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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

Wednesday, Aug 9 1995
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.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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