Posted at 12:11 a.m. PST Thursday, Jan. 11, 2001
BY PAUL ROGERS
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
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
``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
``It could be once a week, or twice a week. Sometimes there can be a lull. It's hard to
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
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
``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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5045.
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