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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fort Ord - Military Base or Wildlife Refuge?

Air Date: Week of

Claire Greene reports from central California on the closing of an unlikely refuge for rare and endangered species — Fort Ord Military Base. Set aside at the turn of the century for combat training, a large part of Fort Ord's sixteen thousand acres has become a time capsule of unspoiled land, harboring plants and animals that have disappeared from neighboring areas under pressure from development.


CURWOOD: With the end of the Cold War, there was a lot of talk of a peace dividend with the conversion of military budgets and hardware into resources for civilian use. But in many cases, the wave of base closings have also meant a flood of lost jobs. Still, the downsizing of the US military is yielding some unlikely dividends, some of them ecological. In central California, for instance, the Army's Fort Ord is home to a surprising number of rare plants and animals. And as Claire Green reports, the base is being closed and redeveloped, but its rare species will be protected.

(Trumpeting. Newscaster's voice: "And with an emotional ceremony at Fort Ord, the Seventh Infantry Light bid farewell to the central coast this afternoon...")

GREEN: When Fort Ord closed in August, 30,000 people went with it, along with a large segment of the region's economy.

(Traffic sounds)

GREEN: But this is the Monterey Bay Peninsula, the heart of the Golden State. It's the home of such tourism gold mines as Pebble Beach and Cannery Row, and boasts visitor revenue of over a billion dollars a year. It's also home to the largest vegetable producing county in the country, with annual earnings of nearly $2 billion. So Fort Ord's closing was a mixed blessing. While it took a chunk out of the region's economy, it also appeared to free up 28,000 acres of prime California real estate, which local leaders and developers were eager to put to use. Initial ideas included plans for a resort mecca, with everything from high-rise hotels and entertainment centers to luxury cruise ship ports, even another Disney World. But such grand designs were quickly abandoned. Lieutenant Colonel Ron Perry is in charge of base realignment and closure at Fort Ord.

PERRY: People have come to realize that you can't just do anything you want to. The local reuse authority has come to that realization.

GREEN: That's because it turns out that Fort Ord is home to nearly 50 species or rare and endangered plants and animals, many of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The species are rare because over the past 75 years, development has dramatically transformed the area around Fort Ord. The species are here because of the kind of training activities carried out on the base. Mainly shooting and playing war games on foot, which requires large expanses of unbroken landscape. So, 16,000 acres, which is over half of the total land on Fort Ord, is largely as it was when the Army acquired it just after the turn of the century.


MASSERA: We're standing on the highest part of Ford Ord and we look to the north of us, you can see the Salinas Valley: rich bottomland. You look to your left, you can see, which is south, you can see the Santa Lucias. Granite mountains, higher rainfall, Monterey Pine Forest.

GREEN: Jack Massera is Ford Ord's plant specialist. He's a civilian and has been looking after the grounds on the base for 22 years.

MASSERA: Straight ahead what Fort Ord is, it's a sandy mesa. There were other sandy mesas up and down California, but Fort Ord has become an island, so the plants that grow here have no room to, to really expand or a lot of the special plants that grow here. Plants that grew here and also on other sandy mesas were destroyed due to farming, construction of cities, whatever. And we have some species here at Fort Ord that grow almost nowhere else in the world.

GREEN: While the Army may seem unlikely stewards of wildlife habitat, they have in effect been just that. While the rare species here include Monterey dusky-footed wood rats, the California black legless lizard, even American badgers, there are also more common species, like coyotes and black-tailed deer. There are also a handful of vernal pools whose wetlands spring to life during the rainy season, as well as rolling grasslands, lots of old oak trees, and a thriving community of what were once common coastal shrubs.

MASSERA: The maritime chaparral community is a rare community because it grows in very sandy soil, it grows very close to the ocean. Heavily influenced by the ocean. And all those areas are all developed now, and so it's important because the plant community is rare.

(Footfalls on sandy soil)

MASSERA: This is [sounds like: San Mat Man's Anida], and San Mat Man's Anida is found only on the so-called Fort Ord island, nowhere else in the world.

GREEN: Indeed, Jack Massera says these 16,000 acres represent a virtual time capsule of how this part of California looked long before the region was developed. It's one of the few areas in California like this. In April, this vast parcel will be turned over to the Bureau of Land Management to be preserved in perpetuity. There is one hitch: half of the BLM land is said to have unexploded ordnance on it. The Army and the BLM are working on a long-term plan to clean it up. In addition to 1,000 acres of coastline, right alongside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, will be given to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Endangered species living on this 4-1/2 miles of fragile dune habitat include the Smith's blue butterfly and the western snowy plover, a small seabird which lays its eggs right on the sand. Even with all this land being preserved, there are still 12,000 acres of Fort Ord up for grabs. Much of this acreage has been developed by the Army. Reuse proposals include turning it into a blend of education, research, and recreation centers. But regardless of who gets what, the base's reuse guidelines require all its new users to sign on to a comprehensive habitat management plan. Final development plans for Fort Ord won't be determined until early this spring, but Pentagon officials are watching the success of the redevelopment process closely, largely because they are looking to make Fort Ord the model for how sensitive habitat on other, soon-to-be-closed military bases around the country will be handled. For Living on Earth, this is Claire Green reporting.



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