Vets snub Fort Ord rules with new sign honoring soldiers
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Local activists have taken a cue from Edward Abbey in their mission to preserve the former Fort Ord for public use.
On Sunday, June 24, a small group of veterans and conservationists marched into an off-limits field on the closed Army base and, armed with shovels and hammers, waged a quiet act of civil disobedience: They hung a 12-foot-wide sign on an existing cross beam suspended between telephone poles 14 feet off the ground.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Fort Ord Reuse Authority have declared the field, set in a scrubby landscape of oak and chaparral, off-limits to the public. It’s near the trailhead on 8th Avenue and Gigling Road in Marina, in an area known to Fort Ord regulars as Parker Flats.
The activists – rallying under the new name Veterans Wild Ford Ord – also pulled weeds, leveled the track’s surface and hauled out illegally dumped garbage. When they finished, they’d turned the sketchy outline of an old Army training field into a clean oval, christened by the sign as Soldiers Memorial Field.
The EPA oversees the cleanup of Fort Ord, a Superfund site due to unexploded munitions and other hazardous materials. Judy Huang, EPA’s project manager for Fort Ord privatization, says FORA has done some cleanup on the site, but the land adjacent to the training field may still be contaminated. Until EPA reviews the preliminary data, she adds, the access restrictions remain in place.
“Just because nothing happened from this trespass doesn’t mean this area is safe yet,” EPA spokesman Rusty Harris-Bishop adds. “We can’t question the desire to recognize soldiers, but they could seriously jeopardize themselves and be injured.”
FORA Assistant Executive Officer Steve Endsley stresses that nobody is allowed on the site without authorization. “It’s an explosives cleanup site,” he says. “It looks beautiful from a distance, but it’s not the kind of location I would take a stroll through.”
Gordon Smith, a Vietnam veteran who made the sign and organized the action, says the point is threefold: to encourage public use of the track, to honor Fort Ord’s rank-and-file soldiers and to inspire a larger land-use conversation.
“It’s a wonderful, usable track. Other than trespass, we did nothing negative to that property,” he says. “This being out there is an asset to the public, it’s a memorial to the soldiers and it’s a catalyst to stimulate dialogue about the use of that land.”
The parcel the field sits on is part of the proposed horse park and residential development, Monterey Downs. But in the meantime, Smith says, the public should be allowed to use the track – which he claims is safe and was never used for weapons training.
Joining Smith in the act of civil disobedience was John Hutcherson, a former serviceman and co-founder of the local group Keep Fort Ord Wild. “We want to make our presence known that Ford Ord belongs to us, the people, and not to Monterey Downs,” he says. “It was a stick-it-in-your-ear sort of statement.”
Hutcherson, a longtime Fort Ord hiker, says he hopes the action will inspire FORA to slate the parcel for open space in its update of the 1997 Fort Ord Base Reuse Plan. FORA recently held five community meetings on the update and expects to present a scoping report to its board in August.