By Kathe Tanner

The Tribune
January 13, 2001

Look up: There could be about 900 supersonic fighter-jet flights a year roaring over such scenic and tourist-popular areas as Big Sur, Los Padres National Forest and Hearst Castle.

A proposed Navy plan would send jets, some at low altitude, to use a new Fort Hunter Liggett range. The planes, F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bombers, are the same jets as those flown by the famed Blue Angels team.

The training flights would take off from a naval air station in Lemoore, 40 miles south of Fresno, and drop dummy bombs at the range.

Although the Navy plan is in its early stages, it's already drawing sharp criticism. Skeptics already include scientists, environmentalists and Central Coast political leaders, some of whom are irritated that they weren't officially notified of the plan.

Critics say the zooming planes would mar the rustic ambience in the sensitive area between King City and Hearst Castle, including some of the state's most remote and rugged coastline. 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, along with other fragile flora and fauna.

Hunter Liggett is a former tank base that abuts lands owned by the Hearst Corporation, properties which lead to Hearst Castle and San Simeon State Historical Monument at San Simeon, about 25 miles to the south.

In 1995, Congress ordered the base decommissioned. National Guard and other units regularly train there with non-explosive ordnance. The base has not had significant aerial target practice since World War II.

Navy fighter jets from Lemoore train over El Centro, in the Southern California desert, and over Fallon, Nev. It is officials at the Fallon base who want to use Fort Hunter Liggett. Hunter Liggett is only 67 miles from Lemoore, so flights there would save on fuel and operations costs.

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 has 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.

Marc Weitzel heads up the condor project at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

"There's no doubt the Navy will have to provide a significant amount of environmental documentation, especially the plan's potential impact on any listed species, including the condor," Weitzel said.

Larry Jones, project manager for the Navy's Fallon base, told the Monterey Herald that Navy planners are working on an assessment. They will have a draft this fall, he said, and plan to hold public meetings afterward.

At least one federal politician is against the Navy plan.

"I oppose it," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Monterey, told the Monterey Herald on Wednesday. "I'll use all the resources I have to show the Navy that this is not the place to do it."

Navy officials sent out a letter on Nov. 28 to the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Fish and Game and some nonprofit groups announcing a 45-day comment period that ends on Monday. Many leaders didn't get letters.

"This is in my district," said Farr. "I'm shocked the Navy didn't let us know." He added that he wants the comment period extended beyond Monday because of that lapse.

To return to the Bombing Range page, just close this window