Saving San Bruno Mountain: Saints, Sinners, Saviors and the Saved

David Schooley. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

To understand San Bruno Mountain today it helps to know some of its history. After all, it’s probably the last frontier in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearly 300 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the so-called “New World”—which was promptly plundered— Spanish seekers after gold landed on the west coast of a vast and “unknown” continent. Unknown to them, that is. The Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa dispatched Bruno de Heceta—a Spanish/Basque explorer and an agent of the Spanish crown—to explore Alta California.

When de Heceta saw a mountain on the horizon, he named it “Saint Bruno,” though he did not consult with any of the Ohlone, the original inhabitants, who lived in the villages they created and who roamed about the bay. Perhaps Bruno de Heceta was an egotist and named the mountain after himself. Maybe, like most colonialists, he wanted to leave his mark on the place he thought he had discovered. Or maybe he was a child of the Catholic Church into which he was born and raised and whose saints he revered. In any case, genocide and destruction, not saintliness or godliness, followed in Bruno de Heceta’s footsteps.

Today, sprawling, hulking San Bruno Mountain—whose slopes touch several Northern California counties—is one of the last largely undeveloped and untamed areas of any size in the San Francisco Bay Area. Granted, there are some houses and some neighborhoods, but they are largely invisible to drivers and passengers going north and south on highway 101. The forests and the wildlife are also invisible from 101. Indeed, San Bruno Mountain is a secret that’s hiding in plain sight.

No one seems to know the exact square miles it occupies, though it’s thought to be three miles long. At its highest elevation, it’s 1,319 feet above sea level. Radio towers dot the summit and look down on the cities of South San Francisco, Brisbane and the city of San Bruno, home to a naval base in World War II.

The wilder parts of the mountain are a reminder of what Alta California looked like (no suburbs and freeways), smelled like (myrtle, oak and wild cherry) and sounded like (running streams and the cries of birds) when the Ohlone lived there.

For Indians, San Bruno was sacred ground. For many northern California lovers of nature, it’s a magical mountain and right in their own backyard. Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson, a biologist known as the “father of biodiversity,” called San Bruno “a global treasure” and a “‘hot spot’ in need of immediate protection.” Sections of the mountain have indeed been protected. Concerned citizens have exerted pressure on local, state and the federal governments. Together they’ve created San Bruno Mountain State Park and the San Bruno Mountain Ecological Reserve.

Those same concerned citizens, who are on near constant alert, have blocked developers who have wanted to oversee huge housing projects, pave roads and bring the so-called amenities of civilization to the wild mountain. Protecting San Bruno, as David Nelson—the author of the forthcoming book, The Natural History of San Bruno Mountain— says, is a constant struggle.

David Schooley, a long time Bay Area environmentalist, and a poet and an artist, learned about the mountain by exploring it on foot, sometimes alone, and later in the battle he waged with others against the Crocker Land Company and the Rockefellers who wanted to create a city they called “New Manhattan.” Schooley didn’t like that idea one bit. He didn’t like bombs, or the nuclear age, either. San Bruno struck him as an antidote to all that was deadly in the 20th century.

Dubbed by Bay Nature magazine, “the guardian of San Bruno Mountain,” Schooley sometimes seems proud that he has been called “worse than Earth First!” Still, that phrase belongs to the war of words that has been raged against him. In fact, the gentleness of the mountain has rubbed off on him. He’s a Quaker and has gone to jail to defend it..

In his profusely illustrated 14-page pamphlet, “San Bruno Mountain: The Endangered”—and in his book, Earth’s Own Animal that includes an essay titled “The People’s Battle to Save San Bruno Mountain”—Schooley thinks like a mountain. Signs that he and others have posted read “Save Me,” as though the mountain can speak for itself. At the start of his pamphlet Schooley explains, “It should be said the Mountain wrote these words.”

