San Bruno Mountain Latest Press


San Bruno Mountain: Haven for endangered species hides in plain sight

Mercury News
Susan Hathaway - correspondent
John Green/Bay Area News Group - photographer
January 15, 2015
link to original article

Probably few of the drivers zipping along Highway 101 just south of San Francisco pay much attention to a large, hilly expanse west of the freeway, although it's notable for what it doesn't contain -- buildings, cars and concrete.

Since urbanization has destroyed most of the "Franciscan bioregion" (the natural environment between SFO and the Golden Gate), the 3,400-acre San Bruno Mountain remains that region's largest, richest open space, and it's an indigenous habitat for many endangered species.

"It's hidden in full view," says San Francisco biologist Joe Cannon. "Most people don't realize that there are trails, canyons and a lot going on there."

One of the most important activities on the mountain -- much of it a state and county park -- is a program to protect and restore the area's biodiversity, led by Cannon and scores of passionate volunteers involved with the environmental nonprofit San Bruno Mountain Watch.


Native plant nursery coordinator Iris Clearwater helps volunteer (John Green/Bay Area News Group)The centerpiece of this decadelong effort is Mission Blue Nursery in Brisbane. Named for one of the mountain's three endangered butterfly species, it just might be the best place in the Bay Area to buy native plants -- not the widely available generic California natives, but flora that is "locally adapted," Cannon says. "A lot of people don't realize there's a lot of variation in ecotypes." The ones on the mountain thrive in the fog or heat or other elements of its microclimates, where some other plants might not.

According to Cannon, the plants available at Mission Blue Nursery include many "hard to kill" natives. Seeds for these plants are gathered on the mountain and propagated by brigades of volunteers, who also remove weeds to give the natives breathing room.

Since the mountain is surrounded by urban areas, non-native weeds are a continuing problem, Cannon says. Volunteers dig out invaders such as pampas grass, fennel, aster, mustard, the broom family and Himalayan blackberry.

His crew aims for "long-term sustainability," he says. "The goal is to get the first few invasives, and keep coming back and get a few each year. If you wait 10 years, you've lost the site."


The stewardship effort depends upon people who care about protecting the mountain's 13 rare and endangered plant species, as well as the endangered butterflies that feed on them.

The threatened-plant list includes the fuzzy-leaved, sweet-scented coast rock cress, which bears pretty, purple flowers; the rare San Francisco wallflower, whose linear leaves send up stems with clusters of cream-colored flowers; and the hyper-local shrub Montara manzanita, with its deep red stems and gorgeous, seasonal cone-shaped clusters of pink and white flowers.

"In some of these areas where we've gotten rid of the invasives, in spring (the view of plants in bloom) can be really breathtaking," says Chuck Heimstadt, a South San Francisco resident who, with wife Loretta Brooks, has been removing weeds from the mountain for several years.

Though the official volunteer schedule calls for weeding twice monthly, Heimstadt and Brooks trudge onto the mountain with their weeding tools daily. "We figure we're getting more exercise than when we were jogging, because the mountain is so steep," Heimstadt says with a chuckle.

Armed with their favorite weeder, the hand mattock, he and Brooks have cleaned up acres of land on the mountain. According to Heimstadt, "If you weed around a little poppy plant (so) it doesn't have competition on all sides, it will grow to 2 feet in diameter -- a giant plant. But if it's surrounded with grasses, it'll stay the size of a softball."


Although their work is never done, the couple finds satisfaction in the effort. "It keeps me going," Heimstadt says. "I remember what some of these areas looked like before we started. One thing I wonder is if there will be people picking up when we leave off."

Enlisting long-term volunteers is an objective of San Bruno Mountain Watch, which uses proceeds from plant sales to raise much-needed funds aimed at protecting the land from encroaching development.

Cannon says "politics" have steadily weakened the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and developers now have various avenues to destroy wildlife habitat legally.

How this has played out on San Bruno Mountain can be seen in a housing development on the hill overlooking the nursery, which was built on butterfly habitat. There, the only sign of these colorful creatures is the streets named after the endangered butterfly species whose space they appropriated.

San Bruno Mountain Watch will continue to fight against such incursions in the future.


Volunteers at Mission Blue Nursery (John Green/Bay Area News Group)When: 9 am - 2 pm February 21, and in May, August and November on dates to be announced; also by appointment (for minimum purchase of $100) Thursdays-Saturdays by calling 415-467-6631

Where: Near 3401 Bayshore Blvd, Brisbane

Information: See detailed directions to nursery and/or information on
San Bruno Mountain Watch at


Daly City Dunes parcel could be transferred to San Mateo County for preservation

Daly City Dunes parcel could be transferred to San Mateo County for preservation
The Examiner
June 18, 2014
Brendan P. Bartholomew

With the support of some conservationists and Native Americans, a local landowner hopes to donate his piece of the historic Daly City Dunes to San Mateo County. If the county Board of Supervisors approves the transfer, roughly 3½ acres of environmentally sensitive land belonging to commercial property landlord Richard Haskins would be annexed into the San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, and permanently protected from developers. Located on the western edge of San Bruno Mountain, the land is down the slope from Hilldale School on Florence Street, above a row of houses on Bonnie Street and adjacent to Hillside Park.

