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When the city of Brisbane, on the eastern slope of San Bruno Mountain -- houses on the flatlands and up on the mountain itself -- learned that the eucalyptus trees along Guadalupe Canyon Parkway had been cut down, there was no rejoicing in the streets. Quite the opposite. So much so, in fact, that the city filed suit to stop the logging.
"The people in Brisbane, because they live on the mountain and the park's in their back yard, have a real love affair with the mountain," City Planning Director Carole Nelson explains. "The people feel the mountain is a totem for them. It protects them, and keeps them safe, and if the mountain's OK then they're OK. ...
"When the eucalyptus cutting began and we found out that it wasn't selective cutting, it was clear-cutting, we sued because we thought it was a violation of the park," she says.
"The native plants and the Mission Blue butterfly are important values within the overall park. There are other values. There are aesthetic values and there are recreational values," says Nelson.
In other words, there's a trade-off. And that's the source of the conflict, in a nutshell, with the Endangered Species Act. In forcing Americans to think about the creatures that live among us, the act requires us to consider the role that nature has in urban society. And sometimes, it's easier to think about nature in other places -- other people's back yards -- than it is to deal with the consequences of saving what wildness is left right here, right now.
One of the interesting things about the biodiversity debate -- the idea that all forms of life are worth saving, no matter what -- is that it has tended to focus on places like the rain forests of South America. A recent book by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, for example, opens with a stirring account of a thunderstorm in forested Brazil:
"In the Amazon Basin the greatest violence sometimes begins as a flicker of light beyond the horizon," Wilson writes. "... We pray there will always be a world like this one at whose edge I sat in darkness. The rain forest in its richness is one of the last repositories on earth of that timeless dream."
Obviously, rain forests contain a lot of different kinds of living creatures. But it isn't necessary to travel long distances to find nature that's worth saving. Consider the work of J. Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist. Down on his hands and knees in his own back yard, Fabre gave voice to a science based on curiosity with the close-at-hand, the idea of nature as something that all people, no matter where they are, can find wonder in. Forget writing about tropical bugs, unless you're in the tropics -- what Fabre did, influencing a hundred years of natural science, is the equivalent of getting your magnifying glass out and studying earthworms in your flower beds. But somehow, nature, to those of us who live in cities, isn't where we find it. Unless it finds us first.
The house that Kathy Manus lives in has a view of the flatlands below San Bruno Mountain, the urban clutter of highways and train lines and fenced-in back yards between the high grasslands and the sea. When I comment on the view, she says, simply, "We wished it faced the other way." Toward the mountain, that is. Away from the rest.
Manus is one of the people who was shocked when the trees on San Bruno were cut down. "We didn't know why," she says. "For me, I come from a place where the trees are considered, I guess, sacred. In North Dakota, if you have a tree, you fall to your knees and thank the creator for it. For me, to see what I consider slaughter of trees that smell good, that provide a roosting place for birds, is what I would call a sin."
After seeing the clear-cutting, Manus called the county. She was surprised to find out that there was such a thing as a habitat conservation plan in effect on the mountain. She bought the plan -- $14 -- and read it. Then she joined the California Native Plant Society, and attended the Sierra Club's forum on the HCP, held last March. Once she found out why the trees were cut down, Manus says, it made more sense. Now Manus and 20-odd other San Bruno homeowners have a plan of their own. It's contained in the name of the organization Manus has formed, the San Bruno Mountain Botanic Garden Society.
"We looked at the devastation of the park and we said, 'Unless all of us learn to take an interest in the park and provide hands-on weeding and care, the park is going to be simply taken over by weeds,' " Manus says. "We believe if we can start a botanical garden society involving nature lovers and park users and animal lovers in the area that this will bring a greater interest in the park. If they understand, they will be able to act as we did."