Peak Experience: The Long Fight Over San Bruno Mountain

Mission Blue Butterfly | Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

You never know what will move people to action. Which charismatic species will bring environmentalists out to fight against climate change (polar bears?). Which will lead others to drop everything to tree-hug old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest (Spotted owls?); or advocate for southeastern longleaf pines (red-cockaded woodpecker?) or southwestern arroyos (the kangaroo rat?).

And what of the wild in general? Take your pick--those species with big teeth and hearty appetite (gray wolves; mountain lions; or grizzlies); how about that airborne migrant, the Arctic tern, winging its way from the icy northern seas to the Antarctic (and back again), a round trip of nearly 45,000 miles; or the Gray whale, which swims from its feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to mating and calving sites in the Gulf of California, a 12,000-mile jaunt. Remarkable animals can impel us to do remarkable things on their behalf.

But butterflies? Their light-winged delicacy, their dancing presence among wildflowers and blooming groves would seem to limit their capacity to cause uproar. Sure, Danaus plexippus has its staunch defenders, given its astonishing flight to its Mexican or Pacific Coast over-wintering grounds. Then, again, its common name looms large in the human imagination--even in this fractious republic we'll bend a knee to the Monarch.

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Apparently, we are as deferential to those less regal of the species. Among these are the rare and endangered Callippe Silverspot, Mission Blue, and San Bruno Elfin butterflies. Each of them makes its home--or tries to--along the fog-enshrouded flanks of San Bruno Mountain.

Rising above the Bay Area town of Brisbane, just north and west of San Francisco airport, the mountain at its summit (elevation: 1,314 feet) offers unparalleled and unimpeded 360-degree views of the heavily urbanized region that engulfs it. It remains, as its protectors like to say, the largest undeveloped parcel of land in any major American city, a massive expanse jutting east-west across the San Francisco Peninsula.

The San Bruno's unusual status has led to a four-decade-long battle over its preservation, a struggle that is the subject of a new documentary, Butterflies and Bulldozers (Bullfrog Films). The film offers a nuanced look at the debate over a series of proposals to develop the mountain, which lies at the northern end of the Santa Cruz range: some were beaten back, others finessed, and still others generated compromises that continue to rankle.

Its filmmakers, Ann Dunsky and Steve Dunsky, are no strangers to the fraught world of environmental politics. Their first major film, The Greatest Good (2005), probed the contentious history of the U. S. Forest Service (for which they work as videographers; and, full disclosure, I served as a historical consultant on the documentary). Despite the Dunskys' in-house employment there is nothing hagiographical about that project; it reveals the agency's missteps and challenges its once-technocratic arrogance.

Revelatory too is their second big-budget production, Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time (2011), a superb analysis of the life and legacy of the seminal American conservationist, whose ideas, the film argues, are effectively updated in the urban environmentalism of Chicago's Eden Place Nature Center. For the Dunskys, the past speaks deeply through such present-day engagements.

So it does in "Butterflies and Bulldozers." Though it is a smaller film than its predecessors, and may not get the national airing that the other two received, it is every bit as accomplished as the Dunskys' earlier work. That's in no small part to their having lived in Brisbane for more than 20 years; this history is personal.

It is also controversial. Or rather it revolves around the idea of controversy as a narrative element, admittedly a staple of environmental filmography. In this case it is given a red-pencil underscoring on the documentary's website, in the form of a quote from Aldo Leopold about the need for theatrics to drive home one's message: "Conservation, without a keen realization of its vital conflicts, fails to rate as authentic human drama; it falls to the level of a mere Utopian dream."

1959 aerial of San Bruno Mountain before development | Photo Courtesy Butterflies and Bulldozers

Even as it conforms to the sage's wise words, "Butterflies and Bulldozers" manages to complicate Leopold's presumption that contestation alone grabs attention. Consider the curious fact that that this relict landscape in the bustling Bay was (and remains) a relict: its salvation until the 1960s depended on inaction, a consequence of an eyesore. To San Bruno Mountain's immediate east, on the bay's edge, lay a stinking, fetid, occasionally burning landfill. Its polluting presence helped preserve the mountain even as the city sprawled across and down the peninsula.

With its closure in 1967, however, and the steady uptick of population moving into the region, developmental pressures intensified. The bulldozers were coming.

David Schooley | Photo by Steve Dunsky for Butterflies and Bulldozers
They did not chug over the horizon, at least not immediately. Their progress was stalled in good measure because of an unlikely cast of characters. Among them were David Schooley and Fred Smith, young guys living in Brisbane, neither of whom had a real sense of his future; joining them was a host of others who in time made a new grassroots organization, The Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain (est. 1971), a force to be reckoned with.

Collectively, they may have lacked the clout of their contemporaries then battling with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local growth machine that wanted to fill in all but a sliver of the magnificent Bay; the proponents of Save the Bay (est. 1961) were well-heeled and well educated--many of its early members knew how to massage the system because they were among its elite.

Not so the ragtag, often naïve activists who lived in the small working-class community of Brisbane. Confronted with a plan to house 38,000 people on the mountain--a project the cumbersomely named Vistacion Rancho--this small cadre had to learn the tools and techniques of protest politics, make good use of the media, and put their bodies on the line to forestall what once seemed inevitable. Finally, in March 1976 the San Mateo County supervisors agreed to purchase upwards of 80 percent of the mountain. With this agreement, it was clear that the San Bruno advocates had changed the narrative of how the wider community valued and evaluated this landscape.

Fred Smith | Photo by Steve Dunsky for Butterflies and Bulldozers
Reinvented as well were the central players, Schooley and Smith: over time they had grown into their new roles as the radical and the reformer, outsider and insider, Schooley's John Muir to Smith's Gifford Pinchot. Their self-actualization--hey, it's a film about the early '70s!--gives the documentary considerable energy. No less riveting is what happened when local butterfly populations entered the story to upend some of the hard-fought assumptions about the human place on this contested ground.

Start with the 20 percent of San Bruno Mountain that had been not protected, and for which housing-construction permits were pending. These plans suddenly were put on hold in June 1976, following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement that the Mission Blue and San Bruno Elfin butterflies--which made their home on the windswept grasslands--were going to be listed as endangered; in 1997, the agency finally listed the Callippe Silverspot. Their habitat, which once encompassed much of the northern Bay Area, had shrunk to this small undeveloped area, a scientific finding that roiled the political waters.

The film artfully captures the surging consequences. It follows, for instance, the individual and communal reactions to the endangered-species listing, including the resulting tensions that unraveled the once close-knit community of Brisbane activists. It also sets these localized debates within the wider context of the Reagan administration's assault on the Endangered Species Act (1973) and other environmental protections, a pushback that led Smith and others to negotiate in 1982 the nation's first Habitat Conservation Plan for San Bruno Mountain. Designed to allow some development on the mountain's privately owned lower slopes in exchange for on-going funding to restore or regenerate prime upland habitat, it has proved inexact and incomplete, more troublesome than trouble-free.

The development that resulted from the Habitat Conservation Plan compromise on the northeast ridge of San Bruno Mountain, which was the first HCP in the nation | Photo Courtesy Butterflies and Bulldozers

"Butterflies and Bulldozers" offers no uplifting resolutions, nor should it. It accepts as a given the tangled process whereby we struggle to integrate ourselves into natural systems even though our efforts invariably come up short. It reveals the paradoxes that motivate impassioned environmental activism, and that can also make it such a disruptive force. The documentary suggests, too, that while Homo sapiens are nature's most invasive species, we may be its only hope.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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