Robert Neher is in search of the elusive Dudleya multicaulis. He pokes into little crevices in the ground, lifts rocks, walks sideways past cactus plants. He restlessly scans the ridge line near the western edge of Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park.
But the pale green, succulent leaves of Dudleya are nowhere to be found. "It's usually in these dry, rocky outcroppings," says the University of La Verne biology professor, a thin, nervous man with the probing gaze of the scientist.
Something rustles through the brush. "That's where it (the plant) is going," says Neher, nodding toward the sound. "Rabbits. They're eating it."
Dudleya multicaulis, for cottontails just a tender morsel, is a vanishing member of the stonecrop family, ground-hugging little plants that inhabit scrubby areas of Southern California. It's not rabbits that are threatening Dudleya multicaulis, but development, which is destroying much of its habitat. One of the plant's last remaining populations is in Bonelli Park, on the precise spot where the county Department of Parks and Recreation had planned to permit the construction of an amphitheater.
Plant Helped Stop Amphitheater
Two weeks ago, the county abandoned the amphitheater plans. As part of the new, scaled-down version of the controversial plan to squeeze extra revenue out of Bonelli Park by permitting commercial development there, the county has instead proposed a nature center.
Ralph S. Cryder, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said there were two reasons for eliminating the amphitheater plan. First, the managers of Raging Waters, the popular water amusement center in the park, were unwilling to make a commitment about financing the new facility.
Second, there was Dudleya multicaulis, which is on the Department of Interior's list of endangered wildlife and plant species.
"Our environmental people found this plant, a vanishing species, embedded in the site," said Cryder at a press conference to unveil the new development proposals for the park. Opponents of the original plan had called it an attempt to turn the park into "a Disneyland amusement center."
Neher, who was on an advisory committee to help the county modify the plan, wasn't ready to claim a victory for unspoiled nature over traffic and Prince concerts. But he's glad the county changed its mind.
"This is probably the most unique area of the park," said Neher, who did his doctoral work in cytogenetics (the study of plant cells and their genetic structures) but has "pretty well slid over into general ecology."
The ridge, a quarter of a mile from the Foothill Freeway, slopes down toward a ravine. There, the pale greens of the ridge darken and intensify. Next to a stream, century-old oaks, willows and walnut trees rustle in the breeze.
"To have a valley like this, near so much arid hilltop . . ." said Neher. "It's important to save it. I was very pleased to hear that the plant was there."
Called Hen and Chickens
The endangered Dudleya, sometimes called hen and chickens , was named for William Russel Dudley, a turn-of-the-century Stanford University botanist. It has cylindrical, finger-like leaves and, for about 30 days in the spring and early summer, a reddish flower.
During the dry season, it makes itself scarce, says Neher. "All it needs now is some rain and some other green things that the rabbits can eat," he said. "It'll be easy to find in the spring."
But considering Dudleya's habitat, along the development-targeted foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, its vulnerability isn't surprising, said Neher. "Come in with a bulldozer and flatten out a pad for a house or a parking lot, and they won't survive," he said. "The plant used to have more of a habitat to grow in."