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

Everywhere, the smell of eucalyptus fills the fog. It is morning, mid-July, and the trees lie dead in piles along the side of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, the road that cuts over San Bruno Mountain, an asphalt scythe through the grass. If it weren't for the fog it would be possible to see San Francisco, just over the county line to the north, sugar-cube houses on tea-colored hills that spill one over the other down to the bay, but on this morning the mountain is its own world, just beyond the city limits, entirely apart. Here, 10 miles from downtown, piles of wood lie in shipwrecked waves, limbs in splinters, littered with leaves. A wasteland of slash and scrap, studded with stumps that stick like stubbed toes up from the cracked, black earth. This is ground zero -- the starting point of the many-sided battle for dominance of San Bruno Mountain, the last wild remnant of what was once a flood of grass and shrubs running from breakers to bay -- and the casualties, already, are too numerous to count. Awe-inspiring carnage indeed, all for the sake of an inch-long insect called the Mission Blue.

Perhaps you have heard of the Mission Blue. It is a butterfly, violet-blue, not much wider than the letters of its first name printed here. For two weeks in the early summer of every year, just after the rains stop, the Mission Blues on San Bruno emerge from their papery cocoons and take to the air, flying dizzily -- drunk, perhaps, with the sun after their long year underground, or with the explosion of flight itself -- above an eight-leafed flowering plant called the lupine. On the lupine, the Mission Blues mate and drink nectar and lay eggs and die. The Icaricia icarioides -- the Common Blue -- is a butterfly found from British Columbia to Southern California, east to the Dakotas, south to New Mexico, but the Mission Blue, a subspecies, Icaricia icarioides missionensis, lives almost exclusively on San Bruno Mountain. Primarily for this reason, the Mission Blue is an endangered species, protected by the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The best -- the only -- way to save an endangered form of life is to protect its habitat. But protecting San Bruno Mountain isn't as simple a matter as it might seem. Draw lines in the sand up there, and the sides surprise.

One side is humankind, of course. With our condos and roads and Cow Palaces and quarries, the ever-encroaching urbanization of modern society poses a major threat to the mountain, no doubt about it. Another side is nature. San Bruno is a lush and complex place, woven with wildflowers, laced with streams, brushed with birds, powdered with butterflies, the most delicate dance imaginable. And if the problem with the mountain were to stop there -- man vs. nature -- it would be easy to think about, even easy to solve. Save the butterfly? Stop development. Unfortunately, nature is trickier, sometimes, than we give her credit for.

Because on a third side of the battle over San Bruno Mountain, there's nature again -- a different kind of nature, unnatural to this place, to California: invading plants like eucalyptus and gorse and strange grasses, rapacious weeds that vanquish the native grasslands in the race to survive. One of the casualties of this contest is color: The alien grasses die back in the summertime, turning the mountain brown; native grasses sleep through summer, bright silver, an absence of hue as beautiful as the green that comes with the rains. Some of the exotics are green, though -- the gorse, for example; long green thorns glowing even in ghost light. Here in the Golden State, where summer is the dormant season, the compulsion for green in the heat has gotten native plants into trouble. Left to their own devices, the exotic eucalyptus and gorse and the ivies and broom and blackberries and mustard, summer greens all, could take over the mountain from the silver grasses faster than development ever could. And so, on the fourth side, there's humankind again -- not in opposition to nature, but in concert, a cello in a spring quartet, battling the exotic plants. The money for that fight comes from San Bruno's first enemy, without which none of it would be possible because it wouldn't be necessary: us.

It is hard to imagine oneself as the villain in a continuing tragedy, but on the other hand, the face in the mirror never lies. In the Bay Area, we have paved the grassy hills, steered the streams into concrete gutters, built missile bunkers in the headlands, dredged the harbor, filled the bay, obliterated the wetlands, and smogged the sky. There is nowhere on the Peninsula left of what was, no feral place the hand of man hasn't mauled -- nowhere, that is, except for this few thousand acres on a hillside so steep that developers didn't get around to building on it until the rules of the game had changed. And now that nature is under siege up there, enemies on the outside and enemies within, the question is this: Is it possible to save a butterfly by turning back the hands of time? Or is it too late? And if it is too late -- well, what happens then?

