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

Then we're off, having almost completed the circle around the mountain. Just short of the parking lot where we started this morning, Harris pulls into a turnout on the side of the mountain, parking in a dust cloud of blue-white gravel. A path leads up the ridge, the gravel bone white in the bright sun.

Our walk takes us past mole holes where Baumgartner says black widow spiders live. All around us are swallowtail butterflies, chasing each other in spirals through the air. In the grass, Callippe Silverspots tongue nectar from flowers. The Callippes are brown with dashes like mercury on their wings, bigger than the Mission Blues, prettier, easier to see. The top of this hill looks down into a canyon on the other side, where there are more big trucks moving earth. With the swallowtails in the air around us, with the Callippes in the grass at our feet and the trucks below us, the mountain, all of a sudden, seems complicated indeed.

Since 1982, some 700 homes have been built on San Bruno Mountain. Nearly 1,300 more homes have been approved under the habitat conservation plan. On the Northeast Ridge, the part of the mountain that most directly faces San Francisco, Coscan Davidson Homes is starting construction in what some people say was some of the best Mission Blue habitat on the mountain. Over on the other side of San Bruno, facing the Pacific and the strip malls of Serramonte Boulevard, another project, Terrabay, is due to start construction by the fall. All told, development has eaten up 372 acres of the mountain. There are 2,741 acres set aside in conservation. Another 216 acres are, as yet, undecided. Between the areas under construction and areas in conservation, there is a fence dotted with white warning signs. Two worlds back to back with each other, connected by one thing: money.

Under the terms of the habitat conservation plan, the landowners who live on the mountain pay money each year into a habitat preservation fund. The money, which amounts to some $70,000 a year, goes for the maintenance of the conservation areas on the mountain. Among the main tasks the money pays for: patrolling the areas under construction to make sure nobody's going beyond the fenced-off line, and the removal of exotic plants. That is, the same developments that destroy habitat pay to restore it. Take some Mission Blue land here, pay to pull gorse off the mountain over there.

In some quarters -- most noticeably, in political arenas from local city halls to the U.S. Congress -- that's seen as a mighty fair swap, a bargain in which everybody wins. People get houses, animals get land. What could be better? And in the years since San Bruno Mountain became the site of the nation's first habitat conservation plan, those kind of plans have been put to work, in one form or another, in 36 other places, with 150 more applications pending.

Yet not everyone likes the San Bruno Mountain habitat conservation plan -- either in theory or in practice.

"There was a big problem with the approach, which is that they traded the prime habitat for the lesser habitat. It was a flawed approach from the start. The concern was that if you tried to get what was the best environmentally that it would seem so outrageous that the Endangered Species Act would go down in flames," says Julia Bott, of the Sierra Club. "My heart says, 'Hey, we started wrong in the very beginning. We should have protected the best habitat. You don't give away the best habitat and take something marginal and say it works.' Nonetheless, that's what we have to work with so it's kind of our charge and our responsibility to take what's on the mountain."

Last spring, the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club hosted a forum on San Bruno's habitat conservation plan. Criticisms ranged from the general to the specific, with focus on two problems: The plan, critics said, has no provision for outside review, which means that the people who administer the plan are the ones in charge of deciding whether the job they're doing is adequate. In addition, the critics said, San Bruno's conservation plan contains neither long-range goals nor the kind of retrospective studies that would allow perspective on whether the exotics removal is working. Put those two things together, and there's really no way to tell what's actually happening to the habitat up there on that mountain.

"The plan was loosely written. It did not require any set goals, it didn't have any measuring devices, it was just counting butterflies, which are really essentially meaningless," says Jake Sigg, of the California Native Plant Society, which is active on San Bruno Mountain.

Each year, Thomas Reid Associates submits an annual report on the mountain to San Mateo County. The reports, which date back to 1980, when Thomas Reid Associates first began studying the mountain, contain detailed butterfly enumerations and anecdotal accounts of the ways in which it has been attempted to remove gorse and eucalyptus from the mountain. But with few exceptions, the reports don't compare results year to year. It isn't possible, for example, to gain a sense from the reports as to whether gorse -- to choose the plant considered the most inimical to native vegetation -- has gained or lost ground on the mountain as a whole in the last decade and a half. Harris, at Thomas Reid Associates, says the gorse removal has been successful. But Sigg, at California Native Plants, disagrees.

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