Story in the London Guardian – July 5, 2001
“We want to drive a stake into the ground with this issue,” said Jack Elwanger, director of the Pelican Network, which has been coordinating the opposition campaign.

“In this area is the most quintessential slice of pre-civilisation California – it’s like a living museum and these guys want to drop bombs on it.

The text:

The battle for California’s Big Sur


Greens, monks, and movie stars join forces against a

proposed naval bombing range


Special report: George Bush’s America

Duncan Campbell

Thursday July 5, 2001

One of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the United States is at the heart of a battle between contemplative monks and the “top guns” of the US Navy, environmentalists and the government.

The conflict is seen as a trial of strength between two very different but powerful American cultures.

Called by the Spanish “the big country to the south [of San Francisco]”, Big Sur is a sublime area of spectacular Californian coastline and mountains.

Plans to use the nearby Fort Hunter Liggett estate as a navy bombing range has provoked an opposition movement reminiscent of that which dogged the navy’s training ground on Vieques, Puerto Rico.

It has also highlighted the increasing tension between those who want to preserve the shrinking wilderness areas and those who want them for development or military training.

William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper tycoon who was the basis for Orson Welles’s character Citizen Kane, sold the 160,000 acres (65,000 hectares) of Fort Hunter Liggett, in Monterey county, to the government in 1940. It has been used as training ground for army reserves and the national guard ever since.

12 bombing runs a day

The navy, seeking a practice area nearer its Lemoore air station, 30 miles west of Visalia, decided at the end of last year that the site would be ideal for bombing runs. This would involve about 12 bombing sorties a day, or around 3,000 a year.

If approved it will be called after a former local resident, General Jimmy Doolittle, who led the US bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942 and who is played in the film Pearl Harbor by Alec Baldwin.

“We want to drive a stake into the ground with this issue,” said Jack Elwanger, director of the Pelican Network, which has been coordinating the opposition campaign.

“In this area is the most quintessential slice of pre-civilisation California – it’s like a living museum and these guys want to drop bombs on it.”

Big Sur’s majestic backdrop of mountains and dunes against the roaring ocean has attracted writers and artists such as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Native Americans regard it as a sacred area, and it has an almost spiritual significance for environmentalists and followers of New Age philosophies.

Local monks from a contemplative Benedictine order at the New Camaldoni Hermitage have also voiced their displeasure. “

Already the low-flying supersonic jets, F-16s and F-18s, are intruding and invading the contemplative silence of the hermitage,” the prior, Raniero Hoffman, said in his statement of objections.

The actor Robert Redford has also joined the fray.

“I have had a many-decades-long relationship with this area,” he said in a letter to the navy. “I know it well. And I can’t imagine, under any circumstances, that bringing supersonic fighter jets to manoeuvre in this area wouldn’t absolutely and irrevocably alter it.”

The opposition in Congress is led by the Democrat Sam Farr, who represents the seaside city of Carmel. He would like to see the area become a national park. He said that people went to the area to see the condors – recently released there – not the fighter planes.

“Essentially what you have is a conflict of uses,” he told the Guardian yesterday. “On the one hand you want to keep it for, people to enjoy nature with all its sounds and silence, and along comes the navy – and the F-18 is about as noisy as you can get.”

Mr Farr said that the conflict was perhaps best illustrated when the navy held an open meeting at a school in nearby King City after news of its plans leaked out.

“You had the navy there in their dress whites and the monks in their white robes – I don’t think that the navy had ever seen anything like it.”

Irreparably damaged

The environmental harm, some say, would be incalculable. “The natural serenity of the area will be irreparably damaged,” Jack Elwanger said. “These jet pilots are the hot dogs, the top guns. They think they’re doing sorties in Korea – they see it and they can’t resist it.”

The Salinan Nation of Native Americans has also joined the protests, arguing that it is a sacred area with which they have links that stretch back 10,000 years. Joe Freeman, president of the Salinan Nation Cultural Preservation Association, said bombing would be “completely inappropriate”.

Local businesses, too, particularly those reliant on the booming ecotourism trade, are opposed to the plans, as are California’s Democrat senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

It is also claimed that rare species might be affected, including bald eagles, elk and the elephant seals currently lying in all their splendour on the beach at Piedras Blancas, observed by passing tourists.

But some of the warnings of the effects of the bombing have been exaggerated, according to Paul Miller, editor of the local paper, the Carmel Pine Cone.

“You have plenty of Americans who just wish they didn’t have to have a military,” he said yesterday.

Some people opposed the bombing just because of the “spiritual” aura attached to Big Sur, he said. “They just don’t like the idea. The only important issue I have been able to identify is the noise.”

The navy has commissioned an environmental impact report and has reserved comment until it is completed later this summer.

“We think the public will back this proposal once they become fully informed about it,” a spokesman said.

Whatever the assessment’s findings, the navy is likely to experience continuing opposition.”

What’s at stake is the solitude of wilderness values,” Jonathan Libby of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance said. “Big Sur is a sacred place.”

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001


Return to Pelican Network