Saving a slice of heaven in Brisbane

Publisher: San Francisco Chronicle
Reporter: Geoffrey Coffey

Brisbane Acres, a privately held plot of native grasslands, rises between the town of Brisbane and the state and county park of San Bruno Mountain. A walk here is like viewing a page from the California history book -- steep, hoary stands of melic and fescue athwart canyons of buckeye and oak, punctuated by johnny jump-up, silver lupine and broadleaf stonecrop, the larval food plants of rare and endangered butterflies.

Carved into jigsaw-puzzle pieces by an "unrecorded subdivision" in the 1930s, with titles now held by hundreds of individuals, the Acres live in a state of bondage. Houses already cover 20 of the original 111 parcels (all on the lower slopes), and developers have mapped routes for roads and building throughout the remaining 120 wild acres. Opinions among owners about what the future of the Acres should be diverge radically. Some would like to preserve their land as open space, while others want to build. One owner proposed turning his 1-acre parcel into an Indian casino.

The near-vertical pitch of these slide-prone grades would appear to discourage the average builder -- but the Bay Area real estate market is anything but average. Already, the narrow, private roads on the lower, comparatively gentle slopes "typically do not meet fire-code standards," according to the city of Brisbane. Some of the proposed new streets are merely drawn on paper, others follow the mad path of Virgil Karns, an eccentric landowner who once rode his bulldozer up and down these sheer ridges in his spare time.

Below the water tower, near the intersection of Beatrice and Margaret (two of Virgil's former dozer runs), a footpath splits off from the road. Perhaps an old Indian trail or a corridor for wildlife, it plunges through poison oak and fords a seasonal stream, then climbs into an old-growth forest of gnarled oak, dwarfed madrone, fruiting toyon, ocean spray and blooming Ceanothus. The sounds of the city grow faint beneath the epic silence of these woods as they stood centuries ago.

The Eastwood manzanita (Arctostaphylos glandulosa) stretches its red serpentine branches for the light that pushes through openings in the canopy. This tree-like shrub grows 6 to 8 feet tall from a large basal burl, from which it will readily re-sprout after fire. Specimens so regenerated can live for hundreds of years. But flames have not touched this landscape within memory, and the manzanitas look tired. They crave a good burn.

After another switchback, the path rises into grassland, where the rare and endangered Diablo Helianthella (Helianthella castanea) waves its golden sunflower blossoms and the aromatic hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) grows in 1,000-square-foot patches. Thick 3-foot clumps of California fescue (Festuca californica) hold the hill, while the silvery clusters of melic grass (Melica californica) dance with the purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta), goldfields (Lasthenia californica), and many other spring wildflowers. Wherever the trail passes an exposed slab of greywacke, the slate-colored foundation stone of the mountain, look for the broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), a spreading succulent that clings to cracks in the rock. Each exquisite rosette of slightly reddish green pushes up thumb-sized flower stalks, whose yellow clusters shine against the grey stone. This plant feeds the caterpillars of the Bay Area's federally protected San Bruno elfin butterfly. Home gardeners and commercial landscapers, take note -- it also makes a wonderful accent in any exposed stone landscaping, and a handsome addition to a rock garden.

Noteworthy among the many other standouts this month is the coast larkspur (Delphinium decorum ssp. decorum), a gorgeous dark-blue flower with a nodding 2-foot habit and a prominent spur. The Mendocino Indians prized larkspur for its narcotic properties, but please note this genus contains toxic alkaloids that have killed cattle, so no experimentation is advised.

Glorious in bloom, these lands and their many animal inhabitants lie in limbo.

Heeding calls from citizens who value the wilderness over the subdivision, Brisbane began buying parcels of the Acres in 1997, using money set aside annually for open-space acquisition and with grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Coastal Commission.

This program has stewarded 23 parcels (with six more currently in escrow), covering more than 30 acres, into city-owned open space, including one contiguous block of the canyons and grasslands southwest of the water tower and another in the prime butterfly habitat of the upper Bayshore Ridge.

Nonetheless, dangers remain. Some would like to build dream houses here, capitalizing on that million-dollar view of San Francisco. In addition, growing populations of blue gum Eucalyptus, broom, fennel and other weeds escape from residential areas into untrammeled zones to degrade the native diversity and kill off local species. Brisbane's vegetation management plan spends $20,000 annually to combat exotic invasive plants, with the goal of total eradication.

But native plants also invade -- coastal scrub, for example, encroaches upon grassland when not checked by fire. Fred Smith, assistant to the Brisbane city manager, named scrub, along with development and weeds, as the top three threats facing the Acres today.

Fire presents a different problem. A controlled burn two summers ago in Wax Myrtle Canyon jumped its planned 5-acre boundary and spread to 75 acres, ending a stone's throw from residential housing. Judged by the rejuvenated landscape, this project was a tremendous success -- but the risk to human settlements raised some eyebrows.

Such are the paradoxes along the wildland-urban border. Proceed at your own risk and reward.

On San Bruno Mountain

Join Geoffrey Coffey and San Bruno Mountain Watch founder David Schooley on a hiking tour of the Brisbane Acres on Sunday. Tickets are $25, proceeds benefit SBMW. Reservations are required and subject to space limitations. Call (415) 467-6631 for booking and directions. Please note, this is a steep and strenuous trail.

Habitat Restoration Day, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Take care of the Acres and join the Brisbane community on Earth Day for a weed-pulling party to root out broom, fennel, cotoneaster and other exotic invasive plants. Free lunch, T-shirts, tools, training and a wildflower walk at noon. Meet at the City Hall parking lot, 50 Park Place, Brisbane. A shuttle departs for the work site every half-hour beginning at 8:30 a.m. Volunteers should wear sunscreen, gloves, long pants, long sleeves, a hat and heavy-duty shoes. The work will go on until 4 p.m.

Writer and landscaper Geoffrey Coffey can be contacted at

�2005 San Francisco Chronicle