The Guardian of San Bruno Mountain

January 17, 2013

Silently rising above the industry and commerce lining Highway 101 south of San Francisco  is San Bruno Mountain, an area rich in biodiversity. What has allowed this gem to remain relatively undisturbed despite the development pressures lapping at its feet? The work and perseverance of many local residents, galvanized by the vision and passion of an unnaturally dedicated soul: environmental activist and poet David Schooley. As the founder of San Bruno Mountain Watch, Schooley has worked to educate others about the ecological importance of the region while fighting to protect it from development.

While part of the mountain got state park status in 1978, Schooley and SBMW have continued working to keep the rest of the mountain wild. The most recent battle has been to preserve the grassland behind Sign Hill Park  and turn it into a protected public area. While he has learned to read environmental impact reports and legal briefs, David Schooley is much more at home creating poetry and art expressing his connection to the natural world.

Q: Having spent your life in California since the age of four, what attracted you to this particular mountain?

Schooley: In 1969, I was riding in a Greyhound bus down the peninsula and I happened to look out the window and see San Bruno Mountain.  I thought to myself, “What a beautiful place. I wonder what’s there?” So I got off and started exploring. It was then that I become enchanted by the beauty and uniqueness of the place. I didn’t know anything about it before that, and I couldn’t really believe that it was still here alongside all of the commercialism and freeways and people.

Q: What makes San Bruno Mountain so special?

Schooley: It is the only wild land left on the northern San Francisco peninsula, and one of the last intact remnants of the Franciscan ecosystem that flourished on the San Francisco peninsula and southern Marin. You have grasses and butterflies and rocks on San Bruno Mountain that aren’t found anywhere else.

Q: How was such a place able to survive?

Schooley: Oddly enough, the region was spared from development because of lot of negative things happening right next to it. For one thing, it smelled.  From 1920 to 1960, the city of San Francisco dumped garbage in the bay nearby, which slowly filled up the marshes, lagoons and creeks at the base of the mountain. Add to that the Bay tides  and you get a pretty good stench. Because of the foul smell, nobody wanted to build there. On top of that, poor communities began to take root there and dozens of Colma cemeteries sprouted on the other side of the mountain, so people just weren’t attracted to this area.

Q: How did you translate your interest in the
 mountain into San Bruno Mountain Watch?

After moving to the area and familiarizing myself with it, I began to meet people who shared my passion for the mountain. Local residents shared with me city documents that detailed plans to develop . I started attending city planning meetings and getting to know more people who were concerned about the fate of the mountain, which, coupled with my growing knowledge of its uniqueness, led me to start taking steps towards stopping development there. One day I was walking through the Paradise Valley neighborhood on the mountain’s southern slope and saw a sign in a front yard that read “Save the Mountain.” I knocked, and a woman named Bette Higgins answered. We got to talking and eventually decided to form a committee to save San Bruno Mountain.

We began taking hundreds of people up on the mountain in protest, celebration, and revelry. We distributed flyers, bulletins, and press releases everywhere we could, and began getting local politicians on board, further establishing ourselves.

Q: What are the greatest challenges you face?

Schooley: Since not all of the land on the mountain is in public hands, it’s still under the threat of development. Making the public aware of the rare species of butterflies (Mission Blue, Silverspot) and plants (silver lupine, hummingbird sage) that rely on the mountain for their survival is critical. I still lead regular hikes to show people all the wonderful things in the area that could be lost if we don’t protect it.

Q: How does one go about blending everyday, modern life with the desire to return to nature?

Schooley: A lot of us grow up in cities and don’t realize that we are from the earth. It all starts with getting people involved and re-awakening their understanding that we are part of the planet. That’s why it’s so important to start with kids; making them see that something small, like a creek, is such a special thing when you start looking into how it fits into the bigger picture. 

David Schooley will be leading his popular Founder’s hikes to explore San Bruno Mountain on the fourth Saturday of each month. Click here for more info and to sign up.

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