Brendan P. Bartholomew 2014The site contains ancient sand dunes that formed 80,000 to 125,000 years ago, when the ocean extended to the edges of the mountain. The dunes are home to the endangered Lessingia germanorum plant, a food source for sensitive butterfly species. An Ohlone shellmound is also located on the land, containing shells discarded by ancient Ohlone who brought their shellfish catches to the site. According to San Bruno Mountain Watch Executive Director Ken McIntire, the site might also contain the remains of Ohlone ancestors.

Confederation of Ohlone People Chairwoman Charlene Sul said that Ohlone remains have been found throughout the Bay Area, and it's possible the shellmound contains such remains. But Sul noted she would only support examining the site for the presence of remains if the land were in imminent danger of being developed, as testing the sand and soil would be intrusive.

"Once you start tests, you disturb the spirit," Sul said. "Not just of the ancestors, but also of the land and the environment and the species that are there."

Haskins, who with his brother inherited the property from their father, said Hilldale School offered to buy his parcels at one point, but he felt there was already enough development on the mountain. The land gift to the county would help ensure his heirs won't have to determine how it is used in the future, he said.

"My brother and I are both getting older, and I don't want to leave this for my kid to handle," Haskins said.

Not all of the site is owned by Haskins. Hilldale School recently purchased an acre of land directly above Haskins' property, and McIntire has been trying to prevent the school from developing its portion of the dunes. If the land currently owned by Haskins becomes part of the state park, that could make it harder for the school to develop its parcels, McIntire noted, because the county Parks Department would likely be involved in the process.

Parks Department Director Marlene Finley said there's "a perfect alignment of people" ready to collaborate on maintaining the dunes site if it becomes part of the state park. This includes San Bruno Mountain Watch, which has promised to remove invasive plant species and help restore the area, and local residents like Danny Camacho, who said he and his son frequently remove windblown trash from the site.

The Board of Supervisors has not yet set a date to vote on the matter, but Supervisor Dave Pine said he looks forward to seeing the annexation approved.

"People should be able to see what these lands looked like before we developed them," Pine said. "These dunes used to define the north county."


Peninsula students getting lessons on the outdoors thanks to local nonprofit

Peninsula students getting lessons on the outdoors thanks to local nonprofit
The Examiner
April 28, 2014
Brendan P. Bartholomew

Middle school students from Peninsula communities are hitting the outdoors for lessons on science, ecology and land stewardship through excursions to San Bruno Mountain with a local nonprofit organization.

San Bruno Mountain Watch's Middle School Environmental Education Program currently works with students at Lipman Middle School in Brisbane and Robertson Intermediate School in Daly City's Bayshore neighborhood, but it may expand to include other schools if funding becomes available.

Ken McIntire, executive director of San Bruno Mountain Watch, which is dedicated to preserving the mountain, said that in a typical school year, participating students receive five lessons in indoor classrooms and an additional five lessons are given in outdoor settings. With funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, McIntire has been able to hire an environmental educator to help with the lessons, and additional help comes from the Mid-Peninsula Boys & Girls Club, which provides vans and drivers to transport the youths to the mountain.

Lipman Middle School science teacher Holly Rios said her collaboration with McIntire began several years ago when he asked if her students could make posters supporting his campaign to stop developers from building luxury homes on a section of the mountain in Brisbane. Rios told McIntire that while she couldn't involve her students in a political struggle, he was welcome to teach the youngsters about the mountain.

The teacher touted the educational opportunities the outdoor adventures have offered her students.

"I'll say I want my kids to learn about photosynthesis, for example, and Ken will develop a lesson," Rios said.

Activities have included removing some invasive plants on San Bruno Mountain and replacing them with native plants, which Rios said has been fun for the students.

"Their favorite thing is to pull the weeds," Rios said, "They love it, especially the boys. They have their tools and they feel like warriors."

Sixth-grade teacher Eddie Arias said the education program is a welcome addition at the underfunded Robertson Intermediate School, where about 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

McIntire said that for some of Arias' disadvantaged students, the program provides their first real exposure to nature.

"You get a certain number of kids who are a little nervous about being surrounded by plants -- they're not used to balancing on trails with rocks and uneven surfaces," McIntire said, "It can be a hard sell getting them interested, and a lot depends on how skilled the teacher is. Eddie is very skilled."

Arias said that through the outdoor program, his sixth-graders are creating environmental education lessons for fourth-grade students at Bayshore Elementary. The educator is also organizing a native-plant sale featuring plants grown by his students.


