Bye-bye Biodiversity?

Publisher: Berkeley Ecology Center
Reporter: Mark Huntington

"SAVE SAN FRANCISCO Habitat," the sign proclaims to commuters barreling down Bayshore Boulevard on their way to work. What kind of oxymoron is that? Does that mean the dandelions growing up through cracks in the concrete? Stretched out across the highway, a big banner reads "Kill Locally--Die Globally. No New City on San Bruno Mountain."

Such was the scene a few months ago at the corner of Bayshore and Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, just south of the San Francisco Line. Southwest Diversified's proposed development there would double the population of Brisbane while scoring a resounding victory against the 30-year struggle to save this last intact fragment of local native habitat.

As the Endangered Species Act (ESA) comes up for reauthorization in Washington, D.C., one its most celebrated failures is unfolding here.

San Bruno Mountain is one of California's most diverse examples of coastal grass and scrub habitat. A unique collection of plants, some of which are found nowhere else, provides habitat for several endangered species. The plight of these species is an indicator of the destruction of the entire fabric of life.

The ESA draws a clear line against the 228-acre development of prime habitat on the mountain's northeast ridge. Nevertheless, the bulldozers may be rolling soon, and with them, will go the last place of its kind on earth.


The list of the way developers and their allies ignore and circumvent the ESA is longer than the list of extinct San Francisco plants and animals. Governments invariably favor development over enforcement of environmental laws. For them, the tricky part has been to keep the people from suing to enforce compliance.

One way to do this is to get someone in Congress to attach a rider onto an appropriations bill, exempting a specific development project from all federal law. If this fails, the "God Squad" can step in. Appointed by the president, these guys can allow the last bald eagle to be ground up and served as Chicken McNuggets.

Such unpleasant extremes were not necessary to prevent private citizens from enforcing the law on San Bruno Mountain. In 1982, San Mateo County, the developers, and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife got together and created the nation's first Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).

The HCP was based on a $300,000 habitat study commissioned by the developers. The Thomas Reid Associates Study concluded that destroying endangered butterfly habitat posed "no significant threat to [the butterfly's] survival." That same year, Congress reauthorized a weakened ESA, allowing the "taking" of endangered species under HCPs.

Local citizens sought to stop the encroachment, or at least to limit it to the places where native plant life was already degraded. But Southwest Diversified had its eye on the sunny slopes that form the center for the almost extinct Mission Blue and San Bruno Elfin butterflies.

The company got what it wanted and, in return, promised to mitigate the damage by creating new butterfly habitat elsewhere. The 35-year mitigation program is attempting to recreate habitat where none of the conditions exist that made that habitat possible in the first place.

With all its limitations and weaknesses, the ESA has still allowed private citizen to slow down or even to temporarily stop environmentally destructive projects. But by the time the act is tinkered with and reauthorized, we may have little or no environment protections left. What are we going to do?

First, go for a hike on the mountain--this is the most spectacular spring in memory. Then write and call your representatives and senators. Tell them we need them to be activists for a strong ESA and for a citizen's right to enforce it. Tell them to delete the "God Squad" provision, delete the "take" amendment (sec. 10a), outlaw riders, and fund biological studies and recovery plans with the money now being spent on bogus "Habitat Conservation Plans" and ridiculous mitigation schemes. For more information, or for guided hikes on San Bruno Mountain, call San Bruno Mountain Watch at (415) 467-6631.