A Film That Misleads By Omission

I recently saw the Brisbane screening of Steve and Ann Dunsky’s Butterflies and Bulldozers --- their story of the early preservation of San Bruno Mountain and the birth of the first so-called Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in the country. San Bruno Mountain Watch showed an earlier version of the movie at our Gala in December, 2007. I will make a few comments about the movie focused on how the new version works to tell a convincing yet slanted story.

Part One of the movie is very good, and chronicles key events in the early successful efforts to save the top of San Bruno Mountain and the area called the Saddle. It also highlights the connections between efforts to save the mountain and those to save the bay. The photography is wonderful, and the editing deft and crisp.

Part Two tells how the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain became split over the formation of the first (ill- named) Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in the country. David Schooley, SBMW founder, opposed the HCP, and Fred Smith, who became a Brisbane city councilman while with the committee, and later an assistant city manager, supported it. Part Three explores how these two men, each committed to saving the mountain, dealt with the split, and a bit about the consequences of the HCP.

I submit that in these two sections, important portions of the story are left out, giving a distorted picture. The distortions are subtle because they mostly involve omissions, which make them invisible to most of the audiences that will see the film.

For example, although there are interviews with Fred Smith and other authors of the HCP justifying the creation of the HCP, there is less time devoted to the rational reasons to oppose it.  Instead, the film focuses on David’s moral and emotional opposition to it. Although most people probably come away from the movie appreciating and inspired by David's adherence to his values, most probably also come away thinking that the HCP, the compromise, was not just inevitable but in the balance good and rational.  The "adult" solution.  On the other hand, David’s response to the HCP comes off as Don Quixote-like. (To be fair, there is one quick reference to the bad science behind the HCP, but it is not followed up.) The sound scientific reasons for opposing the HCP get short shrift.

After chronicling the split, the film goes on to trace the Mountain-related activities of the two men. Fred Smith is shown successfully preserving several small and important parcels in the Brisbane Acres, and David is shown leading weekly hikes on the mountain explaining its value and biodiversity and speaking out against the HCP.  What is omitted is his successful effort to form an organization, San Bruno Mountain Watch, that has effectively, through community organizing and legal action, protected and preserved more land on San Bruno Mountain, including a large Ohlone Indian Shellmound, and has preserved at least some of the valuable butterfly habitat marked for destruction under the original HCP. It has also been key to the effort to re-establish the Mission Blue Nursery, dedicated to growing San Bruno Mountain native plants.

Although the film also shows a montage of David’s stewardship efforts to combat invasive species on the mountain, something he has done at least three times a week for 30 years, it again leaves out the efforts of San Bruno Mountain Watch, which leads stewardship parties three times a week. By contrast, Fred Smith is twice shown pulling weeds, surrounded by several volunteers, when in fact he seldom is seen engaged in such activities. This is not to criticize Fred’s commitment in this regard, but rather to show how the film misleads.

Finally, the film neglects to include an examination of how the HCP on San Bruno Mountain has turned out, though it now has a 27-year track record to examine. Although it mentions that 800 HCPs now exist across the country -- actually the list has grown to 1600 --it fails to examine the results of this first plan to allow building on endangered species habitat. David Schooley carefully monitored, with photographs, the results of  the HCP compromise since shortly after its inception. He and San Bruno Mountain Watch have been whistle-blowing for years about its failed plans and unfulfilled promises. A film that purports to tell the story of the first HCP should certainly examine the consequences of this plan, both for San Bruno Mountain and for the Endangered Species Act itself.

Here's the official statement that has been distributed to the public during showings of Butterflies & Bulldozers.


-Ken McIntire, Executive Director, San Bruno Mountain Watch