Routine fires on San Bruno Mountain could help, environmentalist says

Brendan P. Bartholomew
Special to SF Examiner
September 23, 2013
link to original article

The recent grassfire that scorched more than 40 acres of San Bruno Mountain made headlines as one of the many burning around the state at the time, but it was not necessarily bad for the health of the mountain or the sensitive species that live on it, according to an environmentalist that works to preserve the open space.

San Bruno Mountain Watch Executive Director Ken McIntire said fires are a natural part of how wilderness systems periodically renew themselves, and he lamented the fact that routine, controlled burns are no longer done on the mountain.

McIntire said fire authorities are reluctant to do controlled burns — used in forestry management to restore habitats and to burn off vegetation that might otherwise fuel more destructive fires — on the mountain, because the last one, done several years ago, got out of control.

Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson said the last controlled burn on the mountain had been planned as a 7-acre burn, but had expanded to 14 acres. However, he said the fire had remained within control lines. Another controlled burn in 2003 also grew out of control and scorched more than 50 acres.

Sampson said the construction of new condominium complexes around the mountain has made it harder to do controlled burns without potentially endangering homes. He said, however, that if controlled burns are not done, those homes could be endangered by the accumulation of dry, combustible foliage.

"The city of Brisbane has been taking a significant interest in fuel conditions on that mountain," he said.

Sampson agreed with McIntire that controlled burns would be beneficial for the mountain's ecology, but that the decision not to burn is also being driven by stricter air quality standards, as well as the likelihood that smoke would interfere with planes approaching or leaving San Francisco International Airport.

Sampson said Cal Fire is not allowed to interfere with airport traffic. He added that when his organization fought the Sept. 7 blaze its air tankers had to fly low over Interstate Highway 280 in order to avoid airport flight paths.

San Bruno Mountain Watch restoration stewards Loretta Brooks and Chuck Heimstadt, who were working on the south side of the mountain when the fire started, said the fire and other controlled burns will be good for the mountain's flora and fauna – a position they hold despite their Toyota Camry Hybrid being partially melted by the conflagration.

Heimstadt said an endangered butterfly, the Callippe Silverspot, would benefit from controlled burns, which would clear out the coastal sage scrub that encroaches upon the animal's host plants.


Hilldale School buys slice of Daly City dunes

reprinted with permission:
Carolyn Jones — Staff Writer
Lea Suzuki — Photographer
San Francisco Chronicle
published September 13, 2013

Joe Cannon, biologist and San Bruno Mountain Board member, walks along the ancient dunes on the mountainDuring the Pleistocene age, the Pacific Ocean lapped at the edge of an island not far from present-day San Francisco. There were sand dunes, wildflowers, wind and fog - all the usual trappings of the California coast.

Fast-forward 125,000 years. The sea level dropped and the island became San Bruno Mountain. Most of those dunes are covered by houses and shopping centers now, but a 10-acre stretch in Daly City remains, an ancient beach landlocked by suburbia.

The Daly City dunes have escaped development so far, but those days could be numbered. A private K-8 school called Hilldale purchased a slice of the dunes - less than an acre - in April and is considering building a soccer field, parking lot and classrooms on it.

Conservationists are trying to stop it, circulating petitions and lobbying Daly City and San Mateo County politicians. Ideally, they'd like to see the dunes become part of the adjacent San Bruno Mountain State Park, and provide a trailhead to open space for the densely packed Blossom Valley and Hillside neighborhoods.

Lessingia, an endangered plant grows only on these dunes and in the PresidioSprouting in those dunes - a good 5 miles from the coast and about 300 feet above current sea level - are some of the rarest plants in the region. The dunes are home to half the world's population of San Francisco lessingia, a spiky yellow wildflower that's on the state and federal endangered species lists. The only other place where the plant grows is the Presidio.

"You don't have to travel 1,000 miles to see an endangered species. You have one right in your backyard," said Del Schembari, who sits on the board of San Bruno Mountain Watch and has been working on local open-space issues for 40 years. "It's an open-air museum. For educational purposes alone, this is a no-brainer."

School officials say that their plans are better than the alternative: homes. The school bought the property from a developer who planned to build eight houses at the site, which worried residents and environmentalists alike because the property is near a reservoir that in 2012 saw a pipe rupture, causing a river of water to flow through the neighborhood.

The school has not yet decided what to do with the property, but officials said the 64-year-old campus desperately needs more parking and play space for its 100 or so students. Officials also wanted to prevent homes from being built on the site because those blocks are already overly congested, said the school's business manager, John Sittner.

"It'd be nice to put this land in the public domain, but at this point that's not realistic," Sittner said. "We felt if we didn't buy this land, we'd be losing an opportunity we'd never get back."

The rest of the Daly City dunes are owned by the city and other private landowners, but the school's portion is the only segment facing an immediate development threat.

"This is about saving an endangered species, but it's also about open space," said Ken McIntire, director of San Bruno Mountain Watch. "That part of Daly City is very crowded, and people work really hard. The dunes is someplace you can go that's very, very peaceful."