Protests lead to closer
By Kathe Tanner
The U.S. Navy has decided it must do more stringent
environmental studies and accept more public comment
before it can add about 3,000 test-bombing flights a year
over Fort Hunter Liggett.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Duncan Holaday
on Thursday called for a full environmental impact study
of the proposal that would send F/A-18 Hornet fighter
planes, carrying nonexplosive dummy bombs, to the fort
from Lemoore Naval Air Station or from aircraft carriers
in the Pacific Ocean.
The Navy had been in the middle of a less detailed
environmental assessment, which could have been completed
late this year.
Fort Hunter Liggett is a former Army tank base that
abuts Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur. The fort
is currently a training center for the Army Reserve. The
Navy wants to transfer some of its bomber training
flights from Fallon, Nev., to the fort to save about $3
million a year in fuel, among other savings.
According to U.S. Representatives Sam Farr and Lois
Capps, the Navy was forced to do the lengthier study of
what such a plan could do to the area's environment
because of the volume and intensity of public and
governmental concern about the flights.
When news of the plan surfaced in January, public
response was swift and primarily negative. So many
inquiries and letters were sent via the Internet to one
Navy staffer that his e-mail inbox crashed. And in
February, about 300 people went to a Navy open house in
King City to get more information about the plan.
So what's the difference between what the Navy was
doing and what it must do now? According to Mark
Delaplain of the state Coastal Commission staff, who
reviews the federal consistency of projects, "unless they
have people working 48 hours a day just on this, the
whole process will take longer &emdash; I'd hate to say
how much longer, but it will be a lot."
An EIS is a more structured and comprehensive
environmental assessment that will require greater
documentation and communication with federal, state and
local agencies and the public. It must also follow a set
of events that include:
a draft EIS, followed by a 45-day comment
a response to comments submitted; and
a final EIS.
All of that must occur before the Navy and the Army
can say aye or nay to the test-bombing plan.
Right after Holaday's decision was announced, Farr
said that this "is just a first step."
"This doesn't mean they're giving up," he said.
"They're still interested in doing the project."
What it does mean, he added, is that the public
process worked. "The squeaky wheel won. Hopefully, this
will lead them to make the decision not to do the project
A major piece of information Farr is seeking is "an
understanding of all the flights at Fort Hunter Liggett.
They're going to have to look at the cumulative impact of
all the activity" of planes over the fort from the Army,
Navy, Marines, Air Force and various reserve branches of
"At a minimum," Farr said, "The Navy will have to have
a better handle on who's using the airspace and have a
complaint system for when they violate their own altitude
Capps was also pleased with the Navy decision. "I
still oppose the plan. I believe the more extensive study
will show the true impact of the project on the Central
Coast," including how it could affect the eco-tourism
industry in San Luis Obispo County.
Some who attended the Navy's February meeting in King
City say they are encouraged that the environmental
report will be more complete.
"I don't think the Navy had much choice," said David
Broadwater of Atascadero, who opposes the project due to
Another project opponent who also has concerns over
the environment, Steve Ela of Paso Robles, said he's
glad the Navy must do the more intense studies. "But I
certainly wish they'd said, 'We'll just forget it,
folks.' This just means I've got to get to work again,"
Ela said with a sigh.