You drive by it often. You can see it from any high vantage point. And yet many people living in the Bay Area know very little about San Bruno Mountain — the massive, bald hill just south of San Francisco — let alone its fame among national and international conservationists.
The surprising story of why San Bruno Mountain, the largest undeveloped landmass in the urban United States, remains predominantly real estate-free is told in the documentary Butterflies & Bulldozers, showing this week at the first San Francisco Green Film Festival.
The 40-year-and-counting fight to save the mountain has ruined friendships, altered the Endangered Species Act, and spurred E.O. Wilson to dub the mountain one of eighteen global biodiversity hot spots in need of protection. All that and in your own backyard.
One of the few movies in the new film festival to focus on the Bay Area, Butterflies & Bulldozers is the work of two local filmmakers Ann and Steve Dunsky. Victoria Schlesinger, of Bay Nature partner Way Out West News, recently spoke with the Dunsky’s about their movie.
WOW: Sum up the story told in Butterflies & Bulldozers.
Ann: The big picture is that it’s a story about San Bruno Mountain and the attempts to develop it over the years.
Steve: It’s a story about compromise. We start with a quote by Aldo Leopold in which he says, “The question of when to compromise is one for which there is no easy answer.”
Ann: What really interested us was this relationship between David [Schooley] and Fred [Smith]. Two young guys move to San Bruno in their 20s, both want to protect the mountain and wind up having this bitter falling out over how to go about doing it.
WOW: David and Fred seem to capture two opposite approaches to conservation.
Ann: I would agree. David’s heart is so big, and I think he bleeds when he thinks about anybody killing anything. And he’s right, they are killing endangered species through the destruction of habitat. And Fred decided to work within the system.
Steve: Whether David Schooley’s hard line, no-compromise stand is the right one or Fred Smith’s working within the system is the right one, we feel that both of those are valid ways of trying to achieve a conservation objective. This story is repeated over and over again in conservation history. And so while it’s about San Bruno Mountain, the story is symptomatic of the environmental movement.
WOW: Why is San Bruno Mountain worth protecting from development?
Ann: It’s the last intact fragment of what they call the Franciscan biome. It’s the only part of the original San Francisco landscape that’s left. It’s also the largest open space within an urban area in the country.
A lot of people we interviewed said, “Really, frankly, it’s a big, brown, bald mountain.” But until you get on it, you have no idea what’s up there. It’s cold and it’s wind swept, but it’s an amazing place. It’s a wonderland with springs, a cave, and there are different areas that are very distinct from one another. David is the one who knows it like the back of his hand. He still leads nature hikes.
WOW: How did the fight to save San Bruno Mountain change the Endangered Species Act?
Steve: It’s really a significant piece of environmental history. The larger story is the rights of endangered species versus the property rights of individuals. There was a train wreck coming between the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for just compensation of property owners, versus, as one character said, the rights of a subspecies of insect.
Legal minds like Fred Smith and Tom Adams, the lawyer in the film, said, “We’re going to lose this [San Bruno Mountain] if we try to make this butterfly versus development. We need to find a way to make a compromise.” When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, we had these charismatic megafauna that we were saving — grizzly bears, wolves, and bald eagles.
The act only allowed for the taking of endangered species for scientific purposes or for certain government projects. Tom Adams and his wife, who is also an attorney, were trying to figure out how they could maybe allow this [San Bruno Mountain] development to occur in this area that was designated as critical habitat for these butterflies. They started working with a bunch of people in Washington to develop the Habitat Conservation Plan.
It allows for the preservation of some areas of habitat that are critical, so you’re not taking all of the habitat. And the idea was that in exchange you could actually restore some habitat that was degraded.
A lot has been learned about how to do these in the 30 years since that first plan. There are habitat plans in other parts of the country that have also had problems and there are some that have been very successful.
Ann: Some people, like David Schooley, will tell you that they’re all horrible and all wrong, and other people will say they’re all brilliant. The truth lies somewhere in between.
For a different perspective on this film, check out this blog post from Ken McIntire, of San Bruno Mountain Watch. McIntire argues that the film gives short shrift to the legacy of SB Mountain Watch, which Schooley founded and which has been working on and for the mountain for 30 years.
Butterflies & Bulldozers runs 62 minutes and is showing at 12:30 pm, Friday, March 4. Steve and Ann Dunsky will be there, in conversation with butterfly expert and educator Jan Southworth, who will be featured in “The Color of Flight” in Bay Nature’s forthcoming April-June 2011 issue.