Taking San Bruno Mountain by Strategy: A New Film on Habitat Protection

Documentary filmmaker Gail Mallimson has been fascinated with San Bruno Mountain ever since she moved to San Francisco from Manhattan. (For the cartographically challenged, it’s the big one above the Cow Palace, with all the big antennas on it).

Although at the center of a highly urbanized area, San Bruno Mountain remains the sole habitat of a number of endangered species, most famously the Mission Blue butterflies.

They’re “very finely tuned to their ecosystem,” Mallimson told SF Weekly by phone. And they live only in a few other isolated spots across the region. Worried that powerful interests were eyeing the high-elevation site (and its stunning vistas) as parcels for development, she soon discovered that even as the Endangered Species Act is at risk in Congress, developers had successfully petitioned for it to be watered down at San Bruno Mountain decades before, and promised habitat mitigation efforts had gone nowhere.

The result of this was The Edge of the Wild, a feature-length documentary chronicling the attempts to thwart irresponsible mountaintop development. Once she began to make the film, Mallimson learned that nearly half the planet’s wildlife had disappeared in the past 40 years.

[jump] “So it becomes a story not so much about these cute butterflies that may not exist anymore, but that life on this planet might not exist the way we know it,” Mallimson said. “It’s really the fabric of life that’s at risk. It sounds incredibly alarmist, but it’s alarming!”

The looming demise of the endangered butterflies isn’t merely a result of bulldozers, either, and Mallimson has gotten involved with an organization called San Bruno Mountain Watch to make sure that invasives don’t conquer the hills.

“A lot of the danger comes from the invasion of non-native plants,” Mallimson said. “Even though a certain piece of land may be green space still, it may look like nature, but a lot of the grassland has fallen victim to non-native plants that can take over a whole hillside and push the butterflies out. There’s succession, which means plants higher up the chain, like coyote bush, will take over the grasslands as well because they need periodic fires to hold them back. That doesn’t happen with any kind of regularity on the mountain.”

The Edge of the Wild will premiere at the San Francisco Green Film Festival this June. Although the film is in the proverbial can, Mallimson is crowd-funding the final costs (music rights, for instance) via Indiegogo. Eco-minded film lovers, or anyone with some spare change lying around and who might want to go on a custom hike with Mallimson herself, should consider donating.

While the litany of depressing news about, Mallimson is actually quite optimistic about this particular battle. San Bruno Mountain Watch has a “really robust stewardship program, and hundreds of volunteers a year.”

“The days of putting a fence around nature and saying ‘Nobody touch it’ are gone,” she said. “There is a growing awareness that people need to be proactively involved with wilderness. I do see that growing, but it’s a huge undertaking.”

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