It is possible that you have been deceived by San Bruno Mountain. Because from afar -- which is to say, from the highways that collar the mountain, headlights like pearls around a wrestler's neck -- San Bruno Mountain is ugly indeed. This time of year, from a distance, the mountain is brown, a muddy midrange yellowish brown, the color of a rec-room rug, of a 1970s station wagon parked and immobile on the side of the road. The mountain is huge, as well, a brown sky-blotting monolith just west of Candlestick Park, toeholds away from San Francisco itself, a giant slice of outback-looking grass and dirt right at the edge of the city's collective back yard. Driving past it, you can't help but dismiss it. Walk up onto it, however, and the mountain is a whole different place.

On the high reaches of San Bruno, wild orchids grow amid native silver grasses gone

dormant in the summer heat. Low shrubs, their stems like dark lace beneath crowns of wind-pruned leaves, offer different greens -- some closer to gray, some closer to yellow. There is campion, an endangered pink flower; and paintbrush, bright orange and yellow; and lizard's tail, green plants named for the shape of their leaves. There are rare manzanitas, growing low to the ground beneath the wind that comes in from the ocean, and wild violets, yellow and purple. Wild iris, gone to seed in the summertime, shed round beads into the parched soil, which cracks like broken skin in the daylong heat. Everywhere, there is the sound of the wind.

On occasion, bald eagles and golden eagles have been seen on San Bruno Mountain. Vireos, hummingbirds, kestrels, owls, quail, and flickers, too. On San Bruno Mountain, there are three kinds of rare butterflies. There's the Mission Blue, of course, which lives in the grasslands. There's the Callippe Silverspot, as well, which isn't listed as an endangered species because it shares the same habitat as the Mission Blue, laying its eggs on the wild violets that grow in the mountain's open areas. And there's the San Bruno Elfin, a smaller brown bug that lives in

the brushland. The San Bruno Elfin is a listed butterfly, because it is found almost exclusively on the mountain, but its habitat, the brush, isn't as threatened by development and other forces as the grassland is.

Up until 30 years ago, San Bruno Mountain was largely untouched by the development that had transformed the rest of the San Francisco Peninsula from a land of wild grass into an urban city. Part of a Spanish land grant made in 1837 to Jacob Lessee, a naturalized Mexican citizen, San Bruno was acquired by the Crocker Land Co. in 1884. For the next 80 years, cattle grazed the mountain's wide shoulders. Then, as urbanization crawled south from San Francisco and north from San Jose, developers' eyes fell onto the open spaces of the mountain, and the modern history of San Bruno began.

In 1965, a proposal was made to lop off the top 200 feet of San Bruno Mountain and use the earth -- 200 million cubic yards of it -- to fill in San Francisco Bay for the airport. But the idea didn't go over well in the towns -- Daly City, Brisbane, Colma, South San Francisco -- that surround San Bruno, and for 10 years, developers backed off. Then, in 1975, a company called Visitacion Associates proposed building 8,500 homes and 2 million square feet of office space on the mountain. "An intensive political battle ensued," county records note, resulting in a court fight between San Mateo County and Visitacion. In 1980, the developers and the county reached a settlement: The developers would be allowed to build in exchange for the donation of 1,650 acres to the county and 298 acres to the state of California for parks. Two weeks after that deal was reached, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service notified Visitacion that an endangered animal -- the Mission Blue butterfly -- called San Bruno home. And that meant that everything was again up in the air.

What happened next is still controversial, more than a decade later. Rather than sticking it to Visitacion and shutting down the mountain to all new development, San Mateo County sat down at the bargaining table with the developer. As county planner Roman Gankin, who was there, remembers it, "there was every possibility that they could take this all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and test the Endangered Species Act. I don't think anybody wanted that." The result was something called a "habitat conservation plan" (HCP), a formal congressional exception to the Endangered Species Act that allowed destruction of Mission Blue habitat by Visitacion and other developers in return for conservation elsewhere on the mountain. It was an idea -- balancing the competing interests of developers and environmentalists -- that was to take hold across the nation. Although, as it turns out, protecting habitat from development is one thing. Protecting it from itself is another.

