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Rare Succulent May Be Put on Endangered List : Environment: The Laguna live-forever is found only in southern Orange County. New status would protect it from encroaching development.


LAGUNA BEACH — No road sign points the way to this secret garden. Nor does it appear on any tourist map of local sights.

So those hoping for a glimpse of Dudleya stolonifera must seek out a botanist such as Fred Roberts to lead them up into the labyrinthine canyons far above Laguna Canyon Road.

He knows the arduous route like his morning commute. Scrambling across a rock-studded hillside, scanning the cliffs as he goes, Roberts abruptly stops and whips out his binoculars. He points.

Here it is, a rosette of green-maroon leaves no bigger than a newborn's fist, clinging to life on a cliff high above Laguna Canyon.

This is the Laguna Beach live-forever, a plant so rare that it exists in only six places on Earth, all in southwestern Orange County. Despite the bravado of its name, the plant's future is so precarious that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month has proposed listing it as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

While better-known endangered or threatened species have helped spark a virulent national debate over the act's future, the Laguna Beach live-forever is a low-profile plant, not particularly celebrated or scorned. Still, this modest succulent has a tenacious streak, sticking fast to rock faces amid fires, droughts and encroaching development that would doom many other plants.

That very defiance has won it some loyal followers.

"Its strategy is that it grows in an impossible place, and it makes a go of it," said Elisabeth Brown, president of the environmental group called Laguna Greenbelt Inc.

Such zeal for life does not guarantee this plant a future in a county that has been transformed in the past two decades by fast-spreading tile-roofed housing tracts, glistening malls and new highways.

While the plant has never been common, only 8,000 to 10,000 are believed to remain today, so few that they could be squeezed onto two or three acres. All are found in or around Laguna Beach, primarily in Aliso Canyon and Laguna Canyon.

Its ranks are so small that experts hesitate to publicize the exact spots where this live-forever dwells, fearing that unscrupulous rare plant collectors will descend with trowels in hand.

The very notion that a plant called live-forever could now need government protection carries a special irony.

"We hope the live-forever will live forever," said David Klinger, spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional office in Portland, Ore. But to be listed as endangered, he said, signals that a plant is threatened with extinction.

"Those are the species that are on the edge, literally," Klinger said.

The service announced Aug. 9 that it is proposing endangered status for the Laguna Beach live-forever and for three plants--the San Diego thornmint, the Otay tarweed and the willowy monardella--found in San Diego County and northern Baja California in Mexico. The public has until Oct. 9 to comment on the proposal. Comments can be submitted to the service's office at 2370 Loker Ave. West, Carlsbad, Calif. 92008.

If the listing is approved, the Laguna Beach succulent will become one of more than 500 plants and 400 animals nationwide ranked as either endangered or threatened. Being on the list will grant the plant new protection from development, particularly on public land.

And while some endangered or threatened species have stirred up high-pitched controversy--the northern spotted owl, the Stephens' kangaroo rat, the coastal California gnatcatcher--many are as obscure as the Laguna Beach live-forever. But its listing is significant, said Tony Bomkamp, president of the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

"When you're to the point that you have to start protecting species that are down to five or six populations, you have to start looking at our practices in general," Bomkamp said.

The proposal comes at a white-knuckle time for supporters of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973 in the hope of preventing civilization from wiping out rare plants and animals.

Some members of Congress want to scale back the act's powers, voicing concern that it places undue restrictions on development. Even though additions to the list are being proposed, a congressional moratorium on new listings is now in effect, clouding the chances for the Laguna Beach live-forever to make it on the list.

But a continent away from the Washington political tumult, the plant lives on, feeding on moisture and thin soil deposits on north-facing cliffs that shield the plant from the sun's drying rays.

Its lemon-yellow flowers have faded now, but Roberts, a Fish and Wildlife botanist, found stands of the distinctive rosettes on several cliffs during a tour last week. He paused to count the plants on a rock face atop Laguna Canyon.

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