The Mountain - A Short History

 

View of San Bruno Mountain from Mount Tamalpais. (J. Cannon)

San Bruno Mountain, located at the northern boundary of San Mateo County, is one of the largest open spaces in an urban setting in the United States.  This island in an urban sea - surrounded on all sides by the cities of Brisbane, South San Francisco, Daly City and Colma - has miraculously survived decades of assaults.  San Bruno Mountain continues to provide access to one of the last remnants of a unique natural landscape that once covered the northern San Francisco Peninsula, but is now mostly buried beneath development.

Spanish Explorers and the Ohlone Indians

The Ohlone (Costanoan) Indians established the first known human settlements on and around San Bruno Mountain.  When the waters of San Francisco Bay were still at the Mountain's eastern edge the Ohlone Indians, who were hunters and gatherers, lived in villages in the lower valleys of the Mountain.  Middens, or shell mounds that date back thousands of years, are found in Buckeye Canyon and on the eastern slope of the Southeast Ridge -  evidence of the Ohlone presence.

Spanish explorers first arrived to what is now the San Francisco Peninsula in 1769.  The Portola Expedition discovered San Francisco Bay from their vantage point on Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica. Spanish land grants and the Spanish mission culture soon disrupted and undermined the Ohlone social structure and way of life, and was the beginning of their decline. 

After Mexican independence, large Spanish land grants that were once controlled by the Franciscan missions were divided up.  Mexican land grants to individual settlers divided the San Francisco Peninsula.  Portions of the San Bruno Mountains were once included in 5 different land grants, the largest (more than 9,000 acres) being Rancho Canada de Guadalupe la Visitacion y Rodeo Viejo.  This grant, made in 1837, included most of the Mountain and what is now Brisbane and Visitacion Valley.

After the United States took possession of California the largest holding was in the hands of the Visitacion Land Company.  Charles Crocker acquired almost 4000 acres from them in 1884 and subsequently the land passed to the Crocker Land Company, and then Visitacion Associates.  The majority of the land remained undeveloped and was used primarily for grazing.

Development Pressures and Creation of San Bruno Mountain State and County Park

Visitacion City, now Brisbane, grew on the north slope of the Southeast Ridge during the first half of the 20th century.  Crocker Industrial Park opened in 1959 in Guadalupe Valley, once a wetland until it was filled in for development.  In 1961 Brisbane incorporates as a city to deter urban renewal plans proposed by San Mateo County.

The aggressive urbanization of the San Francisco Peninsula put more development pressure on San Bruno Mountain.  The Mountain became the focus of numerous proposals that ranged from large-scale housing developments and commercial uses to the incredible idea of leveling the Mountain to provide landfill for expansion of the San Francisco Airport in 1965.  This proposal galvanized opposition to development on the Mountain and, as a result, the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain was formed, later to evolve into the San Bruno Mountain Watch.

The continuing threat of development sparked public interest in saving this open space and preserving the land’s natural state.  In 1972 San Mateo County voters approved funds for the acquisition of lands and a development program for the creation of San Mateo County Parks.  San Bruno Mountain was considered of the highest importance because of its scenic, recreational and - most important - its biological resources.  In 1976 the Mission Blue and San Bruno Elfin butterflies were listed as federally endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  In 1978 the Crocker Land Company settled litigation with San Mateo County by selling 1,110 acres and donating 546 acres to the County, thereby creating the foundation of San Bruno Mountain County Park.  In 1980 the State of California acquired the Mountain’s Saddle area (256 acres) as part of the State Park System.  These protected lands have been merged and are now in San Bruno Mountain State and County Park.  Of the Mountain’s 3400 acres of open space, the protected lands (and dedicated lands) total approximately 2600 acres and include the San Bruno Mountain Ecological Reserve, managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, made up of portions of Buckeye and Owl Canyons.

The First Habitat Conservation Plan

Battles surrounding development on the Mountain’s privately held land that threatened the endangered Mission Blue butterfly resulted in the creation of the first Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in the United States.  The Habitat Conservation Plan was an attempt to balance species protection with development interests.  The resulting compromise between private landowners, government agencies and some conservationists was a plan to manage endangered species on private property in exchange for the right to develop on critical habitat.  In 1982, an amendment to the Endangered Species Act (Section 10(a)) authorized the HCP process and the “taking” of endangered species and their habitat providing that other suitable habitat was restored and maintained.    

HCPs have proliferated since 1982 and remain controversial.  Many conservationists consider HCPs a failure and an inadequate tool for endangered species protection.  For a history of the battle to save both San Bruno Mountain and its endangered butterflies, and how San Bruno Mountain Watch evolved to fight that battle see a History of Mountain Watch.