The phrase and the concept of “thinking like a mountain” was first coined by the famed ecologist, Aldo Leopold, a Yalie who taught at the University of Wisconsin and revered frontier ways and frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, perhaps too eagerly. The words “thinking like a mountain” show up in Leopold’s classic of nature writing, A Sand County Almanac, which was first published in 1949. Over the last eight decades, it has never been out of print and it has appealed to generation after generation, including the present generation of ecologists.

The Ohlone, who lived on the mountain and all around the bay, probably didn’t have a string of words that added up to Leopold’s phrase. But they were of the mountain and in the very heart of the mountain, and the mountain was in them and of them. The Ohlone didn’t believe in private property, but they created villages, which they named “Siscsstac” and “Siplichiquin.” They thrived on the bounty of the bay, traded with other tribes and left massive shell mounds which Schooley discovered when he wandered across the mountain. He was blown away by nearly everything he saw and heard.

By 1800, which was more than 150 years before Schooley first saw the peak of the mountain outlined against the sky, nearly all the Ohlone had been enslaved at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. They were worked to death as mercilessly as the Jews in any Nazi concentration camp. It has been estimated that only 15 Ohlone were alive when California became the 50th state in 1850.

How many Ohlone are alive today no one seems to know, though at public events in the Bay Area, speakers remind audiences that they are on “unceded Ohlone land.” Malcolm Margolin has written about the Ohlone in his book The Ohlone Way. Deborah Miranda, an enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen, has written about herself, her family, her tribe and California history in her ironical titled memoir, Bad Indians.

As a young man, Schooley fell in love with the history of the Ohlone, and with the fragile beauty, the gentle wildness of the land and the fog that swirled around the mountain. He founded the San Bruno Mountain Watch, which morphed into the San Bruno Mountain Watch Conservancy and joined with others, who were like-minded, to protect a mountain they thought of as magical.

By the time that modern day environmental groups were formed and laws passed to protect endangered species, parts of San Bruno Mountain had already been trashed—literally. Beginning in 1895, the city of San Francisco began to dump its garbage in the murky waters at the foot of the mountain. The place stank, decade after decade.

Also, large chunks of the mountain had been scooped up, transported downhill and dumped into the Bay to extend the coastline and expand the possibilities for commercial development. The “Garbage Wars” began. Also, a movement called “Save the Bay,” led by three feisty women—Ester Gulick, Kay Kem and Sylvia McLaughlin— sprang up and did exactly what it was meant to do. Saving the bay helped to save the mountain.

Over the years, dozens of environmentalists, homeowners, professionals and teenagers joined with Schooley to protect the mountain’s endangered flora and fauna, including the rare Mission Blue Butterfly. In 2010 two filmmakers, Ann Dunsky and Steve Dunsky, made a 62-minute documentary and a cinematic masterpiece poetically titled Butterflies and Bulldozers. It has been described as “a story about the rights of nature and the rights of people, one of compromise and commitment, and one about the difficult choices we all have to make.” Ann Dunsky directed and edited the film. Steve Dunsky was one of the producers.

At a recent event for the mountain that took place in San Francisco, Schooley said that one of the main things now was to educate the public about San Bruno. “We’re doing that in communities and in schools,” he explained. “And we’re bringing people to the mountain to walk, hike, look, see and learn.” He invited me to join him. I might do that.

At the end of his pamphlet about San Bruno Mountain, Schooley expresses a hope that it “become not just a place we need to save, but a place that may save us.” Indeed, it helped to save him, his mental and physical health after a near-fatal accident in a place where he was working.  Now, when he looks back at the environmental work he and others have done he suggests that San Bruno Mountain is a kind of role model for what might be done with and for other magical mountains.

“It’s not a place to get away from it all,” Schooley says, “but a place to get into; not a place to look at, but a place to see from.” These days, volunteers are helping restore Colma Creek, which cuts across San Bruno. On weekends, they circumnavigate the summit, look down at the Bay and wonder how the mountain looked to the Ohlone before the arrival of  Bruno de Heceta, the emissary of the Spanish throne.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.