By MARIA L. LA
GANGA, Times Staff Writer
FT. HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif.--Here on the edge of
pristine Big Sur, where tule elk graze and condors and
bald eagles are staging a comeback, the Navy has a plan,
and nobody's happy.
The Navy wants to paint a 500-foot, red-and-white
bull's-eye on Army property in Upper Stony Valley and use
it to teach jet fighter pilots how to drop bombs.
Planes capable of supersonic speeds would fly nearly
3,000 sorties a year for target practice in a place best
known for its silence. Most of the jets would come from
Lemoore Naval Air Station in the Central Valley, others
from aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean.
All would drop dummy bombs--10- to 25-pound chunks of
steel--in what one naval officer describes as
"kindergarten training" for fighter pilots at Ft. Hunter
Liggett. The fort, 165,000 acres of valley oak savanna
beside the remote Ventana Wilderness, currently serves as
a training ground for Army reserves and the National
Protesters as varied as the region's treasures are
manning phones and sending e-mail to protect a place that
wrings poetry from bureaucrats. Look, they demand, at all
that's at stake:
Members of the Salinan Nation, landless Native
Americans patching together their past, believe that the
world began here. The fairy shrimp and a type of
mint--called Pogogyne clareana and found nowhere
else--are among the endangered species struggling to
The National Park Service thinks the land here should
be protected. And Benedictine monks just want a little
peace and quiet at their New Camaldoli Hermitage in the
hills not far away.
Navy officials defend the bombing plan as necessary
for national security and say the flights will not
disturb the area's sensitive flora and fauna. The jets
will fly high, they say, they will never reach supersonic
speeds, no live bombs will be used, and the bombers will
be far too accurate to cause harm.
Nearly 3,000 sorties "sounds big, but it isn't when
you put it in this context: Four flights a day of three
F/A-18s each, which is 12 sorties a day, five days a week
. . . 47 weeks a year," said Navy Cmdr. Charlie Gillman,
a special projects officer with the Pacific Fleet.
When you put it in that context, "They're talking
about a constant bombardment," fumed special education
teacher Wynn McGrenera, who bought land near the fort
when it was decommissioned six years ago. "What are they
going to pay us for our pain and suffering?"
McGrenera and other interested parties--including Rep.
Sam Farr (D-Carmel) and a small army of
environmentalists, scientists, hikers, Native Americans
and neighbors--will get to ask the Navy such questions
this afternoon during a public hearing in nearby King
Earlier in the day, the Navy plans to send an F/A-18
over Stony Valley to simulate future flights for the
Salinan Nation, whose members will be posted at sacred
spots such as a fragile sandstone arch once used for
The meeting and demonstration are part of a so-called
"scoping" process in which the Navy invites comments
during an environmental assessment of the bombing
proposal. The scoping period ends next Friday.
Army Will Make the Decision
The Army, which owns the fort, will make the final
decision. Lt. Col. Stephen Ackman, post commander at Ft.
Hunter Liggett, said the Army is withholding comment
until receiving results of the environmental assessment,
expected in late summer or early fall.
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sold much of
the land that constitutes Ft. Hunter Liggett to the Army
in 1940, including his former hunting lodge, which was
designed by famed architect Julia Morgan.
The base was used to train tank crews and to test
weaponry until 1995, when it was downgraded from an
Army base to a reserve training base. Ackman said
training efforts at the base have steadily increased over
the last four years. Tanks and soldiers rumble through
regularly, and Gillman said the Navy already sends 250 to
300 jets over the fort each year in training runs.
But Navy pilots stationed at Lemoore currently fly to
Fallon, Nev., and Superior Valley near Barstow to
practice dropping bombs. Fallon is 227 miles away from
Lemoore. Superior Valley is 159 miles away. Ft. Hunter
Liggett is just 76 miles away.
"The sheer ability to do something closer is better
for a whole bunch of reasons," Gillman said. "We'll get
to this place quicker, get more training done and save
resources and money."
In a recent editorial, the Carmel Pine Cone expressed
support for bombing and dismissed environmental
"You'd think the plan . . . was for Navy pilots to
machine-gun a condor or two on their way to blow up
The Army is divesting itself of parts of the
base--including the Julia Morgan lodge--under the Base
Realignment and Closures Act. The National Park Service
is negotiating with the Army about the future of those
parcels and about what will happen to Ft. Hunter Liggett
if the base ever closes.
Farr, who represents the region in Congress, sees the
Navy's proposal as an example of "the right hand of
government and the left hand of government not being
"It's not in keeping with the future of sustainable
tourism," Farr said. " . . . What attracts more tourists,
the flight of condors or the flight of jet fighters?
The grasslands, healthy stands of oak trees and the
very particular botany of Ft. Hunter Liggett have
beenpreserved for the last 60 years largely because the
Army has kept people off and the land intact.
Range ecologist John Menke put it this way in a 1981
report to the fort's management: "Restrictions on land
use brought about by . . . the military mission
[have] resulted in greater conservation of
resources (of grassland, oak savanna and woodland and
chaparral) than any other contiguous parcel in the state
That is what many environmentalists and others hope to
protect from practice bombing runs--particularly from any
stray dummy bombs that many say are inevitable during
When McGrenera, who moved within five miles of the
base last August, ponders Navy accuracy, he thinks about
the Greeneville, the Navy's nuclear-powered submarine
that collided with a Japanese fishing boat off Hawaii two
weeks ago. Nine people are still missing.
Inaccuracy also worries the Salinans, who revere the
fort's painted caves and sandstone arch, which speak to
them of their 10,000-year history in Central California.
The Native Americans are working to re-create their
language and oral history, to research a way of life that
was disrupted when Junipero Serra founded the San Antonio
de Padua mission here in 1771. The mission is in the
center of Ft. Hunter Liggett.
The Navy "told us very extensively how accurate they
are," said Gregg Castro, chairman of the tribal council.
"They can't guarantee it. We know they can't. It only
takes one [dummy bomb] to land in the exact wrong
place. . . . The arch is unique. Once it's gone, it's
gone. There's nothing to replace it. There's no repairing
Stands of Oaks
Also irreplaceable, say advocates for the region's
natural history, are healthy oak trees on the fort's
hills. At a time when Northern California oaks are being
decimated by a disease called sudden oak death, they
wonder why anyone would disrupt a place where intact
stands of live, valley and blue oak thrive.
The San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay city councils both
voted unanimously to oppose the Navy's proposal, citing
concerns about protecting the environment, along with the
region's peace and quiet. Those are among the reasons the
Ventana Wilderness Alliance is shooting out e-mails to
stop the bombing.
"The overall impact of the jets and the disturbing
noise pollution is the issue," said Boon Hughey, the
alliance's founding director. "Few things are as
intrusive as a low-flying jet zooming over you at 1,000
The monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage have joined
the alliance and an environmental group called the
PelicanNetwork to advocate in cyberspace for the
protection of Ft. Hunter Liggett.
"Already the low-flying supersonic jets, F-16s and
F-18s, are intruding and invading the contemplative
silence of the hermitage," Raniero Hoffman, the prior,
wrote on the monks' Web site.
Hoffman directed those interested in lodging a protest
to do so via the Pelican Network's Web site. But only, he
writes gently, "if in your heart you can oppose the
intent of the U.S. Navy."
Los Angeles Times
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