The battle for
California's Big Sur
Greens, monks, and movie stars join forces
proposed naval bombing range
Special report: George Bush's America
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
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
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
"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
Native Americans regard it as a sacred area, and it
has an almost spiritual significance for
environmentalists and followers of New Age
Local monks from a contemplative Benedictine order
at the New Camaldoni Hermitage have also voiced their
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
"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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
"You have plenty of Americans who just wish they
didn't have to have a military," he said
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
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."
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