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

"We've got to get going on this area here," planner Gankin is saying. "It's got a lot of loose areas that have to be stabilized for the rains."

It is midmorning, mid-July. A group of people has gathered at April Brook to talk about putting native plants back where they once belonged. This is the first place on San Bruno that the restoration will happen. It's a test place, in a way. Five acres of figuring things out.

Among the people Gankin is talking to is a man named Paul Kephart. Kephart is a botanist, a native plant expert from south of Santa Cruz who has been on the mountain since dawn this morning, gathering plants and seeds. It's Kephart who'll be doing the restoration of native vegetation on San Bruno. Already, in a nursery south of Santa Cruz, he has San Bruno seedlings sprouting in plastic bins. Kephart is tall and blond and direct. The dashboard of his car is full of plants.

"We need to be in here to start planting and seeding by November 3, 4, 5 at the latest," Kephart says. "As soon as we see the rains, we'll see a lot of eucalyptus."

In fact, they're already seeing a lot of eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is difficult to get rid of, if that's what you're trying to do to it. Can't cut it down -- the stumps sprout. Can't burn it -- the trees explode seeds. Can't spray it once and walk away -- keep on it or you'll see more eucalyptus than you want to.

Over lunch, Kephart outlines his plan for April Brook. The felled trees have been left in huge piles by the logging company that San Mateo County contracted to clear-cut the forest. Plus, the loggers have cut a deep shelf into the side of the April Brook ravine. Both of these things are problems: The slash lumber has to be cleared and the shelf needs to be restored to its original slope before revegetating. Then the trick will be to keep the weeds out long enough for the native plants to take hold, a balancing act. The plan Kephart talks about, sketching it out briefly, seems uncomplicated but labor-intensive: Spray the heck out of the eucalyptus stumps, which were also left by the loggers when they cruised through. Then move in with native plant seedlings from the nursery. Wrap little collars around each seedling, to keep the eucalyptus spray off them, then spray some more. Get schoolkids out there to distribute seeds, lay kraft paper on the ground to discourage the invasive plants from sprouting, spray some more, and keep a careful eye on things.

Talk turns to herbicides. The ones they're using on San Bruno trick the plants into thinking they're taking in nutrients -- specifically, nitrogen -- from the soil, so when the plants are sprayed, they open up and suck it all right in. Figuring out what sprays to use has taken some time.

"It kind of fakes the plant out," Maria "Alvin" Baggett, one of the herbicide applicators, says.

"It's taken us seven years to figure out the proper solutions," Mike Forbert adds. "But I've gotten to the point where now I've got a method that works. I can see results."

Victoria Harris is, in a sense, in charge of things on San Bruno Mountain. Harris works at Thomas Reid Associates, the Palo Alto-based environmental consulting company that manages San Bruno's habitat conservation plan for the county. Harris is the point person for the plan -- she monitors the construction, talks to construction workers about respecting the environment, and helps to write the annual reports that list butterfly counts and exotic plant destruction. An energetic, friendly woman, Harris can spot an exotic plant from the driver's seat of a moving car at 45 mph. After lunch, she takes me and field biologist Lion Baumgartner out for a spin.

We head south along the west side of the mountain. We pass Colma's green cemeteries, their grass like the felt on pool tables beneath the high brown tableau of the mountain. There's a nursery in here, to the left, and we turn down a dirt road into it. Look -- they're selling blue gum eucalyptus in pots, the exact same trees that lie in shorn piles on the other side of the mountain. Harris points that out, and we drive to the end of the road, where she stops and looks up at the mountain. There, a stand of silver dollar eucalyptus is making its way slowly up the south slope, leaves like shiny coins against the bright summer grass.

"They escaped from the nursery," Harris says.
It is past 1 o'clock now, and the sun beats down. Harris drives slowly all the way around the mountain, to the Northeast Ridge, where there are huge graders working to level steep slopes of the mountain, the dust rising yellow up off the ground. Part of Harris' job is to monitor the development on the mountain, so we stop in to see Tim Wellman, at Coscan Davidson Homes, which is doing the building. Harris and Wellman discuss having her talk, again, to the guys who are running the big trucks out there, about making sure they're following the laws and not bulldozing where they shouldn't be. Harris says she'll stop back by.

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