San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 12, 1996
By Savannah Blackwell
When you climb up Buckeye Canyon on San Bruno Mountain, the air is heavy with the sweet smell of California sage. Other native plants, such as lupine and manzanita, dot the wild grasses. A gentle breeze stirs the boughs of live oaks.
This is ancient turf. A couple miles southeast, at the base of a slope, likes an earthen mound where members of a Native American tribe called the Sipliskin tossed oyster shells, remnants of suppers past. This historic mound is one of very few in the Bay Area that does not lie beneath asphalt and buildings.
But perhaps not for long. Developers are rapidly transforming what’s left of the mountain’s unprotected natural landscape. Land once occupied by rare and endangered butterflies has been bulldozed. South San Francisco’s current land use plan allows for a hotel parking lot to cover the shell mound.
Since the mid-1980s several large housing developments have sprung up on San Bruno Mountain. Construction of more than 300 condominiums near Daly City began in 1985, and now more than 600 additional houses and condominiums are going up at the mountain’s base. Above South San Francisco, in an area formally known as Paradise Valley, 750 homes will eventually rise.
Where Mission blue and Callippe silverspot butterflies once flew, new streets bearing the species’ names will be laid out for 500 condos, town homes, and detached houses now under construction near Brisbane on the Northeast Ridge.
None of this would have been permissible had developers not succeeded in amending the 1973 Endangered Species Act. In 1982 San Bruno became the national model for a dangerous compromise between the needs of the environment and the lure of profit. The mountain was the first place in the country where developers were allowed to kill endangered species and destroy their habitats – as long as they attempted to either re-create or preserve similar habitats elsewhere. A group called San Bruno Mountain Watch fought bitterly to stop the plan. But since then the group has been painfully watching runaway development decimate the region.
The policy that allowed for San Bruno Mountain’s development is known as a habitat conservation plan (HCP) and was the nation’s first, signed in 1982. It effectively weakened the Endangered Species Act; since then such arrangements have proliferated around the country. During the Clinton administration the number of authorized and proposed HCPs jumped from 12 to nearly 500. And a 1994 regulation has made HCPs even more developer-friendly (see “Surprise, Surprise,” page 18).
There are more than 30 already approved, and 50 more proposed, in California alone.
In 1982 Congress added a provision to the act that allowed state and local agencies, as well as individuals and corporations, to “take” (or kill a certain number of) a listed species through the use of an “incidental take permit” so long as an HCP was prepared.
But the lesson of San Bruno Mountain is clear: HCPs have been dismal failures.
“Most of what has been done under San Bruno’s HCP has been a disaster,” says David Schooley, chair of San Bruno Mountain Watch, which has led tours up the mountain for nearly three decades.
Since development on San Bruno began, the number of butterflies has not increased significantly – and increasing the population of endangered species was one of the key goals of the act. Because of that and the failures of other HCPs, environmentalists and scientists around the nation are sounding the alarm that the use of HCPs is accelerating the loss of endangered species.
“Nothing should compensate for killing [endangered species]. Nothing.” Marcy Benstock, director of the New York-based Clean Air Campaign and a leading foe of HCPs, told the Bay Guardian.“These plans will cause irrevocable damage, which will catch up with human beings sooner or later. It’s lunacy to go along with these schemes.”
Since 1982 the use of HCPs has increased most dramatically throughout the western states and other rapidly developing states such as Florida and Texas. As more and more are put into practice, HCPs are also covering larger land areas. Most of the remaining natural land in southern California is slated for development under the Natural Community Conservation program, the state version of the HCP, according to Tara Mueller, counsel to the Natural Heritage Institute. “What this is, is the sanctioning of incredible amounts of habitat loss,” Mueller said.
Zygmunt Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College who filed the first lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act, called the HPC “a Trojan horse for undercutting the [Endangered Species Act] as a whole…. You can kiss the recovery of species goodbye.”
Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, told the Bay Guardian that recent HCPs in other parts of the country call for 80 percent of the habitat of certain endangered species to be developed. In addition to San Bruno Mountain, sites of other major HCP projects in California include:
The San Bruno compromise
San Bruno Mountain offers a rare glimpse at the true nature of San Francisco. It is in the grounds of three kinds of rare and endangered butterflies as well as foxes, raccoons, skunks, birds, and rare and endangered plants.
James Roof, a noted Daly City native-plant expert who died in 1983, described the mountain as the last piece of native Franciscan habitat, which is characterized by dense miniature scrubs and grasslands. This habitat once covered the Marin peninsula, the Presidio, Mount Davidson, Sunset Heights, Twin Peaks, and Diamond Heights. Some kinds of plants and flowers, such as hummingbird sage, can only be found on San Bruno Mountain.
“We’re losing our connection to the ancient rhythms and flow of time,” Schooley said. “That’s why we must protect this sacred place, this area that is still native.”
Ironically, the use of the mountain’s base as a garbage dump for more than 50 years discouraged developers from exploiting the area. But by the mid-1960s the dump had been covered over by rocks and earth, and only a lumber company stands there today.
Shortly after the dump was covered, developers began eyeing San Bruno. Early on Schooley and others fended off one proposal to hack off the top of the mountain, fill the bay with the earth, and build homes and shopping centers on the bay fill. But interest in developing the mountain remained high. In the early 1970s San Bruno Mountain Watch and other environmental groups succeeded in getting most of the mountain set aside as parkland.
In the mid-1970s a group of UC Berkeley students found the Mission blue butterfly, an endangered species, on the mountain, and developers were forced to address the Endangered Species Act. But they refused to bow to the needs of preserving the species, and federal, state, county, and city officials ultimately crafted a 30-year HCP with San Bruno Mountain landowners. Two lawsuits filed against the HCP by San Bruno Mountain Watch and other citizens’ groups failed to stop developers from encroaching on the native habitat.
The consolation? Those who raze the mountain’s flora and kill its fauna promise to try to re-create something it took nature thousands of years to build.
From the edge of Buckeye Canyon a visitor can look across to the Northeast Ridge, where the Mission blue butterfly once lived. The land is barren now, scraped by bulldozers in preparation for new homes. More than a mile away another ridge is marked by patches of dark green vegetation, where San Mateo County’s environmental consultant, with funds from developers, has attempted to recreate the butterflies’ habitat.
But the butterflies have not moved into their replacement home, Schooley said. The new habitat is too wet and doesn’t get enough sun for the Mission blues, and the plants they need for laying their eggs are being choked out by nonnative vegetation. Moreover, the butterflies should have had a corridor linking the old habitat with the new one, Schooley said.
Some critics find the idea of relocating endangered animals in confined, sometimes re-created habitats absurd. An ecosystem involves the complex interaction of plant and animal life with the natural environment; you can’t just pluck a system out of one place and stick it in another.
“We don’t know enough about natural science to [create habitats],” Carlton said. “It’s a pretend game. They say to the species, ‘You have to stay in this one confined area.’ That’s not a naturally functioning wildlife creature. This little butterfly can’t see two miles away. It doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go.”
Mueller added, “To recreate a complex ecosystem is pretty well-nigh impossible. Both Mueller and Carlton point out that the plans rarely include participation from scientists independent of the involved government agencies or developers.
“In theory the HCP sounds great,” Mueller said. “But the problem is that I can’t cite you one example where an HCP is achieving an integrated habitat. These are basically political deals with landowners, not biologically based, ecological planning.”
Playing god, badly
Schooley and other environmentalists say the habitat conservation plan implemented at San Bruno Mountain in 1982 is an experiment that failed. “San Bruno’s HCP has not proven to be a strong enough protection,” said Leeona Klippstein, president of the Spirit of the Sage Council, which fought the HCP in Orange County. “The butterflies have not recovered after 14 years.”
According to the officials who supported it, the San Bruno Mountain HCP was a necessary compromise. John Ward is a former San Mateo Country supervisor who signed on to the plan in 1982, so it’s not surprising that he now represents a developer called Terrabay on the mountain’s southern slope above South San Francisco. He told the Bay Guardian that allowing landowners to develop prime habitat was the only way to save any part of the mountain.
