Posted at 12:11 a.m. PST Thursday, Jan. 11, 2001

BY PAUL ROGERS

Mercury News

In a move that could bring as many as 900 flights a year by supersonic fighter jets to the

remote and scenic Big Sur region, the Navy has proposed creating a practice bombing

range at Fort Hunter Liggett, a former Army tank base in southern Monterey County.

The plan would involve flying F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes -- the same as used by the

Navy's Blue Angels team -- from a naval air station in Lemoore, 40 miles south of Fresno,

and dropping non-explosive bombs at bull's-eye targets on the Monterey County base.

The proposal, designed to save fuel costs, is still in its early stages. But news of it already

has begun to generate opposition from environmentalists and some Central Coast

political leaders.

They say the planes, zooming at hundreds of miles an hour at low elevations, would mar

the rustic area between King City and Hearst Castle, some of the state's most remote

and rugged coastal landscapes. Critics also fear noise from the jets could harm condors,

bald eagles and other rare birds that have been reintroduced to the region over the past

decade.

``I oppose it,'' said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, on Wednesday.

``I'll use all the resources I have to show the Navy that this is not the place to do it. I

sympathize with their need for practice grounds, but this is not the right place.''

Farr noted that he had helped the National Park Service obtain funding to study

converting parts of the 165,000-acre base -- five times the size of San Francisco -- to a

national park. Parks officials have not finished their work, and are scheduled to make

recommendations in a report to Congress by July 1.

Fort Hunter Liggett, a stunning expanse of oak woodlands and rolling hills, was once

owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He sold the property to the Army

in 1940 for $2.1 million. It still abuts lands owned by the Hearst Corp. that lead to Hearst

Castle State Park at San Simeon, about 25 miles to the south.

The fort was used to train tank crews and test weaponry 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 Fort Bliss, Texas.

Today it still receives significant use as the Western Training Center for the U.S. Army

Reserve. National Guard and other units regularly train there with non-explosive

ordnance. The base has a 5,000-foot landing strip and helicopter landing pads.

It has not had significant aerial target practice since World War II.

Currently, Navy fighter jets from Lemoore train over El Centro, in the Southern California

desert, and over Fallon, Nev., home of the Navy's ``Top Gun'' fighter-pilot school. It is

officials at the Fallon base who are leading the planning to use Fort Hunter Liggett as a

new practice range.

Larry Jones, Fallon's project manager for the Navy, said Navy planners are working on an

environmental assessment, as required under federal law. They will have a draft copy out

this fall, he said, and plan to hold public meetings afterward.

He said questions about how often and how high the planes would fly would be

addressed in the studies.

``It depends on the training scenario,'' Jones said. ``It's a little premature to get into

that. We haven't solidified it yet.''

Jones said the training schedule could involve 900 flights a year, although that has not

been finalized either. Currently, fighter pilots from Lemoore train on varying schedules, he

said.

``It could be once a week, or twice a week. Sometimes there can be a lull. It's hard to

say.''

Jones noted that Fort Hunter Liggett is only 67 miles from Lemoore, which will save on

fuel and operations costs. He said he didn't expect that the jets would have to fly over

the ocean. As for concerns about wildlife, he said, those will be studied by the Navy and

included in the environmental documents.

Base officials say they have plenty of space.

``The question will be, can we accommodate this?'' said Lt. Col. Stephen M. Ackman,

base commander at Fort Hunter Liggett. ``Do we have the space? Can we accommodate

the target location, which is something on the order of 10 acres? The answer from our

perspective would generally be yes. But the Navy needs to do an environmental

assessment.''

The fort lies 17 miles from the ocean, and abuts the Los Padres National Forest, a

nationally famous destination for hikers and tourists.

Environmentalists reacted strongly Wednesday when asked about the proposal.

``Big Sur is a priceless natural treasure,'' said Gary Patton, executive director of

LandWatch Monterey County, a conservation group. ``The nation has invested hundreds

of millions of dollars to preserve its peace and tranquility to provide a refuge for people

and animals and spectacular scenery.

``To think that Navy pilots in the Central Valley, working for commanders in Nevada, are

going to turn it into a mock aerial battleground, I expect people will say, `That's not

going to happen.' ''

Among the rarest of the region's features are condors. The southern Big Sur coast is one

of only four areas in the United States where condors -- once on the brink of extinction

-- have been released into the wild. Since 1995, biologists have released 14 birds into the

region.

``We're very concerned about it,'' said Jim Davis, executive director of the Ventana

Wilderness Society, which supervises releases.

Davis said his group also had released 71 bald eagles in the area since 1982. Now Lake

San Antonio, which touches the fort, has the second-largest migrating population of bald

eagles in California, behind the Klamath Basin, with about 30 to 60 birds returning each

year.

Rep. Farr and other leaders were incensed Wednesday that they had not been notified by

the Navy before planning began. Navy officials sent out a letter Nov. 28 to the U.S. Forest

Service, the State Department of Fish and Game and some non-profit groups announcing

a 45-day comment period that ends Monday. Many leaders didn't get letters.

``This is in my district,'' said Farr. ``I'm shocked the Navy didn't let us know. I'm going

to call the secretary of the Navy first thing tomorrow and ask him to extend the comment

period.''

Similarly, Monterey County Supervisor Louis Calcagno said he had not heard of the plan

until contacted by the Mercury News on Wednesday.

He said he was concerned about the fighter jets' impact on tourism and cattle ranching in

southern Monterey County.

``It's a shock at this point to me,'' said Calcagno. ``But being a good citizen and good

leader, I want to give the Navy the opportunity to express their plans before I make up

my mind.''

The official Fort Hunter Liggett Web site is www.liggett.army.mil. Opponents of the Navy's

target range plan have set up a Web site at www.ventanatrust.org.

Contact Paul Rogers at progers@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5045.

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