It’s foggy and drizzling, but David Schooley’s weather-burned face is animated as he strides over the muddy slopes of Buckeye Canyon, on San Bruno Mountain. He tears off bits of mint and California sage, inviting me to savor their fragrance, then points out the soap plant, which Ohlone Indians used for washing.
Charred plants and oak trees testify to the severe fire that swept through Buckeye and Owl canyons during the summer of 2008. Last fall, Schooley began planting native grasses to restore damaged areas. “The Native Americans were firemakers,” he says. “They burned the land steadily.”
Schooley is 65, with a full white beard and a burly build. He speaks softly and exudes warmth and vitality. For the past forty years, he’s led the fight to preserve open space and save rare and endangered species on San Bruno Mountain, on San Francisco’s northern peninsula. A rare ecosystem of fog, oak forest, scrub, and grassland, the mountain is home to 22 endangered species.
A million years ago, San Bruno Mountain and San Francisco were islands separated by ocean, enveloped in a particular foggy habitat unlike other Bay Area mountains. When the ocean subsided and humans moved into the neighborhood, San Bruno Mountain provided the setting for a thriving Ohlone village.
All that changed by the early 1900s, when the bayside flat land south of San Francisco seemed like a perfect dumpsite. The resulting noxious smells turned out to be the mountain’s saving grace; the stench was such that developers avoided the area for decades. By 1970, due to the persistent campaign of Save the Bay, the smell was gone. David Schooley arrived just in time to draw shut the mountain’s protective cloak against the developers who were beginning to take an interest in building on the site. As early as 1969, he began to draw attention to the rare species and fragile island environment that existed on the mountain.
Schooley had always loved the natural world and felt most at home knocking about outdoors. Growing up in San Pablo, he had seen oak forests disappear and creeks destroyed. “I didn’t realize the immensity of the [human] advance,” he says. “When you step back from what I saw then and what I’ve seen on San Bruno Mountain, it’s like a cancer, a massive explosion.”
After a trip to Europe in 1969, Schooley “happened to get on a bus going down to the Peninsula. The first thing I saw was a little nestled town surrounded by San Bruno Mountain.” Schooley knew nothing about the mountain or about the nearby town of Brisbane, but he was struck by the incongruity of the tiny town and its mountain in the shadow of San Francisco’s urban clutter. The 25-year-old Schooley got off the bus, started exploring, and never stopped.
It wasn’t long before he discovered an unmarked shellmound in Buckeye Canyon and realized that San Bruno Mountain—itself a unique environment—contained treasures, both natural and historical. To developers, the mountain offered other treasures: undeveloped land with beautiful views of San Francisco Bay. Schooley began fighting development plans the year he arrived, when he and others birthed the Committee to Save San Bruno Mountain to protest plans by the Crocker Corporation to shave off the mountain’s top and build a city on it. Though that plan was scrapped, Schooley and other residents have tussled with developers ever since. Their record is mixed—and Schooley bemoans the losses—but 2,300 acres of parkland, a substantial part of the mountain’s 3,300 acres, have been preserved, including the 5,000-year-old Ohlone village site and Buckeye and Owl canyons.
The effort is a life’s work, one that has changed Schooley from a no-holds-barred brawler to a negotiator, from anger to quiet caution. Back in the late ‘60s, Schooley’s committee organized a strong grassroots movement, going door-to-door and staging protest marches, stymieing development for over a decade. Years of fighting sharpened some members while blunting others, until the brawl came home over a landmark mitigation scheme hatched on San Bruno Mountain.
But first, tragedy struck: Schooley suffered brain damage in a 1979 construction accident. “I woke up in a hospital and looked out the window, and there was San Bruno Mountain,” Schooley says. “I had to learn to speak again, to work. The best thing I had was the mountain. I went for walks, taking my time. I got closer to it, approaching it in a more personal, deeper way. Before that I was out there with political people, fighting, a lot of protest energy. After the accident, it was more like an entering way. Now it’s quieter, more centered, a living presence [in my life]. This miraculous…presence helped me as well as my helping it.”
Says longtime friend Daniel Marlin, ”It was a devastating event, but it also forced him to find his deepest powers of resilience and regeneration. I think the experience of profound loss helped him to focus on what he found really valuable and worth living for. In spite of the challenges to his speech, writing, and reading, David’s analytic and organizing skills were as potent as ever.”
