The Mission Blue Mission

Saving the habitat of an inch-long violet butterfly, the endangered Mission Blue, is the starting point of a many-sided battle for dominance of San Bruno

It is possible that you have been deceived by San Bruno Mountain. Because from afar -- which is to say, from the highways that collar the mountain, headlights like pearls around a wrestler's neck -- San Bruno Mountain is ugly indeed. This time of year, from a distance, the mountain is brown, a muddy midrange yellowish brown, the color of a rec-room rug, of a 1970s station wagon parked and immobile on the side of the road. The mountain is huge, as well, a brown sky-blotting monolith just west of Candlestick Park, toeholds away from San Francisco itself, a giant slice of outback-looking grass and dirt right at the edge of the city's collective back yard. Driving past it, you can't help but dismiss it. Walk up onto it, however, and the mountain is a whole different place.

On the high reaches of San Bruno, wild orchids grow amid native silver grasses gone

dormant in the summer heat. Low shrubs, their stems like dark lace beneath crowns of wind-pruned leaves, offer different greens -- some closer to gray, some closer to yellow. There is campion, an endangered pink flower; and paintbrush, bright orange and yellow; and lizard's tail, green plants named for the shape of their leaves. There are rare manzanitas, growing low to the ground beneath the wind that comes in from the ocean, and wild violets, yellow and purple. Wild iris, gone to seed in the summertime, shed round beads into the parched soil, which cracks like broken skin in the daylong heat. Everywhere, there is the sound of the wind.

On occasion, bald eagles and golden eagles have been seen on San Bruno Mountain. Vireos, hummingbirds, kestrels, owls, quail, and flickers, too. On San Bruno Mountain, there are three kinds of rare butterflies. There's the Mission Blue, of course, which lives in the grasslands. There's the Callippe Silverspot, as well, which isn't listed as an endangered species because it shares the same habitat as the Mission Blue, laying its eggs on the wild violets that grow in the mountain's open areas. And there's the San Bruno Elfin, a smaller brown bug that lives in

the brushland. The San Bruno Elfin is a listed butterfly, because it is found almost exclusively on the mountain, but its habitat, the brush, isn't as threatened by development and other forces as the grassland is.

Up until 30 years ago, San Bruno Mountain was largely untouched by the development that had transformed the rest of the San Francisco Peninsula from a land of wild grass into an urban city. Part of a Spanish land grant made in 1837 to Jacob Lessee, a naturalized Mexican citizen, San Bruno was acquired by the Crocker Land Co. in 1884. For the next 80 years, cattle grazed the mountain's wide shoulders. Then, as urbanization crawled south from San Francisco and north from San Jose, developers' eyes fell onto the open spaces of the mountain, and the modern history of San Bruno began.

In 1965, a proposal was made to lop off the top 200 feet of San Bruno Mountain and use the earth -- 200 million cubic yards of it -- to fill in San Francisco Bay for the airport. But the idea didn't go over well in the towns -- Daly City, Brisbane, Colma, South San Francisco -- that surround San Bruno, and for 10 years, developers backed off. Then, in 1975, a company called Visitacion Associates proposed building 8,500 homes and 2 million square feet of office space on the mountain. "An intensive political battle ensued," county records note, resulting in a court fight between San Mateo County and Visitacion. In 1980, the developers and the county reached a settlement: The developers would be allowed to build in exchange for the donation of 1,650 acres to the county and 298 acres to the state of California for parks. Two weeks after that deal was reached, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service notified Visitacion that an endangered animal -- the Mission Blue butterfly -- called San Bruno home. And that meant that everything was again up in the air.

What happened next is still controversial, more than a decade later. Rather than sticking it to Visitacion and shutting down the mountain to all new development, San Mateo County sat down at the bargaining table with the developer. As county planner Roman Gankin, who was there, remembers it, "there was every possibility that they could take this all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and test the Endangered Species Act. I don't think anybody wanted that." The result was something called a "habitat conservation plan" (HCP), a formal congressional exception to the Endangered Species Act that allowed destruction of Mission Blue habitat by Visitacion and other developers in return for conservation elsewhere on the mountain. It was an idea -- balancing the competing interests of developers and environmentalists -- that was to take hold across the nation. Although, as it turns out, protecting habitat from development is one thing. Protecting it from itself is another.

Up on San Bruno Mountain, there is a place called April Brook, because in the spring the water runs there. Until recently, the water in April Brook ran through a glade of eucalyptus trees. Now the trees lie in huge piles on the ground.

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