Pioneer conservation plan falls short: Promised new habitat for butterflies has not materialized

Publisher: Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
Reporter: Robert McClure

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Under a skeletal roof, Doug Allshouse putters around flats of viola pedunculata.

(Photo: Environmentalist David Schooley, with San Francisco in the background, has led efforts to fix problems with the habitat protection plan at San Bruno Mountain, home to three rare butterfly species.)

To raise the native plants in a native climate, the retired grocer and other volunteers removed every pane of glass from a donated greenhouse.

Viola is critical to the survival of the callippe silverspot, one of three federally protected butterflies on nearby San Bruno Mountain, site of the nation's first habitat conservation plan.

Things aren't going well. A mysterious dormancy period makes viola tricky to raise.

"I'm waiting for Mother Nature to tip her hand and show me what to do," Allshouse said.

It's important work -- the butterflies need more of the plants in order to thrive. Each spring, male callippes patrol ridgelines looking for love. Afterward, females head downslope to lay eggs -- and the only plant that will do is viola.

The hilltops, with their commanding views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, were given up with great remorse by developers. But the deal they struck with the government allowed houses to rise atop big fields of viola at lower levels.

Declared a "model" conservation plan by Congress when proposed in 1982, San Bruno is in a predicament today that does not inspire confidence in the national program it spawned.

Development continues on the north side of San Bruno Mountain.
The plan here has fallen short. Twenty-three years into its 30-year term, not only has it failed to create the amount of butterfly habitat that was promised, but management of protected lands is being done on the cheap.

The plan's managers say it is a success because the butterflies are still around and their numbers appear to be stable. But a 2004 study by UCLA called the methods used to count butterflies for the plan's first 18 years "haphazard" and labeled the results "spurious."

Money has been set aside to manage the mountain's preserved lands, but it is not enough to fight the waves of invasive weeds crowding out native plants favored by the trio of butterflies: the callippe, the San Bruno elfin and the mission blue.

The San Bruno predicament illustrates how habitat plans, which grant decades-long licenses to kill and harm endangered species, can be difficult to maintain because of unanticipated changes -- both biological and financial.

Despite the challenges, the mountain's allure hasn't faded for Allshouse, who is president of Friends of San Bruno Mountain. "The mountain is magical, and if you let it, it gets you hooked," he said. "It's almost like a spiritual entity."

Officially, the job of taking care of the mountain falls to Patrick Kobernus of Thomas Reid Associates, the environmental consulting firm that hatched the habitat plan and is responsible for making it work.

But Kobernus said he is forced to perform "triage" as dozens of invasive weeds take root -- some of them likely introduced by homeowners in developments bearing street names such as Callippe Court and Silverspot Drive.

"There's been a general lack of understanding of how difficult it is to manage invasive weeds," he said. "Once you set aside land, that's one thing -- but managing it, we're learning, is a much different thing."

The biggest problem is a lack of money. Homeowners pay $37 a year to help the butterflies. That generates about $140,000, but that is nowhere near enough to keep weeds in check on a 5-square-mile mountain.

For all its drawbacks, the San Bruno plan is better than many being approved today. About 90 percent of the mountain's butterfly habitat was preserved in the original deal. Many modern habitat conservation deals allow an acre to be developed for every acre saved, an analysis of the plans shows.

Another difference: This plan didn't come with a now-common "no surprises" clause, which promises developers that they will never have to pay any more money or give up any more land -- even if the population of the species in question plummets.

The plan has fallen short of its promise to replace at least a quarter of the butterfly habitat lost to development. The latest progress report lists 46 acres restored for the butterflies, while houses occupy more than 300 acres.

Environmentalists scoff at the restoration done. "They haven't done (a thing) out there," Allshouse said.

Because this plan must be amended -- the callippe butterfly won protection in 1997, and wasn't covered by the original plan -- Kobernus' firm and San Mateo County officials have a chance to fix some of the shortcomings.

More trade-offs, however, may be in the works. A developer who wants to build houses in existing butterfly habitat has proposed boosting the butterfly-protection assessment to $800 for each new house. If allowed, that would triple the total collected under the plan to about $420,000 a year, officials say.

Allshouse and other conservationists are wary. Habitat conservation plans "sound kind of warm and fuzzy," Allshouse said. "What you end up finding out is that (they) don't end up benefiting the endangered species at all. They just allow people to destroy their habitat."