Up on San Bruno Mountain, there is a place called April Brook, because in the spring the water runs there. Until recently, the water in April Brook ran through a glade of eucalyptus trees. Now the trees lie in huge piles on the ground.

"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.

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.

"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.

In a long black-mesh-covered greenhouse in back of a ranch house that serves as the ranch's office there are wild seedlings in hundreds of flats, puny little plants poking up out of tubes, growing from seeds Kephart has gathered on San Bruno Mountain and other places. Because the seeds are wild, he sometimes has to jolt them to get them to sprout -- with fire, or acid, or with refrigerated cold, his hands like a tough love substitute for nature herself. In some of the flats in his big airy shed, Kephart has violas, the wild violets favored by the Callippe Silverspot butterflies.

"Nobody's been able to grow them from seed, and I've got all these," he says. Elkhorn Ranch and Kephart do restorations all over the state -- a revegetation near Big Sur, at the site of a gargantuan landslide; at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant; and a 200-acre eucalyptus removal in Aromas, near Watsonville.

Beyond the greenhouse, rows of native plants rise up from ground that gets no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weedkillers. The plants are all colors, all shapes -- long tufted grasses, purple flowers, small herbaceous shrubs. Across the lagoon, a lettuce field of brilliant green, like a gemstone, shines from a hillside. The color, from this distance, seems like something that is sprayed or painted on. Next to the much more delicate shadings of the plants underfoot, the bright green fields, suddenly, seem unreal.

In the last five years, the field of habitat restoration has garnered increasing interest. Part of it was the drought, which prodded people to consider ways to landscape with less water. Restoring native habitat is an interdisciplinary pursuit, Kephart says, combining the demands of landscape ecology with those of horticulture. "The new frontier is to put these concepts into the urban landscape," he says. And San Bruno Mountain, with its isolated wildness, invading exotic plants, development, and endangered species, "absolutely defines the problems of modern ecological restoration."

"You look down at a map of Mount San Bruno," he says, "and you wonder, how can those butterflies make it?"

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

-- Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory

Out of nowhere, it seems, the butterfly appears. As if the air has conjured it. It is a tiny thing, fluttering above the lupine in a dizzy blur. This Mission Blue, anyway, is flying as if someone just slapped it upside the head, stumbling, punch-drunk, shaking up and down, like a tiny little feather duster at the end of a long stick. It seems paralyzed by indecision, too: This flower? That flower? This flower? That flower? Then it's gone -- where? -- and no matter how we look we can't find it again.

Perhaps none of what is happening on San Bruno Mountain -- the fight over habitat, the conservation plan, the extraction of exotic species, the attempt to revegetate -- would be happening without the Mission Blue butterfly. Certainly the presence of an endangered butterfly has given the mountain the money and the management not otherwise available to it. But imagine, for example, if the Mission Blue were not a butterfly at all. Imagine it as an insect without delicate blue wings and a frilly light-blue thorax; imagine it with a hard carapace, a shiny brown airborne beetle the color of dung, with pincers and hairy legs and a stinging bite. Imagine if it were, simply, a caterpillar -- green, oozing gooey liquid from the pores on its pulpy skin -- that never transformed itself, never took to the air, spent its whole life underground, emerging only to sting and die. The bug could still be protected by law, still fought over and litigated about, but would the fight stir the same emotions? Would it seem worthwhile if the insect at issue was horrible to look at, or dangerous to touch?

The question of whether something is worth saving, particularly when the thing at stake requires a compromise of some kind, an alteration in the path of what is called progress, often comes down to what can be gained by saving it. In the case of something like a butterfly, the answer is relatively easy: Save an endangered butterfly, and you get back beauty. Or fragility. Easy enough, in the abstract.

But what if saving a butterfly involves cutting down trees? Trees that are beautiful, to some, in their own right? Can you trade beauty for beauty? Or, in doing that, is there a loss somewhere -- one that cannot be recompensed?

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."

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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