Bombing Range Plan Blasted

Senators Argue Wilderness at Big Sur Could be Harmed

 

Officials seek a full environmental review before Navy fighter jets could begin dropping dummy bombs on the Fort Hunter Liggett site during training sorties.

 

By Paul Rogers, Mercury News [Tues. March 6, 2001, page B-1]

A proposal by the Navy to establish a bombing range for fighter jets near the

Big Sur coast received a significant setback Monday as both of California's

US senators voiced strong concerns that the project would harm the area's

solitude, tourism and wildlife.

 

In her first public statement on the issue, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a

letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying the plan "could cause

irreparable harm to the wilderness areas and would undermine previous efforts

to preserve this scenic area."

 

Similarly, fellow Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer called upon the Navy to

conduct a full-scale environmental impact statement rather than the more

abridged environmental assessment that Navy commanders have begun.

 

"Protecting this majestic and irreplaceable natural resource must be our

first priority," Boxer said. "I have worked hard to protect the California

coast from needless devastation, and I plan to continue that work."

 

Under a plan that come to light in January, Navy officials in Fallon, Nevada,

propose to create a training range for F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets at Fort

Hunter Liggett in southern Monterey County.

 

The jets -- the same combat planes used by the Blue Angels -- would fly 2,820

sorties, or round trips, a year, dropping non-explosive bombs over an

existing firing range at the fort. The Navy also wold send 135 sorties a

year from aircraft carriers off the coast.

 

Most flights would originate at Naval Air Station Lemoore, near Fresno, 75

miles to the east.

 

About a quarter of the planes would fly as low as 500 feet, although not at

supersonic speeds. Critics, including Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, say the

noise could harm endangered California condors and bald eagles that have

been

released in southern Big Sur and would shatter the region's famous solitude.

 

Farr wants a portion of the base turned into a national park. He

commissioned the National Park Service to conduct a study of the area, which

is due out in July.

 

Monday, Navy officials said they will include studies of noise and wildlife

issues in an environmental study scheduled for completion in June.

 

"The Navy doesn't want to harm the environment," said Commander Jack Papp, a

spokesman for Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet in San Diego.

 

"That's why we've initiated an environmental assessment," Papp said.

"Gathering comments and concerns from the general public as well as elected

and public officials is a critical part of that process, a process of which

we are in the early stages."

 

Navy officials say about 200 to 300 military flights a year now occur over

Fort Hunter Liggett, a sprawling, 165,000 acre base.

 

The fort was used to train tank crews and test weapons in World War II, the

Korean War and the Persian Gulf War. But in 1995, Congress ordered it

decommissioned, and 500 soldiers were moved to Texas. Today it sill receives

use as the Western Training Center for the US Army Reserve. It has not had

significant aerial target practice since World War II.

 

Navy officials say using the base would save at least $3 million a year in

fuel costs. But critics argue that taxpayers have spent far more than that

bringing back wildlife and buying scenic land in the Ventana Wilderness six

miles away and in other nearby parks.

 

"We've easily spent $3 million on restoring the condors, and that doesn't

include the money spent buying open space," said Tom Hopkins, a board

member

of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group based in Santa

Cruz. "What about the impact on tourism? How much will that cost? It

doesn't make much sense economically at all."

 

Meanwhile, concerns in other quarters have mounted.

 

The California Coastal Commission claimed jurisdiction Friday and told the

Navy it will hold hearings and a vote on the plan.

 

Also, the superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary sent a

letter Friday to Navy officials urging them to scrap plans for any flights

from aircraft carriers.

 

Even actor Robert Redford has announced his opposition.

 

"I have had a many-decades-long relationship with this area," Redford said in

a Feb. 16 letter to Navy planners. "I know it well. And I can't imagine,

under any circumstances, that bringing supersonic fighter jets to maneuver in

this area wouldn't absolutely and irrevocably alter it."

 

While not coming out unequivocally against the plan, Feinstein told Rumsfeld

that the Navy would do better to continue training its "Top Gun" pilots at

existing bombing ranges at Fallon Naval Air Station and in the California

desert at China Lake.

 

"Maintaining the unparalleled beauty of this precious area far outweighs the

monetary savings the construction of this range may provide," Feinstein said.

 

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