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

"My criticism of the implementation of this plan all along has been the fact that weeds are overrunning the mountain. There is no restored habitat, and the population base of the weeds is growing all the time. With every year that passes the situation goes on," Sigg says. "They have no data, they have no records showing what they've done."

That, however, seems about to change. Thomas Reid Associates recently hired a person to study the reports to see what has worked and what hasn't worked in terms of removing the exotics.

"We should develop some idea of what we could expect," says Lawrence Kobernos, the new hire.

Now, all the development that affects San Bruno Mountain isn't residential. There's commercial, too. Consider the fate of Gus Pedemonte, whose Colma dump backed up, literally, onto some protected habitat. Pedemonte had to fork over $40,600 in fines to repair Mission Blue landscape, although the money wasn't spent on San Bruno Mountain but on the Milagra Ridge, above Pacifica, where another little isolated colony of the bugs lives. And on the very top of San Bruno is another commercial development -- one that has sparked the most vehement opposition to date of the habitat conservation plan. The people who don't like the towers call themselves Bay Area Land Watch, and they're suing San Mateo County.

The radio towers rise like skeletons on top of the ridge. They have been there since the days of cattle grazing, before the Endangered Species Act and the habitat conservation plan. At present, there is one satellite station and 10 towers, mushrooms in a forest of skeletal steel. Last year, according to the lawsuit, the owner of the mountain-top, a company named Watson Communications, proposed adding 32 new dish satellites, 10 new equipment shelters, a new 10,000-square-foot building, and, for the first time, two places for people to live. Thomas Reid studied the proposal and recommended to the county that it be approved. The county approved it, and forwarded it on to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which has final jurisdiction over all things that affect the Mission Blue. Bay Area Land Watch sued.

"The proposed project may injure or kill these endangered species," the lawsuit alleges, enumerating the Mission Blue and San Bruno Elfin butterflies. In addition, "the proposed project will cause deterioration in the skyline view of the Mountain, decreased use of the Park trails during construction activities, as well as exposure of hikers to increased radiation levels after additional satellite construction. Each of these physical changes may cause decreased use of the Mountain as a recreational location."

Among the charges contained in the lawsuit is this one: that in approving the radio tower expansion, the county did not properly assess the environmental impact of the project, as required by law.

The way that Bay Area Land Watch member Lewis Buchner explains it, the lawsuit is about the way the habitat conservation plan is administered as much as it is about the effect that the additional satellite dishes will have on the mountain. A main part of the concern is that Thomas Reid Associates, which manages the mountain under the conservation plan, also assessed the impact of the proposed new satellites on the mountain. To Buchner, that's a conflict of interest.

"We said basically that the environmental impact statement was very poorly done, very shoddy," Buchner says, sitting in the office over his cabinetry shop, which uses wood from certified renewable forests for high-end furniture and veneer panels.

Buchner wants to see the environmental impact statement for the Watson Communications expansion redone. "Not only this HCP but all over the country they can be amended too easily," Buchner says. "At least make them work the way they're intended, and don't make a joke out of them."

But Brian Gaffney, lawyer for Land Watch, is even more emphatic. "I think the concept of the HCP is fatally flawed," he says. "The idea that you can destroy more of their habitat and that will allow the species to recover -- there is no biological basis for that. It's a crass political solution to the problem."

Above a field of silver native grass off Highway 1 south of Santa Cruz, an Alaskan kite rides the midmorning breeze, hanging in midair, watching for mice on the ground. From underneath, the bird is a shadow in the sky.

"I'm so happy to see that," Paul Kephart says, leaning out the window of the pickup truck he's driving down a dirt road at Elkhorn Ranch, where he works, craning to see the bird. "When we got here, none of these were here."

Eight years ago, Elkhorn Ranch was abandoned farmland, the fields laced with irrigation tubes and plastic mulching, the soil so saturated with fertilizers and pesticides that the water beneath it was undrinkable. Then David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, bought the 1,200-acre property to restore it as a native habitat. They still don't drink the water at Elkhorn Ranch, but many other things have changed.

Across the ranch's low, rolling hills, Kephart has planted wild native grasses, which glow with a wintry light in the midsummer morning. There are oak trees and cottonwoods and ponds cut into the fields. As we drive past one pond, a mallard and her tiny ducklings, yellow and brown, swim in a line across the water. In the grasses now are mice and other rodents, which in turn have drawn kites, golden eagles, redtail hawks, and kestrels. Spiders live in the grasses, blacktail deer in the fields.

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