Big Sur locals decry Navy's bombing plan

Critics say proposed test-bombing runs pose a serious threat to one of California's most pristine regions.

For nearly 50 years, Benedictine monks on this coastal perch have pursued the inner life while serenaded by blue jays, crows, red-tail hawks, and lapping waves from the ocean below.

The same sweet sounds, rugged mountains, and near-pristine forests that enfold the New Camaldoli Hermitage have also made the Big Sur region of California home to a thriving community of artists and a beacon to travelers the world round.

Yet US Navy jets could soon end the region's serenity, critics say, under a plan to use a nearby military base for test-bombing runs that would number about a dozen per day.

"Imagine what an F18 would do to their afternoon," says monk Augustine Murray, gesturing to a couple of hawks circling high above.

This part of California's central coast is one of the largest swaths of relatively undeveloped land in the state between metropolitan Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

This is a territory that has inspired the writings of John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and Robinson Jeffers, as well as the architectural visions of men like William Randolph Hearst, whose "castle" draws tourists from all over the world.

And it's a region where painstaking efforts to reintroduce threatened or endangered species like the American Bald Eagle and the California Condor have succeeded.

Small wonder it's also an area that is riled up about the idea of Navy jets roaring overhead on an almost daily basis.

A plan for bombing tests

The Navy started with a relatively simple plan. It wants to use Fort Hunter Liggett, a former Army base, for test-bombing runs for pilots operating out of the Lemoore Naval Air Station, about 75 miles to the east.

The motivation, according to the Navy, is that those pilots now have to fly to bases in Nevada and southern California to drop their dummy bombs. Using the closer Hunter Liggett means savings on fuel and thus more bombing runs for a better-trained military.

The possibility of stepped-up military activity is a far cry from what some in the region had hoped for just a few years ago. Hunter Liggett, like a number of other military bases, was decommissioned in the late 1980s, and many expected it would eventually end up in civilian hands. Hunter Liggett was an Army base, but was transitioned to use for Army Reserve and National Guard troops.

However, what some critics see now developing is an attempt by the military to further justify the use of the base, this time by building a 500-foot-diameter bull's-eye on the ground for Navy jet pilots to target.

Instead, that bull's-eye has become a target of intense controversy. Local members of Congress have objected to the plan, as have California's two US Senators.

Broad-based opposition

The opposition is gaining because it is so broad-based. At a recent "open house" hosted by the Navy to discuss the plan, area ranchers, environmentalists, and monks from the Camaldoli Hermitage showed up and voiced their displeasure.

"Basically, what's happening here is that because the Army Reserve doesn't have enough activity to justify keeping the base, the military is trying to sell its use to other services," says Tom Hopkins of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, a local conservation group that is opposing the Navy's plan.

The Navy is hard pressed to understand the concerns. It says most of the flights will be at such altitudes that they won't cause any disturbance. In addition, the Navy argues the plan is really just an expansion of an already existing practice.

The Navy says about 300 flights per year come through the region as it is now.

But how will it change the region?

Still, critics say a ten-fold increase is an alarming change, and one that makes them wonder about what the future may hold for the region.

Also, the stepped-up test-bombing runs would include about 135 per year from an air-craft carrier off the coast, which could put areas near Big Sur like the New Camaldoli Hermitage directly in the flight path of Navy F/A-18 Hornets.

The Hermitage is a community of about 25 monks. But it is also a retreat site for thousands of guests each year.

"For us, diving into silence is very important," says Mr. Murray, and the Navy's plan would represent a "general deterioration of the quality of silence."

The Navy is now preparing an environmental assessment of the proposal, but critics say a more thorough environmental impact statement is clearly called for under law.

If the plan proceeds, it will likely end up in court.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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