Saturday, February 24, 2001 Los Angeles Times

Navy Plan for Bomb Range Near Big Sur Draws Fire

 

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 Guard.

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 endure here.

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 City.

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 coming-of-age rituals.

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 active

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 concerns:

"You'd think the plan . . . was for Navy pilots to machine-gun a condor or two on their way to blow up Hearst Castle."

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 coordinated."

"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? Condors win."

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 of California."

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 training exercises.

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 it."

 

Healthy 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 feet."

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."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

 

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