image- montara mountain trail close
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has fenced off the summit of Montara Mountain. It says the move was necessary to protect endangered butterflies that rely on the habitat. Photo courtesy Franz Dill

Sean Handel and Franz Dill embarked on their weekly run up Montara Mountain, looking forward to the view from the north peak where much of the Bay Area is visible. When they neared the top, a gate blocked their way with a sign that read, “No trespassing, restricted area.” 

“We just kind of stood there very befuddled,” Dill said. “Over the course of the next day and evening it really began to set in, the magnitude of what we saw. The summit was closed off.”

The land is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and visitors were never supposed to be on the peak, SFPUC Communications Manager Betsy Lauppe Rhodes said. However, nobody was monitoring the area. 

That changed when a proposed rainfall prediction and radio site on the mountain needed an environmental review. In the course of that review, the commission found the area is a habitat for the endangered San Bruno Elfin butterfly and, possibly, the Mission Blue butterfly. To protect the species, Rhodes said restoring the gate and fence became a priority. Officials say the fence was installed about two weeks ago. 

“It was really the discovery of the active habitat and the activities of the butterflies,” Rhodes said. “We said, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to reprioritize this fence.’”

Jake Niebaum has hiked to the summit since 1993, journaling every one of his 60 trips. He said he’s had unrestricted access the entire time. 

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Something that’s been open to the public for so long is going to be taken away.” 

Handel and Dill echoed his concerns. 

“It’s a very unique view in the Bay Area that should not be closed off to the public,” Handel said. 

“The butterfly thing doesn’t make any sense to me,” he added in a later interview. “There’s never been any discussion of that. It seems like a reason after the fact to put up fencing.”

The rainfall prediction and radio site project is in the final stages of approval, and it will be discussed again at the utilities commission’s 1:30 p.m. meeting on Aug. 13 at San Francisco City Hall. 

Handel and Niebaum are frustrated with what they see as a lack of communication with people in San Mateo County. 

“(The) process has been without public input,” Handel said. 

Project documents indicate that mailers were sent in early 2015 to property owners and residents within 300 feet of the project site that a project was receiving an environmental review. In this case, that meant few, if any, Coastsiders learned of the project before it began. The Midcoast Community Council also received the notification and asked to be added to a notification list for future documents, but minutes from 2015 to present do not show the MCC ever discussed it.

The San Francisco-based commission introduced the project in June this year. The project’s purpose is to improve the accuracy of rainfall forecasts and send flooding and storm warnings to local water agencies. Construction would take four to six months. 

Rhodes said hikers were trampling on the plants that butterflies live on, and the commission would perform a detailed biological survey before construction. 

“We will make every attempt to schedule work in seasons when the adult butterflies are not flying,” Rhodes wrote in an email. 

“Biological monitors will be onsite if work must occur during their flying season. All workers on the site receive environmental training on how to conduct themselves near these areas in order to avoid impacting them.” 

Niebaum questions the necessity of the project and whether construction would cause more damage to the habitat. 

“I think they’re using the butterflies as an excuse,” he said. “... There’s always, always been a trail to the summit that’s been accessible by the public.” 

Regardless of what happens to the proposed project, the area will remain indefinitely closed to the public. The commission plans to put up more signs that provide more information about why the area is closed off and are working to increase trail access in other areas. 

“We’re really working to create safe places … for people to enjoy the watershed, and increase access where it’s safe to do so,” she said. 

For “peakbaggers,” people who enjoy hiking to the summit of mountains, like Dill, the closure is a disappointment.  

“That is the top of the mountain,” Dill said. “As anyone who is a hiker or runner or ‘peakbagger,’ that’s where you go. You can’t really go anywhere else and truly say you’re at the top of the mountain because you never will be anymore.” 

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