Protecting the Mountain

Publisher: City College of San Francisco, Center for Habitat Restoration
Reporter: Philip Batchelder

San Bruno Mountain - Big Island in a Big City
San Bruno Mountain hides in plain sight between San Francisco
and South San Francisco. As the nation's largest
urban open space, and as the largest remaining portion of
the Franciscan ecosystem, the mountain is large and wild
enough to harbor hundreds of species of flora and fauna,
some of which live nowhere else. Ohlone village sites,
rare native bunchgrass meadows, extraordinary wildflower
displays, and deep canyons with a variety of plant communities,
including oak, bay, and buckeye woodlands; all this
can be found on the mountain in the midst of millions of
people. These treasures have faced numerous threats since Spaniards first drove out the Ohlone and began pasturing
cattle. The privately owned portions still face outright
destruction for development, while the State and
County Park suffers from fire suppression, the absence of
grazing deer and elk, exotic weeds, inadequate funding,
and mismanagement. The mountain's ecosystem, while still
breathtakingly beautiful, is under tremendous strain, and
its advocates are as busy as ever.

Defending the Mountain
The modern movement to protect the mountain began in
the late sixties as landowners proposed ever more ambitious
building schemes. Bette Higgins, David Schooley, and
others began organizing the Committee to Save San Bruno
Mountain, which would later become San Bruno Mountain
Watch. Other early defenders included botanists Elizabeth
McClintock and James Roof as well as countless local citizens
who participated in policy debates, elections, lawsuits,
marches, media activism, and direct action to curb
urban sprawl. The discovery of the rare Mission Blue, San
Bruno Elfin, and San Francisco Silverspot butterflies and
their subsequent listings under the Federal Endangered
Species Act were watershed events that dramatically altered
the course of the mountain's history.
Over the years, there have been recalls of local elected
officials, lawsuits against agencies charged with enforcing
environmental laws, rancorous public meetings, and a
stream of development projects. There have been spectacular
victories, such as the establishment of the State
and County Park, the preservation of Owl and Buckeye
Canyons, and the recent purchase of an ancient Ohlone
shellmound and village site for addition to the park. There
have also been heartbreaking defeats, such as the destruction
of Paradise Valley in South San Francisco and the construction
of Guadalupe Valley Parkway through the heart
of the mountain's wild space. The Parkway effectively destroyed
much of Colma Creek; as a barrier that butterflies are unlikely to cross, the road also severely fragmented the
butterflies' habitat, thus reducing the flow of genes that factors
so importantly in their long term chances of evolution and survival.


Habitat Conservation or Profit Conservation?
Perhaps the longest running battle concerns the so-called Habitat
Conservation Plan (HCP), a loophole in the Federal Endangered
Species Act (ESA) that allows for limited destruction of
rare species and their habitats in exchange for demonstrably
insufficient efforts to "create" substitute habitats and to
control weeds. David Schooley vehemently opposed the
Plan from the start and, with the rest of Mountain Watch
and with allies in the California Native Plant Society and the
San Mateo County-sponsored Friends of San Bruno Mountain,
is now at the center of a legal and policy battle over the
tenuous future of the HCP.

Had the Plan been developed in accord with the spirit and intent of the
Endangered Species Act: to enable the recovery and ongoing
survival of species facing extinction, San Bruno Mountain and
its rare species would likely be in much better shape today. Instead,
the HCP facilitated development, and 23 years later, Federal, State, and
municipal agencies are trying to untangle a knot of conflicting priorities.
Developers want to build, environmentalists demand sweeping improvements,
regional governments wrestle with the pressures of urban sprawl, and
new weeks threaten to overtake the mountian. Since the HCP's funding
is capped to guarantee builders that they won't ever have to pay more
than originally agreed, the solution being offered to the public is to
allow further destruction in order to get more money to pour into a Plan
that doesn't work.

Why doesn't the HCP work? The idea that a rare or endangered species
can be relocated is scientifically unfounded. Rare species are often rare
because their habitat requirements are specific. The habitat is defined by
a number of factors: soil type, hydrology, wind, fog, temperature, light, slope,
and the array of flora and fauna interacting in the area. Therefore, creating
new habitat for a sensitive species would be very difficult, very expensive,
and still might not work. for many rare species the complexities of feeding,
reproduction, predation, disease and other aspects of its life history are only
poorly understood. Also, the contractor hired to create habitat will need to
do extensive research prior to initiating the project and developing and
performing monitoring. Finally, it seems that new habitat should be developed
and species monitored in the area prior to destroying habitat elsewhere.
These vital steps were not undertaken for the San Bruno Mt. HCP.

