Butterflies and Bulldozers on an Island of Time
Saving San Bruno Mountain
Spring wildflowers dot the grassland on the upper reaches of Owl Canyon.
Photo courtesy of San Bruno Mountain Watch (SBMW).
As a girl growing up in Manhattan, I spent hours staring across the East River at the borough of Queens, wondering how it would have looked before European settlement. I imagined a green peninsula with a horizon leading to an even wilder place. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this older world is real. It emerges from the shrouded realm of imagination into vivid tangibility on San Bruno Mountain.
The mountain—it is that kind of place, the mountain, with no need for a proper name—is the last piece of a San Francisco peninsula that existed before humans altered the land-scape on a grand scale. So many rare, imperiled species survive on San Bruno Mountain that Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson ranked it as one of the world’s 18 biodiversity hot spots, along with Tanzania’s forests, Madagascar, Borneo, and the Ghat Mountains of India.
But you may know about San Bruno for another reason. More than 30 years ago, the mountain was immortalized by Berkeley folksinger Malvina Reynolds in her anti-suburbia song “Little Boxes”: “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes all the same.”
I am hiking with Doug Allshouse, who lives on the lower reaches of the mountain. Doug is painfully aware that he embodies the predicament we are all in as humans overrun the globe. A mustachioed man in his early fifties who retired from Safeway last year, Doug laughs, rather ruefully, when he tells me that he lives in one of those ticky-tacky boxes creeping up the mountain’s flank. “I guess that song makes us famous,” he says.
E. O. Wilson and others predict that one-fifth of the world’s species may die out over the next 20 years. This would be the sixth major extinction in four-and-a-half billion years of evolution but the first for which humans are culpable. The intimate nature of this holocaust is often overlooked. It’s at least a little harder to do that on San Bruno Mountain.
We are wandering through fog on the steep, folded southern edge o the mountain, Doug and I and David Schooley, a poet and landscaper. Schooley, who grew up in the East Bay and moved to Brisbane in 1969, has been working even longer than Doug to stop the mountain from turning into just another place on the Peninsula. San Bruno is the southern edge of what some scientists consider a tiny but distinct ecological region—called the “Franciscan” ecosystem—that includes the city of San Francisco. The winds that regularly scour this region have created a land of dwarves: coast live oaks that grow close to the ground; dense, low-growing, dark green manzanitas that live only in this environment; wild cherry trees in the draws with access to water; sweeping hilltops covered with coastal blueblossom and hummingbird sage. With San Francisco now occupying most of this landscape, San Bruno Mountain is the last refuge of this particular mixture of dark and light, of twisted leaves and open grasslands.
The overgrown defile we’re walking on has the feeling of a place you used to go to get away, without worrying about who owned it, where the property line was, or if you’d run into someone. It is a place where you go to get away to yourself, I think. “I discovered this path 30 years ago,” David tells me, as if he is reading my mind. “This was a secret garden.” Suddenly it occurs to me that the reason this walk feels so secluded is that we’re not supposed to be here. “Are we trespassing?” I ask. Schooley smiles. “Oh, yes.”
Locals call this place “The Acres.” It is a crazy-quilt of land above the town of Brisbane—some pieces are a few thousand square feet, others are several acres—sold long before modern land-use regulation came into effect. Recently some of the landowners have been talking about building. The forest is so steep, I can’t imagine putting in roads and electricity and water and all the expensive things people need to construct their dream houses. But anyone who’s seen the California coast knows that with enough money and determination, you can plant a house almost anywhere.
The three federally listed endangered butterflies of San Bruno Mountain. Left to right: Mission blue, San Bruno elfin, Callippe silverspot. Photos courtesy of SBMW
I ask David to tell me about the rare butterflies that live on this mountain. He reels off names of the three federally listed endangered butterfly species: the Mission blue (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), the Callippe silverspot (Speyeria callippe callippe), and the San Bruno elfin (Callophrys mossii bayensis). Most of these butterflies can be found in only one or two other places on earth, scattered in the tiny fragments of wild land left: patches on the Marin headlands or, in the case of the Mission blue, on Twin Peaks in San Francisco. It is odd to think that these creatures, whose wings are more delicate than paper, have done so much to fend off development on this mountain. San Bruno is a near miracle in latter-day California, a relatively isolated coastal landscape of native bunchgrasses, shrubs, and flowers. These natives give San Bruno its butterflies—and its biological importance. The mountain itself is a fragment out of time: its primeval form rises just south of the city of San Francisco like one of the hulking grizzly bears that used to roam the state.