Those skills soon had a target and an unexpected adversary. In 1982, when developer Visitacion and Associates wanted to build on endangered Mission Blue butterfly habitat on the mountain’s lower slopes, Congress passed an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. Called the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), it allows developers to build on endangered species’ habitat if they attempt to restore that habitat elsewhere—it has since been applied all over the nation. Schooley vehemently opposed the HCP, claiming it opened the door to killing rare species without sufficient study to ensure protection.
Schooley sought the help of the California Academy of Science’s curator of botany Elizabeth McClintock. “She was the one who knew San Bruno Mountain,” he explains. “McClintock and her colleagues had heard about the plans to build, and they knew there were endangered species on the mountain. The HCP sounds pretty good, right? They’re saying they can destroy rare species if they’re going to try to recreate what they’ve destroyed, for example, to try to plant lupine, the plant used by the Mission Blue, in another location.
Elizabeth McClintock and others said, `Wait a minute, this is not really scientific’—to destroy the butterfly’s habitat before making any study of the area they’re going to plant the lupine on. We started getting letters from all over the United States and from all over the world saying the same thing, that you have to be very careful.”
Schooley’s group split over the issue: “The original group we started had now incorporated and was agreeing with the HCP,” he says. Fighting feelings of betrayal, in 1983 he and others left to form an opposition group, Bay Area Land Watch, later renamed San Bruno Mountain Watch. Schooley’s point of view soon proved prophetic, as the HCP paved the way for hundreds of homes to be built on the mountain. As recently as two years ago, Brookfield Homes built 428 townhouses, flats, and large single-family dwellings on federally endangered Mission Blue and Callippe Silverspot butterfly habitat on the mountain’s northeast ridge. San Bruno Mountain Watch challenged the development in court but lost. A decision is still pending on Brookfield’s application to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to build 71 more homes. Says Schooley, “It’s been almost thirty years of the HCP, and there’s been massive destruction of rare species and habitat all over this country without any real study of what’s vanished.”
One way to counter that trend is to show people what’s still living there. As part of that mission, Schooley leads groups of kids on hikes through the mountain’s canyons and to the shellmound. “Every time I go up on the mountain with them and see it again, it’s from their vision,” he says. “It’s something new and beautiful, a grounding in a being and place.”
Recently, inspired by the growing popularity of land trusts in California, Schooley, San Bruno Mountain Watch board member Jo Coffey, and others explored the idea of creating a conservancy. The organization hopes to buy parcels of land in Colma, Daly City, and other parts of the mountain to expand the protections already gained. These areas would serve as wildlife corridors and be open to the public for hiking.
Meanwhile, a committee of environmental groups and local politicians is looking into creating a green belt across San Francisco’s southern corridor; Schooley has long advocated opening up culverted creeks to create a wildlife corridor that runs from the ocean to the bay. “It started with David’s vision. He keeps pushing and never gives up,” says Ken McIntire, executive director of San Bruno Mountain Watch and Conservancy—the group made the conservancy official at the end of March.
McIntire notes that Schooley now shoulders less responsibility in the group’s activities. “His main passion for the past two years has been trail work and restoration projects, pulling non-natives,” McIntire says. “He’s been the person who’s kept the trails open all these years, and it’s a bigger job as he gets older. He’s always pushing the board to expand its vision. He feels we need to have a national focus, so he speaks nationally about the HCP and endangered species.” As part of the restoration mission, the group is growing its own native plants in a greenhouse in Brisbane; they’ll be transplanted to their permanent mountain homes in the fall. The effort, a collaboration between several different entities, includes a company from Taiwan that is donating the greenhouse site.
Schooley has written a book of poems about the mountain, Nothing Need Be Said, accompanied by his own detailed drawings. “For me, poetry has always been the real vision,” he says. When Schooley was young, his poetry was angry and confrontational, the poetry of protest. Now his poetry speaks to what transformed his life, the energy of the mountain and his deep connection with it. “Writing poetry [gives me] the way to be able to say to others what saved me,” he says.
San Bruno Mountain Watch and Conservancy can be contacted by phone at (415) 467-6631 or by e-mail at email@example.com. The organization’s Web site is www.MountainWatch.org