If nothing else, the firm that has been retained to carry
out the provisions of the HCP, Thomas Reid Associates
(TRA) has got to go. TRA has had conflicts of interest
from the start. They helped craft the initial Plan, conducted
the official environmental impact review, won bids
to start the work after the Plan was approved, and have
had the contract renewed several times despite a very
poor level of performance. Every year they produce a
status report that cannot be taken seriously because of
the firm's vested interest in making the picture look rosy.
We have had to wait for over 20 years for scientific peer
review of TRA's practices to be conducted. Even though
the two reports that were finally produced focused solely
on TRA's butterfly monitoring, the results are powerful
indictments because so much of the Plan rests on TRA's
purported ability to track the fluctuations in butterfly
populations. The peer reviews concluded that the monitoring
data is largely useless due to poor monitoring design
and implementation. In fact, the first report said that
the ONLY conclusion that one can reasonably draw from
the data is that the species merely exist. To make matters
worse, almost all of the developers around the mountain
have used, in keeping with the protocol of the HCP, TRA's
data to underpin assertions about their projects' biological
impacts. It's time to hire a new environmental consulting
firm that will address the situation objectively and design
monitoring regimes that will be peer-reviewed from the start.

Adopted in 1982, the San Bruno Mountain HCP was the
very first of its kind; it has served as a precedent for over
one thousand other HCPs that are in place or under de-
velopment nationwide. The results of the current legal
struggle could have national significance, especially given
the current wrangling over the Endangered Species Act
(ESA) itself. The ESA has proven to be one of the nation's
most enduring environmental laws, having survived numer-
ous attacks by powerful developers and by mining and
logging interests and their government allies. The US Fish
& Wildlife Service, under political pressure to weaken
species protections while under legal pressure to uphold
resource laws like the Endangered Species Act, is deeply
divided. While many Service staff are earnestly trying to
implement science-based land management, the Bush Ad-
ministration has appointed Matthew Hogan, the former
chief lobbyist for the Safari Club (an extreme trophy hunt-
ing group), to head the agency, and several bills that could
gut the ESA altogether are heading toward votes in con-
gress. Allowing further destruction of severely imperiled
species on San Bruno Mountain would strike a substantial
blow to the Act. Conversely, Mountain Watch supports
all efforts to strengthen the ESA to gain stronger protec-
tions for San Bruno Mountain and for other natural treas-
ures.

Love the Mountain, and Fight for It
Fundamental to San Bruno Mountain Watch's struggles
are a variety of volunteer efforts, educational slideshows,
collaborations with local agencies and officials, guided
hikes, weed pulling parties, and other celebrations of the
mountain's intricate beauty. We attempt to address the
mountain's broad range of conservation needs along with
the public's need for education, recreation, and inspiration.
We're currently focused on:
� Educating people of all ages about their local environ-
ment, and the need to actively appreciate and protect
it. We offer slideshows, guided hikes, and supervised
service learning.
� Stopping further development in the Brisbane Quarry;
which has gouged into the heart of the Mountain for
almost 100 years, destroying vast rare species habitat
along the way.
� Preserving the privately-owned Brisbane Acres, which
comprise the mountain's most intact unprotected
habitat.
� Preventing the issuance of a permit to kill the severely
imperiled San Francisco Silverspot butterfly
under proposed changes to the HCP.
� Raising the level of professional land management by
securing grants.
� Hiring skilled, knowledgeable, and dedicated weeding
crews.
� Upholding Federal and State clean water laws by
suing the Amloc dump in Colma for water pollution
violations.
� Enhancing our substantial historical archives and
expanding activities in our Mountain Learning Center
in Brisbane.
� Organizing volunteer weeding parties.

The mountain is an irreplaceable part of our human habitat,
it must be defended tenaciously; it should also be
enjoyed as the marvelous wild spectacle that it is. Opportunities
abound for people of all ages and interests to
protect and enjoy San Bruno Mountain. Strange and
never-ending as it may seem, weeding the mountain may
be the most popular activity. Besides rekindling what is
for many a long lost, visceral interaction with the land,
it's a fantastic way to learn about plants, land management,
and politics, to promote species diversity, to get
some exercise, to help care for our shared park resources,
and to work joyfully with others. Please join us.

For More Information and To Get Involved:
Contact San Bruno Mountain Watch,
Brisbane, CA 94005. Fax / tel 415-467-6631.
Email: mountainwatch@earthlink.net.
Website: www.mountainwatch.org