Hunter Liggett National Park?
Published on June 24, 2004 in Monterey County Weekly - written by Andrew Scutro
When it’s hot in the south county, shade gets important, and at the Hacienda down on Fort Hunter Liggett, you can walk out of the blazing sun into a high-ceilinged dining room, pull up a chair, order a ham sandwich and a root beer, and cool down. Cocktails can be had at the lounge across a breezeway. For the road-weary traveler who has ventured 23 miles down Jolon Road from Highway 101 near King City, the Hacienda also has 14 rooms of lodging and a swimming pool.
For eight years, Roger McClendon has managed the Hacienda for the US Army, which owns the historic building and operates an extensive, live-fire training range across the surrounding 164,261 acres. But in April, that deal changed. Now McClendon will run the Hacienda under a contract for the potential future owners—the California State Parks department.
Wearing jeans and cowboy boots, McClendon sits on a picnic table outside the kitchen door. He doesn’t want to say too much about plans for Fort Hunter Liggett.
“What anyone’s intention is I don’t have a clue,” he says. “I work seven days a week right here.”
Asked why the new arrangement was made, McClendon just shakes his head.
McClendon isn’t the only one shaking his head. There had been some hope that the National Park Service would be taking ownership of the Hacienda, and other property from the Army, under periodic downsizing. After more than three years of review and extensive study, the Park Service has declined, stating in a June 17 announcement that the Fort Hunter Liggett sites are “not a feasible addition to the National Park System.”
Instead it recommends transfer of the Hacienda and other properties to California State Parks, to be managed along with nearby Hearst Castle.
Under the federal government’s budget-trimming process known as BRAC (Base Re-Alignment and Closure), it was determined in 1995 that the Army had more property than it needed at Fort Hunter Liggett. Since World War II, it’s been a major training range and continues to be used by about 30,000 troops a year. In 2003, 20,000 of those soldiers were deployed overseas, to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But the fort also has a rich cultural history, with several archeological sites. It’s on land sold to the Army by William Randolph Hearst, whose castle at San Simeon sits southwest of the fort. The Hacienda, a National Historic Register site, was designed for Hearst by the architect Julia Morgan (who also designed Hearst Castle and several buildings at what is now the Asilomar Conference Grounds). Just down the road from the Hacienda sits the 80-acre Mission San Antonio de Padua, with a compound established by Junipero Serra in 1771. Several expedition routes from the Spanish colonial days also cut across the area.
When the Army made a list of excess property, the Hacienda was on it, but in 1999, the US Congress authorized a study that went far beyond just some old buildings that were deemed extra. The ensuing resource study and environmental assessment—a draft of which was just released to the public late last week—examines the entire 164,261 acres of the fort.
The study found, among other things, that if Monterey County deserved a National Park, Fort Hunter Liggett could fit the bill.
Martha Crusius, of the National Park Service, is the program manager for the Fort Hunter Liggett assessment. She says the study proved what anyone who knows the area knows already: rich in flora and fauna, Fort Hunter-Liggett is a rare ecological gem.
“The Park Service’s finding is that there’s something pretty spectacular there,” she says.
In order to qualify as a National Park, certain criteria must be met. The Park Service legacy of conservation, begun when President Teddy Roosevelt established five National Parks and several other government-managed preserves, puts a premium on the “nationally significant natural resources” up to the scale of Yosemite and Yellowstone.
At Hunter Liggett, the Park Service found some of the most exclusive and rare habitat in California and the nation. It’s populated with elk, coyotes, boar, bear, bobcats, mountain lions, dove, turkey, ducks, quail and other species. The maritime chaparral areas, and several vernal pools, are home to some federally-listed endangered species, including bald eagles. Not only is the native oak savanna terrain exceedingly rare, it’s home to rare species, like the federally-listed San Joaquin kit fox. But while some of the fort is open to the public for fishing and hunting, a potential conversion from training area to recreation area under a new BRAC-closing remains a long way off, with the army still using the reservation for regular combat training.
“It has an environment that’s representative of what much of that area was once like, but we’re not in any position to take anything from the Army,” Crusius says.
And although the natural habitat is very attractive as parkland, the Park Service is not entitled to it. By the time BRAC’s list of properties was drawn up, the historic Hacienda—a historic adobe, five ranch bungalows, some extra land and 41 housing units—was declared excess property to be jettisoned, But the land remains under Army control. According to the Park Service findings, the agency does not want to take on managing a few buildings.
“The Fort Hunter Liggett study area as a whole is not a feasible addition to he National Park system, because the land continues to be an Army Reserve training installation, and is not available to the NPS,” the report says.
But there’s another issue that’s sure to cause headaches, should the government de-militarize Fort Hunter Liggett. The notice goes on to explain that “Management costs and the presence of unexploded ordnance are also concerns.”
As a live-fire training range, the fort contains certain areas that are highly dangerous, according to Don Sundius, an Army spokesman. Citing sections so full of explosives and ordnance that they are simply too dangerous to clean up, Sundius confirms, “There are certain areas of Fort Hunter Liggett that would be of concern.”
Any property transferred to the Park Service would have to be cleared of munitions, Crusius says. And as the controversial clean-up of Fort Ord has shown, clearing war material from vast acreage cannot be done easily or quickly. For now, with a war on and training ongoing, it will not be a National Park.
“The Park Service has determined the agency’s priorities are in maintaining what we have, not expanding the Park Service,” Crusius says.
Not everyone is happy with the outcome. In May 2005, the Defense Department is expected to release its latest list of facilities to be closed under the next BRAC. Fort Hunter Liggett could be on the list, prompting some concern about what to do if it’s closed.
Rep. Sam Farr’s office, for one, wanted more answers should Fort Hunter Liggett be transferred from military use in the 2005 BRAC. Calling the report “small-minded,” press secretary Jessica Schafer says the question of what happens if the public does get the land back from the Army remains unresolved.
“Sam wants to find some way to ensure that land stays in the public domain,” she says. “This plan did not come out with all the options we wanted.”
And the Park Service isn’t the only bidder. Forty percent of the fort used to be US Forest Service land in the Los Padres National Forest. Now the fort borders on parts of the Ventana Wilderness, which is part of the Los Padres.
“The Forest Service has expressed interest in the property if it ever becomes available,” says Kathy Good, spokeswoman for the Los Padres. “It really depends on what happens with BRAC.”
It’s not over. As part of the standard review process, the Park Service will hold public hearings in King City on July 7 at San Lorenzo Middle School and in Salinas at Hartnell College on July 10.
“It will give us a chance to explain why the National Park Service won’t be doing anything, that it’s not feasible,” Crusius says.