We reach a steep arroyo. “These are coast live oaks,” says Schooley. “And buckeye,” adds Allshouse. “Coast live oaks and buckeyes used to be all over San Francisco, in the deep canyons near streams.” I try to imagine this. I think of Golden Gate Park and I can almost see it. Not quite, but almost.
For the moment, I’m more interested in the town of Brisbane, which sits right below us, nestled up against the mountain’s southeastern flanks. With only 3,600 residents, it is a remnant of 1950s Americana planted incongruously in the midst of the Bay Area’s gentrification. “Brisbane is a rare and endangered town with rare and endangered species,” Schooley says affectionately, mentioning that it is now one of the fastest growing cities in California.
In the old days, Brisbane was so far on the wrong side of the tracks that the city of San Francisco dumped its garbage near the base of the mountain from the 1920s until the 1960s. The fact that nobody wanted to live there turned out to be the mountain’s salvation. “Stench saved the mountain,” says Schooley, whose sense of humor sets him apart from many people in the world-saving business.
- Housing developments encircle much of San Bruno Mountain. Here,Paradise Valley in South San Francisco expands up the mountain’ssouthern flanks (1990). Photo courtesy of SBMW.
Eventually San Franciscans found a better place to throw their garbage and real estate developers discovered San Bruno Mountain. The first scheme was to slice off the top of the mountain and drop it into San Francisco Bay as landfill. That idea was abandoned, but the outside world didn’t go away. In 1962, Southern Hills, the subdivision where Doug Allshouse lives, was built on the Daly City side of the mountain. More homes were on the drawing boards.
Then in 1978 the Mission blue butterfly was placed on the federal endangered species list. Four years later, an attorney representing a developer who wanted to build on San Bruno drafted an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. The 1982 amendment allowed developers to “take” a species, either by harming it directly or by destroying its habitat, in exchange for protecting land elsewhere. Agreements setting the terms for these tradeoffs were called Habitat Conservation Plans, or HCPs. In the case of San Bruno Mountain, developers were permitted to build on 600 acres (later reduced to 550), while land-owners would contribute to a fund to pay for the preservation of other habitat on the mountain, primarily by fending off exotic plant species like gorse and French broom.
HCPs like San Bruno’s were a rarity until the 1990s, when incoming Clinton administration officials found literally hundreds of endangered species listings dropped on their desks by the outgoing Bush administration. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt thought he had found a solution in the obscure provision that had allowed developers to build on San Bruno Mountain. Today more than 300 HCPs cover 20 million acres of the American landscape.
Twenty years later, San Bruno Mountain is still a work in progress. David and Doug take me to see a place where human handiwork is at a minimum. Owl Canyon, on the northeast side of the mountain near Brisbane, is a place California’s Department of Fish and Game keeps as wild as possible.
We park in a decidedly ordinary industrial park, but within a few minutes find ourselves slogging through a marsh. Doug and I slide around in the mud behind David Schooley, who is annoyingly surefooted in mere sandals. Schooley has been walking these trails for 30 years, becoming a near-legend in the Bay Area for his championing of the mountain. Soon we are on another steep, narrow trail, leaving the invaders behind and stepping into a world of bunchgrasses and lupines, wallflowers and rock cress. In springtime, the mountain’s flanks and canyons are covered with color.
“This is San Francisco 300 years ago,” David says. Schooley leads dozens of walks a year in this canyon, including many for local schoolchildren. The school groups come three times during the year, so they can see the seasons on the mountain. “Kids really catch it,” he tells me. “The smell of things. The changes.”
