’s most beautiful settings:  on the rugged and sparsely populated northern California coast, the coastal mountains part to reveal one of the greatest of natural harbors, the San Francisco Bay. The “Golden Gate” is not just a bridge, but a natural portal to the one of the world’s most dynamic regions.  In looking at this park today it is hard to imagine that this is a restored urban landscape. Imagine this place a flat airfield, abandoned and derelict. Covered in concrete, asphalt, hazardous waste and studded with weeds, Crissy Field and its views were off limits to visitors.

Because of its stategic location, the Presidio was one of the nation’s preeminent military bases. Crissy Field, named in honor of Major Dana Crissy, was the military’s first Air Coast Defense Station on the Pacific coast. The end of the cold war led to a re-evaluation of the nation’s military locatiions. In October 1994, the U.S. Army lowered its flag for the last time, and the Presidio was transferred to the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Beginning in 1998, tons of asphalt and rubble was removed. A new kind of park was concieved which balanced both ecological habitat restoration  and recreation. A legion of volunteers planted over 100,000 native plant species. Ten years later Crissy field thrives for both nature and people.
The fragrance hits you first: imagine the smell of sage and the astringent quality of artemisia. Combine that with a woody note like sandalwood and you are there.  These are the aromas of the coastal scrub which takes me right back to my childhood growing up on the wild California coast.

This place was once the village called Pentlenuc. It was the winter seasonal home of the Yelamu tribe, associated with the larger Ohlone American Indian tribe which populated the  Bay Area. With only about 200 members, the Yelamu divided their time here and with the eastern parts of  the peninsula.  In June of 1776, Spanish missionaries established the Mission San Francisco de Asisi; the tribe was quickly incorporated into the mission and the Yelamu’s traditional way of life was lost. Today Crissy field remains a spiritual place for the native Ohlone people.

Plants and grasses knit together with an incredible diversity. This also helps to conserve moisture in the soil during the long dry season.

The California Aster, Aster chilensis, is a perennial which provides nectar for butterflies and the over 60 species of bees which inhabit The Presidio. It has a long summer bloom despite the fact that it must rely on months of drought. Native to salt marches and grasslands, it has found the perfect habitat at Crissy field and flourishes here.

Striking stands of Wrights Paintbrush, Castilleja weightii, flourish in the coastal scrub. The brilliant red color (also seen in red and gold) is produced not by flowers, but by bracts. Paintbrush cannot live alone as it is a partial parasitic. Sending sneaky projections from its roots called haustoria, it takes nutrients from its favorite hosts such as bunchgrass and wild buckwheat.  The green mounding shrubs are Coyote Brush, Baccaris pilularis. An important element to the coastal scrub, the plants roots secure the soil and emerges when native grassland is spared grazing.

The sticky Monkey flower, mimulus aurantiacus, has a complex relationship with the specialist butterfly Ephydryas Chalcedona. This butterfly lays its larvae on the leaves of this plant in the spring when the nutrients and the sticky resin which coats the leaves are at their highest levels. The high nutrients act to feed the larvae, but the sticky resin prevents the plant from being consumed completely!  When the larvae no longer feed on the leaves in the early summer, the Sticky Monkey Flower converts energy from the production of resin to flowers, producing the glorious displays you see here.

Yellow bush lupine, Lupinus arboreus, begins to produce seedheads in the late summer. When the tidal marsh was being restored, remnants of a historic Yelamu shellmound was discovered. Seeds of yellow bush lupine found at the 400 year level of the shellmound proved that the species was native to the area, and not introduced at the time of the Mexican and American settlements.

The restored tidal marsh is a central feature of the park. Once buried in hazardous waste covered in asphalt, the marsh re-creates the one which once existed behind the coastal dunes.
The Presidio is visited by an astonishing 200 species of birds, more that any urban park in the world. Located on the Pacific flyway, the marsh at Crissy field is visited by 9o% of all the migratory birds who pass through this area from the Northern Arctic to the tip of South America. The restored saltwater marsh is home to 17 fish species.

The restoration of Crissy Field included a balance of natural restoration, historic preservation and recreational use. Large grassy lawns recall the original grass airfield. The distinctive red and white structures include the historic Presidio Coast Guard Station. shown above. It is now the home of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center.
Native plants have been emphasized in the park, but the tall palms have been retained as they help tell the story of the park’s history.

Crissy field now has a popular sandy beach which is popular with children, strollers and dogs. This is not a swimming beach as there are terrific underwater currents, great white sharks and frigid water!

Looking east the skyline of San Francisco emerges from the morning fog.

Another component in the natural restoration of the park is the re-creation of the dune swale habitat which originally existed here. Located between the bay and the tidal marsh, endangered plants which are native to San Francisco are preserved here.

The Beach Evening Primrose, Camissonia cheiranthifolia, has a large root system which secures the dunes from shifting.

Native to the San Francisco dunes, the Dune Tansey, Tanacetum camphoratum, is greatly endangered due to habitat loss. It is thrilling to see this plant in person and to know it has been saved from extinction.

Crissy field needs your help! Volunteer and become a Presidio Park Steward.

From the Golden Gate National parks conservancy website:

Help enhance rare native plant habitat and create important wildlife corridors in the Presidio of San Francisco. Learn about dune and serpentine systems while working in our scrub, grassland, woodland, wetland, and bluff habitats. Our activities will include invasive plant removal during the summer dry season and native revegetation during the winter rainy season. Habitat restoration is a proactive way to participate in environmental healing while removing invasive plants and revegetating with natives. Come learn about local plants and animals and be a habitat hero!

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