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

What Manus imagines is a few acres of San Bruno set aside for native plants, with native grasses for paths, perhaps some wooden markers explaining the different habitats, an information booth, explanatory tours, a volunteer base to get out on the mountain and start weeding and seeding.

"We would like to have a couple of trees -- maybe some of the oaks," she says. Last month, Manus wrote to the county, asking whether there's any interest in government for the plan. Last week, she got a letter in return, saying the county thought the park was a good idea.

"My hope is that since we've taken from the park as homeowners, that we'll give something back," she says.

There is an irony about the Mission Blue butterfly, and it is this: The plant that is essential to its being, lupine, grows best in disturbed areas. If they wanted to, the people who are revegetating the mountain could spray the whole thing with lupine seed, and bring back a hundred thousand million of the plants and, presumably, butterflies. It wouldn't be biodiversity, of course, but it could be buckets of bugs.

But that isn't really the point of the whole thing.
In nature, time moves forward, and it moves in a circle. Plants grow, alter their environment, are replaced by other plants, which are replaced by other plants. That's called succession, and it is a straight-line process, one stage giving way to the next. Concurrent with that is a process that's more circular, in which areas, having succeeded to one stage, are damaged somehow, or rearranged, and have to start the whole process over again. It's like a wheel, moving forward and spinning around at the same time -- ensuring a greater diversity of life than would occur if nature moved forward only. On a place like San Bruno Mountain, where grasslands turn slowly into forests, things like fire or grazing deer ensure diversity, bringing some areas back to an earlier stage of succession. On San Bruno Mountain, the plant favored by the Mission Blue butterfly, the lupine, is an early succession plant. The lupine favors disturbed soils. And if San Bruno were part of a huge wild ecosystem, nature's tricks would make sure that part of the mountain was always open for lupine.

But San Bruno Mountain is just a tiny remnant of the wild now, hemmed in on all sides by houses and roads and radio towers and cemeteries and dumps. There's no way to let nature rip up there. Fires? Forget it. And so, without some kind of intervention from the same folks who caused this mess in the first place -- that is, from us -- the successive stages will come, one past another, until the Mission Blue butterfly is squeezed out by the least likely of all possible suspects: not us, not the exotics, but time.

But there is a way out of this mess.
High above the urban sprawl on San Bruno, Paul Kephart has something on his mind. He and an assistant, Parke Godar, have been walking through the tall grass on the west side of the mountain, above the white sea of fog over the houses far below. Kephart has just waved me downhill, to where a stand of eucalyptus rises out of a shallow gorge. Along the ground, fingers of ivy reach out into the grasses and shrubs that make up a habitat called a coastal prairie, rich in native plants, dotted with white flowers, pruned by the unceasing wind. Now Kephart is pausing, as Parke continues to pick through the plants.

"What I want to say is that I'm just a small little voice here, and what I want to say is that the people out in the communities have to get involved," he says, looking out over the houses that run from the edge of the mountain as far as it is possible to see. "I'm horrified. I'm scared to death at the loss of this diversity."

The solution? If nature can't be trusted to take care of things herself, then things will have to be taken care of for nature. Kephart puts it this way: "I think this mountain is going to become a natural garden. The plants we propagate will be the diversity."

In other words, San Bruno Mountain will be the Garden of Eden. After the fall.

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