“The HCP was drafted as a means of making the federal Endangered Species Act work to allow for a balance between the reasonable use of property and protection of the environment,” Ward said. “It was a unique creature at the time and has been a model ever since.”
The need for housing was part of the developers’ motive, Ward said, and without some kind of compromise the federal act might have been weakened more than it was. “A lot of people in Washington were not enamored with the [act] and were trying to weaken it because they saw it as an impediment to any development,” he told the Bay Guardian.
Environmentalists say that threat was a red herring. It would have been far more difficult to repeal the entire Endangered Species Act than it has been to slowly amend it to death. The compromise was a political deal to accommodate landowners’ desire to profit from habitats of endangered species.
“That was not a needed compromise,” Gaffney said. “It was politically driven…. The whole [mountain] should have been preserved.”
Both Ward and Victoria Harris, a senior associate with Thomas Reid Associates, San Mateo County’s environmental consultant, say San Bruno’s HCP is a good deal overall. Without the $100,000 generated yearly from developers – who pass the charge onto homeowners – under the plan, it would be impossible to tackle the nonnative plants that are invading endangered species’ habitats, they say.
“At least now there’s long-term money for monitoring the butterflies’ habitat, counting the butterflies, and getting rid of exotics,” Harris said. Before the HCP, San Mateo county officials had their budget reduced and had totally abandoned the mountain except for opening gates and emptying garbage cans.”
But the new homes’ landscaped yards have contributed to the growth of unwanted plants. Jake Sigg, president of the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, said that there are more nonnative plants on the mountain today than when the HCP was signed.
In areas where Reid has attempted to plant new vegetation, such as lupine, which Mission blue butterflies eat and lay their eggs on, exotic (or nonnative) plants such as gorse, broom, fennel, and pampas grass keep coming back, and they’re choking out the plants the endangered butterflies prefer.
“There’s been no real created habitat center that has really worked,” Schooley said. “The problem is, it’s not a matter of just a butterfly and one plant, it’s a fragile, intricate web of birds and other wildlife.”
At least one of the San Bruno Mountain developers has admitted that Schooley is right. At an August meeting at Terrabay, where representatives from San Bruno Mountain Watch, the county, and the developer, SunChase G.A. California I Inc. gathered to discuss how to replant an area behind the proposed development, David Kaplow, a botanist working for SunChase, confirmed that no authentic habitat has been re-created anywhere on the mountain.
“San Bruno’s HCP says we’re hoping to restore habitat,” Harris told the Bay Guardian. “But we don’t know if we can.”
Paul Reegan, a fire-monitoring specialist with the National Park Service, worked for Thomas Reid Associates for three years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reegan said at the time he found the firm’s scientific practices suspect. New habitat for butterflies was created in the wrong places because developers wanted to construct homes in the areas most like the butterflies’ grounds, he said.
“Mission blue like drier and more protected areas than the saddle area [the part chosen for preservation], which is too windy,” Reegan said. “But the lands most like the habitat they refer is the area where they wanted to build.”
Effective use of funds was another problem, he said. “Money was being thrown at [conservation] rather than being used in ways that were cost-effective,” Reegan said. “Take the gorse problem, for example. They sprayed it with herbicide, hacked at it, kind of drove ‘dozers over it, but it keeps coming back.”
“I think they could be doing a much better job,” Reegan said, adding that the need for independent, scientific review of the effects of development on San Bruno’s endangered species is critical.
Coordinating nature’s work is not always easy. Environmental officials have run into numerous problems restoring and relocating habitat. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have cited lack of proper spending as a problem on San Bruno Mountain. About $400,000 remains untouched in county coffers. That money should be going toward restoring habitat, said Mike Horton, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s HCP coordinator at San Bruno Mountain.
“The funds are just sitting there,” Horton told the Bay Guardian. “There are some areas on the HCP that have not been restored the way they were supposed to be.”
