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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
Copyright 2001 SF Chronicle