February 23, 2001 SF Chronicle

Sneak Attack On Wilderness Drawing Flak

 

By Eric Brazil
Chronicle Staff Writer

The Navy quietly slipped under the public radar a plan to create a bombing range amid the oaks and elk and wildflowers at Fort Hunter Liggett in rural Monterey County, and the plan has now run into a barrage of flak from outraged residents.

Ranchers, environmentalists, the area's congressman and most of the politicians in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties are against the Navy's plan. Even the contemplative monks at the New Camaldoli hermitage on the coast ridge south of Big Sur are asking the Navy to drop it.

The Navy wants to use a small patch of the fort -- the target's diameter is about 500 feet -- for about 2,800 sorties a year by F/A-18 Hornet fighter bombers, most of them based at Lemoore Naval Air Station, 40 miles south of Fresno, but some flying from carriers at sea.

The basic complaint against the Navy plan for the bombing range is that it will be a noisy, inappropriate intrusion into one of the West's rare areas of wilderness restoration.

"Nobody but the Navy is for it," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. The range is to be named for Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who led the famed World War II carrier- launched bombing raid over Tokyo in 1942.

"This is a brand new intrusion into the wilderness of south county, and that wilderness has been more and more recognized and codified in law over the last decade," Farr said Tuesday.

It was Farr who blew the whistle last month with a complaint that the Navy had tried to pull a fast one by failing to apprise him of its plan.

"We're following the letter of the law," said Navy spokesman Thomas Pinnard of San Bruno, who nevertheless acknowledged that "maybe we should have made a broader pronouncement."

Hunter Liggett, 23 miles southwest of King City and 45 miles northwest of Paso Robles, is 162,000 acres of savannah, chaparral and Santa Lucia Mountains foothills watered by the San Antonio River. It was sold to the Army by press lord William Randolph Hearst for $2.1 million in 1940, was deactivated by the Army in 1995 and is now managed by the U.S. Army Reserve.

The Army used Hunter Liggett for tank training during World War II, then for field maneuvers by troops from nearby Fort Ord and Camp Roberts and, later, for testing of experimental weapons and tactics. It has not been used for aerial target practice in half a century. About 50,000 National Guard and other military personnel trained at the facility last year.

The Navy figures to save time and money by using Hunter Liggett for target practice. It is much closer to Lemoore than the ranges at Fallon, Nev., Yuma, Ariz., and China Lake and El Centro in California. Lemoore is just 67 air miles from the proposed target at Hunter Liggett.

Pinnard said that the F/A-18 Hornets will fly in controlled air space at altitudes of 22,000 feet from Lemoore and 12,000 feet from carriers to the target and drop 25-pound nonexplosive "training devices" from about 1,500 feet at speeds below the sound barrier.

"It's nice not to have sonic booms, but that doesn't allay the problem of screaming jets," said Gilliam Taylor, who chairs the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club. The F-18 is the plane flown by the Navy's precision flight team, the Blue Angels.

Some of Hunter Liggett's neighbors are incredulous and angry. "A bombing range? Your shortsighted plans are obviously laid by some fools not familiar with the area outside your little white fences," Stan and Barbara Clark, residents of the southern Monterey County hamlet of Bradley, wrote in a letter to the Navy's project manager in Nevada. A copy of the letter was posted on the Web site of the Pelican Network, a forum for conservation and the arts.

Hunter Liggett has California's finest stand of the majestic valley oak and one of its most spectacular spring wildflower displays. It also supports a herd of 450 tule elk and, in the vicinity of San Antonio Lake, which it adjoins, dozens of bald eagles.

The fort is also contiguous to the 202,000-acre Ventana Wilderness Area of Los Padres National Forest, home to more than a dozen rare, recently introduced California condors.

"It's the F-18 against the condors," Farr said. "The government has spent millions on both, and they shouldn't meet in the sky."

The Navy's plan comes at a time when, with Hunter Liggett deactivated and idle, southern Monterey County has begun to sell its solitude and rural life to tourists, with cattle brandings for weekend cowboys, winery tours and horseback rides into the Santa Lucias. Within the past decade, expansion of the Ventana Wilderness Area and Pinnacles National Monument and the creation of both a marine sanctuary off the Big Sur coast and the Silver Peak Wilderness Area have created a sizable buffer of public space around the fort.

The National Park Service is conducting a study to determine whether some of the historic buildings at the fort can be incorporated into the park system.

The Navy is conducting an environmental assessment to determine the effects the bombing range will have on wildlife and the quality of life for residents in the sparsely populated area. At Farr's insistence, the period for comment on the plan has been extended until March 2.

On Saturday afternoon, the Navy will hold a 3 p.m. public hearing on its plan at the Del Rey School in King City. It will be preceded by a target bombing demonstration for the press at Hunter Liggett.

Opponents of the Navy's plan contend that an environmental assessment of it is insufficient and that a full environmental impact report should be required.

"It's an existing range," Pinnard said. "All we're doing is activating it and putting a 400-foot target down on it."

As a practical matter, Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of the Navy's Pacific Fleet, can approve the bombing range plan without first obtaining civilian authorization. Whether he wants to risk a lawsuit or political retaliation by pressing ahead in the face of public opposition is an open question.

E-mail Eric Brazil at ebrazil@sfchronicle.com.

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Copyright 2001 SF Chronicle

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