In addition, a gravel quarry near Buckeye Canyon is causing problems by creating dust that is covering plants. That kills the plants by preventing them from photosynthesizing, said Horton, who added that the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot monitor San Bruno’s HCP as much as the agency would like because of cuts in staff.
Harris defended Reid and San Mateo County’s conservation efforts, claiming that the county is beginning to spend money on restoring a eucalyptus grove (eucalyptus is a nonnative tree). She acknowledged that the intrusion of nonnative plants is a problem on the mountain but said Reid had made “significant strides” in controlling the unwanted vegetation.
“There’s been some increase [of Mission blue] in the conserved habitat,” said David Wright, an entomologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “But on the other hand, development that’s been allowed by the HCP is proceeding, so you lose the butterflies living there.”
San Bruno Mountain Watch is fighting the additional development of endangered species’ habitat on the mountain. On the mountain’s highest peak, called Radio Ridge, elfin butterflies are threatened by an amendment to the CP calling for an expansion of the telecommunications center situated there. After losing a suit against the proposal for more satellite dishes in San Mateo County Superior Court, the group has taken its case to the California Court of Appeal insane Francisco.
“The compromise of a living thing equals its death,” Schooley said. “That’s the whole problem with HCPs. ‘Habitat Conservation Plan’ – ‘Habitat’ sound like it’s concerned with habitat, but really it’s about destruction of habitat….
“But it’s so clear on San Bruno Mountain that there has been no creation of habitat. It’s not just one single animal, or one bug or one bird; it’s a fragile creation over a long period of time. That’s what the [Endangered Species] Act is really about.” ■
More information on HCPs is available on the Bay Guardian’s Web site, www.sfbg.com.
Last October environmentalists who opposed San Bruno Mountain’s habitat conservation plan (HCP) filed suit against the federal government over yet another concession to developers. They are charging that the 1973 Endangered Species Act has been undermined by a federal regulation introduced in 1994 by Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Called “no surprises,” Babbitt’s policy says that once a property owner secures the right the develop land critical to an endangered species under an HCP, no additional requirements or demands may be made of the owner even if it is later established that the species needs additional measures for protection, such as more land for breeding.
“It basically says a deal’s a deal,” said Kim Walley, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Meyer & Glitzenstein. Walley’s firm is representing San Bruno Mountain Watch as well as seven other environmental organizations in a suit against the Interior Department, the U.S. Commerce Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Maritime Fisheries Service.
Walley says “no surprises” violates the intention of the Endangered Species Act by severely limiting what measures the government can take to ensure protection of endangered species. The act was intended to help species threatened by extinction increase in population, not just remain stable. The policy change was made without any public input or formal hearings.
Zygmunt Plater, the environmental lawyer who litigated the first case under the Endangered Species Act, told the Bay Guardian that “no surprises” is a ludicrous policy that flies in the face of the act’s intent.
In a July 23, 1996, letter to Sen. John Chaffee (R-R.I.) and Rep. James Saxton (R- N.J.) more than 160 biologists, ecologists, and other concerned scientists condemned the “no surprises” policy as a scientifically unsound approach to conservation. Chafee and Saxton, among other lawmakers, are working on a new version of the act, and the scientists worry that the new version will burn what is now regulatory policy into federal law.
“This section simply does not reflect ecological reality and rejects the best scientific knowledge and judgment of our era,” wrote Gary Meffe, senior ecologist and professor at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and the University of Georgia.
Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act, said the “no surprises” policy is a good one because it encourages developers to at least enter into HCP agreements instead of trying to annihilate the act. Mike Horton, the HCP coordinator at San Bruno Mountain, told the Bay Guardian the policy “gives assurances and stability to the landowners and encourages them to deal with ecosystems, rather than individual species.”
David Schooley, chair of San Bruno Mountain Watch, worries that future San Bruno Mountain developers are going to seek “no surprises” to restrict future environmental mitigation needs. Horton acknowledged that the Fish and Wildlife Service might be willing to consider allowing developers to operate under a “no surprises” policy at San Bruno.
Threats to San Bruno Mountain native habitat and cultural features