War And Peace
Southern Monterey County locals say their quiet lifestyles and mock bombing raids don't mix.
Thursday, March 1, 2001
Brother Isaac Meyers wears a simple white robe tied at the waist, the traditional garb of the Benedictine monastic order. His sandy gray hair streams to his shoulders, and a dense beard masks his delicate features. He stands quietly, deep in thought, as he contemplates the blue TV screen in front of him. Beside him, a flight-suit clad Navy pilot points to the screen while explaining the proposed training flight path of F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets assigned to Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers. If the Navy has its way, the Hornets will dramatically increase bombing drills at Fort Hunter Liggett near King City in the next year.
The placid demeanor of Brother Isaac juxtaposed with the pilot''s perfectly razored, give-''em-hell air presents the perfect metaphor for what many see as the Navy''s exceedingly inappropriate plan to conduct 3,000 jet flights a year through a remote coastal area celebrated for its tranquillity. Despite his quiet lifestyle, this monk intends to fight the Navy''s plan tooth and nail.
"We''re not going to stay still and take it," Brother Isaac promises. "We''re going to protest this."
The monks of the New Cameldoli Hermitage, located about a mile south of Lucia, strive to live a quiet life. They spend hours a day in prayer and only talk when necessary. Groups of visitors take refuge among the monks to immerse themselves in the hermitage''s peace and solitude.
Yet just last week, a military jet rocked the monks'' world when it swooped past the New Cameldoli Hermitage, perched upon a mountaintop 1,300 feet above the Pacific. The flights happen sporadically and infrequently, the monks say--perhaps a few a year. But when the jets fly by, the noise is deafening.
"The planes sometimes fly below the level of the retreat house," says one monk, Brother Gabriel. "The planes are so low we can see the pilots in the cockpit." The noise, he says, is "shattering."
That''s why the monks, along with Rep. Sam Farr and about 250 residents, ranchers and environmentalists, showed up for the Navy''s open house in King City on Saturday--an event that Farr insisted the Navy conduct so citizens could participate in the proposal''s required environmental assessment. The Navy plans to fly about 940-1,000 missions annually to Fort Hunter Liggett, each involving one to four jets. The planes will drop inert bombs over a 500-foot-wide target placed within a restricted zone of the base, which the planes will circle as many as 12 times. Most of the jets will fly from Naval Air Station Lemoore 76 miles to the east, and an estimated 135 planes will launch from aircraft carriers anchored at sea south of Point Sur.
About 200-300 Navy training flights a year already take place at Fort Hunter Liggett.
"We''ve been doing this for decades," says Naval Commander Charles Gillman of Lemoore. "We''re not introducing anything new to the area."
Gillman says he doesn''t know the origin of the disruptive flights reported by the monks and says that they have nothing to do with training at Fort Hunter Liggett. According to the Navy''s proposal, flights approaching the fort will fly at the same altitude as commercial aircraft, some three miles up, while commuting to and from the base, where they''ll drop to 500 feet for target practice.
Nevertheless, says Farr, the Navy''s plan allows for a possible 144 "climb-outs," or noise-generating altitude increases, per day. And the recreational uses in southern Monterey County, both coastal and along the Highway 101 corridor, directly conflict with the Navy''s plans to intensify air training at Fort Hunter Liggett.
"It''s quiet here, it''s serene. It''s a place where people like to listen to nature," Farr says. "I''m going to fight this as hard as I can."
While the plan does call for a tenfold increase in jet traffic, Navy officials assure locals that low-altitude flights won''t occur over Big Sur, the Ventana Wilderness, San Antonio and Nacimiento lakes to the south of the fort, Pinnacles National Monument, or the California Sea Otter Refuge off the coast of Big Sur.
However, the Navy''s assurances offer little comfort to locals who say noisy flights already disturb them.
Hikers in the Los Padres National Forest, which abuts Fort Hunter Liggett to the north and west, complain that low-flying military aircraft sometimes violate their wilderness experience. One day as Ventana Wilderness Alliance president Jon Libbey sat reading atop Cone Peak, which sits just within the southern boundary of the designated wilderness area, he says he heard a roar and then saw two jets fly up the canyon below him. "I could see the helmets and the hoses of the pilots," he says.
Residents are concerned not only about their own peaceful existence, but about the possible impact on the tourist industry as well. Millions of public and private dollars to promote tourism to South County''s wineries, lakes and historic resources started pouring forth in the mid-''90s, when it looked like the Department of Defense would turn Fort Hunter Liggett over to civilians. If the fort, currently used mainly to train Army Reserve and National Guard troops, turns into a practice bombing range, tourists may as well "get a hotel room at San Jose Airport," says Sal Lucido, president and co-founder of the Ventana Wilderness Society.
And that''s just the impact on humans. Southern Monterey County also happens to be home to many rare and endangered bird species, including the elusive California condor and the bald eagle. Lucido''s group, which has been releasing bald eagles near Fort Hunter Liggett since 1986, has recorded five eagle nests in the area, one of which actually sits within the fort, and 14 condors currently inhabit the Ventana vicinity. Noisy jet flights could disturb the birds'' mating and nesting habits and put them at risk of in-flight collisions with jets.
Navy officials stress that the proposal to increase practice bombing at Fort Hunter Liggett is just that--a proposal--and that a required environmental assessment will ferret out conflicts. If it doesn''t work out, pilot training can continue at current practice ranges in El Centro, Calif. and Fallon, Nev. But the Navy would prefer to train Lemoore pilots at Fort Hunter Liggett because commuting time would be cut by 25-40 minutes, which translates to more efficient use of fuel and more time spent in actual combat training.
"When you''re getting ready for the big race, you need that repetition of training," Gillman says. "We''re not getting that quality of training with our current configuration."
The comment period for the Navy''s proposal must be postmarked by March 2. Mail comments to: Sam Dennis (Code 0531), Engineering Field Activity West, 900 Commodore Dr., San Bruno, CA, 94066; fax to: (650) 244-2991, or email to: FHLcomments@EFAWest.navfac.navy.mil. Visit www.airpac.navy.mil/fhl for more information.