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Bombing Big Sur

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Apparently, the deserts of Nevada, so similar in terrain to the Pentagon’s other main target practice area, the Iraqi outback, simply aren’t challenging enough for the Navy’s top guns any more. Now they want to bomb Big Sur.

A new plan issued by the Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing in January calls for nearly 3,000 bombing practice a year runs from Lenmoore Naval Air Station, in the Central Valley, and aircraft carriers in the Pacific, to Fort Hunter Leggett, in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Big Sur. Lemoore is the home base for the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter planes. The scheme calls for the jets to drop 25-pound “test” bombs onto a 500-foot in diameter target painted on the grounds of Fort Hunter Liggett. One Navy flack called the plan “kindergarten for bombers”.

Pressed by Congressman Sam Farr (D-Monterrey) to explain itself, the Navy, perhaps trying to capitalize on the current fuel crunch, says it all comes down to conserving energy. By Bombing Big Sur, instead of Fallon, Nevada, they can save nearly $3 million a year in fuel costs. It’s curious that the Navy doesn’t show such a penny-pinching attitude when it comes to funding for Trident submarines, F-22 jets or aircraft carriers.

The 150,000 acre military base, nestled next to the Ventana Wilderness Area, was sold to the Pentagon, at a handsome profit, by William Randolph Hearst in the 1940s, who had evicted the remaining Salinan Indians from the site when he purchased it as his private pleasure ground in the early 1900s. Today, the upper Stony Valley area, wedged in the mountains, is still largely an entact ecosystem, a thriving oak savanna of the type that is becoming increasingly rare as so much of the coast falls to the bulldozers of developers.

Indeed, a 1981 report commissioned by the Fort’s top brass concluded that the base probably contained a “greater conservation of resources (of grassland, oak savanna and woodland, and chaparral) than any other contiguous parcel in the state of California.” The land is so special that National Park Service has tried to get the Army, which manages the Fort, to turn over to them.

This part of the California coast is home to some of the nation’s rarest and most prized species, starting with the California condor and the sea otter. There are also endangered fairy shrimp, Pogogyne clareanna, a rare mint endemic to the area, bald eagles and 450 Tule elk.

Not to worry, says the Navy, we have the best interests of these creatures at heart and no harm will come to them. This is a rather robust bit of eco-consciousness from the same group that is even now attempting to secure the right to permanently bombard humpback whales in the Pacific with mega-shots of high range sonar. The sonar pulses have been known to cause the whales to issue cries of distress, become disoriented and beach themselves. The Navy’s underwater soundings have also been linked to ear hemorrhages in the giants of the deep.

Those bullseyes for the Navy fighter jets’ bombs would nearly mark the precise area that the now landless Salinan tribe considers as the center of the creation. And indeed the area harbors one of the richest clusters of archaeological sites on the California coast, including painted caves and a delicate and fragile sandstone natural arch used for vision quests. “It only takes one bomb to land in the wrong place,” says Gregg Castro, head of the Salinan tribal council. “The arch is unique. Once it’s gone it’s gone. There’s no repairing it.”

There are also several private inholdings within the proposed bombing range, including the San Antonio de Padua Mission, founded in 1771. The Franciscans–the closest you get to a nature sect in the Catholic Church–aren’t too pleased about their ancient sanctuary being buzzed by F/A-18 fighter jets ten times a day. The Friars are joined in opposition with the Benedictines, who have just built and opened the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a hillside retreat meant for quit meditation and worship, a few miles away.

Forgive the residents of the coast if they are a little bit skeptical of the top guns at Navy HQ. After all, this is the same Navy which just sank a Japanese fishing boat because the sonar crew was distracted by a group of big time Republican donors who had been allowed to pilot a billion dollar submarine. Will execs from Boeing or Microsoft be allowed to co-pilot bombing runs? It’s also the same outfit that had to admit that more than 40 percent of its “smartest” bombs had missed their target in the recent remote control bombing of Baghdad.

The Navy brass blamed those recent misfires on wind. Well, there’s plenty of that on Big Sur. So you can excuse the residents of San Luis Obispo and, even Salinas, if they are somewhat anxious about the Navy’s novice bombardiers ability to consistently hit their targets.

The Navy’s track record at other bombing sites around the West hasn’t been so hot, either. Nevada has been rocked by dozens of nuclear bomb tests, but what people are mostly complaining about these days is the arrogance and nastiness of the Navy’s fighter pilots, who are relentless bombing the desert out by Fallon. The Navy has succeeded in doing what seemed impossible: uniting rancers with the anti-environmental Wise Use movement with activists from the Sierra Club.

First, there are the mysterious cancers among the children of Fallon-11 cases of a rare pediatric leukemia in this small town. More than 150 times what scientists would expect to find. Researchers are zeroing in on Navy pilots, who have been dumping jet fuel from their planes on their bombing practice runs. The Navy, suddenly indifferent to fuel conservation, admits to the dropping the fuel, but denies any link to the cancers. On January 18, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a ranking member of the Senate Environment Committee, commissioned an investigation into the causes of the cancer cluster.

Even stranger is the incident on last October 29 when Navy pilots opened fire with live 20 millimeter ammunition on telephone company workers outside of Fallon. Fortunately, the pilot missed the workers, but hit their truck. Navy officials said the pilot, from the same F/A-18 Strike Force Wing at Lemoore that now wants to bomb Big Sur, mistook the telephone tower for his intended target.

Opponents of the Navy’s mock warfare operations warn Big Sur residents that these kinds of mishap occur all to often. “Civilians are out there working and they have jets strafing,” says Grace Potori, of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability. “This goes along with the sonic booms and the Navy’s inability to stay within their operations areas. They can’t control their own people. They hot-dog out there all the time.”

The plan to bomb Big Sur is really an attempt by the Pentagon to keep from losing its dwindling empire. Fort Hunter Liggett was supposed to be closed down in 1995 as an unnecessary and costly facility under the Base Realignment and Closures Act. This scheme is largely an attempt to give it a second life as a bomb crater. But surely there are better uses. Perhaps, some of it should become a national park. But most of it should be returned to the Salinan Tribe, as they were promised in the 1860s. It would be in good hands. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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