- The red larvae of the San Francisco elfin butterfly feed exclusively on the succulent Sedum spathufolium. Photo courtesy of SBMW.
In the past 20 years, there have been many changes. A total of 2,850 acres has been preserved as permanent open space on San Bruno Mountain, much of it in the contiguous county and state parks. But open space isn’t the same as butterfly habitat. Habitat means three kinds of lupine (albifrons, formosus, and varii-color) for the Mission blues; Sedum spathufolium, a succulent that the elfin butterfly lives on as a red caterpillar; and Johnny-jump-up (Viola pedunculata), needed by the large orange Callippe silverspot. Volunteers as well as paid employees are often out on the steep slopes here, clearing non-native plants away from the canyon.
But after 20 years of such efforts, and the expenditure of several million dollars, the San Bruno HCP is not a success, according to Schooley. In 1997, E. O. Wilson wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle expressing the same concern. “Current Habitat Conservation Plan provisions are insufficient” to preserve the mountain’s biodiversity, Wilson said.
Earlier I had spoken to Thomas Reid, the biologist whose firm has been hired with funds from the HCP to preserve the mountain’s natural resources. Reid says butterfly populations are stable. The mountain’s biggest problem is the lack of a natural fire regime and the absence of grazing animals, which has resulted in scrub taking over grasslands, says Reid.
At the base of Owl Canyon, Schooley illustrates Reid’s words, showing me how the bushes are in-vading the grasslands. But Schooley disputes Reid’s contention that the plan has been successful overall, saying no new butterfly habitat has been created to replace what has been lost.
Schooley sees the mountain in a longer time frame than most government officials or even biologists who must accomplish a specific task. “You’re protecting 80 or 90 percent of the bug’s existing habitat,” he points out. “But what we’re talking about is the tiniest fragment of its original range. About 98 percent is already gone.”
I look out over San Bruno Mountain, thinking about the different lenses through which one can see a place like this: geological, evolutionary, political. Economic. Moral. I always come back to that one. Do we have the right to make another species extinct? If one believes only in evolution, how does one even begin to ask a question that requires a moral framework, since morality itself was presumably invented by humans?
A little further on, the trail leaves the open grassland; we pass enormous oaks with roots curving over a running stream. On the sunny rise above the creek is a large Indian shellmound, evidence of a way of life shaped by San Francisco Bay. The Bay shimmers along the margins of the city, a ghostly reflection in a mirror.
For an even more expansive view, David and Doug suggest we drive to the mountain’s summit. There, I understand why David Schooley, who could have done so many things, has spent more than half of his life in service to this place. I understand why Doug Allshouse is using his retirement to work for the mountain’s preservation. Even with the communications towers lined up like knitting needles along San Bruno’s summit, this is no paved-over paradise of ticky-tacky houses. The Farallon Islands are visible in the distance; the Golden Gate, the Marin headlands. Turn around and Mount Diablo rises in the east. Look down and you see the dark, tightly wound leaves of the San Bruno manzanita, one of several species of plant that exist only on this mountain.
- Map by Ben Pease
Legendary Berkeley botanist James Roof believed San Bruno Mountain was once an island. More recent geological studies fail to bear this out. What is indisputable is that San Bruno Mountain is an ecological island, a metaphorical island in the city. Evolution led up a solitary trail on this mountain. Looking down, we see the white city embraced by San Francisco Bay, mountains and valleys and the ocean. We stand on a ship gone too long from shore, a piece of time floating past. We are caught in an eddy, if only for a few hours.
Critical areas on San Bruno Mountain remain unprotected and there are storm clouds gathering on all sides, as a new wave of expansion looms. The extension of BART through the Colma valley to the west and proposals for a shopping mall on the former dump to the northeast are just two of the threats. More immediately, San Bruno Mountain Watch is closely following developments relating to the Brisbane Acres and would welcome your support. Find out how you can help by calling (415) 467-6631, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visiting www.mountainwatch.org. The Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society does native plant restoration on the mountain three weekends a month. Call (650) 355-6635 for details.